Speaking and Listening
I was in Santa Rosa, California, when Orlando’s heart broke. I was there as a tourist and I remember walking around downtown, exploring, while city workers were simply, quietly, everywhere lowering the flags to half-staff. I don’t remember seeing a flag flying any higher than that, anywhere, all summer. From my bedroom window – in fact, from my bed – I can see the Tower Life Building, a part of the skyline of San Antonio, on which the half-lowered flag flies again, or still. I go to sleep and wake up to that image and it feels apt. To paraphrase a piece of poetry making the rounds on social media lately, I believe that if I were to ask this country, in these days, where it hurts, the answer would come back Orlando, St. Paul, Baton Rouge, Dallas, everywhere everywhere everywhere.
I believe that the pain is everywhere and yet, unquestionably, the circles of impact radiate out from actions taken against specific communities. I am talking (because names are important) about people of color, and black people in particular, and about the LGBTQIA community, groups that have, for much too long, been the lightning rods for the dysfunctional fear, ignorance and hatred of our society.
My introduction to the concept of systemic privilege, a long time ago, began with an exercise designed to visually represent the relative societal and socio-economic privilege of each person in the room, based on where we each ended up standing after responding to a series of questions by either stepping forward or back. I and one other woman ended up in the front of the room, at the end of the spectrum denoting the most privilege. We were told that our job, for the rest of the workshop, would be to remain silent. That our voices were already over-represented, and that we would serve best (and be best served) by listening.
That has been my model ever since. I took to heart that teaching – that the farther one stands from the center of that circle of impact, the more silent one should be. But this summer I’ve been asked, by people standing at the center, to look at the privilege that allows me to remain silent, on the periphery. To question that privilege. I’ve been asked to question whether or not my silence truly serves those who stand at ground zero. Does it feel respectful? Or does it feel like, well… silence?
Silence hasn’t really been serving us well, those of us who have had the privilege of choosing whether to remain silent or to speak. To be honest, it doesn’t feel like words have been serving us well either. Not when actions are so much louder. And faster. And fatal.
So if I am to speak, what can I say? When there is so much pain, and anger, so much fear? What can I say that is useful? Not self-righteous? Not about me? What can I say that is honest? That is healing? That moves in any small way toward justice, toward resolution?
Words are what I do, and yet I am feeling more and more the heavy truth that my words barely matter. I am almost ashamed to keep uttering them. But if staying silent can, in any way, be understood as tacit approval of the systems that I believe are killing us – all of us (whether we know it or not) spiritually and some of us physically – then I can’t be silent either.
I just keep trying to find the most honest words, the most useful words, and saying them through clenched teeth, through all the humiliation of hearing their hollow sound in my ears, through all of the despair of my growing, heartbroken belief that they will go unheard by those who should hear them, and resented by those who have no need to hear them, yet again, from someone like me.
To keep speaking when it feels like no one is listening, to keep standing when it feels like no one is watching, to keep acting as if I believe anything I do can have an impact in the face of almost overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t. What a desolation.
And, as I write that paragraph, I hear the story of what is quite possibly the everyday life of my fellow beings with different/less privilege than I have, who do stand at the center of those terrible circles of injustice. And I hear the story I am telling about my own discomfort – afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, the dumb thing, afraid that my learning out loud will embarrass me, or hurt someone else, that I’ll have to really experience my own powerlessness. I hear the story I am telling of my powerlessness and, at the same time and ironically, my importance. I wonder how stories of my own discomfort could possibly be more important than the stories of other peoples’ oppression.
I need to speak, regardless of how uncomfortable I am. But I also know I badly, deeply, need to listen. Perhaps, I think today, speaking can mean saying I’m listening. Sharing the voices I’m listening to, the things I’m learning and hearing. Asking to hear, honoring and bearing their stories, and letting the storytellers know that I am doing so.
As a Diana’s Grove-trained priestess, I realize, today, that I am a witch of a story-ing tradition. A re-story-ing tradition. That is the magic I know. At the Grove I learned both how and why to re-story, to tell an old story differently, with intention. The vital importance of restoring the healing impulse in the stories we tell to ourselves and each other.
There are new stories we need to tell together. Stories that laugh at the artificial construct of race, that celebrate the interbeing of us all, that weep for the injustice we’ve done, that explain why difference is a thing to take joy in, rather than to fear. But what my training reminds me is that new stories are born from the bones of the old. To restore is not to create from scratch. We have to acknowledge the old stories, even the worst, saddest, most horrifying and shameful parts of them, before we can re-story them and restore ourselves through them.
These stories of oppression and injustice – the ingrained, systemic, sometimes thoughtless but too often terrifyingly intentional acting out of impulses of fear, hatred, ignorance and greed against these groups of people in particular – are not stories anyone wants to hear. They are not stories anyone wants to tell. But change can only begin when we all know the same stories. That’s when we can start to work together to change them.
Because I need to do something, I’m going to start here. I’m going to try this. Maybe some of you will join me if you, like me, stand on the edges of these craters hollowed out by violent prejudice. Let’s listen to the stories we don’t know. Let’s listen to the stories of the people in the center of these circles, for they have come from faraway places, even if those places are right in our own neighborhoods. They have come from faraway places and they have tales of wonder, and of horror. They can tell us about the monsters in the woods, so that we can, all together, drive them out. For our own sakes, I think, we have to listen.
And for the sake of the tellers, we have to say, out loud, I’m listening.
This post was written by Laurie Dietrich