Silence is Golden

There’s a great deal of injustice in the world, and our nation’s helm is firmly in the grip of those who would see it flourish.  Many of us on the left are angry and afraid, and our voices reflect those feelings in textbook fashion: blaming, scapegoating, self-justifying, distancing. We are lashing out at each other, at those we have selected to call our Enemies, and at the implacable historical and political truths that shaped this moment.  We are encouraged by the media, by the echo chambers of our communities and by our own convictions to Speak Out against the oppressors and on behalf of the oppressed.  But let’s hang on just a minute and ask ourselves what we’re doing with our voices, and whether it’s what is needed.

Preparatory side note.  Being white, rich and straight in this country means feeling entitled to be heard, listened to and understood.  Our experiences are considered the norm against which others are to be measured, and our approaches to solving problems and allocating resources are held to be the be-all and end-all of making things happen. If this election proves anything at all to white liberals, it’s that we ain’t all that.  And part of the problem is that we talk too much.

As I try to figure out how to be of some use in this new environment, where oppression is blatantly championed in the halls of power and the tools of resistance—freedom of assembly, a free press, the rule of law—are publicly threatened, I am forced to conclude that increased shutting up is in order.  Here’s some times to try it out:

When I don’t know what I’m talking about.  I’ve never been black, or an immigrant, or crushingly poor, or queer, or trans, or Muslim. I have zero experience of being anything except white, straight, rich, educated, native-born and cis female.  One outstanding time for me to shut up is when I feel the urge to judge someone else’s account of their own experience, especially if their identity exposes them to risks from which mine protects me.  My urge to judge doesn’t mean the speaker is wrong; it just means the narrative is making me uncomfortable and I want it to stop.  Shutting up not only saves me from invalidating and/or silencing the narrative of another, but it gives me time to recognize that the discomfort is tolerable and even desirable as a tool to crack open my understanding.  Shutting up also gives me time to remember that other people’s experience of their own lives is not a thing that can reasonably be judged from the outside, no matter how great the temptation may be.

When I’m lagging in self-care.  Our comrades in recovery use the helpful acronym HALT to help them assess how they’re doing when times are tough.  Before speaking out, especially when the urge is aggressively strong, I benefit from asking myself, “Am I Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired?” If the answer to any of these is yes, it’s time to shut up until I’ve fixed it.

Hungry is easy, right? Just grab a Snickers and have at it! I’ve learned the hard way, though, to keep a watchful eye on the junk food and caffeine when emotions are running high—the crash afterwards can land me right back where I started, or worse.  So let your inner mom guide you when it comes to snacks, and make sure they involve some actual food.  Water, too—side effects of dehydration include irritability, fatigue and headaches, which are good reasons for shutting up all by themselves. 

Anger can be a useful tool in the struggle against injustice, but it is also capricious and exhausting, more effective as a short-term lever or catapult than a long-term fuel source.  Anger can launch us into action when we are mired in ruminating or overthinking, by making injustice feel personal and immediate.  It is dangerous, however, to let anger govern whether or not we speak, or what we choose to say.  When anger is blurring our ability to distinguish between what we feel like and what we truly want, shutting up is indicated.  Anger compromises my ability to listen—to my own voice or to anyone else’s—and my ability to think strategically.  Anger, like judgment, is often a response to the internal discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance. I can recognize anger as a sign to shut up until the dissonance is acknowledged and addressed (note that resolution is not a requirement—accepting dissonance, paradox, contradiction and lack of closure are part of this work.)  Anger, being an emotion, is ephemeral unless tightly gripped and painstakingly refreshed.  If my response to destabilizing anger is a commitment to shutting up until it passes, I am doing myself, my potential audience and Justice a favor.  While shutting up, I can spend 15 minutes doing something I find nourishing and serene—read a book, step out for a walk, take a shower, meditate, change my socks, listen to music, knit a few rows or write a poem.

Loneliness is a formidable enemy of shutting up because of its tendency to push us towards connection with others, often at the expense of all parties’ legitimate boundaries. In addition, shutting up makes it easier to feel even lonelier, feeding feelings of isolation, rejection, impotence and inadequacy.  If I’m speaking out of loneliness, I’m at risk for seeking consolation and compassion from those to whom I fancy myself an ally, adding to rather than lightening their burdens.  Loneliness makes me more susceptible to emotional slights, intentional or accidental, and less able to take ownership of my responses.  Resolving loneliness is difficult and not always successful.  When I’m lonely and need to restore connection, I reach out to my closest peeps and let the magic happen.  Shutting up leaves space for that.

Tiredness is the new norm, in these tumultuous days when every hour brings a new catastrophe, a new threat, a new abomination of justice. Our emotions didn’t evolve for this level of anxiety and fear in an environment with no physical threat.  Most of us aren’t in any more real, meaningful danger than we were a month ago (remember, I’m talking to my tribe here, whose risk of bodily, material or institutional harm is pretty minimal), and yet we are struggling with real horror and deep concern for our families, our communities, our country, our fellow-citizens.  I’d bet a paycheck that everyone who reads this has had trouble sleeping the last couple of weeks.  So tiredness is pretty much a given component of all the conversations we’re having, on all sides.  I find that my fuse gets increasingly short as I get more exhausted, and my ability to tolerate discomfort wanes dramatically.  This is a perfect situation for shutting up.  One silver lining about this atrocious mess we’ve gotten ourselves into is that it will still be here after a nap, after a nice dinner with the fam, after a good night’s sleep.  The urgency we feel over an argument is a message from our hindbrain to fight or flee, totally irrelevant to the task at hand.  We need to be willing to walk away when there’s no more gas in the tank. We need to trust each other and ourselves to keep fighting without every hand being on deck 24/7.  It’s okay to stop talking when our bodies tell us it’s time to quit. 

