Twice this week I’ve heard stories of hateful verbal attacks in public. I am quite certain that there have been dozens and dozens and that these are only two that I have encountered in the news, but it  makes me think about how we ever came to the place where we believed in our inalienable right to share every trivial opinion loudly and vehemently.

The first incident was a woman (I confess, I can’t recall whether she is Muslim or not) traveling on a bus who endured much hollering from a white man, telling her to “go back home” and “get out of our country.” Of course, as it turns out, she was born in the US but, apparently because she is half-Iranian, this man assumed she was both a foreigner and a terrorist, and none of the other passengers on the bus intervened on her behalf. It was only when she could take no more and decided to yell back at him and defend herself that the bus driver finally kicked him off the bus. The second involved a woman in Southern California who was driving her two small children somewhere during the day as she wore a hijab. A man in a large truck sped up next to her car, flipped her off and began spewing curse words at her, intimidating her by swerving his truck next to her car and honking before he finally turned a corner and drove away. She made it clear that the things he was hollering were in regards to her hijab and not her driving skills.

As I think about these stories and consider the number of times I’ve been spoken to in a rude or hateful way by a total stranger, I am left wondering who ever told us that it was okay to talk to other people like that? I am a supporter of free speech, but to me, free means that we are open to expressing our ideas and beliefs in a way that encourages discourse, understanding, and education. Free doesn’t mean unfiltered, unnecessary blathering. I frankly don’t care if you, man-on-the-sidewalk, like my outfit today, or the way my ass moves in my skirt. It isn’t important to me whether you think someone’s Spandex shorts are “gross!” or that guy’s purple mohawk is “faggy.” I’m pretty sure nobody else cares, either. Even if you’re going for a laugh, it isn’t funny. It’s just obnoxious.

What makes us think that our opinions are so important that everyone needs to hear them all the time? Even if you are a person who is nervous around those who practice the Muslim faith, I don’t think it’s important to share that on a bus, especially not in a way that feels threatening to others. I even feel like it is your prerogative to share your off-the-cuff thoughts (and true beliefs) in your social media feed – fine, go ahead. But directing your snotty or disparaging opinions or, worse, propositions or hate speech, at one particular person or group of people does nothing but make you a bully and a narcissist. Maybe you like Donald Trump enough to emulate him in public, but it is really unnecessary. The world doesn’t need more of that.

Perhaps two simple guidelines can help here.

  1. You don’t need to say every single thing you think. Honestly. If it isn’t going to make the world a better place, if you haven’t been asked for your opinion, if it isn’t kind or supportive, maybe it ought to just stay inside. 
  2. Your thoughts are not facts. I know, sometimes that’s hard to wrap your head around, but just because you think something doesn’t make it right. There are many, many things we can’t know about other people’s lives and circumstances, and if you’re at all unsure of whether or not you know for certain that there even IS a “right” and “wrong” in this particular case, maybe it ought to just stay inside. 

There is a saying that has been rattling around in
my head for the past several days – ever since the terrorist attacks in Lebanon
and France last week, to be honest. You can put a frog into boiling water and
he will jump out. But you can put a frog into tepid water and raise the
temperature slowly and it will stay in there and allow itself to be boiled to
death. 
I believe that this is what is happening in the
world right now. The acts of terror that have been recently committed are ones
that are reminiscent of a pot of boiling water, to be certain. But the rhetoric
of Republicans in the House of Congress and GOP governors and GOP presidential
candidates who want to deny refugees and propose tracking programs or selection
based on religion are a sign that the water is being heated to boiling around
us and it’s time we noticed and got the hell out of this pot. 
Donald Trump and Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and John Kasich (and their cohorts
Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) have been saturating the news with
their ever-increasing intolerance of anyone who doesn’t look like them,
think like them, talk like them. But if you look back at the things these
individuals have said and done in the past, there is a recognizable trajectory
of hatred and isolation. The problem is that because it has been ratcheted up
over time, each individual statement doesn’t seem that much worse than the one before. But we are about to boil over.
Consciously or not, it is this phenomenon that leads many sexual
predators to groom their victims. Many young children become convinced over
time that someone in their life is safe because they don’t act in sudden,
shocking ways toward them. Small incidents might seem a little odd, but often there
is no real alarming behavior to point to – it is like climbing a staircase.
Suddenly you’re at the top, and the perspective from up there is very
different, but if you weren’t paying attention to how you got there, it is
difficult to determine where you might have interrupted your path. Victims of
sexual and physical abuse are often questioned as to why they didn’t say
something or fight back or simply leave, but often the progression of events
was subtle and continuous and it is confusing to think about when or why you might
have noticed that something was wrong.
I believe that a great many people with good intentions end up following
politicians like Trump and Carson because they simply didn’t understand how hot
the water was getting. It is only when you’re on the outside looking in that
you can see how shocking it has become. Many of the statements that have gone
months before – from Carson saying that a Muslim shouldn’t be President of the
United States to Trump demonizing immigrants – led up to a climate of “otherness”
and intolerance that meant that Trump could stand up in public with his hands
spread wide in a gesture of “isn’t it obvious?” and say that every Muslim
person allowed into this country ought to be registered and monitored closely.
He seemed shocked that anyone would disagree that this “management” idea was a
breakthrough. Except that it was pretty much what Hitler did to Jewish citizens
just before World War II.

