Las Vegas Shooting, #MeToo, and California Fires
(Building upon the brief entry: "The Modern Apocalypse - Part One")
Parts of Southern California are still on fire as I write this, and the firefighters and volunteers are having to contend with powerful Santa Ana winds as they work to offset the flames. I share the hope that those impacted by the fires find and create the opportunities to support one another, grieve, and eventually renew their sense of home. These kinds of crises - actual and metaphorical fires - often compel us to reflect on what is truly life-affirming and generative.
Two months ago I was scheduled to give a guest lecture at Sonoma State University on the cultural politics of place. Ten minutes before my talk I decided to forgo my formal presentation, opting instead to share some stories with the students about belonging and connection. We discussed the special places, people and music that made us feel most alive and at home. I then asked them to imagine that they were at a concert with a loved one, listening to one of their favorite musicians. When the students dropped into that subtle space, I asked them gently to then imagine hearing gunfire and screaming.
The night before in Las Vegas a man, Stephan Paddock, shot and killed fifty-eight concertgoers and wounded over 550 more - including a Sonoma State student.
My intent wasn't to traumatize the class. I simply wanted to take the opportunity to discuss (another) national tragedy out of concern that we as a society are becoming desensitized to what many fear is the "new normal." I also believe that we don't have many healthy models for the expression of collective grief. As I shared how the shooting impacted me with the students I began to tear up, and I did not try to stop or apologize for crying. A few students began to quietly weep as well and I eventually asked:
"If this killing and wounding of so many people isn't a good time to grieve, then when is a good time?"
Despite conventional wisdom and claims of cultural relativism, I don't believe that "people grieve in different ways." The length of time it takes to release grief can vary. People avoid or distract themselves from grieving in many different ways, and some people, for whatever reasons, are more comfortable with and capable of expressing grief than others. But when it comes down to it - when someone or something precious and truly loved is lost - all grief looks and feels the same.
I took the opportunity to share this with the students, to both embody grief and explain its healing capacity. It was especially important for me to share that with them, as a large professional of color. The modeling and support for public displays of emotion (especially sadness) for men (and those perceived as men) is culturally anemic and almost non-existent, save professional sports where it is acceptable for men to cry if they win or lose a big game. Expanding our emotional and social intelligences is an especially needed capacity during these times, perhaps equally if not more important than traditional University course content.
Indeed, having the "emotional range of a teaspoon" (to borrow a phrase from J.K. Rowling's Hermione Granger) can undoubtedly impact and limit the kinds of relationships we can have with ourselves and with others. In my experience, the capacity to connect to and express a large range of emotions is integral to becoming more human and living a full, intimate life.
Ironically, many of us at once yearn for a full, intimate life even as we are afraid of inhabiting such a life.
The #MeToo movement offers some potential reasons why this could be the case. While the systemic, cultural and hence gender dynamics are complex, the critical message of #MeToo is simple and clear:
Women have suffered because of sexual assault, those found responsible need to be held accountable, and our cultures and institutions need to evolve so this behavior no longer happens.
As a global phenomenon #MeToo impacts women, men, and humans outside or in between the gender binary in different ways. As with anything that shakes up culture, this phenomenon is liberating, traumatic, and contradictory. And hopeful. It will need the ongoing commitment of reflective hearts and minds to eventually balance the knee-jerk responses of how to create an equitable and safe society, especially given that so many systems are crumbling. Old patterns of relating, sexual and otherwise, are showing their limitations and decay, and it's critical that we explore and experiment with what we want to grow next. Perhaps a relevant question might be:
How are we regenerating our relationship to ourselves, each other, and our environments so that there is greater equity and vitality in the world?
The complexity of the structural and cultural dynamics informing #MeToo requires a rich discourse of philosophical exchange, visionary art and music, moral and spiritual engagement, and an embodied inquiry into what constitutes power and collective well-being. While #MeToo will likely be seen as a historical turning point - of exactly what is too early to tell - the ongoing work of how to enact healthy relationships is still years, decades, if not generations in the making.
This "long-game" cultural critique is not meant to take away from the sense of relief, healing, and agency that this movement - cultivated online for over a decade - has enabled for those who have experienced sexual assault. It's also brought to light some of the shadow aspects of our modern lives: inquiries into the relationship between gender, sexuality, and power, and concerns about "witch-hunts" and due process.
And this fiery moment has also impelled me to respond with a sense of urgency.
This starts with doing my best to be present to the women in my life: my partner, family members, friends, colleagues, and students. #MeToo has stirred up and evoked a large range of emotions and energies from women, so it is important to simply listen with as much acceptance and compassion as possible. I'm there to bear witness and demonstrate trustworthiness not to debate, justify or try to fix anything. If who I am listening to asks for a response, I give it while affirming her willingness to trust me with her story.
But at this moment, giving feedback seems less important than being present and listening.
I do my best to practice reflective, embodied listening (or simply, "deep listening"). This might sound odd or a bit of a contradiction, but deep listening is a capacity that I've found useful in relationship. It involves paying attention to the words and body language to whom I'm listening, while simultaneously paying attention to my own thoughts, images, emotions, and body sensations that arise as I listen. Again, in this context, I am not tracking what comes up for me so I can immediately fashion some kind of response, unless the woman I'm listening to specifically asks for feedback.
While deep listening might seem difficult - especially in conversations like #MeToo that can carry an emotional charge - it can be developed with practice, and one of its virtues is that it brings awareness to more of one's own unique experience, in real time.
In short, we learn to honor ourselves as we honor who is speaking.
After deep listening, I make time to reflect upon what was shared and what her story evoked in me. I've also engaged in individual and group conversations with men whom I trust, where we process through our experiences to see if there are patterns in our thinking, emotions, or behaviors.
We explore a lot of questions: Have we been out of integrity in how we relate to women and others? If so, have we've been aware of it? Are there actions that we need to account for? If so, how? How are we raising our kids?
What has #MeToo stirred up within us: Shame? Uncertainty? Fear? Anger? A sense of solidarity?
One of the more significant insights that came during an especially intense conversation with some middle-aged men who, as young boys, witnessed the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of girls and women with whom they were close. As boys they felt powerless to do anything, and the traumatic events still impacts their well-being and sense of masculinity. The men I know are doing deep work on this trauma not only for their well-being but for their children and the future of culture and gender dynamics.
#MeToo has help to unveil deeper realities about what behavior patterns and traumas we've inherited, as well as an opportunity to explore how to transmute that inheritance into something healthier.
To be continued...