Last week a flood of “Me too” posts dominated Facebook as women (and a few men) declared ourselves among the recipients of sexual violence.
If some were surprised at the numbers, I’m betting they were men. My guess is that few women have never been sexually harassed, and if we haven’t ourselves been sexually assaulted, someone dear to us has.
One of the heartening and difficult things of this time in our history is the unveiling of the ugly sickness at the core of western industrial society. What’s revealed is the shadow side of the masculine principle—so far out of balance that it assumes ownership of women’s bodies.
We women know what it’s like to feel unsafe just because we walk around in these bodies. At any moment we could be humiliated, coerced, split open.
I wanted to write about a time in my life when this was not the case. The first time I went to a women’s music festival in the woods of western Michigan, where men were not allowed to enter, I walked at night alone for the first time feeling absolutely safe. The sense of freedom and relief overwhelmed me and contrasted sharply with the way I had lived my life up to that day.
Constantly warned by my mother to watch my back—even on the short walk from garage to house. Constantly aware that I could be interfered with on the street. Monitoring where I put my eyes, how I moved my body. Making myself small so as not to be noticed, or faking badassery so as not to be targeted.
Is this how we want our daughters to grow up?
What is the psychic toll?
And, can we white women translate our experience into empathy for people of color? who also by dint of their bodies move through the world imperiled, subject to daily humiliations and threat of violence?
(The leader of a local African-American grassroots group, questioned by security while waiting for his wife outside a public restroom. The young black man who told me he and his friends hear car locks ka-chunking when they walk past a white-driven car. The teenager at the park who left his bike in the bushes because he had no bike lock, prompting white passersby to report him for suspicious activity. The rampant police brutality, and continuing lack of justice in a stacked-deck system.)
My big question is: Can we take our painful experiences and use them as a way to feel into the lives of others we might think of as different from ourselves—the Muslim immigrant, the transgender person, the poor family?
What if we could also feel into the lives of the terrorist, the abuser, the white supremacist, the greedy corporate titan? Is this a bridge too far? I think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writing of his anger, many decades ago, on hearing how pirates victimized Vietnamese refugees escaping their country by flimsy boat. The pirates had raped a young girl and brutalized entire families.
Sitting with his anger, Thich Nhat Hanh eventually imagined his way into the life of a boy growing up in a country with no opportunity. He imagined the circumstances that might lead up to the teenager joining a pirate band where for the first time he felt a sense of belonging. And so on…until through his imaginings, Thich Nhat Hanh felt his heart open again.
Of course, this is a Buddhist monk we’re talking about, but I wonder how we regular mortals could broaden our sense of compassion to include more than we ever thought possible.
Compassion might be like a muscle that gets worked, gradually getting stronger.
It might be like a tree that grows where such a thing seems impossible.
I believe that there is no separation between us. That I am you and you are me. That everything in me mirrors you and everything in you reflects me.
And as more of the darkness is revealed, it’s just more opportunity to heal.