Yesterday I had the privilege of participating in a sharing circle for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A few years ago, our government apologized to our First Nations people for the injustice that had been done for generations, when young children were taken away from their families and forced to live in residential schools. These circles offer all of us an opportunity to seek healing as a country.
In the circle, we were asked to share how we had personally been impacted by residential schools, what we believe reconciliation means, and how our countries and communities can heal. Only a few of the people in the circle had been to residential schools themselves, but all of us have been impacted by the deep wounds our country bears.
I sat with tears in my eyes as I listened to the stories. One woman shared about how bewildered she’d been as a four year old when her older sister had disappeared from their home, and then how she too had one day disappeared. Another women talked about the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her alcoholic husband who’d been a residential school survivor. A young man, who works as a videographer at sharing circles like this one, talked about how the priests and nuns at some of these schools had put needles into the tongues of children who were caught speaking their indigenous language while at school.
Almost every First Nations person who talked expressed the shame that the residential schools system had instilled in their culture. Whether they’d been to residential schools themselves or been raised by parents or grandparents who were survivors, each and every one of them carried the burden of being an oppressed people, made to feel less than their oppressors. It was a painful reminder that healing from oppression takes many generations.
As the talking piece rounded the circle, I wrestled with what I would offer into the circle. Did I have any right to say anything in the midst of this pain? And yet… did I have a right to remain silent?
An interesting thing happened around the diverse and multicultural circle. Those who shed the most tears were often the people of caucasian descent. It was clear that the shame in the circle was not only among the indigenous people. Those who are descendants of the oppressors also need to be healed from the pain that their ancestors have caused.
By the time the talking piece finally reached me, I knew what I needed to say.
“My name is Heather… and… more than anything, I don’t want to be racist. And yet… there is one thing I know and that is that reconciliation needs to begin with me. Before I can be part of the healing process, I need to peel away the layers of my own stories, find the seeds of the oppressor buried in me, and address them.”
It’s easy for me to say that the residential schools are not my burden to bear. I didn’t pull any children out of their homes or pierce their tongues with needles. I don’t need to carry the blame for that.
And yet… as the writers of The Shadow Effect remind me, we cannot escape the shadows of our ancestors. The darkness that was in them still exists in us. The shadow that caused them to take brutal action against others remains rooted in our culture and we cannot expect it to go away unless we address it head on.
We are all oppressors.
We are all colonizers.
We all have the shadow in us.
We can’t fight the shadow and we can’t bury it. The only way to address it is to befriend it, to peel away the layers that keep it hidden, look it directly in its face, and take the lessons we need to learn from it.
Here is a piece of my shadow that I hate to look at… I am a racist. I judge other people based on their race. I don’t do it overtly, and I fight desperately hard not to do it at all, but I know that when I see a homeless person on the street, or I sit on the bus next to someone who smells funny, a tiny little shadowy voice inside me whispers in my ear that it has something to do with their race. That’s what oppression does – it infects generations of descendants on both sides of the divide whether they want to admit it or not.
Recently I heard Bishop Desmond Tutu talk about the post-apartheid days in South Africa. He’d been a leader in the movement to end apartheid, but one day he realized how deep the roots of oppression had grown in his own heart. In an airplane one day, he’d discovered that the pilot was a black African man. His first thought was “Isn’t this great? We’ve finally arrived! We’re able to fly planes now!” But then, when the plane hit turbulence, the instantaneous thought that entered his mind was “is a black man capable enough to keep us safe?” That’s when he realized that deep in his heart, he’d let the oppressors convince him that his people had less value.
That’s how insidious oppression is. Even when we don’t recognize it, there can still be tiny hints of it that emerge in our most threatened or vulnerable moments.
When I look at the roots of my own personal battle with racism, I can find the stories in my past that helped it grow. When I was twenty one years old, I was raped by an Aboriginal man who smelled of glue and rubbing alcohol and had a large tattoo of a naked woman on his arm. He climbed through my window and destroyed my innocence and illusions of safety in my own home.
Now, as I look back at that event in my life, through the thickening lens of the many years that have passed, I can see how that pain story (and others like it) has contributed to the way that I have lived and the way I have treated people.
