(photo credit: Unsplash – Alex Mihai)
I was on my way to the dentist, feeling anxious because I had a broken tooth and was sure the repair would be expensive and painful and that it must somehow be my fault and I’d be shamed for not flossing, eating hard candy, or clenching my teeth when I sleep. I was also feeling a little guilty for driving the two blocks, but didn’t want to have to walk home in the extreme cold with a frozen mouth.
Driving slowly through the parking lot, I got hit from behind by another car. In my anxious state of mind, my automatic thought was that I must have done something wrong because I was distracted. But just as quickly, I realized that there was nothing I could have done in that moment that would have caused the bump – it had to be something that hit me.
I turned and processed what had happened. A car was pulling out, hadn’t seen me, and hit the back passenger side of my car.
The driver of the car that hit me pulled up beside me and we both rolled down our windows. “I’m sorry,” said the guy, looking strangely frantic, given how minor the incident was, “but I didn’t hit you.”
“What do you mean you didn’t hit me? My car moved. Clearly you hit me.”
“Look,” he said, pointing back, “there’s a block of ice on the ground – that’s what you hit.”
“What are you talking about?” I said, looking in the mirror at the tiny block of ice. “How could a block of ice have caused my car to move like that?”
And then he just kept yelling “I didn’t hit you! I didn’t hit you!”
And I said, in as calm a voice as I could muster, “Can we just get out of our cars and look at our cars to see if there is any damage?”
His voice began to escalate. “But I didn’t hit you!!”
“Before you drive away, I’m JUST asking you to get out of your car and come with me so we can see if there is damage.”
He kept yelling, but got out of his car and we both went to look at the side of my car. Sure enough, there was a small dent on the fender near the wheel (ironically in the same spot I’d had repaired a few months earlier after I’d backed into a pole).
“I didn’t hit you!” He yelled. “How do I know that dent wasn’t there before?!” (Well, for one thing, I knew because that whole section of the car’s body had been repaired and repainted, but I didn’t think to say that at the moment.) He started wildly flinging his arms, pointing at other dings and marks on the car. “Next you’re going to say I caused that! And that! And that!”
“No, but you DID cause THAT!” I said – pointing at the small dent.
“I DIDN’T HIT YOU! LOOK – THERE’S THE BLOCK OF ICE. AND LOOK AT THE SKID MARKS BY THE BLOCK OF ICE. YOUR CAR WAS HIT BY THAT AND THE DENT WAS ON YOUR CAR ALREADY!”
I glanced toward where he was pointing. In the thin layer of snow on the ground, my tire marks showed clearly where I’d been traveling in a straight line and then was jolted five inches to the left. Near the zigzag was not a block of ice, but a lump of compacted snow that had likely been dislodged from my mud flaps on impact.
As quickly as I’d glanced away, though, I turned back to look into his eyes. Instinctively I knew I couldn’t take my eyes off this raging, irrational man or I would not be safe. Behind the anger in his eyes, I could see something else. Fear? Trauma? Shame? Maybe he was driving without a license? Maybe he’d been traumatized by parents who wouldn’t allow him to make mistakes? My mind reeled with the possibilities, wondering what parts of his history and his pain I needed to draw on to diffuse this situation.
“Look – I’m not going to take you to court or anything, so stop over-reacting and simply realize that what just happened could only have happened if your car hit mine.” My fingers touched the edge of the cell phone in my pocket, wondering whether I should pull it out to record this moment or take a photo of his license plate.
“I DIDN’T HIT YOU!” Seeing the rage increase in his eyes, I made a split-second decision to let it all go rather than risk being punched in the face. I left the cell phone in my pocket.
“Sir,” I said, as calmly and deliberately as I could muster, “the damage is minor enough that I’m not going report it. Get back in your car now and drive away.”
“Okay,” he said, getting back into his car. “But I didn’t hit you.”
I got back into my car and carried on to the dentist. As I sat in front of the dentist’s office, trembling, I had a flashback, realizing that this wasn’t just the story of a five minute encounter with an irrational man in a parking lot – it was a story of my whole lifetime. And it was the story of every woman I know.
It’s a story as old as history. Man does wrong. Woman second-guesses herself, thinking she may have done wrong. Man swears he didn’t do wrong, gaslights the woman to try to convince her she’s crazy for thinking wrong was done, yells at her and makes her afraid he might hit her if she calls him out for what he did wrong. Woman does the emotional labour of trying to calm him and assure him he’s not a horrible person because she needs to keep herself safe. And then she carries the trembling with her when she goes.
Last night, as I sat down to journal after processing this five minute encounter nearly all day, I could feel the ache in my body and I knew that it was not from whiplash (the jolt was too minor) but from holding my body tense and alert throughout the encounter as I reacted instantaneously to what I needed to do to stay safe in that moment. It was also from holding a whole lifetime of such encounters in my body. I wrote “It’s still in my body. I can feel the shakiness, the tingling, the tight throat, and the tears that want to come but are blocked.”
Suddenly, a new thought appeared in my journal and every cell in my body knew the truth of it.