When I’m making it about me. Activism is scary.  No one in my tribe really knows how to do it right, especially those of us who haven’t done much of it yet.  We are constantly corrected and re-directed by young whippersnappers who insist on a degree of self-awareness and truthtelling that is not only impressive but intimidating.  This is hard to deal with, especially for those of us who have acquitted ourselves well enough in the world to meet its standards for “success.” Apparently we’re not that successful after all—the world is falling apart around us, our youth are looking at a future far bleaker than the one we faced decades ago, and our feeble cries of “Equality Now!” have only served to fuel a near-revolution on the part of half our compatriots.  We want to speak.  We feel angry on behalf of those around us who are in pain, we feel guilty for what we left undone, we are ashamed to be linked with those who are taking power and we are terrified that this whole awful mess is unfixable.  When I speak from this place of raw emotion and visceral imbalance, my thinking suffers and my words can be far more harmful than I intend, both to people and to the conversation. Instead of working together, we bristle and bicker about the RIGHT way to do things, and the work goes undone.  Instead of being truthful about our guilt, our fear, our confusion and our genuine struggle to tear down a lifetime of assumptions, we bluff and posture and compete against each other to feel good enough, enlightened enough, woke enough. These reactions are natural, but they are an obstacle to the work. Shutting up allows me to commit to the healthy care and feeding of my own ego BEFORE I next enter the conversation, and relieves my peers of the burden of being my emotional parents.  This work is hard, and much of it can’t be done in public.  I need to recognize when to shut up and step away and take care of my own emotional business, if I am going to be a reliable support for anyone else.

When I’m being part of the problem.  My tribe and I have been taught from birth that our voices have extra value because of who we are.  This is a myth. Our voices have no deeper truths to tell than any others, nor are our stories better stories.  Part of how people like us got the upper hand in our society is our persistent refusal to allow other voices to speak and celebrate their own truths and their own stories.  Part of how we hamstring our own movement for social justice is by continuing that refusal. Two skills we abundantly lack as newborn activists are: seeking out more authentic voices than our own, and encouraging them to speak.  Shutting up is a powerful tool to help us hone those skills, and to model them for others. When we step out of a conversation, acknowledging that our opinions are not what’s called for, and go in search of a voice speaking to the subject from lived experience, we open ourselves and the conversation to new possibilities of mutual curiosity, exploration and commonality.  When I find myself speaking on behalf of people or communities with whom I have no shared experience, that’s a good time for me to start thinking about shutting up in favor of them speaking for themselves, or at least being clear that I am speaking speculatively and without anchoring evidence.

If I’m not speaking up, doesn’t that mean I’m just making things worse?  No.  If I’m not paying attention, that makes things worse, or if I’m distancing myself from injustice or spouting insensitive, distracting, meaningless twaddle.  But silence is just the absence of sound; there are plenty of useful things for me to do while my lip is zipped.  I can wear a Black Lives Matter shirt to the grocery store in my white neighborhood, hang a rainbow flag from my porch, donate my beer money to the ACLU, educate myself about current political and cultural issues affecting communities I don’t belong to, write to my congressman, go to a community organizing meeting, pour my heart out in a blog, give my kids books by queer and black and brown and female and Muslim authors.  It all counts. This movement is going to go on whether we white liberals participate in it or not, and it’s going to triumph.  It will happen faster if we help, and one of the best ways we can help is by rolling up our sleeves, taking a deep breath, and asking “Where do you need me to be?”

P.S. There is no question in my mind that the agenda of the new administration is deeply rooted in misogyny, and that there is deep reluctance on the part of the media and many activists to address this aspect of the current political transition or our society at large.  While I do not explicitly call out sexism in this piece, I encourage the reader to bear in mind that the shutting-up opportunities identified above are at their most powerful and most effective when wielded by rich, straight, white, cis, men.

©Mary Braden 2016

This Is Gonna Hurt

This long, calm, cogent account contains much that triggers furious resentment, but also insight about what we’re fighting when we struggle for equality and justice, and what we must do to prevail.  It’s not just what’s out there–like this piece and the worldview it represents–that needs attention;  we need to take a good hard look at what *in ourselves* is still infected and unhealed.

Part of my horrified anger at this piece is at the part of myself that was tempted to buy what it’s selling.

Content warning: defense of white supremacy disguised as benevolent peacemaking.

You Are Still Crying Wolf

©Mary Braden 2016

Wrecking Ball

A week ago I woke up with the brand-new sensation of living in a country that regards me as a second-class citizen.  That sounds dignified, right? It wasn’t—it felt brutal and physical, like a wrecking ball to the gut.  I cried in big ugly sobs, right there in my bed in the dark, curled up in a fetal ball, half-choking on my own snot, not able to feel anything except pain. In my nearly half-century of life, not all of it happy, I can’t recall a single more excruciating moment. 

Buried deep in the social contracts between individuals is the knowledge that disappointment can be healed in separation.  There is no separation, no safety, when the betrayal comes from the whole world.  Nearly half of my fellow citizens stayed out of the vote on Election Day.  Nearly half the remainder cast their ballots for a man and an agenda that sees women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and Muslims as appropriate targets for active mistreatment.  I’m a white woman. By now we all know that a healthy majority of voters who look like me chose a President whose definition of masculinity is an insult and a threat to all women.

It feels like someone died, except the someone is my fundamental understanding of humanity and the institutions it builds to protect itself. How am I supposed to even grieve for that? How can I step aside from the old path when there is nothing but quicksand on either side? I can see and accept, painfully, that I was wrong to believe as I did, that my worldview was a construct rife with errors and failures of understanding.  The anguish of my popped bubble is that it plunges me, raw and naked, into a cesspool of incoherence, prejudice, anger, ignorance, solipsism, hate and confusion. How am I supposed to rebuild some sort of internally cogent response to the world in this nightmarish ooze? The voices of reason, justice and peace have been relegated to an echo chamber at the periphery of the national conversation.  The voices of authoritarianism and oppression have been elevated to the center,  on a wave of so-called rhetoric I can barely force myself to hear.  This brave new world is one in which there seems to be no place for my fundamental values; reasoned judgment, the good of the whole, even the desire to be seen as a decent human being. Deprived of my confidence that these are values shared by my fellow humans, I feel staggeringly, spectacularly unable to pick up the reins of my own destiny and figure out what to do next.

