I am, at this point in my life, somewhat agoraphobic. I struggle to walk from one side of town to another if I have two errands to run. I have a difficult time with plans, with finding something that sounds fun to do, with asking someone to join me, and then following through. I am happy in the woods. I’m at peace around running water. I spent a few weeks this summer cutting down saplings of a variety of sizes with a small hand saw, and recreated a path into the woods from our yard. Last week I watched a doe disappear down it.
I am, at this point in my life, scared of my fellow people. At the top of my road, my neighbors have a small, discretely placed Hate Has No Home Here sign. Just down the road, painted on plywood and set up in response to a candidate sign for the coming election, is one that says Honk If You Have Sh*t For Brains. I do not pass by the hatred of the second sign untouched. Instead, I retreat a little more from the world.
I’ve been thinking about a quote from this article lately:
“To look into the eyes of a vulnerable person is to see yourself as you might be. It’s a more harrowing experience than one might readily admit. There is a version of yourself made powerless, status diminished, reliant upon the goodwill of others. One response is empathy: to shore up your reserves of charity and trust, in hopes that others will do the same. Another is denial: If you refuse to believe you could ever be in such a position — perhaps by blaming the frail for their frailty or ascribing their vulnerability to moral failure — then you never have to face such an uncomfortable episode of imagination. You come away disgusted with the weak, but content in the certainty you aren’t among them.
Or they make you feel helpless, just by dint of how little you can do to stop what’s being done to them. The temptation in that case is to look away, let it all be someone else’s problem, or deny that there’s a problem in need of resolution in the first place.” ~Elizabeth Bruenig
There’s a rather frantic desire in this American culture to avoid spaces of death, of suffering. It leads us to do terrible things. As social creatures, we’re wired to bear witness for one another. Instead, we all to often refuse that role as too hard. We make walls out of insistence that we will avoid similar fates by following rigid beliefs. The actual beliefs vary; their importance is in the future they sell.
So here we are. We’ve become an entirely reactive society. We are bluster and fury and fear all too often. Many of us choose not to feel, others of us are left to feel too much to make up the difference. We are not bound to earth, and all too often we are not bound to each other. We turn away and keep turning.
I don’t stay at home. I keep going out. I sometimes cry in parking lots. I sometimes need to call or text someone to talk me through it. I’m a magnet for dying birds, and for lost people, and for women who can’t reach the top shelf in stores. If that is my role in life, I will continue to accept it. I’ll wait for the woman walking with a cane ahead of me, because it is right, because I don’t want her to worry that I might bump her. I’ll thank people for holding the door for me, and remember to hold the door as well. I’ll choose register lanes staffed with actual people in stores, because the only souls associated with machines are those of the people surrounding them. I’ll hang onto the feeling of being a stranger so that I can remember what kindness means when you’re far from home.
We are all vulnerable. If I were to define my utopia, if I were to react less and dream forward more, that would be the one unifying principle. We all love, mourn, experience illness and disaster and joy. We are designed to be both those who strive and those who cheer the strivers on. We don’t have to spend our whole lives on one side or the other.
Witnessing is hard. It’s maybe the hardest of things. It’s looking into the hurt and the fear and the need and saying you are not alone. It’s doing it not just for people exactly like us, but for people as a whole. It’s accepting that the edges of their suffering and ours are not edges, but eddies in a current. It’s learning to receive that back, instead of building desperate fortresses against being human. It’s acknowledging the trust needed to reach that point, and seeing how much we’ve lost the ability to trust.
And then it’s weaving those experiences into your life in a way that asks everyone to join you.
I’m bad at so many things in my life. I’m a terrible housekeeper, and constantly forgetful, and easily startled, and procrastinator extraordinaire. I believe in stories though–in your story, in mine–and potential, and, as toothless as it is treated, in the possibility of love to change that which feels impossible to change. I believe in you and me and how we can find common ground in that space of vulnerability, if only we agree to meet one another there.