Thursday, June 24, 2010

Now I Know in Part; Then I Shall Know Fully

I posted this to Feministing's Community section, but I always manage to end up with at least three minor spelling errors or grammatical missteps I never catch before posting, so here's the better version. I've also modified it a bit for an audience unfamiliar with Feminist spaces.

This post was not published on that site, perhaps because of how easily it could be misinterpreted. No matter. I managed to reach many people with these words through other conduits.

The Author.


Two specific stories from two specific people have broadened my understanding in the past few days. As a bit of prelude, I recognize that I was socialized as a male, so I know that it is from that reference point that I form all my judgments and observations. In particular, two very intense experiences I've had recently brought quite a bit into focus for me. I'm always very glad for desired insight and always hope to receive more of it.

With my first anecdote, I'm going to be a good bit vague regarding specific details for the sake of my friend's privacy. To begin, I suppose one never understands sexual assault completely until it happens to them personally or when it happens to someone one knows well. When any tragedy moves from the abstract to the real, real learning commences. And on that note, here is just what I mean.

A friend, clearly in a place of pain, recounted to me something that had happened to her the prior week before at a conference. While there, she told me that she had been fondled against her will by a fellow attender. To add insult to injury, after the incident, the man in question then proceeded to shadow her movements and in so doing make it known to her that he fully intended to stay within her eyesight at all times.

This behavior constituted stalking and of course it totally freaked her out. From then on she made a point to place herself directly in the middle of large groups of people for protection's sake and to never go anywhere by herself. I'm glad she had enough foresight to protect herself in this way, though of course I would have rather none of this happened at all. Her copious tears and fear showed plainly on her face as she talked and I could tell just how upset all this had made her. After she finished speaking and I began to process what I had just been told, I think it was at that exact moment that I developed a deeper understanding I never would have managed prior to then.

I've mentioned a few times in other spaces my own childhood experiences with sexual assault and the damage done, so I note it here only to provide a bit of context. Still, I think it's a bit different when it happens in adulthood and particularly when it happens to a man, rather than a woman. This is confirmed when, in my online Feminist activism, a woman puts up a post or starts a thread regarding the subject of rape or sexual assault, especially when it arrives in the form of personal anecdote. So many people relate deeply and personally to that which has been said on the matter and we can talk of nothing else for a long while afterward.

I've always found it interesting to observe how one post inspires others and leads others to write their own post. It's also fascinating to contemplate the ways in which one particular piece on any topic, regardless of what it may be, will give readers an opening to speak about something very important to them. Sometimes written replies to previous posts revolve around one sentence out of fifty in the piece that has moved them in some way, shape, or fashion. Sometimes they are a drafted response to one whole post in totality. Sometimes one word alone is dynamic enough to be a conduit for someone's further exploration. But what cannot be denied is that all our stories do have a common thread.

I observe this same phenomenon in unprogrammed worship. Sometimes one can tell how one message leads to another, though not always. My interest in how it all fits together isn't purely just an intellectual pursuit. Sometimes meetings turn out to be very gathered and very logical. Sometimes they are asymmetric and perplexing, but I still look for the Light within each person's contribution. To me, that's part of spiritual discipline and part of knocking on the door, knowing that by the end, the door will be opened and I will find that which I have been seeking.

Next, the second anecdote. A fellow Quaker sat across the room from me during a worship group. We had yet to begin and were simply having pleasant conversation with each other before getting started. She told a story about a man in her own meeting, who, at some point during service, had attempted to kiss the woman sitting next to him. The assumption was that the two of them were strangers, or at least that they didn't know each other very well, though I don't know the details well enough to be any authority on the matter.

Whether the kiss was meant in a spirit of purely platonic fellowship or overt sexual desire was unclear, but in any case, the woman had not wanted it. In response to her actions, the man proceeded to rise to speak and in so doing chastised the woman for her behavior. Shaming other Friends in meeting is not acceptable, but in addition to that, it nearly went without saying that his message was clearly not Spirit-led and was meant only for he himself. This resulted, as you might anticipate, in a very heated, intense situation as meeting concluded. It was thus necessary to set firm parameters, boundaries, and consequences for the man if he ever acted the same way again during worship.