My sense of incompetence is fueled by the lack of real information upon which to evaluate and weigh decisions, compared to the overwhelming quantity of sheer bullshit out there to be seen and heard and read. My usual ability to skim right over skewed logic and blatant propaganda is hampered by a new internal voice whispering “You were so wrong when you trusted your instincts before, how can you justify trusting them now?”  The truth must lie somewhere along the continuum between malignantly calm suggestions that we accept this as the new normal and hysterical trumpetings (sorry) of imminent bloody catastrophe. But where? My internal signals are no longer a reliable guide, and the penalties for misinterpretation feel dangerously high. 

I am taking some comfort in action, in setting myself goals and making sure they get met.  Write to my elected officials. Check.  Call the Mayor’s office.  Check.  Make dinner. Check. Grocery store. Check. Go for a run. Check. I have instituted monthly donations to two national organizations and three local ones dedicated to the struggle for justice.  I have promised myself to physically go every week to one event dedicated to the pursuit of justice. These things help, they do, but they don’t stop the swing of that wrecking ball.  It thuds relentlessly against my psyche all day long, fading only as I drift into sleep, and every morning it is the first conscious experience I have.  When I think about how a single week of this pain has left me wracked with fear and stripped of agency, and then about how it must feel to be a person who has carried it every day for a lifetime—because of their skin color, their sexuality, their religion—I feel my gorge rise.  When I realize that I’ve been carrying it too, and was too blinkered even to realize it for most of my life, it’s overwhelming. I feel so terribly, deeply angry, on my own behalf, on behalf of all of us who have been daily punished for not being white and male and straight and Christian.  I feel angry on behalf of all those white straight males (some Christian, even) whom I love and who love me, and who so unthinkingly follow the path laid out for them that deprives them of their own joy and security too. I feel angry on behalf of my daughter and my son, who deserve to grow into their adulthood as participants in a society where freedom and equality are real for everyone.

My misery and internal flailing are shared by millions, which means that in homes and families and communities across the country there are millions of us trying to stay upright in the face of this incomprehensibly alienating, destabilizing loss.  We reach out to each other with trembling hands, trying to connect across new divides that seem to have appeared out of nowhere.  Couples are looking at each other with new eyes. Children see fear mirrored in the eyes of their parents. Families are dividing and communities are roiled with suspicion and speculation.  Swastikas are appearing on churches and schools.  Those who opposed the new regime are taking out their bitter disappointment on each other, while those who support it are crowing in triumph.  Pleas for unity are on the lips of those who have the most to gain, while those whose lives are most at risk refuse to be silenced.  The ugliest, most purulent wounds of the nation are on display, with no bandages, no antiseptic in sight.

Even in these first fraught days, there are signs of hope. People are coming together to work for justice.  Families and friends are comforting and supporting each other as they come to grips with this new reality.  Some elected officials are responding to the outcry of their constituents and challenging the ascendancy of the new order.  Some cities are proclaiming that they will protect their citizens against the depredations that threaten them.  Some voices are calling for fierce, sustained determination in an ongoing battle against the poisoning of the Republic, and some people are hearing that call.  I am one of them, although I have no idea how my strength may falter.  There’s nothing noble about it; the only way to make this pain bearable is to pit myself against it as if my life depended on it.  The wrecking ball must be stopped.

©Mary Braden 2016

Thoughts on Being an Ally

By Andie Praus

So here are two of my favorite articles. But nether of them talks about the most important quality of an ally: empathy. If you cannot empathize, you cannot consider yourself an ally. Unless you are a straight, cis, white, christian dude, then you are a part of a marginalized population – woman, PoC, disabled, alternative religion, queer, on and on. That means that we are all in a position to both need an ally and be an ally. This makes it relatively easy to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes. We have to be able to do that. As an ally, it is paramount that you are able to not only demonstrate empathy, but lead others to the same thing without minimizing them. This requires empathy for both the marginalized populations and for other allies.

The other important thing that is not mentioned directly in these articles is that to be an ally, you MUST engage in RL with the community. I think about when I was working with the Deaf. Learning the language in the classroom, even when taught by a Deaf person was educational, but I didn’t truly understand anything about how the culture and the language bonded the community until I started interacting with the community and finding a place there. Engaging with community gives a very specific perspective on what that community needs, better than all the articles in the world and much better than any online format. This is especially true for the LGBTQ community, who are frequently not themselves as much as they are when they are in safe spaces with each other. That said, sometimes it’s not possible to do that. There is only so much time and opportunity. So it’s important to respect all levels of advocacy. I may not be able to do anything but share knowledge online for one population, but may be heavily engaged in a different one.

Finally, as an ally and in regards to fellow allies- lead, don’t lecture. Strive to be heard, not right. When allies lecture each other, it alienates them from the populations that need them the most. When I hear an ally telling someone that they can never understand the experience of an LGBTQ person because they are straight, I cringe. See empathy above. You can never speak to my lived experience, but you sure as hell can understand and empathize with it. And telling anyone who is trying to be an ally that they are doing it wrong is just harmful and discouraging. Look for the genuine strengths and elevate those, while leading towards improvement. As an LGBTQ person, I am always better supported by someone who has support within their circle of allies. I suspect that is true for all marginalized populations. We all want to be supported by someone who sees themselves as affirming of our identities while at the same time being affirming of their own. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Running on a Bright Cold Morning

The air is cold on skin just out of bed.

