By Jean Skeels
Violence has been with us and part of us since the dawn of our creation.
Violence is expressed in our ways of being territorial, the instinct toward domination and our thirst for vengeance. It is rooted in separation, division, scarcity; the makings of enemies. Our ways of being violent and our reasons for it have changed and increased in complexity, just as our culture and all that it creates and carries has as well.
In the current environment I find myself in—personally and culturally, as well as being a person who has spent my entire life experiencing and then processing violence and trauma, I have found myself in an intense inquiry about what I view as violence and how I am affected by violence when it touches me directly or indirectly.
I am compelled to look at, inspect and constantly question my relationship to, my participation, my own humanity, in a world that I find often ruthless and unforgiving.
We live in and among systems and structures of dominance that are organized around concepts of goodness and promises of salvation, and we (for the most part) adhere to these messages and elevate them. We are indoctrinated by family, school, religion and government. We invest in and build our sense of self around what we are taught is appropriate, favorable, well behaved.
We learn that to defy these codes and criteria is met by punishment, pain, rejection. We fail to see how these systems themselves are violent and how they initiate us into violence as well. Therefore, in our conditioned quest to be “good” we make violence an aspect of “the other.”
To be “the other” is to be an out-lier, a deviant, a cast off. This allows many of us to live in a willful delusion that we are not violent.
Not me, not us, only them.
We dehumanize the “othered” in our culture—bad eggs, lost causes, depraved, or even evil. We make a world of them versus us. This othering is, itself, a form of violence.
When I was a child I experienced violence at the hands of my immediate family, at school and in my religious upbringing. Each of these diminished my sense of belonging and was an initiation into being the other, the one who is cast out. In my middle school years this was all a perfect storm. I was criticized and emotionally violated in my home. At school I was an outcast and bullied with constant taunting and rejection by my classmates; I was not seen by my teachers personally or academically in the classroom, and it was a Catholic school, so I was also bombarded with messages of sinfulness and punishment.
I had no safe place anywhere, anytime, and what was not brushed off as “normal” childhood experience was framed as being for my own good and betterment as a person, a suggestion that I should be grateful for my agony. I felt erased by all of this, my humanity stripped away. I felt like a walking ghost, invisible.
I was alone. I felt the pain of exile, emotional and social homelessness. I believed I did not belong, because I was not worthy of belonging. I deserved all of this because I had entered this world pathetic, shameful, and useless. I had been subjected to all this violence, and I came to accept it as truth. No one would notice my pain and suffering, because it did not matter.
I hated the world and myself. I began to lash out in fits of rage that extended outward and inward. I looked for any reason to vent my anger out on others. I would pick fights. I had continuous ideas about harming myself. I used drugs and alcohol to cope and numb out.
Eventually I got caught up in the criminal justice system, as a 20 year old drug user, turned into a drug dealer in the imaginations of the fever pitch war on drugs. I found the violence I had been subjected to had fueled the violence in me, and placed me at the center of a perpetual web of harm from which it seemed impossible to escape, and moved in all directions.
It has been many years since then. I have worked continuously to integrate my experience, reclaim myself, and make a positive impact in the world around me. Yet even now at the age of 46, a mother of four, a yoga teacher, a writer, a volunteer, a good citizen, I am not fixed or cured, nor will I ever be.
I am still very human. I still do harm.
I was one of them. I am one of them. These days I can easily pass for one of you, but there is no you, no them—there is only us. We cannot escape our violence. I am violent and so are you. Violence is a spectrum and you are on it. Where you are on it does not prove much of anything about your character or reveal an inherent quality of goodness in you. Under the right conditions we are all capable of any amount of violence that humans are capable of.
Until we sit fully in the pain, grief, and accountability we all share for what we have created here together there will be no transformation. If we want to transform the violence that is rampant in our society we need to get real about it. As long as we continue to point our fingers at everyone else and wrap ourselves in a cloak of imagined purity, there will be no end to this.
We rationalize most of our violence by justifying it as deserved punishment. We love vengeance; we embrace it. If someone says something or does something we don’t like and we call them stupid; we question their intelligence or worthiness, we beat them up with words or with silence, or in the right conditions we actually beat them up. We do bodily harm; we draw blood.
We go to war. We kill people. Or someone does it for us.
We accept war as an unavoidable reality and have learned to tolerate body counts, displacement, collateral damage, disease, famine; the most extreme kinds of human suffering are accepted as unfortunate but necessary in the quest to maintain our own safety and comfort. We send people to prison by the millions in this country. We are deeply punitive in our belief systems and our actions with and among each other.
Punishment is a form of violence whether it is justifiable or not, and on its own it is not transformative or redemptive.
When we derive pleasure and elation from another person being punished, when we cheer wildly for someone “getting what they deserve,” we have gone beyond achieving justice and accountability, and we ourselves are being violent. We all participate at least indirectly in systems of violence. We all do harm in various ways, both consciously and subconsciously.
As I try to see myself clearly and acknowledge these things, I always come back to the questions,
“What do I want?”
“How do I want to show up in this life?”
“What do I hope to create?”
We must ask ourselves hard questions and brace ourselves to do the deep and uncomfortable work that is sure to be required, if it is a culture that is healing its violence that we wish to foster and grow. We will all have to start with ourselves, our families, under our own roofs and in our own hearts and minds. That is the only way. Coming to an awakened awareness, “I am violent.”
That is the beginning.
We accept war as an unavoidable reality and have learned to tolerate body counts, displacement, collateral damage, disease, famine; the most extreme kinds of human suffering are accepted as unfortunate but necessary in the quest to… Click To Tweet
Jean Skeels is a full time mother, writer, yoga teacher, photographer, and end of life doula living just outside of Baltimore Maryland. She writes a blog called Magnificent Mess and has been published previously by Entropy Magazine, Elephant Journal, and Rebelle Society. She can be found on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/jean.
skeels and Instagram @jmskeels
Editor: Dana Gornall
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