Going the Distance

I’ve been recovering slowly from a couple of running injuries, and this week I logged my first “normal” mileage in several months.  It’s been a long haul, I ain’t gonna lie.  I hate being hurt.  It scares me, swings my emotional compass needle wildly between panic and denial.  I make decisions straight from the gut, drawing on equal parts catastrophic thinking and willfully sticking my head in the sand.  I go to extremes to ease my discomfort, from doing further damage trying to power through it to staying teeth-grittingly still, hoping it will all go away.  The pain itself acts like an uninvited guest in my brain, shadowing it with its own special brand of fatigue, depression, anxiety.

Running has forced me to acknowledge that my body has the final say in what I can and cannot do.  It’s taught me to listen, not for what I want to hear, but for what is actually there.  It’s taught me that the way to keep moving is to treat discomfort as data, to respond to pain with questions—What hurts? What eases it? What makes it worse? How bad is it? What triggered it? How does it compare to other familiar pain? —rather than anger or despair.  It’s taught me how to tell which pain demands a full stop and rest, and which pain is eased by gentle, progressive activity.  It reminds me several times a week that forward motion is the result of long-term commitment that includes training the mind and heart as much as the legs and lungs. 

I’ve run two (slow) marathons, and now that I see how well these injuries are healing, I’m thinking of training for a third. I love the training, the systematic, careful increases in weekly mileage with allotted days for rest and complementary exercise.  I love feeling myself change as my body accustoms itself to the increasing demands upon it, the moments of confidence and pride when a workout that exhausted me a few weeks ago is easy now.  I love resting with a purpose, letting my muscles and joints recover and become stronger.  I love the way it weaves itself into my whole life until everything I do is tinged with it.

I apply the same principles to my life as an activist, which involves many of the same mental and emotional challenges as long-distance running.  Especially now, when so much of the conversation about justice and equality is fraught with defensive, divisive rhetoric, it’s important to realize that the finish line in this critically important race is still where we’re headed.  We’re still aiming at the same goal of a better world, and the work that each of us has to do is still there to be done.  Those who wish to thwart this goal, who want to sabotage and marginalize the work we do, are eager for us to become to distracted and too frightened to continue. The rantings and outrage in the media and on the Internet are the hills and potholes along our route, they are not the race.  If we allow ourselves to be stopped by them, we will lose the fight.  Here’s what I’ve learned about training for the long haul, and getting there in one piece.

Have a plan. Nothing builds confidence like having an idea of what you are setting out to do and how you plan to do it.  New to the struggle? There’s loads of good stuff out there about how to pitch in.  Just like with running, there are people who have done this before and who are good at it.  Read and listen to and see what they have to say.  Pay attention to the ideas and strategies that resonate, and focus your inquiry there.  As you begin to imagine yourself applying these ideas and strategies in your activism work, don’t be surprised if you notice opportunities pop up in your life that feel relevant; life has a way of doing that.  Put your body in the company of others who share your vision. Push yourself outside your comfort zone and start learning to live there—it’s the most radical act of all. Your plan will start to take shape when you see a chance to make a difference and you think you have a way to do it.  Think it out, write it down. Run it by someone with more experience than you, ideally someone in a group likely to be most impacted by your action, to make sure you’re not heading into unintentionally harming those you want to support. Then have at it!

Take your plan with a grain of salt.  Every runner knows that a training schedule is just a guideline. It doesn’t have room for illness, for unexpected work deadlines or family emergencies or vacations.  It gives an idea of how to improve strength and endurance enough to meet the goal, but it doesn’t take real life into account at all.  The real task of training is to bend life and the training schedule until they align in a sustainable way.  I give myself a full 6 months to train for a marathon even though “official” training schedules are as short as 18 weeks for a relative newbie like myself.  But I’m pushing 50, and by no means slender, so I want to take a little extra time to get from each level to the next and prevent injury if I can.  In activist work, that kind of flexibility is key.  Don’t measure your effectiveness solely by your adherence to a deadline.  What matters is that you’re doing the work, attentively and without giving up; if it takes you longer than you anticipated, or you encounter setbacks that throw the plan into disarray, take heart.  If this were easy, it would have been done years ago.  Epic struggles take time.  The small steps that fail to yield the desired results may be the seeds of progress you haven’t even imagined yet. It all counts.  Pay attention to the impact of what you’re doing.  One advantage of going slow is that you can stop harm before it becomes widespread; if your plan damages those it’s intended to help, all is not lost.  Stop short, name the mistake and the damage it caused, repair what you can, and proceed with a changed plan.