The flesh shrinks and puckers under its fabric armor, insufficient,

Recoiling from the Other.

The sunlight gleams so fiercely it could be sparks,

Ricocheting off leaves and windows too sharply to be blunted by tinted lenses,

Giving edges and shadows to the colors and shapes of things.

The cold, invisible wind of it, all that’s left of that distant exploding furnace in the void.

Old legs move less easily than when they were new.

Familiar aches speak of untended injuries, healed strong but off-kilter.

Adjust to ease them, and new aches appear, blossoms of imbalance.

The deep-rooted habits of motion accommodate grudgingly, if at all.

Crystalline air pours into the dark, warm places that feed the heart.

Great gulps of world surging into the soft, closed places that hang and pull on these bobbing rocks of bone,

The soft, closed places where pain is born, flares, and dies

Are fed with the breath of trees, of children, of tiny things whose running is too small to see

The trees don’t lie.

Tall, grey and clear they rise from their scattering mantle of deceitful gold

Forgetting summer in their naked sleep.

They were never fooled by the promises that clothed them and concealed their fruit.

Under their now-punctuated shade the light looks warm but isn’t, the bones of the earth are easy to see.

Breath, unthinking, flows.

Over and over the dark gathers up and spills out its uselessness

To refill itself with not-itself.

Footbeats, heartbeats pull it in and pour it out,

Is it deepening my darkness,

Or am I turning into light?

©Mary Braden 2016

Three Days In

Three days ago, the Republic choked, coughed apoplectically and brought forth an election unlike any yet.  Barely half the electorate turned out, and of those the smaller cohort got their way, bringing their candidate in via the Electoral College while his opponent won the popular vote.

I watched the election returns until Pennsylvania was declared for Trump, and woke to find that half of voting America had chosen a candidate who feels justified in grabbing a woman’s crotch and laughing about it with his buddies afterwards.  I woke feeling like a second-class citizen for the first time in 48 years; afraid to get out of bed, let alone leave the house, feeling suddenly that my boobs and hips made me a target to hostile strangers.  This is what Tuesday’s election has done to me—a white, middle-aged, professional woman—in the midst of my privileged, secure life. I can’t begin to imagine how it feels to be a black or brown person today, or a queer person, or a Muslim or a Jew, or a disabled person.  All of us know that millions of our fellow-citizens hate us and are ready to dismantle our rights.  The future President of the United States painted a clear, unequivocal picture of an America in which straight, white men would be guaranteed unlimited power over everyone else; just under half of American voters chose to make it reality.

This is not the America I want to live in or to see my children build their lives in.  I was wrong to assume my fellow-citizens share my commitment to a nation where everyone’s rights are equally protected.  I was wrong to underestimate the anger of those who feel nothing from their government but abandonment and contempt. I was wrong to believe only the prognostications of those who share my worldview. Now my eyes are opened. 

There are feelings to experience—grief, horror, betrayal, fear, discouragement, anger.  Feel them. There are wonderful things being written right now about how to keep this blow from felling the Republic.  Read them.  There are people who need comfort and support and affirmation because their lives and families and communities have been singled out for attack.  Be with them.  And when our hearts and minds and spirits have come through the first clouds of shock, let us lift up our hands and start to change the world.

Myself, I’m not much of a world-changer.  Middle-class, white, straight and female, born in the body that matches my gender, I like my gentle, protected cocoon of a life.  On Tuesday, though, I watched as our nation selected as its next President a man who embodies everything I hate and fear, and my cocoon was shattered. 

It should never have happened, but it did. The armchair analysis will go on for decades, but it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that millions of us completely failed to understand what was going on, and here we are.

So what next? What do we do now that the die is cast? Here’s my answer.

Today I commit to send a daily hand-written letter to one of my elected officials, voicing my opinion and requesting specific action.  Today’s letter was to the newly-elected Senator from Maryland, currently serving in the House.  I asked him to pay attention to preserving Obamacare in particular the rules that prevent insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and setting a dollar cap on costs.  I also asked him to bear in mind the need for a universal, single-payer healthcare system and to work towards bringing that to this country.  Tomorrow I will write to my Congressman, to request that he re-introduce H.R. 1232, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act.

Today I commit to providing monthly financial support to organizations fighting for the rights of marginalized groups in the U.S.  So far I have made pledges to the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center and arranged a payroll deduction contribution to Baltimore Racial Justice Action that will be matched by my employer.  I have no control over how this money will be spent; it is my offering to the struggle that is led most effectively by those who know it most intimately, and also much-needed practice in shutting up about things I know nothing about. 

Today I commit to the creation and development of this blog, with the explicit goal of making it a podium from which voices unlike my own can speak their truth, as well as a chronicle of my own stumbling, awkward progress as a politically active human.  I commit to telling the truth about my own ineptitude, false steps and embarrassment in my journey, in solidarity with others who walk beside me in theirs.  I commit to opening this space to those who need to be heard—please contact me via the link above to suggest content or be/refer a guest blogger.

Today I commit to giving my time to the work of being an ally.  I commit to reading everything I can get my hands on about the history and experience of oppression by women, people of color, and queer people.  I commit to educating myself to the best of my ability, without denying my participation in the systemic prejudice that defines our entire culture. I commit to putting my body out into the world instead of sitting cozily in my privileged cocoon, ignoring the pain of others.  I will go to rallies. I will attend organizing meetings, I will hear poets and musicians and writers. Against every fiber of my introverted being, I will put myself where I am likely to be challenged, discomfited, forced to examine myself and my assumptions. 

I have no idea whether any of this will accomplish anything, but there’s only one way to find out.  What I do know is that inaction and apathy are in large part responsible for what we have landed ourselves in.  Warts and all, imperfect and discombobulated as I am, it’s time to step into the fight.  Join me!