The fellow Friend telling the story put herself in a pastoral care role as she talked to him, walking a delicate tightrope she sought to base purely in love while at the same time knowing she needed to be constantly vigilant to not let her temper lead her towards directions that would only have exacerbated the situation further. Was it fair that she had to do this? Certainly not, but that's unfortunately part of living in a world that is unequal and unjust. I myself have learned over the years that word selection and tone are as important, if not more so, than intent alone. How we say it often supersedes what we say.

As she finished the story, she noted, with some bitterness, that even when she was absolutely furious, people often thought that she looked cute. As a result, they had a hard time taking her seriously. I recall that this was one of my mother's pet peeves, as well. Without knowing better, years and years ago, I fought back against my latest disciplinary tongue-lashing by telling Mom that, You look cute when you get angry. I was all of nine or ten at the time. I must have picked it up from somewhere and assumed only that it was a kind of clever smart-assed retort, but the ferocity of my Mother's anger at that statement really surprised me. Later, of course, I understood why it had set her off so much. This idea of being consistently belittled and infantilized by men in ways few men would treat another man took a while for me to fully understand and take into account.

The boundaries that prevent women from reaching their own freedom are often the very same ones that keep men from understanding how to be good allies. This deeply complicates how they ought to aid them in that struggle. Additionally, I have come to understand how women are told to be people-pleasers first and foremost and in so doing warned to not rock the boat for any reason. This is something else the Friend spoke about, and though I do not doubt what she said, I have to say that this particular cultural expectation runs contrary with how I was brought up.

I myself came from a family of people with flashpoint tempers, regardless of sex. Anger is something I'm used to, in other words, and in my family, it was something of a simultaneous means of attack and a means of defense. Though I try to keep my own temper under wraps, if I'm upset enough for long enough, what comes out of me is so intense as to be frightening. This is why I try as best I can to not lose my cool. I certainly have listened to close female friends, partners, and lovers talk about the societal pressure to be calm and deferential at all cost and I acknowledge that those experiences were very real for them.

That, however, was not my experience growing up. My mother was never exactly the sort of person to restrain her passions. I can still remember some of the decibel-splitting lectures I received as a boy which could have peeled the paint off of walls. Both of my sisters have angry streaks as well, and this has regrettably led to more than a few verbal fights among us I'd rather not contemplate. We might have repressed certain things about ourselves, but conflict was not one of them.

I used to be very angry myself and I have only recently set it aside. Because of my own struggles and because of the nature of how I grew up, I don't usually feel threatened by people whose default setting is anger. Instead, I feel sorrow and compassion for them. Anger stems from a sense of brokenness and I wish for it to be healed and put aside. My own father's anger didn't really subside until recently when he began to have major health problems. My grandfather, my mother's father, was someone who was also very fiery and explosive. He did not let go of his quick temper until the cancer that would eventually take his life took with it his strength and will to keep struggling.

His behavior, those ghastly last months, was thoroughly out of character. My mother mentions how distressing it was to see someone who was a ball of energy become lethargic and non-committal. And it's probably not surprising that I've been attracted to people who do possess anger to some degree or another, though I have also discovered that these sorts of desires are unhealthy. We all have fatal attractions and mine is to anger, whether within myself or another person.

And, to conclude, we know the world we live in has significant problems and so we speak out against them. I'm glad we do. It's easy for me to feel outraged. That outrage is often effective in getting myself fired up and ready to go. But when I can make a personal connection to a situation based on someone I know in real life, I see a more complete picture. I see the ironies. I see the humanity. I see the tragedy. I see the human frailties we all possess to some degree. And when that happens, the nature of my anger changes. Feeling love for someone who has wronged you does not mean accepting one's fate or condoning what has happened. But it does mean that we take into account something beyond just our own individual response and try to entertain someone else's thought process, too.

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.