Grief is a sacred journey

After Dallas: Facing My Shadow

image by Credo

meme by Credo

“These aren’t marijuana plants,” the policeman said to his partner.  He bent down to inspect a second tray of tomato seedlings I was growing outside and frowned. “These aren’t marijuana plants either.” He slowly shook his head with disappointment.

Our house on Cayuga Lake 1968

Our house on Cayuga Lake 1968

They searched the outside of our home on Cayuga Lake, gave us a warning, and left, but a warning about what? Growing garden seedlings? They hadn’t found anything. I was grateful they didn’t have a search warrant. It was 1968. We were targeted because of my husband’s beard and long hair and my no-bra hippie style. Maybe they knew about our anti-war activities. The police were on “the other side.”

Vic and I were draft and war resistors. In 1967 in a nonviolent Quaker protest, ten of us carried boxes of bandages addressed to South and North Vietnam across the Peace Bridge to Canada. We were held, harassed, and threatened for a day before we were freed. We were scared and outraged. I wrote about that day in Make Love, not War.

At the Pentagon, 1967, wikipedia

At the Pentagon, 1967 (wikipedia)

At antiwar rallies in the sixties, police were armed and aggressive. I developed a barely conscious negative attitude toward police, “the other,” a shadow in the language of Carl Jung. My projection was on “cops,” no matter what the color of their skin.

After the Dallas shootings last week, my heart ached. Those policemen had lives and families. They were protecting a Black Lives Matter rally. Those people deserved a peaceful march. A young disturbed black man had been trained to use weapons by the US military and had easy access to a stockpile of destruction. He did the unthinkable. A situation that demanded calm became a national nightmare.

While I worried about escalation, I inspected my personal attitude toward police.

In 2007, a policeman stopped Vic for speeding in a construction zone. The officer growled. I was afraid. “The other” invaded our already threatened lives. When asked, Vic said we were going to the hospital to get cancer test results. The officer softened and became helpful. Did that experience change my view of police? Not really.

In November 2012, I was booked for a reading at the American Cancer Society in Rochester. Following Google directions, I drove to a neighborhood with no lights and boarded up windows. It was 6:00 pm and dark.

Rf

urban slums (wikipedia)

I parked my car and approached a dark-skinned man standing nearby. He pulled into his large parka like a turtle. “Do you know where the American Cancer Society is?” I asked.

“No, but you shouldn’t be hanging around here,” he said. I was a gray-haired Caucasian woman by herself in, what I later learned, was the shadiest drug- and violence-infested neighborhood in Rochester. I was alert, but not afraid.

I asked another man. “Down that way,” he said motioning toward nowhere, “but do you have five dollars?” I held my purse a little closer to my side.

I saw two elderly black women dragging heavy bags toward the door of an unlit church. “Do you know where the American Cancer Society is?” I asked.

“It’s not around here. You need some help?” they asked, looking me over carefully. “This place is unsafe. See that car in back of the parking lot? He’ll help you.” The car in the back of the parking lot? It was too dark to see clearly. Did I want to approach it? Was it a set-up? I decided to trust these women.

When I got closer, I saw a young policeman in the dim interior light. He looked at me with questioning eyes and rolled down his window. I smiled, unsure.

“I’m lost,” I said.

Black_Lives_Matter_protest_against_St._Paul_police_brutality_(21552438456)

Black Lives Matter, St. Paul (wikipedia)

“You sure are,” he said. “Where you going?” He looked up the American Cancer Society on his computer and saw that google had sent me to the wrong end of town. “Can you get there?” he said after giving me directions.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll have to try.”

“Follow me,” he said. He inched behind me as I walked to my car. Then he drove ahead of me for five miles to the doors of the American Cancer Society Lodge. That experience got my attention.

There are good hearts everywhere. Good and broken hearts.

The day after the Dallas shootings, I tried to extend kindness to everyone who might feel especially threatened. Nothing fancy, just eye contact and smiles. It’s easy to give good vibes to people of color in my town. Late in the afternoon, I saw a group of policemen on bikes accompanying a Black Lives Matter rally. An officer pulled his bike next to my car. He was unarmored and unarmed with only a light bicycle helmet. How courageous he and the other police were—and how courageous the marchers. Can’t we stop hurting each other?

(wikipedia)

(wikipedia)

I rolled down my window and said, “Thank you. And I’m sorry.”

“You’re welcome,” the policeman said. He smiled and turned his bike to face me, “and thank you.” I’m sure his family worried about his assignment that day.

We’re a culture that loves to hate. Media rewards aggression and rudeness. We see the videos over and over again. A politician breaks every boundary of human kindness and civility. The media laps it up and spreads it everywhere. Some of us get angry. We’re sure we would never behave like that.

What’s my part in all this?