It’s getting hot in here, folks, and if those of us who have voices don’t
raise them up to point out what is going on and work to turn down the heat, we’re
all in a fine kettle. We might think of all of this as the consequence of
living in a country where we have freedom of speech, but when our elected
officials and presidential candidates are actively talking about how they would
plan to persecute people based on their religious background, it’s time to shut
this shit down.

It happened again. And there has been much acknowledgment that it keeps happening – we are killing each other at an unprecedented rate in this country and it is overwhelmingly sad and frustrating and I wish that we could find a different way to talk about it because, clearly, the way we have been approaching it isn’t working.

I popped in to my book club for an hour last night and, even though the topic was the book of historical fiction that we had all read, it quickly bled into discussing the shooting at Umpqua Community College. Someone noted that one positive aspect of all of these things – wars and terrorist attacks and mass shootings – is that it rallies communities, that we all notice each others’ humanity and come together to support each other.  But I couldn’t quite agree.  The other common aspect of all of those things that ostensibly bring communities together is that they are united against a common enemy. In war it is the other country, after 9/11 it was “terrorists,” after yesterday, it is either mentally ill people or mentally ill people with guns or, in some people’s minds, simply people with guns.  So while this may feel like solidarity, it is false, because while we may truly be recognizing the humanity of those who are suffering the same way we are, we are setting up a false dichotomy and altogether failing to recognize the humanity of the “other,” whomever we have decided they are.

The fact is, we are all in this together. How much must a person be suffering to pick up a weapon and shoot scores of people? How much pain must someone be in to want to inflict that much pain on others?

I have seen many posts on social media today from people and organizations vowing not to mention the name of the person responsible for yesterday’s shooting, and I can’t help but feel that that is part of the problem. His act was horrific and deplorable, to be certain, but we cannot deny his humanity. Pretending that there is an “Us” and a “Them” is simply perpetuating the problem. The fact is, Chris Mercer was one of us, but he didn’t know it and I doubt he felt that way. So often, we hear the stories of shooters in these incidents described as “loners,” “quirky,” “angry,” and “isolated.” In other words, not part of a community.

I absolutely believe that stricter gun laws are a vital necessity in this country. I have said that time and time again. But I also think that until we recognize the equal human rights of every person, to dignity and health care (including mental health care) and education, we are destined to see this repeat again and again. Uniting in the wake of tragedies like this, or against a common enemy is not a positive reaction, it is a reaction rooted in fear and scarcity. Coming together to fight AGAINST something drives us into a corner and forces us to erect walls. It is only a matter of time before those boundaries are breached, and being united in fear is a tenuous thing. It is high time we started uniting in purpose, finding a reason to include each and every person in our community and work toward a positive future for us ALL. Refusing to speak the name of someone who is hurting so intensely that they could plan and execute a horrific act like a mass shooting is just another way of burying our heads in the sand. We need to acknowledge the humanity of us all, recognize that we are all entitled to be part of the community of people who deserve happiness and liberty and that so long as we ignore and marginalize individuals out of fear, we are setting ourselves up for more acts of pain like this one.