There are so many complex layers of pain in that story – both my pain and that of my rapist. That’s what oppression does – it builds layers of pain on us as individuals and us as communities of people, layers we can’t easily shake. My rapist, bearing the burden of addiction – most certainly as the result of the oppression he’d born and his ancestors had born before him – becomes the aggressor. The oppressed becomes the oppressor as he attempts to colonize women’s bodies through acts of rape and by tattooing their naked bodies on his skin. Pain is infectious – it wants to spread from one person to the next.
I, in turn, a child of privilege and a descendent of oppressors, in that moment became the oppressed – the victim. It’s a vicious cycle.
The next bit is the tricky part… do I let that pain story continue unchallenged? Do I justify my racism, and continue to look down my nose at the homeless First Nations people I encounter on the downtown streets? Do I toss everyone into the same category as my rapist? Do I continue the cycle of abuse?
Or do I take a good hard look at the shadow and see what I can learn from it?
This is not an easy story to tell. I want you to think that I have never acted out of racist intent – that I have been kind to every person I’ve met, regardless of their race or social status. I want you to believe that I am above that and have never perpetuated the cycle of abuse. I have very good relationships with people of many cultures and I try desperately hard to treat them all with respect and equality. In fact, in my university days, my best friend was a Aboriginal man, and I am now married to a Metis man. See? I have overcome the cycle! That’s the story I want you to know about me.
And yet… the shadow still emerges sometimes. I can’t deny it. I hurt people by not honouring their dignity. I let my fear keep me from looking people in the eyes sometimes. I avoid neighbourhoods where I might encounter my shadow.
As I sat in that circle last night, I wept for the pain that I had born and the pain that I had caused. I wept for the colonizers and the colonized. I wept for the pain stories that all of us carry and all of us continue to perpetuate, even in small and seemingly harmless ways. I wept for the shame of being a child of the oppressors. I wept for my rapist and for his family – for the pain they continue to carry. I wept… and then I offered an apology for all of the little ways that I had perpetuated the cycle.
Before it was my turn, two young Aboriginal men had shared their stories of trying to rise above the oppression and become leaders and change-makers in their communities. Their stories inspired me, and – more importantly – offered me one more piece of my healing journey. Seeing young men who are willing to stare down the shadow, rise above it, and bring their people’s pain stories into the light offered me a different paradigm for Aboriginal men than my rapist had imprinted on me. It was an honour to sit in circle with them.
After the circle had ended, I asked each of those men if I could give them a hug. They both were more than willing to accept. Perhaps in that gesture I have offered them a bit of healing too.
The last question each of us was asked to address was our thoughts on how our country will be healed. That question is far too big for me. I don’t know what it takes to heal a country and I don’t think anyone does.
I do know, however, that what heals me begins to heal a country. And the thing that will continue to offer me healing is the opportunity to sit in circle. Sitting in circles peels away the layers of hierarchy that we are all so used to in our culture. Sharing stories offers us the opportunity to see each other through new lenses. Befriending people who are different from us helps us shift our paradigms and change the world one friendship at a time.
Circles give us the chance to sit in equal positions, looking into each others’ eyes, listening deeply to each others’ stories, and re-building a bit of that trust that has been destroyed by so much of our history.
We need more circles. We need circles in our classrooms, circles in our governments, and circles in our homes. We need circles and we need friendship. That’s where healing begins.
Because my word for the year is joy, I’m keeping a joy journal, and I’ll be sharing some of that joy on this blog. Here’s hoping joy is contagious and you catch a little piece of it.
The painting above brought me joy today. It’s not about the finished product (I’m not even sure I like it that much, though it’s growing on me), but rather about the process. I started it last night at my painting class, and then spent this afternoon happily lost in a world of colours and patterns. Joy, joy, JOY!
But to be honest, when I think about joy this week, it’s all about the people. My “joy people”.
A few months ago, when I was moaning about how I didn’t like networking and I wasn’t sure how I’d build a clientele for my business, my straight-shooting friend Desiree, who’s way smarter about some things than I am, said “Girl, you’ve gotta stop thinking about it as NETWORKING. Instead you’ve gotta think about how you’re going to attract your JOY PEOPLE – the people you want to be connected with. The people whose business you want because you love what they stand for.”
She was right, of course. It’s about my joy people. And let me tell you, this past week I seem to have attracted a lot of them! Not that I have a bunch more clients, but I DO have lots of good people who want to help me or work with me in some way or another, or just hang out and be my friend. Plus a few who want to hire me! It’s been pretty darn amazing.
