My dad taught me to be good, to be responsible, to be honest, to have integrity. I think I learned those lessons well, but I must have missed the one on how to be strong - how to stand up for myself.
I'm a survivor of CSA and date rape. For most of my life, I've had trouble with ideas of masculinity rooted in strength and power because they can be buried in fogs of anger and/or derision. For example: hatred at my weakness and socially contextualized mockery of my failure. Thinking of myself this way leads to a spiral of anguish.
Instead, I focus on truth. Please note that I've said "truth" and not "Truth". I don't want to make a statement about what happened to me or what actually is at the moment. The pretense that I can know the Truth about the events surrounding my abuse or the situations in which I find myself triggered is far to large a burden; how can I know what each individual brings to this moment? Rather, I intend to recognize how I am living in a moment. Recognizing the truth of my experience, respecting my emotional state, and allowing myself to experience the truth as I feel it at that time gives me the poise - when I'm successful - to respond to triggering moments in ways that allow me to defuse my reaction.
I focus on truth because most of my life has been spent in a lie. I refused to recognize the reality of what I've lived with for nearly 16 years. It has infected every relationship that I've had, save one that began before the abuse. That lie, that secret has eaten at my heart, devoured my soul. So I've taken the only action that I can: I bear witness to my truth.
When I write, bearing witness resonates and calls to a book given to me by my Rabbi in response to a traumatic event not related to my abuse Bearing Witness: A Zen Master's Lessons in Making Peace
by Bernie Glassman. I've linked the Kindle Edition. (Fair warning, I may sound like I'm preaching and I extend my apologies. I'm not trying to endorse a religion or promote a belief system. Rather, I intend to explain a tool I've found useful.)
For me, bearing witness involves recognizing a person's experience(s) - other's or my own - and acknowledging that however one experiences reality is true for him or her. It doesn't matter if I think a reaction is strange or off putting (yes, I try to bear witness to my reactions); my response is secondary to acknowledging the power that an experience can hold for the experiencer. Ironically, the event that lead my Rabbi to give me Bearing Witness
is still more difficult to discuss than my abuse, but I'm working on that. Regardless, bearing witness has helped me care for myself and develop more healthy relationships.
Bearing witness is a powerful (yeah, I used it) tool in my belt because it gives me heart-centered emotional distance that allows me to remain present; I don't go numb. As a result, I am more authentic both when interacting with others and when dealing with myself. As a Trekker, I'm going to talk about Klingons for a moment.
There are several times though out The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 where a viewer experiences the difference between Worf's definition of honor and the "normal" Klingon honor. The cultural norms are agressive, violent, and after victory at all costs. Worf's definition of honor rests in his heart. Paraphrasing (Sorry, I can't remember the episode, so I can't cite verbatim.): honor is an intangible idea, a statement about truth and respect. One acts respectfully to his or her own truth as well as that of others. One respects others and
respects one's self equally.
As an example, I'm going to recap a text conversation that I had approximately a month ago with a former classmate. I'm going to paraphrase to avoid triggering details, but am happy discuss the details if you would like.
This classmate - let's call him CM - and I had been doing homework together for over a semester. For reasons known only to him, he decided to change our text conversations from, "Are you free on XXXXX night to work on the problem set?" to unsolicited advice regarding shaving. (For the record, I have a gotee.) This evolved into explicit that my appearance is that of one with several very serious STIs and cancer. He went as far as suggesting that I wax my entire body.
I had two options. I could be "strong" and get "angry", which would involve lashing out. Or, I could be true. For me, this meant acknowledging how much his texts hurt; I have a very dear friend who suffers from one of the STIs CM mentioned and have lost friends and family to cancer. Moreover, I don't know what CM thought he was doing. Sometimes, bullies don't know that they're bullying. Other times, a cultural difference can get in the way. So yes, I felt angry. Writing about it, I feel angry. But that's my experience. I am not angry and I can't assume that CM is just a douché bag who deserves all of the physical retaliation that I've thought up.
The difference is where my agency lies. Is it thrashing about the river Styx in Dante's 5th circle or am I still in my body on this green Earth, breathing sweet fresh air and feel hurt? If I were ragefully lashing out with my anger, I would be drowning in the Styx and have less control of my life. Sure, it's an experience I'm used to and a space in which I feel safe because I Feel
as if I have control, but really I'm being pulled along by me emotional sludge. Instead, if bore witness to (in some contexts, this process is called surrendering) to my experience and acknowledged that I was hurt and that feeling pain is NOT
bad. It is true
. With that truth in hand, I chose how to respond.
I started by asking CM if he understood the implications of his comments:
"What are you talking about? CM, do you have any idea what you're saying? Do you have any idea how offensive, out of line, utterly inappropriate, and disrespectful you're being?"
In stead of telling CM, I asked. Instead of assuming I was right as he had - a bully assumes power-based authority without cause and usually tries to manipulate - I focused on the truth of my experience.
CM responded that he didn't know why he was out of line and continued his verbal assault: "Do you like my fashion tips?" In stead of using agressive or strong language like "you're being mean" or cursing, I spoke a dead-pan truth:
"Neither [of your tips] is appropriate. Not only are you diminishing the severity and seriousness of both diseases, but you're actively telling me that I'm diseased and unfit for society. That is the implication of what you've said. You've gone from unsolicited fashion tips to harassment and become completely inappropriate."
Yes, I labeled actions as his. I could have done a better job by saying something similar to, "to me, you're statements mean I'm diseased and unfit for society," instead of, "you're actively telling me." But I still didn't attack.
We continued this back-and-forth for several days; he wouldn't drop it and over the next two days, I found it empowering to be so honest about my experience. At the end of the 2nd day, I blocked his number and reported the texts a week or so later.
Right now, I'm at peace knowing that I not only responded to CM but did so in a way that showed respect for myself and my experience. I acted honorably. I spoke my truth without becoming a bully.
I'm not entirely sure if the story was necessary or telling it was just something I need(ed) to do. I hope that it's both. I'd like to think that I've exemplified standing up for myself without making my problem someone else's, without lashing out and raging all over someone. But I cannot know how you've experienced reading what I've written. Only you can and I hope that you're able to recognize the peace and strength in doing so.