In light of the most recent Congressional vote to de-fund Planned Parenthood, I would like my response to reflect the same approach I’ve had to this issue for most of my life. Some folks know that about ten years ago I embarked on a project called The Faces of Choice where I endeavored to provide a forum for women to tell their stories regarding difficult or unwanted pregnancies. I wanted to elevate the conversation to include women that chose termination as well as those who didn’t, but nonetheless struggled with the decision (because it is NEVER an easy one). I had hoped to publish these stories as a book and that didn’t work out. I then moved on to creating a website where a community could be established for women who wanted to share their stories and support each other. For a whole host of reasons, that didn’t take off, either. But the website still exists and I write here about why I was so passionate about the work. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but if anyone is on the fence about whether or not it is important to fund the work that organizations like Planned Parenthood does and to stay the hell out of a woman’s private medical decisions, I encourage you to go read it.

There are so many examples in my life lately of the
power of simple. The more I witness disagreements on social media, the more I
retreat inside to my own quiet authority. Everything from the Kentucky court clerk who refuses to issue same-sex
marriage licenses
 to arguments about immigration reform and how
we treat US immigrants; refugees desperately fleeing their homeland only to be
shunned in other countries when they reach the shore and the Pope offering absolution for Catholic women who chose
abortion
 tempt me to enter the fray. And when I sit and think
about why and how, I realize that countering arguments is batting at paper
tigers. 
I am increasingly horrified at the use of religious
writing to prop up acts of selfishness (often couched as “good
policy”) or terror. I am ever more disillusioned with statistics and
studies and numbers that justify treating human beings as problems to be
solved. 
I continue to know in the deepest core of my own
being that there is no external authority – religious text, political or
spiritual leader, or otherwise – that will ever lead me to act in the way that
expresses my best, highest, most human self. If a leader or book encourages me
to get very quiet and still, to look at the photos of the human beings drowning
and starving and fleeing their homes to save their children and really see,
that is something. If I am prompted to read about people who are suffering and
struggling no matter the circumstances or the choices they’ve made, and to open
my heart to them, that is something. Because when I do that, when I acknowledge
the humanity of each and every person on this planet without judgment, without
moving from my heart to my brain that wants to categorize and problem-solve and
blame, I am closer than ever to doing what is right. When I am driven by a
shared humanity as opposed to data or someone else’s interpretation, I am
certain. There are no conflicts, no pros and cons, no licking my fingertip and
flipping back and forth between pages that contain charts or someone else’s
words. The day that I can look upon another being who is suffering and only see
“the bigger picture” is the day that I will have lost myself, my own
internal sense of what is right. 
This doesn’t mean that I don’t disagree with
others, it only means that I wish others could do the same. If Donald Trump and
Jeb Bush and Kim Davis can see before them someone who needs their help and
deny it based on some external notion of what is right and just and moral, I
can’t change that. If soldiers in another part of the world are convinced that
raping and torturing women and children is justified by their religious
beliefs, I can’t change that. I can attempt to speak in the language of
scripture, find citations and passages that call for mercy or implore us to act
out of love. I could consult data and past precedent to counter a politician’s
words, but it is easy to twist words and numbers. It quickly becomes a question
of whose authority or perception is “more real,” and, ultimately, if
I am going to act from a place of certainty and clarity, the source isn’t a
book or a data set. I can only hope that in some quiet moment somewhere, each
of us is able to look within and find a connection, any small spark, that
reminds us that words and prophets are not our true authorities, that at the
end of the day, all we have is our own internal sense of what is real and right
and human, and that to not reach out and help goes against everything that we
are.

Time and time again, we hear stories of people who have had incredible
moments of insight – generally when they thought they were about to die. The
majority of them talk about suddenly realizing what is important, eschewing
external motivators and measurements of success and happiness. Instead they
strive for human connection, more time with family and friends, and a deeper
understanding of themselves. We are all born with a need to be connected to
others on a very basic level and as we move toward independence, we lose
something. I love Dr. Dan Siegel’s idea that instead of raising our children to
be independent, we raise them to be interdependent,
that is, to never forget that we are all connected and rely on each other. That
is the world I want to live in. The world where everyone sees the pictures of
the small boy drowning as he flees for his life and feels an enormous tug on
their heartstrings. A world where that pull of love, of connection, leads us to
talk and think about how to reach out, where we lead with our hearts instead of
our heads, where instead of distancing ourselves from the pain by closing our
eyes or explaining why that could never happen to us, we open further. A world
where we are not driven by numbers and statistics and policies, but where those
things become merely tools as we work to alleviate suffering and create support
instead of walls we build to keep us from listening, from seeing, from feeling.
It is in feeling where I find certainty. I don’t always know where to go from
there, but for me it is always the best place to start.

