I just read “Protection,” by Gillian Kendall [April 1998], and wanted to add my own thoughts about being a target of violence, and what one might learn from it.
When I was an eighteen-year-old college freshman in Chicago, I was raped by two black men. The experience has deeply affected my life. Although I do not mean to dismiss victims’ suffering or condone violence, I do believe we are each responsible for what happens to us in the sense that our experiences are a reflection of who we are and who we need to become. I have a far greater wisdom and compassion now than I did before the rape. Before, I had no comprehension or awareness of the depth of others’ pain. Now I have some understanding of despair, of physical pain, of the desire for justice, of anger so strong it blinds you to what is right. I would not wish to be without this understanding.
Like Kendall, I felt that my old ways of protecting myself would no longer work. Our instincts warn us when we are in danger, but we talk ourselves out of our fear. I knew instinctively that I was in a dangerous situation, and could have gotten out of it. I didn’t, though, in part to prove that I wasn’t racist (although I now know you don’t have to allow yourself to get hurt to prove that).
Healing is a long, nonlinear process. We’re all healing from something all the time. My healing began when I finally left Chicago. I’d stayed for four years after the rape, out of both pride and self-destructiveness, and to prove that I wasn’t a quitter. I believe that the sooner you understand how an experience can move you along the path you want to travel, the sooner you will be free of the fear and be able to go forward with the strength and insight you’ve gained.
The only lesson to be learned from Gillian Kendall’s two unfortunate experiences as a victim of violence is that the universe is not here to make sense to us in any way — except, perhaps, by obeying the laws of physics. “Why me?” we ask. The real question is “Why not me?”
I have been an atheist since age fifteen. When I was thirty, my father was killed in a car accident. The other driver just didn’t see the red light. It was as simple as that. I was shocked and depressed for a long time, not just by the loss of my father, but by the absurdity of his death, which seemed to make his life — and my own — absurd, as well. The true implications of atheism mercilessly dug in and scooped out the last of my unconscious belief in the intrinsic meaning or value of human life. For a time, nothing I or anyone else did seemed meaningful or worthwhile.
That was my emotional reaction. Intellectually, however, I did not flinch. And eventually I emerged with a new awareness of how awesome it is that human beings even exist — much less that I exist — and a new resolve to create my own meaning and value in life, even though I am, no doubt, a fluke of the universe.
Last night I had some friends over for dinner, and we passed around your April 1998 cover photograph, by William Carter, trying to guess what was said to make the couple in that picture laugh so beautifully. There was no end to the suggestions.
Please, tell us, what did he say to her, or her to him?
The photograph mentioned above is available as a PDF only. Click here to download.
William Carter responds:
My wife and I spend Septembers in a small village in northern Italy. The couple in the picture (she has since died) lived in an even smaller village nearby. I met them through a friend and made an appointment to come back and photograph them the next day.
When I returned, they had forgotten the appointment. I found the woman on a path, and she said her husband was off picking figs and would be along soon. While we waited for him, I sat her on a nearby stone bench and set up my tripod. The man appeared shortly and insisted on giving me two or three figs, which I accepted.
The husband sat down beside his wife and, as I worked behind the camera, he asked where I was from and what I did. When he found out I was a professional photographer, he said, “Then I should pay you for taking my picture.”
“No,” I said in my rudimentary Italian, “you pay me with figs.”
Now, the Italian word for “figs” is fici. But I said, “Paga con fice.” Fice is Italian slang for “vaginas.” I took their picture as they laughed.
I didn’t find out myself what they were laughing at until later, when my wife and I were chatting with a multilingual Italian monk from a nearby monastery. He, of all people, explained my mistake.
James Hillman’s “The Parental Fallacy” and “From Little Acorns” [both March 1998] made me want to scream. Psychotherapy “makes every problem a subjective, inner problem,” he says, “and that’s not where the big problems come from. They also come from the environment, the cities, the economy, the racism.” And who pollutes the environment, designs the cities, forms economic policies, and creates racism? Individuals! Are we still arguing over which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Our society is troubled because individuals are afraid to take responsibility for their behavior, to look closely at themselves, to feel the pain inside them, and to let it go. This process has relieved the symptoms and dysfunctional patterns of many of my therapy clients. I agree with Hillman that “too many people have been analyzing their pasts, their childhoods, their memories, their parents, and realizing . . . that it doesn’t do enough.” That’s because we still live too much inside our heads, and aren’t open to what’s in our hearts. It took a painful marriage to awaken me to the hurt I’d buried as a child, and that awakening, I know, has contributed significantly to my daughter’s development. The patterns are obvious, if one dares to notice them. It’s now apparent to me that I have caused much pain in my children’s lives. Although my children function “well” in society, they have more subtle relationship problems and avoid true intimacy.
I am not sure how much power I’ve had over my destiny, but I know that, if my spirit did choose my parents, this does not absolve them of responsibility for how they raised me. I do not blame my parents for who I am, but I do place on them the major responsibility for both the good and the bad. (There is a big difference.) Because I have chosen to feel old childhood pain, I am becoming more compassionate toward my parents, and other living beings.
We must look closely at how we affect our children, who are incredibly dependent on us for love and survival. If we do not experience love and safety in childhood, it is hard to imagine that, as Hillman says, “there is something else in life, some purpose that has come with [us] into the world.”
I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks to The Sun for publishing the excerpt from my book, Finding Freedom [“A Buddhist on Death Row,” February 1998], and to all the readers who reached out to me with so much hope, prayer, and encouragement. I received a tremendous number of letters from people all over the world. Their words brought joy into my life and offered me the rare chance to connect with other human beings. I was especially pleased that my writing found its way into the classrooms of teenage children, whose letters touched my heart. I never thought my simple voice could have such an effect on so many people.
Jarvis Jay Masters was kind enough to share with us some of the letters he received. The following are just a few.
I was grateful to read about your inner journey, and about how you find the strength to keep looking for the light. Just before I read your article, I was thinking that I would like to spend some time in a Buddhist monastery this summer, to be in the company of spiritual people, in silence and calm. (Though I don’t define myself as a Buddhist, I have a keen feeling of oneness with its philosophy.) When I read about your life, and your daily struggle to maintain your spirit, I realized how ridiculous it is for me to think I need to go someplace to find silence and calm. I should be learning to find them within.
I suspect that if you and I put our lives side by side for comparison, people would say I was the exemplary one. I was always the good boy who did the right thing. And yet, spiritually, my life is as much in need of transformation as yours. And maybe my spiritual work is just as difficult, because I must deal with pride at a deep level, while your humility and compassion are palpable. Although I’m living the American dream, my life is a sham spiritually. Your example gives me hope and encouragement.
Sometimes we have to suffer the worst in life for our souls to be carved deep. The reward is spirituality, though it carries a high price. I think this is what combat in the jungles of Vietnam did for me.
I was impressed by your conclusion that it is not enough just to be a Buddhist who meditates; we must also act compassionately on our beliefs. In my prayer group, we speak of this as the spring and the stream. Spirituality is a spring, but unless it flows out to others as a stream, it will produce no more than a stagnant pool.
I am an old woman, but not too old to do two things. I promise to pray for you daily, for your peace of mind, that you may be sure that the work you are doing with your meditation and your writing will have an effect. I shall also immediately write my congressman urging him to outlaw the death penalty.
It is difficult for me to realize that the harsh life you describe is not just printed words on paper but your daily reality. As easy as my life is by comparison, I, too, feel that my practice is all I have. I think what I’m trying to learn is that pain and pleasure are really the same thing — that all is illusory and temporary.