In my 25 years of living and in the year 2018 I have found that
now, in our world, beauty means
hiding from people that your family didn’t love you well
hiding that your family growing up isn’t kind, a safe place and put together
hiding that things in your family have still not gotten much better
and hiding that this pain has shaped a part of your brain and body.
Now, in our world, beauty means
not being dark
not being sad
not struggling with confidence
or having to be reassured.
In our world beauty means
not telling the truth of how everything is hurting
and not telling how you feel about those who perpetuate the hurt.
It means to be silent about your pain
and your questions.
Beauty means you must always be smiling
You must never show fear
never show doubt
and hope for help.
In our world, beauty is confidence
and not having to consider that the world gives you this thing called “confidence”.
(What is confidence, now, in this world, except being affirmed by the powers that be?
In our world, beauty means
that those who are ugly,
those who are dark,
must find their significance elsewhere
in another world
in order to survive.
My hope: in order to survive the world
where being ugly
and being dark
is not desired
we must find our desire for another place
where being ugly is magnificent,
is nothing to fear.
Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Why? Because a ton of shit happened to me during 2016. I was testing the waters of “organizing” for the first time. I attempted to work with religious communities that expressed a desire to do anti-racist work. I also struggled to find support in school from my peers and my teachers.
I experienced a lot of pain within these and many other moments in 2016. I was gaslighted by people who claimed to care about the black freedom struggle. I attended tension filled demonstrations and have been in the presence of violence. I’ve had my creative and intellectual work unfairly judged by parties who couldn’t see my work rightly. 2016 was also the year that my university’s Peace Studies department used police presence to intimidate me into compliance when I rose concerns about racism and sexism in the program’s curriculum.
2016 left me burned and wasted.
You could even say that 2016 broke my spirit. In retrospect, 2017 went a whole lot better for me, even though the first year of Trump’s presidency brought with it so much maliciousness.
I don’t know if I have yet to fully recover from what 2016 did to my mind, my body, my spirit, but most days, I expect myself to be better by now. It’s been over a whole year, after all.
I tell myself that I shouldn’t be afraid of picking up my camera, taking new clients, doing new gigs… That my fear should be gone by now. I should be better. I shouldn’t still be carrying around a fear of running into ministers and activists who hurt me deeply. I shouldn’t be carrying around the fear of running into members of other organizations and coalitions that didn’t do their part to respect me and see my rightly. But, I do.
I don’t always know what to do about these fears. I try to power through them, but it doesn’t seem like enough on the days that I can’t.
As I work a few hours during the week, I get to enjoy roaming the isles of the library in solitude. I use this opportunity to catch up on podcasts that I’ve been wanting to listen to and I also get a chance to discover and listen to new ones as I quietly shelve books (and occasionally shed a few laughs here and there).
One of the more meaningful podcasts that I’ve been able to listen to this year has been AFFIRM, a podcast from the website Redefine Enough. Between listening to AFFIRM and taking a break from Twitter, I feel like I’ve been receiving the breath of air that I need… and will reluctantly say that I deserve.
I say reluctant, because I often forget a lot of what I say that I believe. Or, I forget to take seriously certain truths about mental health and caring for myself. I don’t always believe that the things that I whole-heartedly want for other people, I deserve as well. And so, it’s been so helpful for me to listen to the podcast and to listen to the host describe and name things that I forget or experiences I don’t always have words for.
One of the topics in the podcast that I found to be very affirming was the topic of “secondary trauma”. Essentially, secondary trauma isn’t trauma that you personally experienced, it’s trauma that you may have witnessed or trauma that you hear about. Trauma therapists and other healers often experience secondary trauma from listening to people’s stories and witnessing their pain.
I’m a person that typically listens with enthusiasm… but I’ve noticed my capacity to listen growing less and less. I have noticed within my body the desire to retreat into my own personal space. My capacity to hold others has shrunk. I often fear that this has meant that I have grown to be less big-hearted, less caring. I think to myself that I must be selfish now (which is the worst thing to be if you’ve grown up being told your worth is defined by how well or how much you care for others). However, the podcast reminded me that secondary trauma is still trauma. It makes sense for me to be tired after listening to others share their own pain. It makes sense for me to not always have the capacity to listen to others if I myself am in a dark place.
The podcast also affirmed a lot of my own experiences and struggles with mental health and anxiety. Within the last year, I’ve struggled to leave my house and have felt the kind of tiredness that lingers and overstays her welcome.