I had an entirely different post in mind for today, but I can’t let this one go.

Pope Allows Priests to Forgive Abortion if Women are ‘Contrite’

Being a long-lapsed Catholic, I am not really worried about this for myself. And I admit to having watched this Pope with a significant degree of awe because I feel like he really is being true to his Jesuit roots with regard to many of the decisions he makes and the things he says. I admire his commitment to being a voice for those in poverty and his courage when speaking about climate change. But this, well, perhaps there is something lost in translation, but this makes my blood begin to boil.

“I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women] to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.”

I call bullshit.

With all due respect, you don’t know. You have no idea what a woman who is trying to make a decision like this goes through. And you have no right to assume that you know, especially as the head of the organization that puts many of the roadblocks in her way in the first place (what’s your church’s official position on birth control, again?)

I think that the Pope is trying to do the right thing here, and I can appreciate the sentiment. But the notion that a woman, any woman, needs a man to absolve her for making a private medical decision makes me sick to my stomach. Some folks have commented that priests have no business ‘forgiving’ anyone, that that is God’s job. Others have praised the Pope for his liberal stance on this issue. In the context of the Catholic Church, a horrifyingly patriarchal system in and of itself, I suppose this seemed like a noble thing to offer.  Indeed, devout Catholics can be forgiven for a whole host of sins if they just ask with contrition, regardless of whether they are male or female, but to ask a woman to be contrite for a choice she made that is entirely private is utterly ridiculous. What’s next, you can have birth control if every time you go to pick up your prescription you go straight to confessional afterward and ask for forgiveness?

Asking a woman to be ‘contrite’ is whitewashing the entire set of cultural pressures that Catholic women live under daily. The Pope’s slight nod to the church’s anti-birth control stance (if that is what it was) doesn’t erase the reality for many women around the globe that basically tells them their highest purpose is to get married and procreate and be subservient to their husbands. It ignores the reality that women are the main caregivers of these children and yet are powerless to determine how many of them they are willing to risk their health and life having and give up their careers to raise. It ignores the reality that the only alternative to birth control or abortion is to refuse their husbands, often at their own peril. It ignores the reality that women often have very little control over whether or not they will engage in sex, especially in areas of the world where sexual assault is used as a weapon of war, but that these women are the ones left behind to deal with the consequences of that violation. Are these women to feel ‘contrite?’ Are they to come to the church and beg a powerful male figure for forgiveness because they made a decision that that powerful man who has taken a vow of celibacy could not possibly understand or have the right to judge?

I call bullshit.

Nice try, but it’s time to move along. Perpetuating the idea that a woman’s sexuality either belongs to the church or to her husband is so last-Pope. Don’t even get me started on the fact that abortion isn’t mentioned in the Bible even once…. The bible is a religious text, not a medical one. It has no authority to tell a woman how to make a medical choice, nor to forgive her for making it.

Sexual assault weighs heavily on my mind of late. Between the former Subway pitchman admitting to child pornography and rape of children, and the New York Times story of ISIS using rape as a strategic tactic, and the trial of a prep school graduate who is alleged to have raped a fellow student as part of a graduation ritual, the news seems saturated with it. I am reading Jon Krakauer’s book on campus rape, “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” at a snail’s pace because the stories give me a stomach ache, both with regard to what the students went through as they were sexually assaulted and the treatment they faced from police officers and prosecutors and school officials, not to mention the perpetrators. As the mother of two daughters, it is increasingly difficult to not see threats around every corner. As a sexual assault survivor, I know all to well the power of such violations and the trails they weave throughout a life.

This morning, I was particularly struck by the article on Jezebel (referenced above) pertaining to the testimony of the alleged victim in the prep school trial. She was quoted as saying,

“I didn’t want to come across as too offensive or rude….I didn’t want to cause conflict,”

 in response to a crude email invitation he sent to her to join him.  In other testimony, she said,

“I tried to be as polite as possible.”
“I wanted to not cause a conflict”
“I feel like I had objected as much as I felt I could at the time. And other than that I felt so powerless”

And while many people have (and will continue to) comment that this girl was stupid, that by making those choices, she clearly wasn’t really objecting to sexual contact with this man (he was over eighteen at the time and she was either 14 or 15), her words resonate with so many women and girls.

