It’s really amazing what you can learn about something or someone through another’s impassioned teaching. I remember when my partner, James, and I first met, he was finishing up a final class, strictly based on filling a credit requirement. In making the choice for this class, he scoured outside of his regular departments of Urban and Regional Planning and Practical Writing into things that he just found compelling. He landed in a class on African Diaspora with an intense, legendary, and radical professor, Santiago Valles. This class and this guy rocked James’ world.
Throughout the course of his semester we spent a good deal of time discussing the things he was learning – the concrete things, and also the more radical perspective in which they were cased. For his final project, James chose to research and write about Malcolm X’s mother. I remember the months of story-telling, laying in the crook of his arm as he relayed the complexities of Malcolm’s mother, her family and her painful life experiences.
Sometimes when you listen to stories, you feel them inside of your gut. Sometimes it’s because the story-teller is skillful. Sometimes it’s because pieces of the characters are pieces of you, or their experiences mimic our own. Other times it’s just empathy for humanity. Often it’s a combination. I had always revered Malcolm X – if for nothing else than for his radical and uncompromising truth-telling, and his refusal to conform. And I resonated with his angst, and his passion and his intensity. But through these stories I held a new appreciation for his humanity, for the ways he actually did struggle with conformity, and how his inability to back down required sacrifice even outside of the obvious, ultimate sacrifice of his very life.
When I think of Malcolm X lately, I consider how he spent as much time defending his damned position as he did on discussing the actual discourse. I think about how crazy this must have made him feel – how much precious time must have been wasted being misunderstood. I think about it lately because I can relate.
Triggers and Being Vulnerable
I recently had a conversation with one of the most emotionally intelligent people I know. We talked about conflict and she said two things that stood out to me. The first was that we all have “triggers” – things that cause emotional reactions from us. The second was “there’s power in sharing the real thing that happened.” In other words, power in being vulnerable.
Power in being vulnerable? Hmmm, a little contrary to what I’ve been programmed to believe. Being vulnerable, we’re usually taught, reveals a weakness. It gives others a place to pick at, the ability to use our own splayed open honesty in a twisted and unintended way. But, this understanding of vulnerability as weakness requires an assumed adversary, doesn’t it? And I’m a little uncomfortable with that assumption. I don’t want that to be the reality.
So, here it is. My moment of power. My moment of being vulnerable with you all.
My “trigger” is feeling misunderstood. And not just the “I don’t agree with your opinion / rhetoric” kind of stuff. I’m pretty okay with that. That level conversation is super stimulating to me. Misunderstood involves more than disagreement. It’s hearing me say, “I think that shade is more blue than green,” and then responding to me, “Why do you hate green so much?! What do you have against green?”
This is a pretty deep trigger for me. It goes pretty far back. I remember those volatile months of initial separation leading to divorce and the the then-in-law who laughed at me when I relayed my concern about my then-husband’s well being. How deep the knife cut, how cruelly she had characterized me in the process as a sort of uncaring, unfeeling bitch. I recall the suburban high school youth pastor’s look when he read my pro-choice bumper sticker on my car, how he asked, “you don’t really think that… do you?” The way he looked at me as though I was a baby-hating, murderous monster; how he had no care or space to entertain my viewpoint and why the issue was important to me. How I cried on my drive home, judged, unheard, shamed.
You see, my intensity runs deep. It always has. And the root of being misunderstood isn’t that I can’t articulate well or that my message is muddy, but rather the things I say often trigger others. This space where I speak about birth injustice is simply another venue and another time; really, though it’s a repeat of the cycle of my life. Of me putting words out there and others reacting emotionally – taking issue with not only my words, but with my very humanity.
I’ve talked about the importance of varied voices within a movement. For those who are regular readers, this isn’t new. But I’ll say it again.
All voices are important. All voices matter.
Our experiences, our personalities shape our voice. My voice is important too. But, to be clear, the only aggression I feel is toward collective injustice; the only adversary I see is an oppressive institution. Oppressive people within an oppressive system are only symptoms of the greater problem. We could spend all day and the rest of our lives dissecting and slandering bad care providers with nothing to show. My qualm is bigger, and my aim is higher.
Women are, historically, the longest-standing oppressed people group. Throughout time, across cultures and races and religions and locations, women have held the least amount of rights. Telling women to do as they’re told in pregnancy and birth is an example of women’s oppression. The fact that people fail to see birth as an urgent women’s rights or human rights issue is a testament to women’s oppression today.
This movement is not a rich white woman’s problem. Whether a woman is told she will pay, monetarily, for every scream she makes in labor in a non-industrialized country, or a woman is forced to submit to an unwanted and unnecessary surgical birth, women’s rights in childbirth are being violated in all sets of circumstances, in all corners of the globe. This is every woman’s problem.
This is truth. This is reality. And I feel compelled to speak uncompromisingly about it.
In writing this and thinking about posting it I hesitate; wonder, will they say, “See? Look at her, she’s so caught up in herself. Does she really think that anyone really cares about all of her emotional inner-workings? Geez. How vain.” And really, probably some people will say that. Maybe no one cares. Maybe this post is more cathartic than anything; more journal entry than blog article. But as I spend more and more time countering my intentions and motivations, it seems important to put out there.
I want to practice sitting in my triggers, and letting them unwind more slowly. And I want to be mindful to hold space as others act out of their own. I’m not sure what that looks like, exactly. I think sometimes it just means being quiet for a minute. Next time your head starts buzzing and your heart starts racing, I invite you to do the same.