I believe now that my body has been shutting down… it’s been telling me that I need help, that I need to find healing and care. I couldn’t see the messages that my body was giving me: the lack of energy, the inability to leave home, the lack of excitement that I found sitting on my chest when I woke up in the mornings… I couldn’t understand the messages my body was giving me because I couldn’t find affirmation from myself or from many others that I was carrying a lot and that a lot was hurting me. In my mind, I downplayed everything. But, between Twitter drama, racism, sexism, biphobia, spiritual abuse, family trauma, rejection, life-changes, loss, flashbacks — all of it was affecting me. And most of it still affects me.
There were days when flashbacks made it difficult for me to leave the house. I would feel the emotions of the flashbacks hit my body right before placing my hand on the door. I’d find myself winded from the pain of those memories and needing to recover from the flashback. Then I would be late for something. And then, I couldn’t tell anyone about why I was late, because we don’t talk about mental health in our society well. Not in activist spaces, not in church… many spaces still hold stigmas, discomfort or general cluelessness around mental health.
Listening to women of color affirm each other’s mental and emotional health is doing something to me. I don’t know if I can call it “healing” necessarily but it’s encouraging me enough to get out of bed and to feel like I can do something about my anxiety and depression. The women on the podcast are reminding me that I deserve rest and care. They are reminding me that my trauma and pain matter, that the world’s bigotry, interpersonal messiness and systematic injustices affect me because I am human. They are reminding me that my trauma and pain won’t just just go away overnight. Trauma doesn’t just magically disappear. Healing and care has to happen.
Thankfully, I am in a place where I am seeking therapeutic support. I’m also trying to take advantage of this slower time of my life by making sure that I fight for my care time. I want to enjoy this life. I want to be happy. I want to have meaningful relationships, and I want to be filled with purpose and love when I do my work.
I think I deserve that.
A few of my favorite personal affirmations:
Rest is as important as work. Rest makes magic that work can’t do.
What I went through is real. I am not weak for feeling pain from my past, no matter how far back. I matter, my pain matters, and I deserve to have my pain attended to and healed. I deserve to be cared for and loved.
I deserve to be celebrated and respected in my work.
I have enough faith for today. I am spiritual/religious/Christian enough even if others can’t see it because of their religious boxes. I don’t have to do more to prove it.
I deserve to be celebrated, loved and respected in a religious community.
I have a lot to offer and to give, even when I don’t always feel like it.
I deserve to protect myself. I don’t owe anyone my gifts or my vulnerability.
The promise of life abundant is for me, too.
Please check out AFFIRM podcast if you get a chance, especially if you are a woman of color. Also, AFFIRM should not take the place of real therapeutic help. I grew up being afraid of therapy and being taught that it was bad and meant something was “wrong” with me. If you are intimidated or scared of therapy, I’m always willing to talk to you. AFFIRM is great about addressing fears about mental health and reaching out to a therapist.
Sometimes, I attempt to break from social justice discourse, work and meetings to focus on myself and to reconnect with and meditate upon some of my other values. Yet, when I engage in these meditations, I realize that I can never fully remove them from my need for social justice. My life requires social justice. I realize how the need for social justice is part of my personal life, even in those mundane moments that many would describe as “apolitical”, such as going on a date, spending time outdoors or a going to a party. When I think about community, personal health, relationships, intimacy, trust, self-love — I can never separate these things from my experience as a black Latina woman in the southern United States. No matter how personal the endeavor may seem, being places and meeting people will always have dimensions of power involved. It is the world we live in. That’s why I need social justice in my personal life, because I want to have a good life.
As I take time to reconnect with myself and my own life, I reconnect with my desires and I remember how much I long to continue to cultivate community and warm relationships with other people. Reflecting on this desire can quickly turn to worry about belonging. I begin to wrestle with my history of feeling and sensing that I do not quite belong.
I think about how these feelings of not belonging have lingered for long periods of time in my life. I know that so much of my trouble with feeling a sense of belonging is tied up with traumatic experiences as a child and a teen. However, I know, too, that much of why I don’t “belong” is wrapped up in the injustices of the world that show up in social discrimination, such as micro-aggressions, name-calling, and exclusion. I know that it is not a mistake that I struggle socially, because when I try to show up, I am sometimes met with actions or words that are intended to cause me to feel small. I am reminded of this when, gathering the courage to walk with a friend at night among Christmas lights downtown, I am called “n*gger” twice by four drunk men in a truck. I feel small when a white, female classmate gets praised for repeating something I had said earlier which was met with silence. It is vulnerable to show up in a world that is not ready for you, in a world in which you don’t really belong because of your race or nationality, or sexuality, and so it goes on.