©Mary Braden 2016


Yesterday I wrote:  “We have to find a way to remember that we are all part of the same broken, flailing, frightened tribe and root that compassion unshakably deep.”  That sentence came from the same place as everything I write, that half-mysterious, half-familiar, unmonitored place where thoughts and ideas and emotions toss about until they take shape as words.  Re-reading it, though, I’m struck both by its seeming power and its apparently total impossibility.  How am I supposed to remember that I am the same as someone every fiber of my being perceives as Other?

This is, of course, the question underlying every attempt to heal the fractures that divide our society.  We seem simultaneously doomed to experiencing social interaction in terms of hierarchical Us/Them thinking and to fueling that thinking with visceral patterns of protectiveness and fear on one hand and uncritical attachment on the other.  We recognize this in ourselves, and blame it—correctly, I think—for the millennia of aggression that characterize human history.  Our DNA remembers a time when limitations on food and shelter required us to seize what we could for ourselves and our tribe, whether it consisted of relatives, fellow-villagers or countrymen, and deny it to those too weak to wrest it from us.  From that cellular-level knowledge of scarcity grew the hunger for power itself, the ability not only to secure but to protect abundance for ourselves and our kinfolk, erasing the experience of scarcity and banishing the fear of its recurrence. The knowledge of scarcity in our deepest animal brains is as universal and as primevally potent as its child, the fear of death.

We know, though, that this particular fear never disappears completely.  Power begets greed, the unquenchable appetite to stockpile more than we can ever use in a futile effort to silence the nagging inner voice that warns that our needs may go unmet.  As greed and power spread their wings over a society, injustice blooms in their shadow as the least-aggressive are forced to sacrifice to the appetites of the most-aggressive.  Recent research tells us that we recognize and respond negatively to unfairness before we are able to speak. Injustice is painful to us at the core of our humanity, before we can wield the tools of language and rational thought to protect ourselves.  How interesting that these are precisely the tools that we use to create and sustain the injustices from which we benefit!

We all prefer to see ourselves as the victims of injustice, rather than the perpetrators.  Who can blame us? To see ourselves as power-hungry and greedy means not only to accept that we exploit people weaker than ourselves but also to accept that we are incapable of accepting the fundamental truth that death—the ultimate triumph of unmet needs—awaits us all regardless of the size of our share of the spoils. Those of us who live atop the pyramid of privilege created by thousands of years of progressive concentration of power and wealth are so entrenched in the rationalizations we’ve created in order to feel virtuous that we can’t imagine another way.  Those of us who have been systematically crushed by the weight of that same pyramid know nothing except the daily experience of oppression at the hands of each of their society’s pillar institutions.  We all live in the same world, where extensive data is readily available describing the dimensions and structure of the pyramid—yet we permit the minority who occupy its pinnacle to deny its existence and the remainder of us to be silenced at every attempt to acknowledge, let alone dismantle it.

What does this have to do with compassion?  Before we were organized enough to live in groups of a size to trigger scarcity politics, we knew compassion and collective affection strong enough to allow families to form and grow. We learned how to limit and direct the aggression of the strong to protect the fragility of the weak so that children could grow to adulthood and elders could stretch their time on earth as long as their families could protect them.  Compassion is the crux of these bonds, and may be the oldest, most intrinsic instinct we have.  Infants respond to it and practice it naturally, in blunt contrast to the repulsion they exhibit in the face of injustice.  We feel it as adults, when we bear our own children, when we care for our aging parents, when we fall in love, when we connect with our closest friends.  Compassion is the glue that makes an Us out of a passel of Me’s.

When we remember that those our guts perceive as enemies experience that same compassionate bond with their cohort that we do with ours, that they love their children and their parents with the same fierce, near-blind loyalty that we lavish on ours, we will have made a first step.  When we acknowledge that our lenses of self-awareness are clouded by the same mitochondrial fear of going without, that we are all trapped in a world dominated by thousands of years of systematic crushing of the weak by the strong and are reacting to it from the same core of frustrated desire to feel safe and free from fear, we will be another step closer to mutual understanding.  When those of us whose white skin, biological and gender makeup and skill with the unspoken codes of dominance accustom us to leading and speaking see enough of ourselves in those who lack those qualifications to step aside and embrace the roles of listening and supporting, we will be changing the world.

Much of the scarcity in our world is artificial now, the result of consolidating abundance in the hands of those who are best at getting it, but who need it least.  The risk of going without any material advantage in a human lifetime is effectively zero for those folks.  For those who lack abundance, however, the truths of scarcity are desperately, inexorably real.  The chasm between these two groups is perhaps the most painfully difficult to approach, and yet the most essential if we are to move beyond the hostilities that characterize our politics right now.  Unless we acknowledge that we are all the same, that our core fears and hopes are identical with those of every person that walks the earth, we have no way to cut through the knots that restrain us in postures of hatred and poisonous blame. 

Those of us that move freely in the dominant culture are participants in that culture and own the responsibility of the harm it does.  That doesn’t make us evil or vicious, but it does make us accountable for our role in making things better for those who need it most.  Those who live in the shadow of our dominance and who pay the price for our abundance are not our enemies, and are not evil in recognizing the injustice in which we all are players.  Their anger at injustice is the same anger that we would feel in their position, and the errors they commit in the heat of that anger are no different than the ones we would commit in their place. Their desire to inconvenience and destabilize the culture that enslaves them is identical to the one we would feel and act upon if our children’s futures were blighted by the alternative.  Do we have to like it?  No.  But we must acknowledge that our discomfort is the natural result of life on the backs of people who don’t appreciate being exploited, and that the only authentic way to resolve that discomfort is to create a new model in which this fundamental injustice is removed. 

