Monday, May 18, 2015

The truth that's hard to say aloud: On inhaling the Kool-Aid

As soon as I walk out of the office, I am hit with a wave of heat and humidity I missed in the too-cold air conditioning of the office complex.  I take off my sweater and enjoy the feeling of the heat on my bare shoulders.  My car has sat in the sun all day, and the outside temperature is registering as 83 degrees.  It's humid, it's hot, and the AC in my car is broken, so I have the windows rolled all the way down.  It's the kind of overcast that has a glare, so I put on my cheap, semi-stylish sunglasses.  It's been a long day and I've got a headache.  I pull out of the parking lot to the first stoplight and lay my head back on the headrest, breathing deeply and letting go of the tension of the day. 

The light is a long one.  As I sit, I feel someone staring at me to my left.  Instinctively, I turn.  Two men in a big white van grin, wink, and mouth "hey, baby" from behind their closed window.  I roll my eyes behind my sunglasses, put my head back against the headrest, and sing along to "Uptown Funk" on the radio.  I feel their eyes continuing to bore into the side of me, and watch them inch forward in my peripheral vision.  Assholes, I think.  My heart rate increases, and I can feel the tension pulsing through my shoulders, but I try to look bored -- like I don't even notice, much less care.

Suddenly, there's a loud, low, noise that sounds like something between a scream and a bark.  I jump, startled, and turn reflexively towards the sound.  Their window is down now, and the man in the driver's seat is leaning over the man in the passenger's seat, laughing at whatever sound it was he just made, and my infinitely satisfying reaction to it.  (My planned ignoring skills are excellent, aside from my incredibly awful startle reflex).  "Hey mama," he calls.  "Whatchudoin'?"  I face forward, lean my head against the headrest one final time, and turn up my music.  I consider rolling up the window, but decide against it.  They continue laughing and catcalling.  "Ow ow!"  "Come on baby, don't be that way." 

The light turns green and as I begin driving, I watch them in my rearview mirror.  They pull into the lane behind me, and for a moment, I panic that they are following me.  You've got a long ass way to go if you're following me, I think.  A few miles down the road, they pull off to the right into an Exxon station.  I breathe a sigh of relief.

I continue down the highway and, as I continued thinking about it, my thoughts went like this:

(1) Assholes.  Stupid effing asshats thinking they can treat me that way.  What the fuck is wrong with people?

(2) They could tell they made you nervous.  Why did you get so nervous?  Why can't you just handle this and let it go and not let it bother you?  Why can't you get a grip on your stupid startle reflex?  Why can't you just be a normal person?

(3) What did they even see that made them do that anyway?  I mean seriously, it's not like you look THAT good today.

Crap.  Dammit all to hell, y'all. 

So the thing is, this happened a week ago.  It's not that I was unduly upset by this incident.  It's not even that I've thought about it all that much.  What I've thought about a bunch is my reaction to it, and the way I have thought about trying to understand my reaction.  I understand life best through my fingers, so I kept thinking that I should write about it.  However, here are two final embarrassing points I need to share:

(1) As I thought about writing this, I stopped myself.  Don't write about this again, I thought.  You write about this shit all the time.  People aren't going to believe you anymore if you keep writing about it.

(2) My next thought was: Besides, people might think you're people are going to think you think you're hot stuff because this type of thing happens to you all the time.

And I repeat: crap.  Dammit all to hell, y'all.  Just dammit all to hell. 

Last year, I wrote here about an incident where I had similar reactions.  I wrote about how we are all swimming in this polluted water and how we can't truly ever see the water in which we swim.  I know this.  I know that sometimes I can see the water -- sometimes I can see the sexism, and the patriarchy, and the rape culture, and all the other isms we learn, seemingly by osmosis.  I also know that sometimes, I can't see the water, because it is all around me, it is in me, it is me, and it takes those "holy crap" moments to be able to step back and see the ways the water has infiltrated my being.    

I'm not going to lie: it's disappointing.  It makes me angry.  It makes me sad.  It makes me think real change is never really going to happen, because if getting catcalled in my car leads me to ponder the ways in which my clothing and level of attractiveness invited it...what chance do we have of other people actually checking their biases and assumptions and thoughts?  I don't know where change starts, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't start with me sitting at a stoplight getting catcalled.  Right?