It’s time to drop the negativity I automatically project on police. My unconscious reaction adds to the problem of dividing the world into them and us. I’ve carried this shadow since I was a girl. I need to let it go. I want to reach out and across and under and over my shadow so I can hear the cries for mercy from both sides.

It’s time to grieve together.

***

Have you been forced to rethink your attitudes about violence and hatred? How has that changed you? For an article about our experience with a policeman who pulled Vic over when he was speeding, see The Caregiver and the Hero: Who’s in the Driver’s Seat? For an article about the 2013 “Rally for Climate Change” in Washington, DC, see Standing Up for Mother Earth.

22 Comments
  1. Thank you Elaine, again and again, for your eloquence and willingness to write about so many difficult experiences with so much subtlety and insight.

    On Sunday evening NPR had an illuminating interview with the former Seattle Chief of Police. He authored a book from the police point viewpoint, To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police. The interview is worth taking a look and, better yet, a listen:
    http://www.npr.org/2016/07/10/485460453/former-police-chief-has-a-plan-for-how-to-fix-americas-police

    Love,
    Myra

    • Thanks for your supportive comment and for the article, Myra. I read the interview because it’s easier for me to read than listen. It’s so helpful to read his perspective and his feelings as well as ideas. It seems essential to keep talking and opening to each other.

  2. The daily news shrieks violence but I stand firm in my stance that love wins over hate. Though I am no longer Mennonite, I espouse peace not war. In fact, my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University now offers graduate degrees in conflict transformation, restorative justice and peace building.

    I read your personal narrative here with a deeper awareness, having just read Trent Gilliss’ piece “Are we Not of Interest to Each Other?” a statement I read first in Krista Tippett’s book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. When you have time, you may want to check out the link to a recent On Being piece: http://www.onbeing.org/blog/trent-gilliss-are-we-not-of-interest-to-each-other/8809

    Prejudice and intolerance fall away when our body language and actions project a willingness to bridge the gap. Your post inspires all of that, made even more poignant with a willingness to show vulnerability.

    A line I can use: “Nothing fancy, just eye contact and smiles.” How the world would change if such gestures were contagious. Brava, Elaine!

    • I stand with you, Marian. Sharing vulnerability and fear brings us together in love. I also think we can be taught to honor and work for peace. Cheers to Eastern Mennonite University and all the other schools offering Peace Studies. I have the article you sent bookmarked to read.

      I haven’t experienced the desperation and hopelessness that many face with racism, extreme poverty, and a loss of community and family support. My life of morning birdsong, a healthy breakfast, and a safe environment is out of reach for many. I hope we can offer everyone more than hatred and guns. I remember being horrified as a college student when I took classes in South American government and learned that elections were bought and governments were run by the wealthy and by force. And now we’ve come to that very place.

  3. I know that I feel clobbered by all that I hear or read on TV newspapers radio. More lately, I’ve not been tuning in to it, whether a conscious choice or because of lack of time to tune in, I’m not even sure. So, am I being ostrich-like, burying my head in the sand? When so much is happening in the world and here in South Africa too with local elections around the corner and the most unbelievable stuff happening. Freedom of the press is under threat. Constitutional laws are being dismissed. Corruption is rife … But I believe in the basic goodness of humanity and wonder how it is that so many people are failed by the society and politics in which they live; how their families have failed them, how it is that we have this great divide of us and them, how it is that we give our politicians so much power over us, how it is that we don’t stand up and say NO, no more. I grieve too for this parlous state of affairs our world is in and pray that the good prevails …

    • I tend to read news rather than listen to it, Susan. I used to listen to National Public Radio news every morning and watch it in the evening. I know you’ve faced worse violence in South Africa and the social fabric is worn and frayed there. I don’t know how we’ve reached this place in the United States. Lack of education? Lack of opportunity? Lack of healthy food and a safe home? Lack of family and community support? We have big problems but none of them seem insurmountable, unless we continue to ignore them. I hope we will start talking to each other and taking care of each other instead of pointing fingers and encouraging more hate.

  4. My father was a policeman and my hero. For a while he rode a motorcycle which was black, I believe, not Silver. Nonetheless, he was my personal Lone Ranger: dedicated to catching the bad guys, protecting the innocent, insuring that justice prevailed. In our family, the word “cop” was not used, as it had a slightly disrespectful connotation.

    He died in the mid-nineteen-fifties, before the Civil Rights movement took off. I wonder what he would have thought of it. It was certainly a big disillusionment for me. I think the shock of the police brutality, combined with the fact that shortly before he died my father divorced my mother to marry another woman he’d been carrying on with, permanently marked me with a deep distrust of my previously innocent good vs. evil dualistic way of thinking. From then on I actively sought to understand both sides of every situation.

