Courage and Cowardice

I’ve come across two recent think pieces online urging the assaulted and harassed to reclaim the word “victim.” The idea is supposedly this: that by refusing to accept the label of victim, one implies that there is something wrong with being a victim. I furrowed my brow, then realized with a blinding flash what’s missing in the discussions of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and toxic masculinity. What’s missing is the topic of courage, and its opposite, cowardice. That’s a topic we need to bring out in the open. It’s also a topic that may help us communicate with all the well-intentioned men who seem bewildered about what the rules are for approaching women today.

My favorite definition of courage comes from a fairy tale I read as a little girl, about a child who is terrified to fight a dragon, but fights it anyway. The moral of the story imprinted itself on my heart and mind at the tender age of seven: Courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. 

Let’s get this out of the way right now: being a victim is morally neutral. It does not confer any moral superiority or moral high ground; it likewise does not brand with moral inferiority. Victimization happens. The world is a brutal and vicious place pocked with shallow mass graves.

Victimization happens to courageous people and to cowards.

Fear, the automatic response of the sympathetic nervous system to threats, is a state of fight, flight, or freeze. We are told that women are unusually apt to freeze.

Boys are taught at a young age that freezing when challenged is an act of cowardice, and cowardice is to be avoided. I happen to believe that is correct.

Whether you’re about to give birth, or being attacked with a lethal weapon, the courageous response is the active response. Dealing with the energy of your fear, transforming it to calm strength or righteous anger, is a learned skill.

One of the most disempowering traits of sexism is its implication that courage is a masculine trait, cowardice a feminine one. The only acceptable archetype for a woman who rages and fights back is that of a mother bear fighting for her cubs. But not herself, never herself. The feminine does not own itself, does it?

But we do. We own our bodies and the space we occupy. And with that sacred ownership comes a sacred responsibility: to defend and protect ourselves with all the courage we can muster.

And why do we have that sacred responsibility? Because the courageous are less likely to be victims.

We owe ourselves the courage to say, “I was just talking; let me finish.” We owe ourselves the courage to say, “Please don’t touch me again.” We owe ourselves the courage to say, “Get the fuck away from me, weirdo!” We owe ourselves the courage to slap, punch, elbow, kick, bite, stab, and shoot if necessary to defend ourselves.

And sometimes, for a woman or for a man, that courage doesn’t come. The boy slumps and shuffles away from the bully; the woman allows herself to be pawed rather than make a scene. Sometimes it’s because we are picking our battles. Sometimes it’s because we are too exhausted to face yet another confrontation. Regardless, it amounts to the same thing.

That’s cowardice.

I have tasted that cowardice; I’ve bled and wept (literally) because I was a coward. I have also faced attacks with courage and been a victim anyway. And from those experiences, I have learned that we sometimes find our courage later on. Sometimes years later, we find the courage to speak, seeking retribution and redress, and warning those who come behind us. Sometimes that courage redeems our cowardice. Sometimes it brings on new assaults to test our courage further.

Let me ask you this, oh feminist sister, who wants the men she meets to stand up to other men about their bad behavior: why should they have the courage to stand up for us, if we don’t have the courage to stand up for ourselves?

Let me ask you this, oh well-intentioned straight man, who feels terrified to sexually approach a woman for fear of being accused: why would you involve yourself with a woman if you’re not sure if she’s a coward?

But let’s take this out of the arena of the eternal war between the sexes for a moment: let’s paraphrase the Irishman Edmund Burke and point out that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. Let’s then hop forward to the 20th century, and soldiers who were only following orders, and the pastor who said nothing when they came for the homosexuals because he was not a homosexual. Now let’s move up to the 21st century and all those millions who watched a Nobel Peace Prize winner drop tens of thousands of bombs on innocent civilians with surreal serenity, and let a man languish alone in a small room in London without a peep.

The courage to speak up is not domain-specific. If you are too much of a coward to speak up, you are already a victim.

Armenian women ready to fight Ottomans

Photo: historical photo of Armenians preparing to fight the Ottomans.

Heart of Gold or Steel

This is a shout-out to my sisters and brothers with mentally ill adult children. This is to say: you are not alone.

You are not alone when another parent laments a horrible night fighting with a son or daughter over curfew, and you try to commiserate while silently recalling the weeks your child vanished with no word. You are not alone in feeling the stab of pain at the photos and mementos other parents take for granted. You are not alone when your silence at celebrations is a veil between you and shared joy. I am with you.

You are not alone when you run into your child’s classmates’ parents at the grocery store and hear stories of graduations, weddings, careers, and grandchildren, and are struck dumb. What can you say? “The electroconvulsive therapy seems to be helping,” or, “It’s been almost eighteen months since the last relapse and it looks like this new boss is very understanding about the absences”? You are not alone when you wonder what they’ve heard, and what they are not saying. I wonder too, in silence and gracelessness.

You are not alone in those other awkward silences, when you relate a funny story, an achievement, a talent, or a celebration pertaining to that mentally ill person whom you love. You know those silences: the person you’re talking to is momentarily confused, because they thought your child was that child, the one who…you know. How can you be praising that child’s talents or skills or achievements or sense of humor? And you want to shout, “This child of mine is NOT circumscribed by illness!”