To this day, I still wrestle with telling my massage therapist or the dentist that I’m uncomfortable, to go easier, because I don’t want to be rude or tell them how to do their job. Saying it out loud sounds ludicrous, but I was brought up as a compliant Catholic girl who was to always assume that my elders knew what they were doing. I was not to question them or challenge them, but to defer to them and make them feel good. Not only was that the “Right” thing to do, but I quickly learned that it was the best way to get them to like me. It made me the perfect victim of childhood sexual abuse by an older boy. I never said a word. I’m certain that as I lie in his dank, sweat-scented, 17-year-old boy bedroom and he assaulted me multiple times over a period of months, I never cried out, fought back, said no. I know that it was decades before I ever told anyone, and every time I considered it, I saw his mother’s face in my mind and wondered what it would do to her. I saw my own mother’s face in my mind and wondered what impact it might have on her if I told – would she be seen as a horrible mother? Would she think of herself that way? It never occurred to me to ask whether or not anyone would believe me because I wasn’t going to tell – it would disrupt too many lives.  I wasn’t weighing my own life in this equation at all. I had absorbed the messages served up to me by the church and our culture too well. It was more important to be liked than it was to stand up for myself. It was more important to preserve the feelings of someone else (especially if they were older than me or male) than it was to express my own feelings.

Forgive us. And let us learn from this.

Let us teach our children that they can always apologize for being rude, but they can’t ever take back those moments where they didn’t stand up for themselves.

Let us teach our children that they matter as much as everyone else around them, that their opinions and thoughts are just as valid.

Let us teach our children to listen to their gut, to develop that spidey-sense that defies logic and is always right.

Let us teach them that they have a right to draw boundaries, whether anyone else likes it or not.

I have done my level best to help my daughters understand these things. They have been accused of being insolent or rude by some family members for “talking back,” but I’ll take that over being walked on any day. If they ruffle some feathers by being outspoken and opinionated, by refusing to do something they don’t want to do even if it will make someone else happy, I’m okay with that. And I sincerely hope that, with enough practice, if either of them ever finds themselves in a dark room with someone who is determined to overstep their boundaries, these lessons will come back to them and they will say to themselves, “F*ck rude – I said NO!” It is not a silver bullet, but it is something.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages girls to sublimate their own wishes in order to make anyone else feel good.

I am officially done with the culture that encourages boys to find conquests and ignore the wishes of others so that they can make themselves feel good.

It begins here, with a pledge to do better. To teach our girls and boys that they are, first and foremost, human beings deserving of respect, especially by themselves.

Related writings: Campus Rape
10 Things I Want My Daughters to Know About Sex
Rape in the Military

Another day, another abortion ban struck down. I am happy to see it happen, but frustrated at the vast sums of money and energy and time that are spent in the effort to keep women from having reproductive freedom in this country. I know it’s been said before, but it is so absurd to me that these resources aren’t directed toward things that would educate and support women and girls instead of punishing them.

I heard a story yesterday about a clinic in Montana that was so severely vandalized a year ago that it had to be shut down. And since the woman who has run the clinic for over thirty years can’t really afford to revive it, women in the Flathead region of that state are forced to drive 120 miles each way to receive care. Not just abortions, but any kind of reproductive health care, because the clinic provided a huge range of services to women in that rural area, like most clinics that are targeted by anti-choice lawmakers and protestors alike.

Toward the end of the story, the reporter noted that the man who destroyed the clinic was sentenced to 20 years in prison – fifteen of them deferred – and forced to pay restitution.  I won’t get into the sentence that was handed down for a variety of reasons, but the notion of restitution was what piqued my interest. So many questions flitted through my head:

  • like squeezing blood from a turnip. I wonder how much money he has, anyway, to pay restitution. Do you suppose it will ever be fully repaid? 
  • restitution to whom? To the clinic owner? To the staff that lost their jobs? To the scores of women whose lives are affected by his act? Does he have to give them gas money to get to Missoula? Does he have to pay child support for all of the babies that were born to mothers who now have no option but to raise them?
  • how do you calculate the proper amount of restitution to compensate for the trauma someone suffers when their life’s work is brutally destroyed? 
As a teenager, I worked in a small-town clinic that provided abortions two days a week. The rest of the time, we provided routine family practice services like treating infections and offering vaccines as well as contraceptives and vasectomies and OB care. Two days a week, the sidewalk was lined with protesters – many of them bused in from the big city 30 miles away. They laid spike strips across the entrance to the driveway, shoved their signs in patients’ faces, yelled and chanted, sang and cried and occasionally threatened both the staff and the patients. One day, as I left work, one of them started to follow me home and I drove around for an hour and finally parked outside the police station until he gave up and drove away.  Twice, the clinic was stink-bombed after hours and once there was a small fire set in the back of the building. The doctor and nurse practitioner wore bulletproof vests to work. My boyfriend begged me to quit. 
Decades later, I continue to be shocked at how blasé people are about these kinds of tactics. I am horrified that an organization could get away with putting together an “expose” on Planned Parenthood, alleging that they sell fetal tissue for profit, be exposed themselves for blatantly lying and creatively editing the footage to show things that never actually happened, and suffer no consequences. There is a vast difference between protected free speech and lying, bullying, in-your-face terror tactics. Make no mistake, these are terror tactics. It is terrifying to go to work and have to cross a line of angry protestors. It was surely terrifying to come to work and see your clinic burning, get death threats in the middle of the night on the phone, watch the protestors laughing and chatting in the quiet moments as they ate their lunches together as if this was just another day at the office.  
The continued legislative attacks on women’s reproductive rights – abortion bans at 20 weeks, at the first sign of a fetal heartbeat, restrictions on contraceptions, the latest bill that would allow employers to fire single women who get pregnant – these things add fuel to the fire of the protestors and the organizations that are adamant that women not be able to control their own bodies. They set up a climate in which it feels normal to tell women how to live their lives. It presents the view that a woman’s health is something to be parsed out by those in power. We will let you have fertility treatments, but not oral contraceptives. We will allow your employer’s insurance to pay for your hospital stay when you have a baby, but not if you have it at home with a midwife. We will pay for your mammogram but not your D&C.  
I have come to the conclusion that there is a culture of bullying that encompasses both right-wing legislators and protestors and everyone in-between who is determined to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body. The same groups of lawmakers continue to craft new bills restricting clinics and imposing time limits on abortion services. Even though the majority of them are ultimately overturned, the time and money that is spent by the target of this abuse is debilitating – a fact I’m sure the perpetrators of this brand of abuse are well aware of. Perhaps if the lawmakers had to pay restitution when their restrictions are deemed unconstitutional,  it would slow them down. What if we acknowledged these repeated efforts to curb reproductive freedom as frivolous and saw them for the bullying tactics that they were and forced those who push them to pay the legal fees for both sides when they lose? At this point, other than the punishments handed down by judges and juries to individuals who are caught vandalizing clinics or harming abortion providers, there is no real consequence for the organizations and politicians who continue to push women of childbearing age around. This is bullying, plain and simple, and until we figure out a way to make it hard for these kinds of laws to be written, we will continue to waste our time and money on taking them to higher courts.  

I was reading a mental health journal this afternoon and the following phrase leaped off of the page and smacked me in the forehead,

” ‘Defiant, combative, hostile, and uncooperative,’ were labels used by many people who knew Sarah…but what if we saw her as “frightened, struggling to cope, confused, and abandoned” and dealing with the effects of extreme stress?”

Yeah.
What if?

It occurred to me that those labels used by so many mental health professionals, teachers, social workers, and other folks tasked with teaching and serving individuals with mental health issues and developmental disabilities are selfish. They reflect not the individual’s feelings or challenges, but the frustrations of those around them.

How many times have I seen someone from afar in public who is acting in a way that makes me feel uncomfortable or sad or afraid and labeled them according to what I feel instead of thinking about what they might be feeling? I would say, pretty much always.

And while it is important, to be certain, to protect ourselves if we feel as though we’re in danger from someone, these phrases – defiant, uncooperative, hostile, combative – are generally used to pigeonhole people who would benefit more from our help than our defensive posturing.