Compassion for those who offend us starts from an appreciation of what is best about ourselves—our love for those we love—and an extension of that quality to those whose words and actions most appear to belie it.  As we come to appreciate them in this regard as our equals, it becomes possible to find ways in which our differences reflect the natural consequences of our varied histories, especially the chronic traumas like poverty and oppression which are known to encourage actions and opinions far more absolutist, volatile and high-stakes than the calmer rhetoric of the comfortable.  We are able to fend off our instant defensiveness long enough to recognize that we need to understand better, and to begin asking questions.  With practice, we will be able to hear the answers.  We will be able to put ourselves in the shoes of people whose lives we once were unable to imagine, and to seek their guidance about what changes we can make so that our culture serves them as well as it serves us.  As we do this, as we feel our way towards a mutual recognition that we are all dancers in the same dance, we will feel the sense of scarcity deep within us shift, as it does when we look at our families.  As we look at our abundance we will see places where it can be shared or sacrificed so that members of our now-larger family can be nourished as well.  These opportunities are the bedrock of meaningful change, and the sooner we can open ourselves to that degree, the sooner that work can truly begin.

©Mary Braden 2016

Got Anger?

Everyone is angry right now.  Rage saturates our media, from raving misogynists on Twitter to hate-spewing anti-Semites on the Livestream feed of the GOP convention to the red-faced contortions of the Republican nominee and his allies.  Rage burns in our blood, in the grim faces of Americans taking to the streets to protest the deep roots of racism that contaminate our so-called justice system, in the eyes of innocent Muslims and Jews who stand accused of treason and worse by the country that claims freedom of worship as a citizen’s right, in the hearts and minds of queer couples and their families told that their love and commitment are sinful and corrupt compared to those of straight people.

The path from anger to hate is short, wide and downhill. We see hate in action all around us, and our wiring encourages us to join in, to take refuge in the crowd where reason gives way to mob rule.  We feel our own pain and the referred pain of those we see suffering, and our brains light up like fireworks.  Electrochemically speaking, we are walking storms, pent-up cataclysms of stress hormones, righteous indignation and impotent frustration.  All we need is a target for our anger—a natural reaction to pain, grief and injustice—to become hatred of the Other Who Did This To Us.

In mental health circles, anger is sometimes described as a secondary emotion, protecting the self from contact with a deeper, more heartfelt wound.  If this is the case, then we are facing a double-edged sword as we enter the political arena: the realities of the world are hurting us on one side while the barrage of invective that passes for public conversation sinks its hooks into us from the other. No wonder we are such a mess.  We live in a world where fewer and fewer of us, even in the middle class, live more than a paycheck away from indigence.  Our children are inheriting a world where they can no longer expect the American Dream, and the comforting jingoism of Equality, Justice and Freedom in the land of the brave doesn’t apply so much if they’re female, brown-skinned or queer.  Science tells us that we are killing the planet that houses us, that we are punishing our citizens for the color of their skins, their gender and their social class at birth, but when we turn on the TV or open the Internet we see these ideas ridiculed and dismissed by people who see scientists as the enemies of God.  The complacencies of growing up liberal in a heavily-filtered ivory tower have been replaced by the much more real and disturbing truth that all is not well and it’s up to me to do something about it.   Who wouldn’t be angry?  Our parents and teachers didn’t prepare us—well, mine didn’t, anyway—for this world where we can get death threats on our phone for saying women are as good as men, where police departments use mug shots of black men for target practice, where being murdered may be the price we pay for identifying as female if we were born in a male body.  WTF?

I was raised to believe that anger is unseemly, an inappropriate state for a reasonable person. I still think there’s some truth to that, as anger can be notoriously hard on one’s powers of critical judgment.  But as I look at the work that needs to be done, I am seeing that anger has its uses. In its absence, we crave the luxury of ignoring the harsh fact that outside our sleeping-room doors lies a world in which power is used to promote the interests of the powerful at the expense of the weakest.  Those of us who live in first-world countries whose cultural wealth is grounded in colonialism and slavery would much rather accept the narrative that we rule the world as a result of our own meritorious efforts.  At the first sign of a challenge to our self-congratulatory inner monologue, we enfold ourselves in the upholstered platitudes that make us feel safe again. 

But what if safety is an illusion? What if the platitudes and the intentional blindness and the increased sticking-of-fingers-in-the-ears-and-heads-in-the-sand prove to be useless against the inexorable, tectonic fulfillment of historical events already in motion?  It’s not a rhetorical question; we will be finding out the answer for the rest of my life, and my children’s lives.  That’s when I get angry.

I’m angry because I know better than to think reality will go away if I refuse to look at it.  I’m angry because I knew this was coming and told myself a bunch of lies so I wouldn’t have to pay attention.  I’m angry because I’m still tempted to repeat those mistakes so I don’t have to admit both the enormity of the problem and the enormity of being part of the solution.  I’m angry because I’ve internalized so much sexism that it’s taken me 47 years to start to open my mouth about it.  I’m angry because I spent decades telling myself I “got” racism when all I was doing was spouting self-flattering bullshit.  I’m angry because I’m pretty smart and there are plenty of people smarter than me who are still wearing blinders when they could make a huge difference otherwise.  I’m angry because there are so many smart people who are too scared or too poor or too hungry or too black or too gay to get a shot at making this better for everyone.  I look around me every day, in the park or at the store or in a meeting or on the Internet and I’m floored by what people are saying and doing—and most of the time I’m still too cowardly and conflicted to say anything.

No wonder people want to pin all their hopes on some kind of savior rather than wade into this mess. No wonder people of conscience throw up their hands and retreat to despair when they see what the American experiment has come to.  No wonder people turn their backs on the weakest to protect their own.  There are very legitimate things to be afraid of, and people aren’t designed to handle fear rationally.  We’re designed to mask it with anger, to lash out at the nearest thing we can find to blame.  The more nervous we are, the more incompetent and unprepared we feel, the angrier we get and the more we hang our hate on the most easily-visible hook. 

