Carol A. Hand
“Be moderate in all things; watch, listen, and consider, your deeds will be prudent.”
(Midewewin Code, the Ojibwe “Path of Life,” Basil Johnston, Ojibway Heritage, 1976, p. 93)
Photo Credit: Medicinalmeadows.com
This morning I was reflecting on the dynamics of forgiving. I remember the first time I consciously moved beyond merely reacting to bullying and began to explore the ways in which I escalated other’s behavior through my own actions. I was a senior in high school. One of my former friends suddenly organized a group of other girls to begin making disparaging remarks about me as we stood in line to get lunch in the cafeteria. Their comments were loud enough for everyone to hear. I have long forgotten most, but the one that comes to mind, hardest to bear as a teenager, was a precursor of cyber bulling. “There she is, that arrogant slut.” The group followed me into classes and in the hallways as a chorus of unrelenting harpies.
Why, I wondered, are they behaving this way? I had never done them any harm. I believe it started as a result of a dispute between my father and the father of the girl who began the taunting. Her family needed access across land my family owned to get to their house on the top of a mountain in northwestern Pennsylvania, which my family granted. But when they wanted to widen and pave the road through the middle of the farm, a battle ensued between my father and my classmate’s father that reminded me of the Hatfields and McCoys. The conflict escalated from shouting to fistfights to an attack on my father with a road-grading tractor that left him bleeding on the road from a partially-severed leg. I knew the conflict was a two-way “pissing match” between two men who were not able to back down and appear “weak” in front of others.
I refused to engage in the conflict even though it angered the rest of my family. I also refused to move from the hilltop home when my family moved to an apartment in town. Although it was sometimes a frightening, I lived alone. I drove the one-lane dirt road around the winding turns up the mountain to my house knowing that I would be able to deal with any challenges on my own. But there were none, at least not at home. The challenges came at school from the neighbor’s daughter, also a senior who was in some of my classes. We had been friends before the conflict, but as it escalated, she stopped talking to me and then began organizing her group of friends to make my life in school hell.
So far, I sound like the virtuous victim, and in my own mind I know I thought of myself that way. I didn’t respond to the nastiness in a like manner. I remained stoic and reserved – “cool.” But I also used abilities I developed to cope with, and then end, my father’s abuse. I learned to read people’s greatest insecurities and fears. For my father, it was being diagnosed as “crazy,” a word he would have used to describe his uncontrollable bouts of depression and violent outbursts. For my neighbor, it fear was being seen as “lower class” and not as smart as others. She tried to hide her family’s limited income by dressing in expensive clothes, and enrolled in the advanced classes because she was very bright.
I didn’t need to say a word to make her feel bad. I simply had to outshine her as a student and as someone whose family could afford things hers could not. And I could do it in a way that others didn’t think was intentional or mean. I could even fool myself into believing that it was fair to deal with a bully by making her feel small and insignificant. And then, one day, I woke up. I realized what I had done to hurt her, and I knew it was far more harmful than anything she had ever done to me. Waves of grief passed through me for the harm I had caused. There was no way to undo the hurt. I did try to apologize at the time and again years later, but I could never heal the harm that I had done.
Decades later, I had another opportunity to understand lessons about forgiveness more deeply. I accepted a position as a faculty member with a school of social work that prided itself on its unique approach to social justice as the foundation for its new master’s program. What I quickly discovered, however, was that the program was really no different than other social work programs. At first, some of my colleagues welcomed me as an innovative, compassionate critical thinker, but that changed when I didn’t engage in conversations that disparaged vulnerable students or colleagues. The tenured faculty with power functioned as the guardians and enforcers of the status quo, and they did so in ways that left lasting wounds for the most vulnerable and gifted of students and colleagues. When I began to speak in defense of colleagues and students, I was definitely no longer seen as desirable. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they saw me as a threat that needed to be silenced and neutralized because I could effectively buffer many of their targets from their bullying.
Although the four faculty members with the most power often bickered and jostled for power amongst themselves, they quickly created a united front against the threat to their unquestioned hegemony. As a new faculty member, an Ojibwe with a different set of values and approaches for teaching and doing research, I was an easy target. They used the most minor excuses to discredit my teaching skills despite student evaluations that documented otherwise, my scholarship despite publications and new research, and community service despite an overwhelming load of committee work and students advisees. And they got nasty. Again, I sound virtuous, but not necessarily blameless this time because I did serve as an effective advocate where there had been none before.
So they piled extra work on me, belittled me in front of their classes, and tried to force students who were my advisees to falsify my evaluations by fabricating deficiencies in my performance. I still sound like the victim, and I honestly saw myself that way. Going to work became increasingly more painful, and in my mind, I characterized my colleagues as evil incarnate. So I began to use the same defensive skills I had used in high school. I knew that the most frightening thing in academia is to feel you are not as smart as others and to have others find you out. In the midst of personal attacks, I knew how to use my voice, facial expressions, body language, words, and actions to play on those fears. It was clear that I won the popularity contest with students, not because I was easier, but because I was compassionate, supportive of students, and still expected excellence and authenticity. Although my scholarship was not as voluminous as that of some of my colleagues, it was nationally acclaimed. And although I tried to stay away from the spotlight, it’s impossible to do if you’re one of the very few Native American faculty in an institution that purports to serve Native communities.
It was easy to win over student loyalty and community support just by being myself. As individuals, my colleagues were intimidated by my graciousness, intelligence, and dogged refusal to falsely massage their egos by complimenting them on their skills or cultural competence. (I didn’t see any at the time.) I demonized them in my thoughts while I concomitantly struggled with the question of how to create world peace when I couldn’t even live in harmony with my colleagues. They weren’t invading countries or murdering children. Yet I resisted the growing awareness that I needed to forgive them. Then, in a moment of overwhelming grief, resignation, and despair, I realized it was not my colleagues I needed to forgive, it was myself. I needed to forgive myself for transgressing my own values and ethics. Just as I had years before, I had used my defensive skills to wound others in the areas where they were most vulnerable. I had escalated their violence by making them feel they were somewhat dull and uncreative, small and insignificant.
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It is true that they did this to others, often to those who were the most vulnerable, and their actions left lasting harm. It is also true that they tried to make me feel small and insignificant as a human being, and did their best to destroy my career. But I realized that there was no excuse I could use to justify the way I treated them. I knew that whatever gifts I have been given are meant to lift others up, not to oppress or harm them. I learned that I really need to always remember a universal truth my culture has taught me about moderation and mindful actions.
I am sharing these memories with tears in my eyes in hope they will help others. I cannot undo the harm I have caused others. I could continue to cling to the illusion that my actions were justified, but I know that’s not true. This doesn’t mean that I feel I should ever accept oppression and violence as universal and unchangeable. What it does mean for me is the need to shift my focus from resisting or unseating “oppressors” to one of compassion, seeing individuals who have strengths as well as weaknesses, gifts as well as faults, and relating to them with hope and kindness. I need to work from the same foundation with those who oppress others as I do with those who are oppressed, to try to raise awareness about the systems that oppress us all, to help them see and unlock their potential rather than respond with reifying judgment that locks them more firmly into an identity as the “deficient” or “evil” other.
Photo Credit: greatergood.berkely.edu
There are no guarantees that this will work. I can only try to be more vigilant and mindful in the future as I remember the deep wounds in my own heart, not from the actions of others, but from my own.