The hardest work is in your own head.  Legs will get stronger if you increase the demands on them; lungs will get more efficient, blood vessels will get more resilient.  It’s part of the design,  we can count on it.  Staying committed to the practice of self-strengthening, however, is like herding cats.  Our minds do not like the fears and insecurities that come along with keeping commitments; we can derail ourselves from the noblest of projects several times a day because we’re lazy, we’re distracted, we’re afraid to fail (or succeed), we’re uncomfortable, we’re stressed.  We have only to look at the enormous industry built to “support” people wanting to change their bodies to realize that it’s not an easy thing to do. Trying to make the world a better place is much the same. Some days we just don’t feel like it, and yet the work clamors to be done.  Learning how to tell which signals deserve our attention—is my inner resistance the product of exhaustion that means I need rest, or is it really a fear of being shunned and isolated by my white friends for speaking up about racism?—is a serious challenge.  Runners know how hard it is to get out the door on a sluggish day, and how often those runs turn out to be the most satisfying.  We know what it’s like to be halfway there and to feel like there’s no gas left in the tank.  It’s the same with the struggle for justice and equality.  In order to truly take care of ourselves, we have to recognize which of our inner signals are self-defeating and counterproductive and start ignoring them in favor of those we know are authentic.  This means looking squarely at the truth about ourselves, about what our weaknesses are and how they are likely to derail our efforts for justice. It means forgiving ourselves for being flawed, even embracing the flaws as signs of wounds that need healing. It means taking responsibility for the fact that our good intentions mean nothing by themselves, that the value of our work lies in its impact on others—as defined by their experience, not ours.  It means we have to reach a point where we claim our participation in the oppressive history and structures that make up our society, and simultaneously try to interrupt those structures.  We have to become aware that our reflexive anger at others is most likely triggered by our own fears and weaknesses.  We have to learn how to soothe and nurture our own frayed emotions in order to do our work from a place of groundedness and peace. Finding, recognizing and constantly returning to that center is the only way to make ourselves keep the commitment the work requires of us.  Just as the strongest, most coordinated athlete in the world can’t run a marathon if she doesn’t have the mental discipline to keep training, the most passionate, well-intentioned activist in the world will be useless unless she figures out how to stay engaged and motivated for the long haul.

It’s okay to fail.  Runners, like activists, have a dream-self in their heads that never gets hurt, never gets older, never slows down, never makes mistakes.  Marathons teach us to hold that dream-self lightly, as an inspiration rather than a role model.  We make mistakes.  Our bodies and minds fail us when we least expect it.  We get over-confident or under-confident and zig where we should have zagged.  We push too hard or not hard enough and find ourselves hamstrung by our own poor judgement.  Justice and equality work have the same pitfalls.  We find ourselves over-reaching and offending or under-reaching and being ineffective. We are called out on gaps in our our analysis and awareness that slap us with how much work we still have left to do.  We encounter stronger resistance than we expect, or our allies don’t show up as they promised, or the money doesn’t come through.  Our friends and families are indifferent or downright hostile to our efforts.  These aren’t signs of deep personal inadequacy to the task.  They are the natural defeats and setbacks of any long campaign, the signals that we need to pause, regroup and restrategize.  Often the feelings of disappointment and frustration that we feel when we encounter failure in this work stem from an inflated sense of our own importance.  We can learn valuable lessons about our own limits and the importance of trusting others to excel where we cannot.  White people are trained to think that our solutions are the right ones, that failure is a moral deficit, that a failure of our plan is a failure of ourselves.  The truth, as real at a community meeting as on the running trail, is that the only part of the journey that we can control is whether or not we’re giving it the best we’ve got.  The rest—including what our “best” may be on any given day—isn’t up to us.