Anger and hate can feel like a gratifying relief when the alternatives feel useless.  It’s intoxicating to surf the waves of intense emotion, and it distracts us temporarily from the real state of affairs.  Like the surf, however, it is hard to harness anger in the service of sustained, positive, action to mitigate fear, and even harder to harness hate for that purpose.  If we want to make actual changes to make the world less terrifying, we need to find a way to stay angry enough to pay attention, but not so angry that we lose our ability to think.  We need to resist the temptation to hate that which we can’t control, most especially those of our fellow humans whose fears and anger lead them to hate us.  We don’t have time for that.  We have to accept and become friendly enough with our fears and frustrations and disappointment so that the resulting anger has nowhere to go but to fuel positive action.  We have to find a way to remember that we are all part of the same broken, flailing, frightened tribe and root that compassion unshakably deep.  Only then can our anger at injustice be directed where it can do some good.   We cry out against those in our world who kill wantonly from the core of their own bitterness and pain, but our anger at one another and our hatred for our fellow human beings are part and parcel of that same pathology.  There are many who profit from the fractures caused by anger and hate between us—we must resist the seduction of that route and proceed together along the narrow, uphill path where we can prevail.

©Mary Braden 2016


I have two days off to spend exactly as I wish.  No shifts at the hospital, no trips to see my beloved, just a weekend with no plans.  It’s been months since that last happened, and I hardly know what to do with myself.  Now it’s 11:30 on a Saturday morning, and here I am: ramped up on good coffee, listening to the “Avenue Q” soundtrack and pondering just how luxurious it is to be de-calendared, unscheduled, with nary a deadline on the horizon. 

I have a list of things I’d like to do this weekend, of course.  I want to do a long run tomorrow morning, go to see a movie, slog through a little economics homework, make pesto and bread, maybe even read a real book for a while.  But I know I don’t have to do any of those things, and that feels pretty damn good. I don’t regret filling my life with the things that feed my spirit.  I don’t mind that these open days come along as infrequently as they do.  I’m thriving on my busy schedule, testing my mettle and exploring my limits.  I find the energy just keeps coming, fueled by good food and long runs and deep sleep and the love of my tribe. Could it be perimenopause? Global warming? Long-delayed adulthood? Resurging adolescence? I’m not asking any questions or taking any of it for granted, not by a long shot.  I’m too grateful for this chance to operate at full capacity for a while: grateful, too, for this lull that lets me take it all in.

I used to be a stay-at-home mom, and a homeschooling one at that.  Time meant something different in those days; there was a rhythm that mirrored the biological and pragmatic patterns of everyone in the family.  Our days were built around the goals of keeping all parties rested, fed, occupied and amused appropriately, with only the demands of my husband’s job to be considered—which affected the rest of us indirectly, for the most part.  There were loose parameters placed on our time, but the hallmark was flexibility, the ability to accommodate and compensate for unanticipated changes in circumstances or need.  My husband was able to devote himself to his professional life because there was another adult fully engaged in the details of keeping the family and household humming along smoothly.  Time never felt short or limited to me then; it was the element in which life happened, telescoping and contracting as needed.

Fast-forward 15 years and everything has changed.  The children are grown and gone, needing a far different kind of loving support.  That husband is gone; I no longer see much point in having one at all.  I share my home with an adult who is engaged in the details of keeping our household running smoothly while I work.  Some tables have been turned, others have shifted beyond recognition, but nothing is the same.  My job requires that I spend a good bit of time traveling, so I have gotten used to sleeping in strange beds, finding my way to new places, making conversation with strangers, responding quickly to unexpected situations without appearing flustered.  It couldn’t be more different from the placid, mostly-homebound routines of early motherhood.  If my 2002 self were somehow able to see the future, she’d have been simultaneously flabbergasted and terrified.  The idea of today’s life would have seemed utterly foreign and not a little repugnant to her. Yet here I am, the same person at my core.

I’ve heard my whole life that time speeds up as we get older.  The 15 years before 2002 seemed like a lifetime as I lived them; the 15 years after feel like a hiccup, the flip of a page.  With attention, I can recapture single moments in my memory, and the growth of the patterns and habits that are the bedrock of how I live today.  Although the sense of coherent flow is strong, it is at best a hopeful guess. I do try to pay attention as I go, to slow down the hurtling speed of change, to savor and wring some meaning from the moments as they zip past, but I don’t know that it makes the time pass any more slowly.  Part of the reason for this is, I think, that there is far more to pay attention to now.  15 years ago I had made a quarter-lifetime’s fewer mistakes, learned a few easy lessons and hardly any hard ones.  I had no idea what shadows lurked under my surface, or what hell would break loose when they were disturbed.  My father was still alive, and my place in the universe was unquestioned and unexplored.  I was deep in the early stages of adulthood, fulfilling the internalized expectations of others and tasting the first miraculous draughts of seeing my children blossom into people with things to say.  I was wrapped in layer upon layer of privilege, unable to imagine lives without the comforts I took entirely for granted.  I was a new Quaker, just beginning to see what gifts lay in silent, open waiting upon that still, small voice. 

Now, although it is streamlined by habit, there is far more to be borne in mind than there used to be.  Am I repeating mistakes? Setting myself up for something I already know I don’t like? Am I missing clues? Overlooking warnings? Being willfully blind and deaf to what I don’t want to see and hear?  Am I walking a sustainable line between safety and freedom? Am I ignoring promises I’ve made to myself and others? What am I avoiding? Forgetting? Are all these fluttering questions getting in the way of real thought and action? This seems the central work of these midlife years: the application of our experience to shaping a life of authentic meaning.  A decade ago we didn’t have enough experience.  A decade hence we may be too set in our ways to uproot our habits and start a new chapter.  We have children of varying ages, partnerships of various kinds, careers that span the spectrum of human activity.  All of these have a place in crafting the trajectory of the next half of our adult lives, but none is as important as our willingness to spend our time paying attention, even as the speed of life around us continues to accelerate.

