Tales of a wandering lesbian

So high school

This is a little theory I’ve been testing out.  It’s part 2 of the Emotional Non-Violence series.  Let me know what you think.  Also, I’m not a psychologist, but still…

Psychologists say that when a person suffers trauma, a part of them freezes at that point, trapping the person in that moment and forcing them to relive the trauma over and over until it’s dealt with.  It’s a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Really.  If someone is emotionally or physically abused as a child, part of them stays a child until the abuse is dealt with.  (I know I’m simplifying, but bear with me.)  For me, and I think for a lot of people, some of the worst emotional abuse I’ve suffered came during junior high and high school.  It’s almost laughable – except that it’s not.

Think about how many times in our grown-up lives something happens with friends, or with co-workers that makes us think of high school.  How often do we use those exact words: “this is so high school”?  There’s a reason.

Once I realized that we’re all having some giant, collective form of PTSD, it started explaining a lot of the bizarre interactions I kept having.  Ones that didn’t seem to work for me anymore.

For a long time, I related to women (and probably men too) the same way I related to them in junior high.  I was the outsider – the uncool one who didn’t fit in.  Only, as an adult, nobody knew it.  And I didn’t want them to.

In my grown-up life, I was the lawyer, the athlete, the woman who was going to run for president.  The one who was in a ton of leadership positions.  I was.  Only the fear I had of being found out or left out dominated my interactions with coworkers.   So I’d sell people out.  If I saw someone getting thrown under the bus, that was fine.  I might even help, because at least it wasn’t me.  But it didn’t feel good.  And I didn’t really understand why I was doing it, which was frustrating.  It’s not like I wanted to be a jerk.

I finally realized what was going on when I found myself projecting onto a coworker who felt left out of lunch invitations and happy-hour get-togethers.  I stood up for her; wanted her to feel included.  Even when I didn’t want to invite her, I didn’t want to be the one not inviting her.

Because I was her.

Yes, if people were talking about each other at work, I’d join in.  I was afraid to be left out of that social experience.  But when it came to the actual invitation to be included, the exact type of emotional trauma I suffered in high school, I was put powerfully back into my 16 year-old self, afraid of not being included, and at the same time not wanting anyone else to feel left out.

And I started to understand.

It happened with my friends, as well.  Every time I was left off of an invitation it was like walking past the photo station at my Junior Prom and finding every one of my friends taking a group shot without me.  All of them smiling at the photographer that I’d hired, as I shuttled the punch and the cake and counted the cash, trying to forget that there was an unclaimed ticket waiting for my date at the front door.  I was Junior Class President.  Not so different from being chair of a city commission or a political committee, really.

The more I saw this happening with me, the more I understood that we’re all stuck there in a form of collective PTSD, reliving our high-school wounds.  Torturing each other the way we did in high school.  Or torturing each other the way we were tortured.  Talking about the neighbors, or selling out co-workers.  Doing whatever it takes to be included, to feel part-of.  Even at the expense of others.  We’re stuck – until we realize what it is we’re doing, and why it is we’re doing it.

And then we get to choose.

Because there’s something that happens when we see each other as “cool” or “uncool,” as “part of” or “left out”.  We buy into a dynamic, a power-structure that has been set up long before we get there.  One we’ve been a part of for a very long time.  One that’s an accepted part of our daily lives.  And one that’s violent.

That’s where we’ll pick up tomorrow.

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March 15, 2010   1 Comment

Emotional non-violence

I’ve been tossing a theory around for a while about emotional violence, the sources of it, and what it does to our interactions with each other as individuals and as members of groups.  Here’s how it goes:

We commit emotional violence on each other all the time.

We do it because we’re suffering from mass Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Which causes us to use power-structures to marginalize each other.

The next few posts will be about these topics.  Let me know what you think.

A few years ago, Willamette University invited me to speak at a MLK day luncheon.  They showed a segment of the “Eyes on the Prize” series that discussed the Selma to Montgomery marches, and then a few of us spoke about the state of civil rights for certain communities.  I was there to speak about GLBT rights.  As I put together my thoughts for the talk, I found myself contemplating the violence faced by previous generations of those fighting for civil rights, the non-violence movement, and how fortunate I was to be an activist in a different time.  That night, after a keynote address by one of Dr. King’s associates who had been on the march from Selma to Montgomery, I sat in a room with him and others.  We talked about what it was like to march.  What it was like to see people beaten down.  To see them killed.  And we talked about the work that was left to do.

As I sat in the little room, surrounded by activists, and idealists, I felt a great urgency to understand.  I needed to know everything I could about what we’d done to each other in the past so that we wouldn’t repeat it again.  I started thinking about what it would be like to be turned back by fire hoses and billy clubs.  And I realized that it is very unlikely that my generation will face these things the way my parent’s generation did (at least in the US).  I know there are occasional riots.  I know that protesters are still beaten back.  But as I sat in the little room it dawned on me that we will face something different, something we might never see.

When this hit me, I was terribly frightened for a moment and asked the question: “Is it going to take an act of great violence to move us to the next level?  Is that what it will take?  Does someone have to die before we realize that there is violence taking place?”  Because when there is violence at the level that was common in the south in the 60s, there is no denying it.  A non-violent movement makes sense in the context of violence.  You can make a choice, treat each other with violence, or not.

But when the violence is different, when it’s quiet and invisible, it’s hard to see why we would need non-violence.  The choice seems un-necessary.  Who needs to commit themselves to a life of non-violence when there is no violence?

But what if there is violence, only it looks different?  What happens when the violence isn’t visible the way we expect it to be?

Because that’s what I think we are facing right now.  Rampant emotional violence.  No, we’re not beating each other in the street because our skin color is different.  We’re beating each other every day at work.  Every day on television, every day in our cars, and when we call someone up to talk about the neighbors.

We commit violence on each other over and over as we buy into the power-structures that were set in place for us.  We commit violence on each other when we use labels, and make someone an “other”.  We take away bits of each other so that we can feel okay about the violence.  We make each other less human.  We call someone an idiot because they have different political views than we do.  They’re a freak, or a zealot, instead of someone with a different perspective, a different background.  So it’s okay if we don’t want to understand them.  Because they’re less than human.  Because they’re “other”.

We call someone an asshole because he cut us off in traffic.  And we commit violence on ourselves when we do this too.  Because next time we cut someone off in traffic, we’re suddenly an asshole, instead of someone who was tired, or didn’t see the other car, or just misjudged the speed.  Every time we make a mistake, we become that other person who we judged.  In that way, every time we take away a piece of someone else’s humanity, we make ourselves less human, too.

And that’s violence.

As I sat in the little room I thought about what it would mean to commit myself to a life of non-violence.  I won’t have to give up bar fights.  I won’t likely have to go to jail for it, or to march to the sea.   But in every interaction with another human being, I have to ask myself if I’m seeing them as “other” than me, or somehow less than human.  Every time someone starts talking about the neighbors, I have to decide whether to join in, or sit out and risk being talked about.

And that’s hard.  You know why?  High school.  Yup.  High school.  More on that tomorrow.

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March 14, 2010   4 Comments