Recognize the small successes.  There’s no way to get to the finish line without realizing how much we accomplished along the way.  We got off the couch.  We found shoes that fit.  We bundled up and ran in the cold and sweated our guts out in the heat.  We conquered 5 miles, then 7, then 13, then 18, then 20.  We ran through cramps, nausea, exhaustion, runny noses and tears.  Sometimes it took a few tries, but we kept trying until our bodies agreed to do what we asked of them.  Those successes are what get us through the dark places of despair, self-doubt and frustration.  They happen in the struggle for social justice too.  We find new ways to engage opponents in conversation, we connect with new allies in spite of differences, a congressman introduces the legislation we lobbied for, we face painful truths about ourselves with compassion, we find a creative and cheap solution to a thorny problem.  Every time we do this it is a step forward.  Even if the conversation ends without the resolution we want, or our new allies desert us, or the bill doesn’t pass, the progress was still real.  This is not a zero-sum game.  The hard, ugly painful stuff doesn’t cancel out or invalidate the good stuff.  Remembering those moments when our effort paid off, when the world responded to our attempts to change it, is an immensely powerful tool in staying motivated for the long haul.  Write them down, practice reciting them to the mirror, hold them in your heart. And if anyone else was there with you, remember them too. That shared energy is powerful stuff.

To a runner, everything reminds her of running.  Pain, patience, courage, failure, shame, persistence, laziness…they each have their place in the journey of training for a long, long race.  The struggle for justice and equality—and to be a worthy and valuable accomplice in that struggle—may require a different kinds of strength and endurance, but the lessons from the trail still hold.  The journey will be long, and for most of us there will be more failure than triumph. Not all days can be Race Day.  It’s worth figuring out how much rest is the right amount to allow healing and restoration without losing fitness.  Take that much.  It’s okay to let people cheerlead and support you, especially if you’re doing some cheerleading and supporting of your own.  We’re all in this together, runners.

©Mary Braden 2016

Here’s the Map

The chart below, very much a work in progress, has been developed to support White people to act for racial justice. It draws from ideas and resources developed mostly by Black, Brown and People of Color, and has been edited by Black, Brown, and People of Color.  I recognize that categorizing actions under the labels of Actor, Ally, and Accomplice is an oversimplification, but hopefully this chart challenges all of us White folks to go outside of our comfort zones, take some bigger risks, and make some more significant sacrifices because this is what we’ve been asked to do by those most impacted by racism, colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, xenophobia, and hyper-capitalism. I believe that for real change to occur, we must confront and challenge all people, policies, systems, etc., that maintain privileges and power for White people.”


©Mary Braden 2016

Promises Are Not Enough

Our current political turmoil demonstrates just how much damage can be done when we no longer require words to bear some verifiable relation to reality.

One area in which this consistently creates problems is when well-meaning folks like me see an appeal that touches our emotions and we say something about it in a way that is totally risk-free.  It makes us feel better about ourselves, more generous, more empathetic.  It makes us feel included with our fellow-promisers, too.  “I publicly said that I care, now I’m part of the solution!”  It revives our easily-shaken sense that we’re in control, that we know what to do about what is making us uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, all of these feelings boil down to being about us, not the people or communities or policies that we are trying to support.  For those of us in dominant social groups, it’s no surprise that we operate this way. Everything we have ever experienced has taught us that we are the people who hold the reins, that our voices are the ones that matter, that the responsibility for deciding what to change and how to change it rests with us.  If we are to tear apart the very real fabric of oppression in our culture, however, we need to start putting the reins into the hands of those most impacted by that oppression, and  standing beside them in their struggle, which means being uncomfortable, feeling like we don’t belong, and that we aren’t in control.  That’s okay.  That’s what it’s supposed to feel like. It won’t kill us, and it may make us stronger, more steadfast comrades in the struggle.

In that spirit, here’s one authentic voice that speaks to what is needed to support the rights and freedoms of Muslims in our country.  Let him speak to you.


©Mary Braden 2016

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.