A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about what I had learned from #Pulse and the aftermath up to that point. You can read the article here. One reader’s response started out like this: “I was so moved and touched with your words that I shed tears while reading this at work. Very beautifully said. Especially the section where you talk about the misuse of love and the human conditions not being able to change with legislation or hate. But then I noticed you’re white.”
My words were valid until the individual noticed my appearance as white. Because I do not share their skin color, they marginalized the value of my thoughts. It’s an interesting dichotomy. I was valid until I was different.
And, I don’t believe that is valid. I cannot relate to others through their pain because their pain is their unique experience. I can, however, relate to pain others experience through the pain I have experienced myself. If you are an empath or sensitive, stop reading here; what comes next will not be good for you. Pick back up where you see ***.
I was raped the first time when I was two years old. Surgery was required to repair the damage that was done. At that time, caretakers were commonly told they should never speak of it because the child was too little to remember and talking about it would only re-traumatize. They didn’t know much about the human mind back then. Denial delayed my mental and emotional healing for decades.
By the time I was 16, I had been repeatedly molested by a family member, groped by a friend of the family, raped by a classmate, and manipulated into having sex by my boyfriend (“If you loved me, you would…” Sound familiar?) At 16, I had already accepted that my body was not mine to cherish and protect but a mere toy for the entertainment of others.
I suffered a greenstick fracture of my right tibia when I was 18 months old. My mother told the emergency room staff that I had run off the end of a couch. She explained away the other bruises in various stages of healing by telling them that I was a “clumsy” child. The previously mentioned surgery was the last time I would receive medical attention or any assistance for the abuse I lived through until I was well into adulthood.
The real abuse began when she married my step-father. I was almost six years old. We had never been to church before that. I was introduced to an angry God who was just waiting to hit me over the head with a hammer for any infraction. To protect me from God’s wrath, my mother and step-father did it for Him. Pride was a sin, so I was constantly belittled, berated for everything I did, and punished for things I hadn’t done yet but might someday think of doing. I was also regularly reminded that I was stupid, clumsy, and ugly.
I remember the first beating my step-father ever gave me. He took off his belt, stripped my pants and underwear to the floor, put me face-down across his lap and beat me with his belt until I had bloody welts from my low back to my knees. My mother stood a few feet away and watched. She told me it would teach me. I was six.
My mother was an active participant as well. She had beat me before that, but the two of them egged each other on, like participants in a single-family riot. Together they found more things to beat me with and about, and more ways to punish me, than either of them could have ever thought of alone. They certainly inspired creativity in one another.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that my nose bends slightly to my left. I have a deviated septum, a souvenir of my step-father punching me in the face and breaking my nose while my mother held my arms behind my back. It was Christmas Eve. I had refused to open my Christmas presents until Christmas morning. They had sent me to my room, but that wasn’t good enough. I had to be punished for ruining Christmas. I was fourteen.
As I got older and bigger, the beatings got worse. My step-father back-handed me so hard one day that I flew across the room. As I came down, the back of my head hit the corner of a windowsill. I went to school the next day with a golfball-sized knot of blood on the back of my head and went straight to a guidance counselor for help. I begged him to get me out of that house before my step-father killed me. He told me not to tell lies about my step-father because he was “a pillar of the community.” Then he called my step-father and told him what I said as I listened in horror. You can imagine what happened when I got home. I learned there was no help for me in the world. I was on my own, no matter how bad it got, no one would help me. I was fifteen.
It was no secret that my mother and step-father didn’t want me. When I was seven, they sent me away to live with one of my sisters. Her husband beat her oldest son (his step-son) and me on a regular basis. We never told because there was no point. I was used to my mother knowing and not caring. I got sent back to my mother and step-father a year later because my sister’s marriage was in trouble.
When I was eight, one of my step-father’s family members offered to adopt me. I was told that I was going to live with them and I would have a new last name. That sounded good to me. Except, it never happened and I didn’t find out why until much later. My biological father had refused to sign the papers.
When I was nine, my mother and step-father sent me away to camp for an entire summer. On weekends, the other kids got to go home or their families came to visit. I had only one visit over the entire summer. Part of me was relieved. Part of me longed for family. Not mine, just the concept. I wanted what those other kids had.
I found out about my biological father when I was ten years old. He was my respite. I went to visit him for the summer and had an entirely new experience of life. He actually wanted me. He showed me off and was proud of me. I had to go back to my mother and step-father at the end of summer. As much as my mother wanted to deprive my father of having me in his life, my step-father wanted rid of me more. Within a month, I went home to my father.
He spoiled me. My name was “Princess,” mostly when he drank. Unlike my step-father, my father was a happy drunk. I didn’t care that he drank; he didn’t beat me, call me names, or otherwise abuse me. He just loved me. Daddy traded his speed boat to get a pony for me. He let me adopt any animal I wanted as long as I took care of it. I had my pony, two dogs, geese, chickens, guinea hens, ducks, rabbits, and goats. I sold milk and eggs to the neighbors. My dad had a mynah bird and a parrot. I was in bliss. People, except Daddy, were mean. Animals were my friends. Daddy provided sanctuary, refuge, respite, peace. He was far from perfect, but he loved me. That was a first.