    This is the perspective from which I view the horrific polarizing prejudice, hostility, hatred and violence all around us today. It is our personal wounds that cause polarization and it is our work to heal ourselves that brings us together into a place of tolerance and understanding. I know this may seem like a pie-in-tine-sky, esoteric theory to those who have suffered great injustice. And there’s no doubt that we need to take actions to correct them. But as you well know from your years of meditation and study, as well as from your infinitely practical choices— like the one you made the other day to be kind to everyone who might feel threatened and need encouragement—working on ourselves and choosing to be kind to others IS taking action. And it’s something each of us can do every moment of every day. We only need to think of Nelson Mandela to see the effectiveness of this approach to the world’s ills. It takes time, but it’s a cause worth devoting one’s life to.

    Thank you for your always beautifully written and thought-provoking posts, Elaine.

    • Thank you, Jeanie. I remember that your beloved dad was a policeman. Yes, “cop” has a disrespectful tone. I used it when I talked about my disrespectful sixties projection, but I’ll edit and put it in quotes. I hope all of us will take a look at “the other” with fresh eyes.

      I hope our cultural look at what it means to be black in America persists and there will be more soul searching. I’ve benefited from a world of white privilege from birth–even if part of me protests and says I’m not prejudiced. As a child in the small town of Mexico, MO, black people were segregated in schools, restaurants, everywhere. That’s changed a lot since the late 1950s, but the aftermath of those and earlier times remains. I also think of the many who are Caucasian and don’t share my privileges because of poverty, lack of education, lack of health care, lack of opportunity, lack of hope, and more. The economic disparity stands out in my rural county where there are alarming pockets of Caucasian poverty. My niece from Cambridge had never seen a young adult with no teeth before she spent time with me here. We have plenty of inner and outer work to do.

  5. It’s funny how when the world isn’t right we tend to look at our own beliefs with a different objectivity. You are a wise woman Elaine. And it is only through love and compassion that we will all find a new peace. All lives matter. <3

    • Thank you, Debby. I agree all lives matter, but right now in the United States, we need to look at hatred toward people we see as other. We need to face who benefits from the system and who doesn’t. In the end, we’re all in this together. We have much to do and understand south of the border. Canada does a better job with race relations, although I know it’s still an issue there and everywhere. We can do better.

  6. Thank you for such a heartfelt, well-written post, Elaine. My attitude towards police changed when I became a prosecutor. They testified for me daily, and their stories revealed again and again how they put their lives on the line to keep you and me safe. Are they sometimes gruff? Yes. I would be too if I had such a high-risk job, and that helps me put up with it. But their acceptance of that risk has made me respect the police like I never did before.

    • I get it, Ann Marie. It was time to review my hidden prejudices and tendency to take sides. There are no good sides in this violence. Police officers have a huge responsibility to be in control, protect people, and not cause more violence. Training varies and populations they work with vary. I just read that protesters will be allowed to carry weapons at the Republican Convention in Cleveland. It’s about Ohio law, I assume, but it seems we’re asking for trouble–over and over again. The police don’t make the laws. I’m sorry they have to enforce this misguided one.

  7. I have nothing to add, Elaine, except to say, “Thank you!”

  8. There’s just too much of it – violence and hatred. And there’s no coming together in sight. No trust. No willingness to reach out and be empathetic. No end to anger. It makes me so sad to see all this violence and all the heartbreak. Yes, we need to examine our attitudes and actions. We need to practice compassion for those we do not understand. And then we need to hope and pray that everyone else will do the same.

    • I agree, Robin. It’s a small thing and perhaps an insignificant thing to tackle this on a personal level, but since the bigger picture seems so stuck, I don’t know where else to begin. Hope and prayers can feel like flimsy things, but sometimes they’re the best have to offer.

  9. “We’re a culture that loves to hate.” Oh how that jumped out at me. We’re a culture that lines to blame, to find explanation in the “others'” wrong doing.

    My mantra of late has returned to “keep the focus on yourself.” For therein lies our power.

    How has this escalated violence affected me?
    What am I doing, each day, to show the compassion I feel?

    I loved your example of using eye contact and a smile. So often, it does come down to those simple things.

    Keep your message flowing Elaine.

    • I know, Janet. Blame and finger-pointing only makes an incomprehensible and alarming situation worse. Underneath, I have to assume there is anxiety, fear, and deep grief. The main thing I can do is root out my own hidden pockets of negativity and keep talking with people who have different beliefs. And, yes, we both keep thinking and writing. Thanks so much for taking time to leave a comment.

  10. Thank you, Elaine. I really needed to hear that today.

    • Thank you, Paula. I’ve missed reading you. I hope you’re telling stories somewhere but I fear you’re in the difficult old parent caregiving loop. My mother-in-law is 100, but I’m still sure she’s going to outlive me. Wishing you well.

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