Here’s a little taste of my joy:
– My friend Jo-Anne who sat with me over chai lattes and listened to me talk about my book, and loved it like she would if it were a real live baby, and then helped me see some wisdom that I’d been missing.
– My friend Michele who came to speak to my class last week about the amazing work she’s doing and reminded me of why I’m so fond of her.
– My friend Desiree who gives me the straight goods in such a loving and humorous way and helps me see my path. Last week she said “You don’t really want to be a consultant, you want to write a book. So write the damn book already!” Okay, I’ve been told.
– My friend Susan who has been such a great support in the last few years as we both went a little deeper in our leadership journeys, and who believes in my crazy dreams.
– A few Twitter and Facebook friends who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to encourage me and share wisdom with me.
– My talented designer friend Segun who offered to do some work for me AND accepted a last minute invitation to be a guest speaker in my class. (Which he ROCKED, by the way!)
– A client who hired me to be her story coach and then was so excited about my feedback that it made me want to help more cool people with their writing projects.
– A few online friends who’ve become in-person friends who sent me lovely affirming/connecting emails.
– The powerful women in my circle of practice who made last week’s conference call such a warm, amazing experience.
– The people in my journal club who challenge me to ask deep questions and think deep thoughts.
– A favourite author who is just so kind and gracious and responsive to emails.
– My students who challenge me and affirm me and let me know that they appreciate my teaching efforts. AND the administration who trusts me enough to hire me for a few more teaching opportunities!
– My art teacher at Forum Art Studio who has such a genuine spirit and wonderful humanity about him, I can’t help but feel a lovely sense of trust in his guidance.
– All of the people who have commented, emailed, tweeted, etc. to say “You really MUST write that book! We WANT it and it needs to be out in the world!” You’re all amazing. Yes YOU.
– A bunch of people (too many to name) who are contributing to an exciting little project that I will be revealing in a few weeks.
That’s a lot of people! I can hardly tell you how blessed I’m feeling.
How about you? Who are your joy people?
And if you’re wondering “HOW do I attract my joy people?”, it’s pretty simple – just be yourself. Be authentic and the people who value what you stand for will be drawn to you.
Oh… and there’s one other thing… start saying your dreams out loud. Let people know what you want to do and how you want to serve the world. It’s been amazing how people have been responding when I’m honest enough to admit what’s in my heart of hearts.
To paraphrase a certain movie, “if you speak it, they will come.”
After writing my last post, visiting several of the other blog posts written for the Girl Effect Blogging Campaign, and watching some of the Girl Effect videos, I am left with a thought that keeps niggling at me…
We desperately need more MEN to help with the Girl Effect.
Let me tell you a story…
I was an innocent twenty-one year old former farm girl, in my second year in the big city, when a man climbed through the window of my basement apartment and raped me. It shook my world and shattered my innocence.
But this story is not about the rape – it’s about what happened afterwards.
When I finally convinced the man to leave my apartment (after 2 hours of abuse and nearly being choked to death), I ran down the street to the home of my friends Terence and Sheryle. It was a place I knew I would be safe – where I could fall apart and be held together by their strength.
I sat and cried on their couch, and Terence sat at my feet, his hands gently holding my ankles. His face was full of agony and despair, as he held my pain in his strong yet soft heart. I’m sure he was feeling some of the burden by association for the violence a member of his gender had caused me.
Terence didn’t hesitate to phone his supervisor and take the morning off. He knew he needed to be there to help me survive that horrible morning of police reports, a hospital visit, and endless privacy-invading questions. (Incidentally, it was also my friend Terence who, years later, nearly delivered my second daughter when I showed up at the hospital where he was an ER doctor.)
Knowing I needed to be surrounded by people who loved me, that afternoon I phoned one of the most tender-hearted people I knew – my brother Dwight. He too rushed away from his workplace to be by my side. Dwight is one of those rare and beautiful people in front of whom you know you can cry without ever feeling shame. I’m pretty sure he joined me in my tears, making me feel wrapped in a warm blanket of love.
The next day – partly because I’d been taught by my Dad to be strong in the face of obstacles – I was determined not to let the rapist destroy my dreams. So I drove to the town where I was planning to participate in my first triathlon (as a cyclist on a relay team) that weekend. As I got closer though, I knew that the pain in my neck, and the overall shakiness and trauma of my body would not let me ride. I had to give it up, and I had to be somewhere that I felt completely safe, away from race crowds.