I found myself worrying about belonging this week leading up to Christmas. I find myself worrying even still as we enter the fourth day of Christmas.
I got accepted into a faith-based leadership cohort in which my cohort and I are encouraged to build community with our peers– and seeing that most of the cohort is white, I worry that I will not be seen the way that I hope to be. I know that racist stereotypes inform the way that people interact with me at first, and that these stereotypes are caused by the media and our culture, which depicts black women as undesirable. It is an injustice. I worry that people will not muster the courage to look beyond these harmful images and introduce themselves to me. I am familiar with the ways that the expectation is usually put on me to make the first move, to be the one who risks first. I feel anxious knowing that often these voices are not just my anxiety alone speaking. It is actually happening. The men in the truck happened. Going to churches where very few would say hello to me really happened.
And I remember that I don’t really belong. I’m not being self-deprecating here; I really don’t. Because I don’t fit in a neat box, and because I am part of various marginalized communities, I am often reminded that I’m on the outside and not really welcome.
It’s distressing to me, but I also find it comforting to know that Jesus was born into this world not belonging. He was born in poverty and he would grow up to have an uncomfortable life. Christians know how the story goes — Jesus is born, he lives, he is rejected by many, he is betrayed. He eventually is killed by the powers and principalities of his day, scapegoated by the most powerful empire in the world. Jesus is born into discomfort, into marginalization.
Jesus did not belong in the world. More often than not, Jesus was unwelcome except for those who were brave enough to receive him and be hospitable towards him. We know these people: among them being Mary, the mother of Jesus, who took care of him and loved him dearly; the women who stayed in his presence as he died; and those throughout his life who trusted and believed his testimony and vision about God and the world God is creating.
What does it look like to belong when you are giving testimony about another world, a world that does not fit into this world? What does belonging look like when you desire a different world, a world unfamiliar to most of the people you are encountering? A hospitable world where the poor and those who weep can thrive? Jesus is from another world and wants us to imagine a new one, one that as Christians, we are invited to join Jesus in building. As disciples of Jesus, we are called into the discipline of co-creating a world with Jesus–one that is beyond what we can imagine now.
In a world filled with stress-inducing racism, unjust immigration laws, sexual assault culture, and imperial warfare, there are many people who do not just feel like they do not belong — they are also unwelcome. Both their material and social circumstances isolate them, and those who live in more comfort within their communities don’t reach out to ease their suffering. How then, can those who feel isolated because of discrimination, warfare in their communities, or lack of resources feel welcome?
Since the political strife in our world creates broken nations, broken community, and broken relationships, I want to argue that belonging is something that we create. Belonging is not something that we are born into. Belonging does not seem to be innate. Rather, it seems like something that we can become part of.
Belonging is something we become.
It is often thought that one belongs because they are the same race, ethnicity, national origin, or they share the same hobby as us. To an extent, this can be true. Many feel this way. Yet there are even those who find welcome in their society who have moments where they feel unknown and unseen by their own peers — someone may not know how much we need, how much we want and how alone we feel. We may fear sharing those needs with others — and at times, we might even recognize that there are certain needs, that if we were to share with our communities, would create discomfort for our peers. I think about the ways that I’ve tried to exist in white churches. I did not feel like I belonged because many did not want to accept that racism was something that they participated in and that affected our congregation (and me) directly. I only felt welcome by the one or two people who were honest about this and understood that actively striving against religious racism was a requirement in order to befriend me. When this need is ignored, I feel unwelcome and like someone who is feared. If we are honest with ourselves, there are many ways that Jesus intimidates us because of who he is, what he asks of us and where he wants to take us.
Yet, those who claim to be inspired by Jesus are called to be disciplined into creating belonging for those who do not feel like they belong, for those whose existences are perceived to cause discomfort and unease because of the way society marginalizes them. Those who do not belong must be encouraged through action, for many strive to be here despite all of the odds. A baby, such as Jesus, with a poor family, escaping genocide, surviving despite all of the odds; how do you keep such a baby alive so that he does not die before he turns old? How do you create a world where such a baby would not have to be born in such lowly conditions, born among animals and unclean shepherds? How could Jesus and his family be more welcome in this world?
It takes courage to be in a world where you will not belong. It is no small feat to show up in it, yet Christ shows up. Jesus, born into the world, with the courage to be among us.
God with us. This is what we reflect on in these twelve days of Christmas. May we show Christ how much we want him to be with us through our personal devotion and through justice for those in the world who are unwelcome. Christ, indeed, is welcome here, despite the unease he may create for those existing more comfortably in this world. May we do the same for those in our world who do not feel like they belong.