Where Your Nose Begins

We had quite a bit of rain this morning, or rather yesterday morning–it’s after midnight here–and I was very tired from a sleepless night, so I wrote much of the day. Most of the time I write about our simple life in Northern Michigan. Sometimes, however, I have to write about more serious topics because they are filling my mind and heart, and weighing me down, and I literally can’t sleep unless I empty them out. I’ve been writing about abuse for the last several days, describing behaviors and beliefs that empower abusers and increase the suffering of victims. Yesterday I included a description of an interaction I had at Facebook with a friend who commented that “women who dress like sluts deserve to be treated like one.” This, I mean yesterday morning, I wrote It’s Not Your Fault, which I shared on my blog. It was still raining and I was still full of thoughts so I continued on to write another post intending to share it the next day. I almost got it finished. I was just going to tweak it a little more.

Then I suddenly I said aloud: “I feel like a pompous ass.”  Usually I don’t say things like “pompous ass,” but it’s the only phrase that came close to describing what I felt. Earlier I had read the post aloud to EJ, and he said that I wasn’t a “pompous ass” and my post didn’t sound pompous, but that didn’t exactly reassure me.

In the post I had written but not shared, I wrote that the friend I had interacted with on Sunday had gotten very upset when I cautioned her to please be careful about what she said to/about survivors of abuse.  She angrily said, “How DARE you tell a survivor to be careful what I say to other abuse victims! I will SAY anything and EVERYTHING that I wish!” She threw a few insults my way and then unfriended me. This made me think about the struggle of balancing between reaching out with compassion to others and not losing our own identity and voice in the process.

So I wrote a little about the dangerous currents under the calm surface of my family of origin. I described my relationship with my next-older sister, who was a scapegoat who never felt loved. When I began to encounter abuse from my Mom, I had reached out to this sister and we became friends–or so I thought. I had figured that nothing in our childhood had been real, our relationships had all been manipulated, so I decided to wipe all that away and get to know my sister as she was NOW, as an adult, as if we were meeting for the first time. I thought she had done the same for me. However, she never let go of the past resentments and jealousies, she never corrected her childhood misconceptions, she never forgave me for being more loved than her, she never recognized that no one in an abusive family is really loved–we are just forced into different roles. Through the years, I always forgave when she hurt me because I cared about her and I knew she had been unloved. But the insults increased and eventually our relationship staggered to an end.

I tried to explain in that unshared post what I had learned in the 20 years that we tried to be friends. For example:

I think most victims of abuse become more compassionate toward others who are suffering. They know what it’s like to suffer, so they reach out to support others who are also suffering. But some become abusers themselves, as I think my sister did. It’s like they implode. Their focus becomes all about them. They are the only ones who have ever suffered, no one has suffered as greatly as they have, everyone must make allowances for them because they have suffered. They can’t seem to see beyond their own pain to the pain of others. The truth is that other people have also suffered, sometimes more terribly than they have. Yes, we have suffered, but our suffering shouldn’t make us insensitive to the pain of others. It ought to make us more compassionate.

I learned that being a victim of abuse does not give a person an automatic right to hurt others. A person may state that “I will SAY anything and EVERYTHING that I wish” but she still must be careful with her words. I had a history teacher in high school who used to quote, “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” In other words, we have the right to swing our fist, but not the right to hit others with it. Speak out, voice your opinions, find your voice…but don’t use it to hurt others. To state, “I will SAY anything and EVERYTHING that I wish” but also declare, “How DARE you say…!” is a huge double standard. It demands rights for yourself but takes it away from others. I personally believe that we should never demand rights for ourselves that we are unwilling to give to others. I have a right to speak out, but so do others. I have a right to voice an opinion, but so do they. I have a right to be treated with respect, and so do they. I have a right to set boundaries, but so do they.

I learned that there has to be a balance between “you” and “me.” We have to balance compassion for others with compassion for ourselves.  Yes, it was good for me to be compassionate toward my sister, but at the same time, I didn’t have to allow her to treat me abusively. She needed love but so did I. She needed to be treated with understanding and patience, but so did I. She has value, but so do I. She needed forgiveness and so did I. I loved her and I tried my best to be her sister and friend, but I don’t think I did her any favors by never stopping her from treating me as she did. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for another is to confront them when they step over a line. But we can confront kindly, without descending into personal insults.

I learned that we can try our very hardest to tread carefully in the lives of others and be kind, compassionate, understanding, and patient with them, but sooner or later, somewhere along the line, in spite of our very best efforts, we are going to trip over a hidden landmine and offend them. People’s memories of abuse are triggered by all sorts of things–a remark, a joke, a song, a smell, an item, a place. They are different for each person and it is impossible to avoid every single trigger. I remember hearing a story of a guy who fled from a church service in a panic when the congregation sang a hymn that had been sung while he was being ritually abused in a cult. There was nothing wrong with the hymn, the congregation did nothing wrong in singing it, but it triggered the guy. Sometimes it’s like that. The most we can do at such times is apologize and try to be careful in the future. Sometimes the person will forgive us, sometimes not.