Women have learned to be the shock absorbers for men’s pain.
We are masterful at absorbing the intensity of it and diffusing it so that it won’t cause further damage.
This is a story of a whole lifetime, and a thousand lifetimes before mine. It’s a story of generation after generation – a story we carry in our DNA. It’s a story of a whole lineage of shock absorbers showing up in my instinctual need and ability to keep that man from exploding.
This is the story of a childhood with a father who would never hit his children, but who would throw hammers at trees or tractors in his rage. It’s the story of a little girl who learned, from a young age, to jump up very quickly, if she heard him come in from the barn, to make sure there was food on the table so that she didn’t have to face his anger. It’s also the story of a woman who, at thirty-five and with children of her own, could still feel her body react in the same way when she heard the back door of the farmhouse open.
This is the story of a twenty-two year old, naked and trembling in her bed while the rapist held a tight grip on her throat and a blade over her head. It’s the story of how her mind raced, trying to find just the right thing to say that might soothe him enough so that he would do the least amount of damage. And it’s the story of how she sat with him on her bed for an hour after he raped her, listening to him tell stories of his childhood.
This is also the story of a wife and mother who learned to contort herself to absorb the pain, shame, anger, and insecurity of a man who needed someone else to blame, because she thought it was her job. It’s the story of how she learned to anticipate his mood the moment he stepped in the door, and how she did everything to fend off his darkness to keep her daughters safe. It’s also the story of how she woke up one day and realized she’d taught her daughters how to become shock absorbers too.
And this is the story of Dr. Anita Hill, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Tarana Burk, and every person with a #metoo story. Every single one of us has absorbed the pain of men who didn’t know how to diffuse it on their own.
We are exhausted. Our bodies have been nearly destroyed by the many shocks we’ve absorbed (and many HAVE been destroyed).
We don’t hate men, as those who would dismiss us as “angry feminists” might have us believe. Quite the contrary – we love them and we want better for them. And for us. And for our daughters and sons.
We simply want to stop being shock absorbers. We want men to learn how to diffuse their own pain without throwing it, like hand grenades, into someone else’s yard.
There is another five minute encounter with a man that happened shortly after the first one that helps to bring this into perspective. The dentist (a man) looked into my mouth and said. “It’s the crown that’s broken. We just put that in last year and it shouldn’t have broken, so we’ll take full responsibility for it and replace it. I’m really sorry about that.” Simple as that. No defensiveness, no deflection, no gaslighting or trying to convince me it was my fault. Simply taking responsibility for it.
THAT is what we are asking men to do. Just take responsibility and learn to deal with the shame and fear that might come along with that responsibility. Once that happens, we’ll stop talking about toxic masculinity.
P.S. If your response to this is “Why are you assuming this is a male/female thing? Couldn’t it as easily have been a female ranting and raving?”, my response is this… it is not purely a male/female thing, but it IS a power thing. In that situation, as a man, he has more physical and cultural power and so my instinctive reaction to him was about knowing (and remembering in my body) that he could hurt me. And, though I can’t speak for him, I suspect that some of his behaviour was about knowing I would absorb it rather than punch him first. I believe this is also the case with BIPOC people who have learned to be the shock absorbers for the pain that we as white people have not learned to process. The person with more power is more likely to assume that the person with less will absorb it. The closer you are to the top of a hill, the more you can afford to throw hand grenades.
Sometimes, we’re our own worst enemies. Sometimes we SAY we want change – we want men to be able to express their feminine sides, we want equality in our homes and places of work, and we want ALL of what women have to offer to be valued in the world.
BUT… then when change appears, we resist it. Sometimes the old way just feels more safe.
I’m sick today, so I’m spending some time in front of the television. I’m watching The View, which SHOULD be about empowered women showing a new paradigm for strong women, right?
In just a few minutes, two things frustrated me.
1. They were talking about men carrying iPads around in “murses” (male versions of purses). One of their male staffers had posed for a series of photos in which he was carrying a variety of bags that mostly looked effeminate. The women of The View proceeded to make fun of the photos, suggesting the old idea that “men need to look like MEN.” So much for men who want a little design or pizzazz in what they carry over their shoulder – that just makes them laughable. Let’s keep men stuck in old boxes, shall we?
2. Immediately after the “murses”, they had a message from the sponsor in which the young blonde woman (I don’t know her name) was promoting some kind of cold medicine, saying that it was “trusted by Moms for years”. Okay, so we’re still assuming that MOMS are the only ones who care for kids and make child-related decisions? When will we be done with that idea? (It’s ancient history in my house, since my husband was the primary caregiver for most of my kids’ lives and knows more about their health needs and remembers when school forms need to be filled out, etc.) When will we trust men to have wisdom when it comes to children and the ability to be nurturers?
The truth is, I think many women (like the women of The View) are stubbornly hanging onto their mom/nurturer roles by making fun of men for being effeminate. We assume that men can’t make health-related decisions for our children, and we marginalize men who want to move into new ways of being.
Let’s move on already.
If we want feminine wisdom to be universally valued in the world, then we have to be prepared to value it in men just as we do in women.
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!