Last night, I attended a community meeting to prepare for the St. Louis Women’s March on the 21st of this month. I watched the group process unfold, observing each person's body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice, as well as the words spoken. Predictably, a race-related verbal scuffle broke out within the first 10 minutes.
I believe that everyone reading this knows what it is like to be oppressed. You either know it at a conscious level or you know it in the most hidden corners of your spirit. I don’t know what it is like to be oppressed for the color of my skin, or the misalignment of gender between my body and my identity, but I do know what it is like to be oppressed for being a woman, for being a lesbian woman, a fat woman, a non-Christian woman, and (just here recently) an old woman. Some of you reading this don’t know the experience of being oppressed for being a woman, because you are men. But you know what it is to be oppressed—maybe for being brown or black, or gay, or fat, or old...or maybe “just” oppressed by the stereotype that you are an unfeeling brute, incapable of poetry or art, interested only in sports and objectification of women. (Not my stereotype of men, but a dominant one, to be sure).
Here’s what I saw when I arrived at the meeting last night: a roomful of loving, excited, passionate women and men, eager to stand up to all the forms of oppression we face. Before we opened our mouths to speak beyond those seated near us, we were bouyant and joyous, full of the thrilling empowerment that comes with the willingness to be visible and be heard. I saw a roomful of people who took a risk to stand and be counted as opposed to whatever ways we are oppressed: by white dominance / supremacy, or patriarchy, or capitalism, or hetero-normative culture.... For some, the risk felt smaller; for others, it loomed so large they were barely able to be in the room with the rest of us.
My belief is that, fundamentally, beneath all the other ways in which we are oppressed (largely by each other), we are all oppressed by the same two things: our judgment of each other and our fear of being judged by each other. In fact, our other oppressions of each other, regardless of the categories, are deeply rooted in these two core oppressions. And that’s the other dynamic I saw last night.
(Acknowledging, first, that this is just my personal story, crafted from what I observed, which was filtered through the expectations of my existing beliefs....)
I saw that buzzing roomful of empowered voices, unified against oppression, dissolve into a roomful of fearful judges. Not all of us went there out loud, but enough did to create a sense of discord, disharmony, and distrust that pushed at the excitement in the room. Egos prickled, voices were raised, women talked loudly over each other, one ego was wounded enough to withdraw, others had already withdrawn during the verbal kerfuffle, or did so shortly thereafter. I was sad to see them go, as I could almost see their invisible Ghosts of Internalized Oppressions dragging them out by the scruff of the neck.
Some of us have lower thresholds for this sort of bumping of egos; I have a pretty high one, at least for now, and would not have been offended or frightened if I’d been one of the parties directly involved. I've worked hard to mine my 7 Childhood Treasures in abundance; I've got trust, boundaries, and faith as a foundation, so I would have stayed in that conversation that the other women left. And that doesn’t invalidate the feelings of the women who left. Their feelings were clearly different from mine; I’m just pointing out that the circumstances didn’t have uniform impact. We didn’t all respond the same way. Huh. Anybody surprised by that?
I hope the women who left will come to the march and try again, in hopes that we can make a world that works for everyone, including them. So long as we are human beings, we will have egos that need to be petted and told they’re okay. Some of our egos will show up as the need to be rewarded for our service to the cause. Some will appear as the need to be acknowledged for good ideas, or pure-hearted intention, or sacrifice. Some will manifest as a need to manage everyone toward an ideal of perfection; some as the need to shine a painful light on the darkest truths between, around and within us all—to force us to look at what we will not face unless pushed to do so. We each show up with our ego and its needs, carried in upturned palms like an offering, or tucked away in a backpack, wrapped in a sweater, clutched close like a talisman against wounding.
Here is my dream for a group like this: we show up not only with our individual egos, but with the awareness that, in this owning of egos, we are fully united! We lovingly know that everyone else’s ego is fragile and in need of petting, as is ours. The levels of fragility and need exist on continuums, and each of us has been or will be more fragile and more needy than we are right now, as well as less. In my dream, we bring our compassion and empathy along with our egos, stronger together because we can say, “I accept you as you are because I have been there, or humbly accept that I may be, one day.”
In my dream, we show up with the intention to Think Well of the Group* (which I once heard arises from Quaker tradition, but am not confident of that, as fact), meaning that we each recognize the high likelihood that nobody else in the group showed up expressly to give us a hard time, treat us badly, or wound us. Speaking for myself, I did not give up an evening of comfort in my cozy home (think cat upon my lap, happily watching Netflix or working on my book), drive 45 miles round trip in the dark after a day of 5 car hours and 5 meeting hours, and climb a long flight of stairs (a significant feat for me, currently), just to dish up some shit to one or more of the other attendees. (I know mine are minor, First World sacrifices; they were the only ones I had to make and I’m deeply grateful for that ease and privilege!)
If I come into a group wrapped in the principle of Thinking Well of the Group, I start with about 25-35% of my trust turned on for you bunch of strangers. Then I see how you do when our egos’ needs start bumping up against each other. My trust in the group either rises or falls depending on how we manage those moments as a group, and in response to whether any of you show any signs of seeing me—beyond your stereotyped judgment of my external package and presentation—or of coming out from behind your defenses and letting me see you. (I never expect all this at the first meeting!)
And this principle also reminds me that, yes, I may be wounded, feel treated badly, or find myself on the receiving end of what feels like “a bad time.” All these experiences or feelings may occur, in any group, regardless of its intention or composition, but if I come into the group Thinking Well, I am less likely to lose all of my baseline trust in one fell swoop. I can acknowledge that the person who bruised me in some way did not come here expressly to do that, probably unintentional, take a breath and a step back, ask a genuine question to understand....
I, for one, will be back. I hope the women who left last night will also come to the march, their egos’ loins girded against minor moments of cross-purpose, as well as much larger ones, which are inevitable. The environment of a protest march is no place for fragility or neediness, and I know we all have it in us to haul ourselves up to a position of greater strength. We do it all the time for what matters in our lives.
I invite us all to strap on the powerful sword of self-awareness, and the armor-like protection of humility. Yes. I have an ego. We all do; it’s part of the human condition. Yes, my ego has needs. I am not ashamed of those needs and I do recognize that, left to run amok, they can be much more annoying than loose ferrets that won’t use the litter box. I’ll manage my ego’s needs to the best of my ability, and I do hope you’ll manage yours. In any group we join, we join to share a common purpose, so we must focus more on that than on the ways in which we aren’t always successful in cossetting and coddling our egos’ needs. Others may hurt your feelings for a moment but Thinking Well of the Group lets you say, "I've been a jerk like that sometimes when I'm scared. I can cut her some slack."
There is, quite literally, no time to waste on bruises. Whatever cause attracts your passion, whatever purpose you pursue, the hill up which you battle will not suddenly flatten for you because your feelings got bruised.. Your ego has needs, my ego has needs, but there is often a greater need that requires our unity of purpose.
*Due credit: the concept "Thinking Well of the Group" was known as one of five “Cornerstones of Community,” as taught by co-founders Cynthea Jones and Patricia Storm, and many teacher/leaders from their southern Missouri-based, international, earth-based spiritual community once known as Diana’s Grove (circa 1995-2009). Transparency: I was on their staff from 2002-2008.