Two years, one month, two weeks, and four days after I learned of his existence, Daddy suffered a massive stroke, massive heart attack, and another massive stroke. It happened faster than you can read that sentence. He was eating a bowl of Black Jack Cherry ice cream. We were home alone. I did my best. I had learned the Heimlich maneuver in school that week; CPR was to be taught the following week. There was no 911 back then. I called the operator. I got the paramedics and the ambulance. I did my best. Daddy died. For a very long time, I believed it was my fault. If I had only been smarter and better and more, I would have saved him. I failed my Daddy, the only person who had ever loved and protected me.I was not good enough. I was twelve.
***There is more. Isn’t there always more to our stories? We never know what another has been through. Sometimes, if we’re really lucky, we never have to know all that we have been through. That doesn’t mean we cannot relate. We may not understand completely, but we can relate through the pain we have each experienced in our own lives. In your own way, you relate to my pain through your own knowing of pain.
I am white. I am sure that I have experienced privilege than I do not recognize. Yet, I don’t feel that I’ve lived a privileged life. I am a white and a woman. Sure, I can get a tire changed on my car simply by standing next to it. That is a privilege I understand. I can also get raped for doing the same thing. Privelege? I don’t understand privilege. There is so much to learn. I do understand pain. I have come to understand the privilege of understanding pain.
Pain is not a contest. My pain is no worse than yours. My pain is no better. My belief is that my pain came at a threshold that would give me the ability to understand and relate to the pain that others go through. I believe that my pain continues to serve a purpose. It motivates me to participate in healing, for myself and others. That is a privilege.
I don’t feel your pain through your pain. I feel it through my experiences of pain. Likewise, you don’t feel my pain through my pain, you feel it through your own experiences. This is one way we relate to each other. Even the those who were shot at Pulse… they relate to one another through their own experiences. The families of the people shot by police relate to each other through their own experiences. The families of the police officers who were killed and wounded relate to each other through their own experiences. Each group experiences an easier relating because their experiences are more similar, but their experiences are still different. Within the groups, they will have different outcomes, too, depending on what they choose to do with their experiences.
I’m told that I don’t understand because I’m white and privileged. I’ve heard that the police deserved to die because they’re police and privileged. I’ve seen strong arguments that the others should not have died because they were non-white, non-police, and non-privileged. I believe each of those statements misses the mark.
Before you misinterpret, I do not believe that any of these people deserved to die. I do not. No one deserves to die as retribution for the actions of another. I do believe that race is an issue. I believe there are lots of issues and lots of ways of thinking that need to be addressed. I also believe that the horrific things being done in the name of race, creed, sexuality, and other differences are symptoms of a much greater ill, as are the retribution deaths of the police officers.
The greater ill is the disconnection in our society. We have so allowed ourselves to be categorized and classified, marginalized and segregated, that individuals and groups of people justify actions based solely on the history of “others” in “categories.” We have turned ourselves into “us” and “them.”
Just like the reader who dismissed my value solely because I am white.
It is my fervent hope that all these deaths should have meaning. What a tragedy it would be for the value of these lives to be lost in our fighting with one another. Instead of greater division, I do believe that the only way through this crisis of human condition is through greater connection, greater understanding, and greater love. I hope that we will join together and move toward that. I see evidence of people doing this in social media. It doesn’t make the news, because peace doesn’t sell commercials nearly as well as drama brings in advertising dollars.
We cannot hate each other to peace. We cannot fight our way to connection. If it worked, it would have worked already. We have had centuries of wars, division, and fighting. All of history tells the tale. We cannot hate our way to unity. Humans have tried to kill off every other tribe for as long as there have been humans. Dominance hasn’t worked. Could it be time to try something new?
In order for a global difference to be made, individual choices must be made. Yes, it is easier for me to focus on love and peace, but it’s not because of my privilege and whiteness. I can focus on love and peace because I woke up one morning and realized that all those years of hating my mother had never changed her, but it had certainly changed me. That is where choice comes in. I woke up. I realized. Now, what difference will I choose to make? What actions am I willing take today to make me a better member of society and this world a better place?
Yes, I’m white. No, I don’t know what it is like to be black, hispanic, or any other racial/ethnic minority. Yes, I am heterosexual. No, I don’t know what it is like to be homosexual, transexual, or any other sexual/gender minority. What I do know is pain, and being made less-than, and feeling that I am simply not enough, and forgiving all of that because it was never about me anyway. That was their story and it was never true of me. I believed it and suffered for that, but even that did not make it true.
That is where we can connect. Isn’t pain, less-than, not enough, aren’t these the essence of being marginalized? I don’t understand well enough. I know that. That doesn’t mean I can’t stand with you and make this world a better place for all of us. I want to stand with you. Will you let me? I love you. Not because you earned it, not because of anything you have ever done. I love you because you are, because I am, because we are inextricably linked and harming you is harmful to me and loving you makes my life better. I love you because I’m selfish and giving enough to do so. Can we find our way to meet in Rumi’s field and lie down in the grass together? Is there a better use of time on this planet? I have lots of questions; I hope you will share your thoughts and questions in the comments. Thank you for being here to make a difference in an incredibly difficult time. I know that you’re making a difference. I hope you do, too.