I learned that it’s ok to be ourselves. The only way we can never offend others is to never have an opinion, never have a preference, never have a belief, never make an independent decision, and to try to always be agreeable to whatever opinions, preferences, beliefs, or decisions that they might have. But even if we tried to empty ourselves of our individuality, we’d still manage to offend someone. And in the process, we’d lose ourselves, our identity. We’d become empty shells. So, yes, be compassionate toward others, but also maintain your own identity and freedom. It’s ok to be you, it’s ok to be different. You don’t have to apologize for being you. You don’t always have to make yourself small so others can feel big.

I learned that some words are worth saying and some battles are worth fighting even if it offends others. Not all of them, not all of the time, and we must be careful. Sometimes we should keep our mouths shut–but there are also times to speak up for yourself and others. I don’t always know when it’s best to keep silent or to speak. I do the best I can to make the right choice. Mostly I’ve decided that if I feel passionately about something, I should go ahead and speak. If I express my opinion/belief, I need to be aware that some people might disagree or even get angry. If I’m feeling fragile that day and feel I can’t handle the pushback, I tell myself that it is ok to be silent.

I have considered the interaction at Facebook. I have wondered if I should have said what I said to my friend. After some thought, I think that if I could redo it, I would probably have still said the things that I said. I’m very sorry she got angry, I’m very sad she has experienced abuse, but I think her comment crossed a line and could be very damaging to others. Just because she is an abuse victim doesn’t mean she gets everything right 100% of the time, or that she never makes a mistake, or that she doesn’t have something more to learn, or that she should never be confronted. I have learned over the years–and I’m still learning–that life is a journey that can get very messy. Sometimes we handle things well, sometimes we mess up. Sometimes we are strong and sometimes we are weak. Sometimes we trip over other’s triggers and sometimes they trip over ours. There are things I know now that I didn’t know a while back. I’m hopeful that tomorrow I will learn things I didn’t know today. Some of my opinions and beliefs have changed and I cringe at what I once believed. I would do some things differently if I could, but other things I wouldn’t change. The thing is that no one has everything figured out, we all have more we could learn. I would defend my friend’s right to speak up but I’ll also speak up if I think she is wrong, and I will defend those who might get damaged by beliefs and words such as hers. So, yes, I’m glad I spoke.

I wrote all this, and then I felt like a pompous ass.

So I deleted the descriptions of my family as unimportant muck and I retained the portion about what I learned through it all. I asked myself, “Do I really believe what I wrote? Did I really learn those things?” I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, I believe what I wrote and I did learn those things through my relationship with my sister. But at the same time I still struggle with these things, and there are other emotions that occasionally seep in to complicate things, so I’m not sure I FULLY learned them. I still struggle to believe that I have value and that compassion doesn’t mean that I have to accept abusive insults.

I can recognize that probably something I wrote triggered my Facebook friend so that she lashed out with me. I think that recovery from abuse is a very rough journey and can be rather messy with many ups and downs, emotional highs and lows, with many things to process and overcome. So I feel empathy for her and want to show her understanding.

I thought of what she wrote: “But go ahead and keep posting and posting and posting … I’ll actually get up and go out and change the world for people with disabilities AND post tips and lessons on what others may do to help others that may suffer from low vision or blindness. What nerve!”

Then I thought, “Dog-gone it! She didn’t have to be so nasty!” Yes, she has been abused but that doesn’t give her the right to hurt others. She matters, but so do others. She has no idea what the girls she has condemned suffered. She has no idea what EJ and I have suffered–what wounds she ripped open with her metaphorical swinging fist. She made me feel small and useless. She made me wish that I could shut my mouth and keep my head down. I don’t really know if anything I share matters, changes people’s minds, or helps anyone.

So there’s all these mingled emotions of empathy, anger, tears, feelings of uselessness. And I think that, you know, most of us just seem to go bumbling through life, trying to find a balance between reaching out with compassion to others and trying not to get destroyed in the process. I usually don’t have a clue whether I should speak up or be silent, or do this thing or that. I think relationships can be very complicated with a lot of swirls and eddies and rocks under the surface that can spin you around and tear you to pieces if you are not careful. Sometimes I’m just plain tired.

I no longer feel like a pompous ass. Right now I feel hit in the nose.

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One Comment on “Where Your Nose Begins

  1. Your last line is priceless TJ. I have a neighbor who unfriended me on Facebook after many years … she had a contractor who took down my cyclone fence to install her vinyl fence … I didn’t authorize it – they didn’t get my signature to take it down so I told her I wanted it back and she should back 1/2 of it and she laughed in my face and unfriended me on Facebook after making disparaging remarks. I think it was stupid then and I still feel that way – it is petty and silly and something a teenager does, not a woman who was nearing 50 years of age.

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