I turned my brother’s car around and headed home, to the farm – to the safe arms of my mom and dad.
When I walked in the house, I fell apart, in a puddle of tears and fear and anger and overwhelm. My mom did what she does best – wrapped her arms around me and nurtured me.
My dad fell silent, his body hunched with pain. While Mom soothed me, he walked out of the house. Moments later, he returned.
“I remember,” he said, his shoulders stooped in that familiar way he had of showing humility and agony, “a man whose daughter was raped years ago. He spent the next years of his life trying to find the man who did it so that he could kill him.” And then he paused while his voice shook. “Suddenly I know EXACTLY how he felt.”
Despite the pain I was suffering, I don’t know when I’ve felt so loved. My pacifist father, who didn’t believe in war or violence and never let my brothers have toy guns in the house, was suddenly willing to kill a man on my behalf.
This I know – it has been a significant blessing in my life to be surrounded by men who know how to love, how to show compassion, and how to show up when they’re needed. Though they may not have known it at the time, their tears were as valuable to me as their strength. Even though I had been abused by a man, I knew there were men I could continue to trust in my life.
It is partly because of these men that I can be the woman I am today.
There have been others too, throughout my life. Like my husband Marcel, in whose arms I crumpled when my dad died a sudden accidental death. Or my other brother Brad, who I have turned to many, many times for help – like the time he sent money for my sister and I caught in an urgent situation in Europe. Or my friend Rob, who sat and held my dead son Matthew, said few words but shed the right amount of tears.
There are many places in this world where my rape experience could have turned out so very differently. There are places where my father might have refused to talk to me because I’d brought shame on his household. Or places where I would have been shunned from my village for a sexual encounter before marriage, even if I was an unwilling participant. Or places where I would have been forced to marry my rapist because I was soiled goods and nobody else would want me. Or places where I would have risked yet another rape if I’d shown up at the police office to report the crime.
In Malaysia, Rath escaped a brothel where she was kept as a sex slave, went to report it to the police, and then was imprisoned by the police and later sold by a police officer to another sex trafficker.
In Ethiopia, Moinshet was kidnapped by the man who wanted to marry her, and then repeatedly raped by him and his friends. When she escaped and told the local authorities, they refused to arrest him and instead tried to force her to marry him. In the end, she had to leave her village because she was shunned for her refusal to marry him.
In Pakistan, Mukhtar’s brother Shakur was kidnapped and gang-raped by members of a higher caste. When his rapists became nervous that they might be caught, they accused him of having sex with a young girl from their caste. Mukhtar appeared at the tribal assembly on her family’s behalf to apologize and try to soothe feelings. The tribal council decided that an apology was not enough, and instead ordered Mukhtar to be gang-raped. Four men dragged her into an empty stable and, as the crowd waited outside, stripped and raped her on the dirt floor.
There are many, many other stories like this in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. Read it and be moved.
Thankfully, in some of the stories, there were men who stepped in and supported the women (like Moinshet, whose father took her away from the village and refused to marry her off to the man who raped her).
But I keep wondering… how do we change the paradigm for the men in these situations, not just the women? Sure we can insist that countries come up with better laws to protect the women, but how do we educate boys so that they grow up believing it is NOT okay to treat women like this?
What I keep coming back to is this – we need more men who are willing to step in and model a different way. We need more men like those who stood by me in my crisis, shed tears with me and then lent me strength, and we need them to teach others to do the same.
A lot of “what ifs” pop into my head.
What if the man who raped me had been raised by a compassionate father or taught compassion by his teachers at school?
What if our global leaders modeled compassion and deep respect for women?
What if police officers were taught not only to be strong, but to be compassionate? And what if the police officers we send to train police officers in other countries were doing the same?
What if we only elected officials who knew how to treat women with respect (and encouraged women of other countries to do the same)?
What if the peacekeepers we send to areas of conflict were actually modeling PEACE and not further exasperating the situation?
What if more development agencies were sending out male teachers who would model and teach compassion to boys in schools?
I personally know a lot of men who would love to see the world change for young women living with oppression. I sat with some of those men (my friends Larry and Steve) in that run down office in India that I talked about in my last post, where we all mourned the tragedy of so many young girls being sold into sex slavery.
If you are one of those men, THANK YOU. And KEEP IT UP. And know that what you are doing is of vital importance. Don’t give up until you have modeled it to enough other men that we see a sea change in the world.
Compassionate men, we NEED you!