The Best Tool to Fight Oppression is to Feel Our Bodies

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because
they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
–James Baldwin–

The connection between somatic work and the fight for social justice runs deep. These two things are inextricably bound together and only limited by our capacity to bear our own discomfort.

A couple of weeks ago, Michael and I were comparing notes with an acquaintance about the process of applying to Kindergartens for our kids. When we mentioned touring a school we really liked, one that weaves social justice education throughout the curriculum, the acquaintance rolled her eyes and said, “Ugh, I did NOT like that school at all!” I asked her what she didn’t like about it, and she said, “All that focus on teaching ‘Social Justice’ (she did air quotes) to our kids really bothered me. I’m all for social justice, but they are just trying to make me, and then my kids,  feel guilty, and I hate that.”

I tilted my head to the side–something I do when I’m trying to talk myself out of trying to talk someone out of something–and said, “Oh, okay. Sounds like you had a very different experience there than we did.” And with that, we all turned back toward our kids in silence and watched them play.

There was a familiarity in the words she used. They are words I’ve heard a lot. They even describe things I’ve felt. The construction of a thought that starts, “I’m all for social justice, but…” is designed to enable the speaker to claim a kind of moral ground and then create a sinkhole in that ground for which they don’t feel they are accountable. (It took everything in me not to start that last sentence with a but. The struggle is real.)

“I’m all for gay rights, but…” (why do they have to kiss in public, dress that way, be so loud about it.)

It exists in the negative form, too, “I’m not racist, but…” (she shouldn’t have talked that way to a cop, he shouldn’t have pointed a toy gun at someone, he should have pulled up his pants.)

Or, “I’m not saying she deserved to be raped at all, but…” (she shouldn’t have been walking alone that late, she shouldn’t have been drinking, she shouldn’t have shown so much cleavage.)

So much opportunity for connection and compassion gets crushed in the time it takes us to form the word, “but” on our lips and speak it out into the world. It hangs in the air, in the spaces between people and makes it harder to feel our shared humanity, our shared struggle, our understanding that what happens to one of us happens to all of us.

Foz Meadows wrote, in a blog post entitled: Why Teaching Equality Hurts Men “when you’ve been raised to hate inequality, discovering that you’ve actually been its primary beneficiary is horrifying – like learning that the family fortune comes from blood money.”

I have both sat in that horror myself as well as been numb to my own privilege.

Years ago, I was an Assistant Teacher in a training called Somatics and Trauma. In one class, we watched a clip from the movie, Amistad–the scene with the slave auction. As we talked about it afterwards, one of my fellow teachers, a straight, white male, responded to the video with so much disgust it seemed to me like a performance. “I feel so much disgust and shame for what white people did, what my people did. I am ashamed of my ancestors. I feel so much shame right now.” He said, then stared at the floor, chest sunken, face bright red and sweaty.

I was having the same reaction to him that he was having to seeing the clip of white people buying and selling black people. Thoughts circled in my head, trying to find some place to land. They landed in the place that was the most comfortable for me at the time–smack down in the middle of my own judgy righteousness.

“What an ass kisser,” I thought. “He just knows that’s the ‘right’ thing to say and now he wants us all to give him credit while he takes up all the space in the room with his white guilt. He’s also claiming accountability for something he personally didn’t do so he can get attention for feeling bad about it. Because that’s the only thing straight, white guys know how to do–take up all the space in the room and use all the resources to secure their own comfort.” I rolled my eyes, probably visibly, while he sat there in tears and the discussion continued around us. All I wanted was to disconnect his experience from my experience. I wanted to disidentify myself from him.

When I can’t bear the sensations of discomfort in my own body, I can get judgy and righteous. My compassion, my sense of connection, my ability to slow down and listen, my sense of perspective, and even my own moral compass, sometimes become compromised. People who are having emotions that I can’t bear to witness or feel in my own self become other. “I am not you,” I think to myself. You are not me. The cost of my righteousness–of not feeling my own discomfort– is enormous.

It took me a while to figure out why I was so uncomfortable. After class, another fellow teacher asked me what I thought of the whole discussion. I said, “I watched that video, and I felt disgust and hatred for the white people who did those things, but those white people have nothing to do with me. They are not me. I am not them. I’m not my ancestors. I’m not even my own family. So I’m not going to take responsibility for something that has nothing to do with me, that I reject fully.”

At that time in my life, I was disconnected from my family and had been for years. My family’s main form of survival was disconnecting from one another.  I saw an episode of Star Trek once (ok, probably more than once) where the Captain has to disconnect the rest of the ship from the saucer, in order to save everyone’s life. The two parts of the ship drift further and further away, until the engine part explodes, and those broken pieces join the drifting into the vacuum of space. The image of that resonated with me as how it felt to be so disconnected from my family. I felt light years apart from them, as though any message I sent to them wouldn’t be received for 150 years, when it was so far past relevant that our collective existence as a family was a long forgotten blip in time.

At that time, the only way I knew how to navigate the painful relationships in my family was to be righteous and act like I was better off being out of touch with them. While that certainly had some truth to it, it was not the whole story. But disconnection was the only move I knew how to make at the time. My righteousness about the disconnection was the shield that kept me from feeling the loss of those relationships. And when that shield went down, it brought me to my knees.