But maybe it starts now.  Maybe it starts in the discussion afterwards.  Maybe it starts in this embarrassing honesty where I admit that maybe I didn't drink the Kool-Aid, but somehow inhaled the stuff.  Maybe change comes when we have the insight and the humility to admit: I have internalized this shit.  It is part of me.  There are ways in which my thoughts and (potentially) my actions are part of the problem. 

Maybe we say: It's not my fault that I have learned these thoughts, that I have these feelings, that I have soaked this pollution in through my pores.

Maybe we say: It is through honesty, and insight, and humility that I name and publicly renounce the ways I have internalized this stuff that is not mine, that I do not want, that does not fit me and who I want to be.

Maybe change starts when we say: I will speak truth to my experiences, time after time, even if I am alone.

Or maybe it starts when we say: I will speak truth to the bullshit I see, and to the bullshit I have internalized, and I will name it, again and again, until I no longer swallow these lies as truth.

I wrote here about Audre Lorde's quote: "We are taught to respect fear more than ourselves.  We've been taught that our silence will save us, but it won't."

Our silence will not save us.  So why not speak?  Why not speak the real truth -- not the bold, feminist truth we want to believe...and not the things we think we're supposed to believe....and not the truth our parents wanted us to believe...but the honest truth.  The one that's hard to say aloud.  Why not speak that truth?


In the mindfulness group I am running, I find myself returning repeatedly to this point: the practice of mindfulness is simply the practice of bringing ourselves back to the present moment, without judgment. The practice is nothing more than noticing the current state of the mind -- as soon as you notice that your mind has wandered, you are engaging the practice.

More often than not, my patients tell me, "I really struggled with it, I don't think I can do mind just kept wandering."

I ask them, "did you notice that your mind was wandering?"

"Well yes," they say, "but then it would wander again.  I couldn't get it to focus.  I would just keep worrying, or thinking, or daydreaming, and then bring myself back to my breath, and then I would worry again."

"Congratulations!" I tell them.  "You got so much practice in!  Each time you noticed your mind wandered, you were practicing.  Each time you chose to focus on a breath, you were practicing.  That is the practice.  There is no goal, there is no perfect, there is only practice."

"Yeah," they say, "but I didn't relax."

"Mindfulness isn't about relaxation," I remind them.  "It's about making the choice to be fully present with what is here.  You were able to be present with the fact that your mind is busy, that it is wandering - how wonderful for you! Maybe next time you notice your mind wandering," I suggest, "you congratulate yourself.  Thank yourself for noticing.  That practice is hard -- your effort is worthy of your praise, your love, and your attention."


So maybe -- maybe -- maybe this is also a social justice practice.  A compassion practice.  An awareness practice. 

Maybe this way of allowing ourselves to admit our internal demons, or biases, or questions, is the way we move ourselves towards justice.  Maybe this is the practice: this truth-telling, this examination of what is here -- truly here -- inside us.

Maybe we practice by allowing ourselves to say: "I am a feminist woman, and I downplayed the legitimacy of the catcalling based on my perception of my attractiveness."

Or maybe we acknowledge: "I am a woman who has been sexually assaulted, and I discount my discomfort and my reactions because of it."

Or maybe we ask ourselves the question: "As a white woman, how did the fact that those two men in the van were Latino influence my reaction?  What would have been different if they were white?  What if they were black?"

Perhaps we let ourselves make lists, like the ones I made at the beginning, just to bring awareness to the ways the polluted water is living in our bloodstream. 

And once that list is made, maybe we congratulate ourselves.  We thank ourselves for noticing our biases, and our weaknesses, and our sore spots, and our strengths.  We acknowledge the hard work we are doing in moving ourselves towards awareness and compassion, for that practice is surely worthy of our praise, and our love, and our attention.  


  1. It's not about how good we look. lt's not admiration, it's predatory, a desire to penetrate our world and have an effect on us. So don't worry about seeming to brag. I think maybe half the battle is understanding that - that people like the ones in the car are knowingly trespassing personal boundaries and comfort zones to prove their own power to themselves. That once they decide to do that, we are an intended victim, and no reaction on our part need be subject to judgment or sanction. If we succeed in ignoring, if we're startled, if we're mildly annoyed, or if we're traumatized, all of that is on the aggressor, and none of that is on the target. Our reaction to aggression is never something to be ashamed of. It is the aggressor who deserves the shame. However, I bet only 1 in 1,000 of us would react by examining the social justice of the situation. Admirable.

    1. Thank you. You're right, of course, AND I appreciate you saying it and reminding me of this "our reaction to aggression is never something to be ashamed of." Yes.