You are not alone in your anger at your child over the behaviors which make life so much more difficult and painful. Or in your anger at the people who take advantage of a mentally ill person’s confusion verbally, financially, sexually, violently. You are not alone in your desire to protect someone who cannot be protected without also being imprisoned. You are not alone in your confusion over where to draw the line between making allowances for things mentally ill people can’t help, and enabling unacceptable behaviors that they can. There are others out here, like me, whose hearts are a battleground between the rescuer and the judge.

You are not alone when the phone rings in the middle of the night and you panic, clawing at the sheets, and flailing in terror that this is one of those times when the police, or the ER, or the psych hospital calls to tell you your child is arrested, unconscious, suicidal, hallucinating, self-harming, attacking orderlies, or any of a litany of other behaviors. Or, the worst call of all, the one you dread the most: the call to say your child has overdosed, successfully committed suicide, been shot or stabbed or bludgeoned to death by a cop or a drug dealer or a stranger or a lover. And you are not alone when the most shameful thought flickers momentarily through your mind: at least then it would be over. And you are not alone when you crush that thought desperately, so fearful that even allowing it to cross your mind will somehow make it true, make it into a hammer that will smash your heart to pieces forever.

My sisters and brothers, that hammer keeps pounding away at our hearts. Let us keep our hearts warm and pliable so the blows will be the blows of the forge, to mold and shape our hearts and leave them stronger and more resilient, and shining like metal, like steel, like gold! Let this be a flame to warm your heart: you are not alone.

 

 

Invitation to a Cogitation (Bring Your Own Brain)

Science tells us that everything can be broken down, systematically analyzed, and understood. At least, that’s what I learned at the Bronx High School of Science; Northwestern University tapped firmly on the notion with a large mallet and seated it in the slots in my mind as I worked on my BS in biology, and by the time I was grinding away at neuroanatomy, pathology, and endocrinology in chiropractic school, my train of thought chugged reliably away on the steel track of theorize, analyze, test, conclude, refine theory. Spirit, spirituality, belief, mysticism: these were something separate and peripheral. Like the supposed separation of church and state, the Ineffable was reserved for recreation and socialization while the Measurable was what really mattered.

While I was grinding away at fulfilling the requirements of my credentials which would make me credible and grant me permission to earn a living doing something I was good at, the really dweeby math and physics geeks who rolled their eyes slightly when I said calculus was a challenge for me, wandered off into a land of abstraction and came home with things they named weirdness and chaos. This was cute, but then it wasn’t because they really meant weirdness and chaos. As I struggled to reach the point where I could gulp huge swaths of data whole, digest them, and shit out mental algorithms that would make me the best diagnostician ever, they slyly whispered: you can never know. Starting conditions affect the outcome. Fractal repetitions will lose you on orders of magnitude. You cannot analyze it. You can only appreciate it.

I had to take their word for it because my mind wouldn’t wrap around the math. Perhaps, I pensively mused, I should follow my heart, which was always annoyingly pulling me towards other people. And I found the church! I found belief! I dusted off my inductive reasoning and found God’s word in the Bible; I became part of the global body of Christ and we all devoted ourselves together to the love of that word, the Logos, the eternal utterance of pure love which created, creates, and will create the Universe. We did. Really. Except it turned out that involved a lot of eating bad food and singing bad music and judging people unkindly and telling people what to do with their reproductive organs. I tried several flavors of Christianity just to be sure.

I HATE being told what to do! Always have, since birth. It’s who I am. It’s part of what made me a vehement feminist when young and idealistic. And I hate still worse being told what to think and what to ignore. And the whole ignoring-the-parts-of-the-scriptures-we-don’t-like-while-flogging-the-ones-we-do-like-a-dead-horse part of religion finally tasted bad enough that I spit the whole thing out.

The basic principles of morality are actually pretty clear and simple: don’t hurt other people or take their stuff. Love God and do what you will, as Augustine said. The rest proceeds fractally from that. All the rest of it is pretty much just yak, yak, yak.

So okay, that’s the non-aggression principle; you caught me, I’m a libertarian. Maybe an anarchist, depending on what kind of day I’ve had. Don’t hurt people or take their stuff. Anything people have to be forced to do is not something that actually needs doing. The best outcomes are always win-win. And one of the most satisfying things I know is helping other people. I made a successful solo career out of it, until the arthritis in my hands, aided and abetted (in an obvious conspiracy) by exponentially expanding healthcare regulations, made it nearly impossible.
Of course then there’s the helping versus enabling dichotomy. Crazy sadistic nutjobs and alcoholic narcissists bloomed floridly on my family tree. Gaslighting was a family evening at home. Tied up, whipped, and suffocated was a visit to Grandma’s. The inductive reasoning came pretty naturally to me because as a child I had to always remember what to think so I’d know what to say. Not whining here; worse things are happening to other people all over the world right this very moment (and you and I are paying for some of them). I’m just explaining why I kept giving second, third, and successive ordinal chances to people who disrespected me, including people I gave birth to, until I mostly stopped. Fuck that! On a personal level, boundaries are beautiful.

So now you know what this blog is about. If you prefer a cheerful, happy blog about traipsing around in an RV and enjoying the beauties of the most prosperous nation in the world from the open road, check out https://peripateticperi.wordpress.com . You’ll probably find it much more to your liking. This blog will have sex, religion, and politics in it, sometimes in the same post. Sometimes in the same sentence. Also conspiracy theories. And cussing. But it will also have poetry and whatever deep insights I can convince myself are not just the drugs talking. There will be beauty.

That’s where I’m going. You’re welcome to follow me.