Paradoxically, the more attention I pay, the more my life seems to direct itself into channels that justify that attention.  As I examine what I do and why I do it, I am—often imperceptibly—drawn to do more of what resonates and less of what doesn’t.  As I strive for mindfulness and detachment from specific outcomes, I find that I am increasingly satisfied by the outcomes that present themselves.  Though time is short, my enjoyment of it becomes longer with practice.  This day of untrammeled wallowing in time needn’t happen often to do its magic.  My young self might have missed it entirely; my middle-aged self knows to plunge in headfirst and splash around while I can.  Time may be master of us all, but why not dance with it while our footsteps are reasonably sure and our ear is still good? Next time the calendar threatens to drown me, I know how to recreate the glow of today, and that just might make all the difference.

©Mary Braden 2016


I’ve driven hundreds of miles this week, in every kind of weather.  I’ve worked hospital shifts and presided over meetings, wrestled with personnel problems that tremble between the freakish and the chilling, run 17 miles, passed an economics midterm, hired a new person, rented a room to my ex-husband and celebrated National IPA Day while watching the first Republican debate.  Between the early alarms and exhausted nights, I’ve warmed myself for all-too-brief moments at the banked fires of the long-distance love affair that has occupied the best part of the last year.  It’s been an exhausting, exhilarating, confounding week, and I’m coming out the end of it feeling like every nerve has been touched, every part of my brain fully awake and put to work.

While physical objects can be exquisitely balanced, I am deeply skeptical of the notion that emotions and lives can ever truthfully be called balanced, even when they are at their best. Balance, as a physical phenomenon, depends on weight being evenly distributed in such a way that there is no motion, where competing but perfectly complementary physical forces essentially paralyze an object so that it rests as easily in equipoise as if it were entirely on the ground.

Emotions and lives, on the other hand, are not at their best in stasis.  They blossom in motion, in growth, in changes of direction.  This fluidity and dynamism are the essence of having feelings, of being creatures of affection, fear, jealousy and anger.  Put our emotional lives in the equivalent of balance and we have no dance, no motion, no constant delicate adjustments to ensure that one renegade horse doesn’t pull our chariot too far into the weeds. Our thoughts, not as fully reined-in by intellect as we might like to think, are as likely as our emotions to ebb and flow in patterns that shift under the guidance of half-veiled history, temperament and instinct.  Do we really want the music of our souls to be any less vibrant and mobile than the music we hear with our outward ears?  I have to say no. 

We are bombarded with exhortations to seek “balance” and to arrange our lives so as to remain “balanced.”  We are taught by books and magazines and the Internet that we must look at ourselves with a kind of judgy objectivism, evaluate ourselves to see if the weight of our career is tipping the scale to create an imbalance against the weight of family, or fitness or that elusive pastime known as “me time.”  We read about and watch videos of people who have it all and who make it seem effortless, and we pore over their tips about how to stay organized, rested, refreshed like they are.  We allow ourselves to feel intimidated by those who make life look easy.  We cast ourselves as inadequate beside people whose lives we only see on the outside, telling ourselves that their performance has nothing to do with the crazy multifaceted experience of our lives.

I’m not convinced that balance is really what I want.  I don’t think I want to keep an eye on myself that way.  I’ve paid an unpleasant price for judging myself by standards that didn’t fit, and I think I’m done with all that.   I am more interested in my own internal interplay of desires and fears and ambitions and dreams than in what an outside judgment of them might be.  My job is to observe myself and try to understand the melody of my own internal music, so as to align my life with it as closely as possible.  I have already proved that I can maintain the basic standards: pay bills, meet deadlines, keep my house habitable and my car serviced and stay employed.  I have helped to raise intelligent, articulate, sensitive children and seen them launch into their own trajectories of young adulthood.  I have no one to please but myself now, and I can tell more about myself by observing myself from the inside than by seeking to measure up to some external standard of balance based on someone else’s formula.

I think the allure of this notion of balance is that it suggests the possibility of peace.  If we draw back enough, if we rein in our curiosity and passion from pursuing the dreams that energize us, maybe we will find peace.  If we do less of what we don’t want to do, maybe we can lay down that frustration at the job that chafes our freedom, or the school committee that sucks our soul and peace will come.  But how is that balance? Isn’t that just realizing that we are too old to be spending our precious energy and will doing things we hate?

We need to stop trying to force ourselves into an imagined state of equipoise and start looking at the raw materials that we’re made of.  We need to look at our own strengths and our own passions, see where they lead us and see what barriers may have been holding us back.  So many of those barriers are ones we’ve built ourselves.  The search for “balance” is a search for relief from pain, exhaustion, confusion.  We need to figure out why we’ve allowed ourselves to be barricaded inside ourselves by those things, and break them down.  Why are we letting ourselves get so tired? What do we fear so much that we are willing to crush ourselves to avoid it?  We don’t need balance as much as we need joy, confidence, nurturing.  Tighter self-governance and harsher self-judgment won’t bring us peace; peace comes from knowing we’re in the right place, giving ourselves to what we love best and providing ourselves with the fuel to keep right on doing it.  Peace is in the music, in the dance that makes us who we are, complete with all our reckless enthusiasms and painful defeats.  Peace is in knowing ourselves, in realizing that our imperfections and our mistakes are as important pieces of the orchestra as our strengths and our gifts.  We are most at peace when we are most fully ourselves, fully alive. Our inner music is never going to be balanced like a teeter-totter on a fulcrum.  It will soar in different directions and with different intensities as our inner dynamics dictate, and peace will be the name we give the stillness at its core.

©Mary Braden 2016


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