The first time I felt the loss, I was at the gym. An old Go-Go’s song came on the sound system, and I remembered my sisters and me blasting the radio and singing one Saturday morning as we cleaned our assigned parts of the house. In that moment, I felt the loss of them so deeply that I went down hard on my knees like I’d taken a sucker punch to the gut. I stayed there frozen for what seemed like forever. A burning ache swirled in my belly, oozed up toward my neck, and threatened to tear through my throat in a howl. I did everything I could to re-contain it. Finally, a trainer from the gym tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was okay. “Yeah,” I said. “Yes. Just a squat gone wrong. I just need a sec.” I went downstairs to the locker room, got in the shower and cried as quietly as I could.

The next time it happened, I was walking down the street and down I went. The contents of my unzipped bag skittered across the sidewalk and rolled under parked cars. I focused all my energy on finding all of my things, down to the crumpled receipts, an old lozenge with no wrapper and one small paper clip. Once I did, I zipped it all into my bag, and that helped me get all the way home before I fell apart. The good news was that I was finally letting myself grieve.

The more I allowed myself to grieve the loss of my family, the more that shield of righteousness became permanently dislodged. At that point, I began to feel a lot more sensation in my body. The more grief I allowed, the more joy I got to feel. The more discomfort I let myself sit with, the more comfortable I became with a much wider range of people and situations. I slowly built capacity to sit with whatever feelings and sensations came up so that I didn’t have to react out of them, or cover them with righteousness, bravado or shame.

The more open that my heart got, the more I felt my deep connection to other human beings. Because there was no longer any place in my self, my body that I was afraid to go, the previous idea that what happens to one of us happens to all of us actually became my lived experience. And then it became impossible to deny that I was also deeply connected to the legacy of oppression and abuse perpetrated by other white people, by my family, by my ancestors, by the systems of oppression that are creating harm even as I write this. I feel the shame of that, but more importantly, I have built the capacity to sit with the sensations of shame long enough so that I can make a useful move toward fighting abuse and oppression rather than hiding in my righteousness, shutting down or turning away.

Shame is a masterful tool for survival. The language of shame is one of self-blame. It says “This is my fault, if only I’d been smarter, faster, stronger, better, not late, not early, a better friend” I could have stopped this from happening. The brilliance of self-blame is that it puts you back in control. If the bad thing that happened is your fault, well, at least you could have done something about it. You ultimately had the power, but you blew it!

Shame prevents us from feeling things that feel unsurvivable. For some people, that’s rage, or despair or depression. For me, it’s powerlessness. For years, I shaped my whole life around the need not to feel powerless. The sensations of powerlessness, the fact of my own powerlessness in the face of abuse felt unsurvivable to me. I have so much compassion for how afraid I was to feel those feelings, and I understand it when other people don’t want to go down that road. I mean, who willingly signs up for a healing process that culminates in being able to feel your own powerlessness, and the devastating pain that exists in the world. I’m no masochist, but I know this deep down in the cells of my being: The things we are afraid to feel have power over us.

When there are places in our own bodies, our own memories, our own lives that we are afraid of, the tools and systems we put in place to prevent ourselves from feeling those things inevitably have a cost. We can’t shut down pain without shutting down joy, or despair without cancelling out hope. And sure, those are livable lives that a lot of people choose, or choose by default. But the collective cost on our culture is immense. It costs us the ability to extend compassion to one another, to stay connected so that we can fight against abuse and oppression and move ourselves forward to a world where every last one of us has a valued place–a seat at the table.

The Dalai Lama once said that if we taught every 8 year old on earth to meditate, there would be peace within that generation. If I look at that from a somatic perspective, I think it means that if we learn to sit with our feelings without having to react out of them, collapse under them, try to get away from them or spend all our energy wishing they were different, we would open ourselves up to one another in a way that we seem to have lost. When we aren’t afraid to feel uncomfortable or powerless, we can sit and listen to people who have a different perspective. We can afford not to be right. We can have a sense of humor and resilience about our failures.

When we get past the stuck parts of ourselves that don’t want to feel, get underneath the paralyzing shame, sink down into the powerless, we can finally understand that we are absolutely powerless alone. We can see that all we ever had anyway was the illusion of control. We can know that the only thing we have a say about is how we deal with our feelings–whether we allow them to manage us or whether we learn to manage them, sit with them so they don’t get in the way of the most basic human knowledge that lives in our cells.

What happens to one of us happens to all of us. We are that deeply connected, whether we like it or not. We need one another. We are powerful together. Our very survival depends on the majority of us knowing these things and creating a kind of herd immunity against bigotry and oppression that form the cornerstones of our country.

That’s when it gets clear. At least, that’s when it got clear to me. The only way to get everyone free is to learn that life actually starts at discomfort, and it just starts getting good at overwhelm. It becomes clear that no one is born into the world without pain, but that pain is only the beginning, not the end of this. That pain, embarrassment, fear, and shame are simply not good enough reasons to shut down. They are, in fact,  the very best reasons for each of us to fight harder to stay connected to ourselves and to each other. And when we manage to stay connected to one another through all of these things, maybe that’s when we will all be free.

“The irony of American history is the tendency of good white Americans to presume racial innocence. Ignorance of how we are shaped racially is the first sign of privilege.

In other words. It is a privilege to ignore the consequences of race in America.”

–Tim Wise–

12 thoughts on “The Best Tool to Fight Oppression is to Feel Our Bodies

  1. Meredith – I very much appreciate all of your writing/sharing! This particular piece reminds me a lot of another writer: Nadia Bolz Weber – you might like some of her things as well/ she has a blog….. Love to you and yours!


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