I am reminded of a time when Eve was little and we were meeting with our toddler group. The kids were all around 18 months old and had varying degrees of language. They had all had lunch and were tooling around the living room playing while the moms cleaned up and visited a little bit.  One of the boys walked up to the keyboard, climbed on the bench and sat down to play, but within seconds he was throwing an absolute fit, screaming, red-faced, flinging himself off the bench and causing all of us to come running in to see what was wrong. Nothing was immediately apparent – none of the other kids had touched him or tried to take his place, he was simply freaking out and nearly inconsolable.  When his mom picked him up and folded him into her arms, he arched his back and pulled away, screaming and clawing at her hair and face. We could have easily called those behaviors erratic, defiant, hostile, combative, uncooperative, and so on and so forth.  I remember pulling Eve close to me as she stared wide-eyed at the spectacle.

After running through a few options of what could be making him so angry, all the while fending off his little fists, his mom laid him down on the carpet and undid his overalls. None of us actually believed that a dirty diaper could be causing this much mayhem, but it was worth a shot.  When she undid the velcro fasteners and folded down the front of his diaper, she found a fork. Somehow, he had taken one from the lunch table, slipped it down the front of his overalls, and as he walked around and eventually climbed up onto the piano bench, it had fallen so far down inside his diaper that the tines were stabbing him in the penis. Every time his mom had moved him as she tried to console him, it poked him again. I’m pretty sure I’d scream and resist, too.

Even as we age and become more able to communicate with those around us, it isn’t always possible for us to find ways to express what we’re feeling, especially if we struggle with mental illness or developmental disabilities.  If we take the time to unravel the stories and really pay attention to the individual, it is possible to come to a point where we take their actions less personally and begin to see them as indicators of what this person is dealing with. Many people with mental illness have suffered significant trauma in their lives and while that doesn’t excuse all of their actions, labeling them with things that reflect how they make us feel rather than what they are feeling only serves to keep us at arm’s length, and connection is a powerful tool when you want to help someone. I have a feeling it’s going to take a lot of practice to shift my thinking, but I’m willing to try.

Stephen Hawking. Photo by NASA

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately. I just finished reading Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius. It’s the story of Martin, who succumbed to a mystery disease when he was a young boy that put him into a coma for two years. When he “awoke,” he was unable to speak or move any part of his body other than his eyes and some minimal movements of one hand. It took years before someone was able to assess him for brain damage and fit him with a computer device that enabled him to communicate with the world and everyone was shocked at how much he was aware of and understood during the time he was mute and paralyzed.

I have to say, the book wasn’t my favorite, literarily-speaking, but it did spark a lot of thought processes in my head.  And ultimately, it led to me watching The Theory of Everything last Friday night. I have loved Stephen Hawking’s brain since I first read Black Holes and Baby Universes for fun in high school. (Yes, I was that nerd). I went on to read “A Brief History of Time” and was completely hooked.  His story was different, in that people knew he was brilliant before he began struggling with the symptoms of ALS and could no longer speak or take care of himself, but I was still fascinated by how heavily verbal communication weighs in our assessment of each other as human beings.

I remember when my grandmother was rendered mute by Alzheimer’s disease. Although she had been increasingly confused prior to that time, it was still confusing to me whether or not she understood the lion’s share of what was going on around her. I recall thinking that I would go crazy if I were trapped inside my own head and body, unable to respond or make my needs known.

As a young mother, I recognized my infant’s frustrated cries as just that – a desperate longing to tell me what she wanted and to have some control over her world.  Fortunately for her, normal developmental progression let her gradually gain that control. But until she could, I had to change my response to her by listening in a different way, paying attention to her body language and context, the time of day and where her eyes moved. I had to trust that she was doing her best to communicate with me and it was on me to slow down, change my expectations, decipher the clues.  When I came from a place of love and genuine desire to know, while it was often challenging and crazy-making, I was able to be more patient.

Some of the stories Martin told about how he was treated by caregivers in various care homes were horrifying. The lack of humanity he was shown simply because he was unable to speak or move his body the way he wanted to made me sad. And it made me think about how often we expect others to communicate with us in the ways we are accustomed to, instead of thinking outside the box. Fortunately, there are those out there who are committed to finding ways to help people like Martin and Stephen Hawking express themselves.  As for me, the next time I encounter someone who doesn’t communicate exactly like I do, I hope I’ll have the presence of heart to slow down and find another way to listen.