February 22, 2007

I’m myself, not an example

Posted in stereotypes, survivors, violence at 2:43 pm by nevavegan

A discussion in the survivors forum got me thinking yesterday about both good and bad experiences I’ve had when sharing stories of my past with others.

I’ve done a lot of that sharing in a lot of settings, the scariest type of sharing is in my “real life” where people know my face and might run into me at the store and interact with me at work, or activities or social settings.

One of the main benefits of opening up about being the victim of abuse and violence has been that it helped me bounce my thoughts off others who’d had similar experiences. It helped me figure out patterns, make sense out of things. By turning to others I’ve found tremendous emotional support.

There have also been cases where the reaction has been less positive for a variety of reasons. I’ve suffered in the past from blurt-ism, which means that someone asks me a question that they probably don’t want a real answer to and I blurt out the whole truthful, ugly answer. And then the other person is just left there, not knowing what to do with this negative information. I’m trying to get that under control, although it’s such a weird balance. I need to understand that while I don’t need to be ashamed of things that have happened in the past, most people don’t need to know.

The sad truth is that though sometimes I can isolate myself to interacting with thoughtful, intelligent, well-read, liberal people, there is a whole different population set out there too. There are a lot of people who don’t get violence, domestic violence, abuse issues, sexual violence and so on. Such people can make very harsh judgments about the victims of violence.

For example, when I was living in New York, a young woman was raped on a subway platform in my neighborhood. Apparently a man with a gun grabbed her, showed her the gun, told her to be quiet, and dragged her to an isolated area away from the crowd and raped her. Many people I knew had a very negative reaction to this story, saying that there were so many people around, why didn’t she just run, why didn’t she scream, why didn’t she try to grab the gun away from him… Of course they were all missing the point of what absolute terror does to a human being. Similarly, at a job a co-worker remarked on a domestic violence news story “Well, apparently it’s not the first time he hurt her, so she must have liked it to stick around.” What can someone like me even say to something like that? The gap of experience and understanding seems huge and unbridgeable.

Given these prevailing attitudes in society it’s very difficult for those of us with past issues to open up, because most of us have played this game in our own heads for years. “Why didn’t I tell someone?” “Why didn’t I try to get help?” “Why did I always believe that it wouldn’t happen again?” And so on. We’re so full of the recriminations of ourselves that to get any such reaction from another person feels like it could totally crush us.

There’s a whole different weirdness that enters this tricky arena as well–an idealization that doesn’t fit and can be equally crushing. I’ve gone (in the past) to a lot of feminist groups and working groups to address violence. In such an environment there are still risks to sharing my story/stories, but there’s also encouragement to share. So many people there have been victimized themselves, so there’s typically a lot of support. And then there’s this: “You’re so brave.” “You’re so strong.” and so on. It’s nice to get compliments, but there’s a point for me where this crosses some line and makes me nervous.

How do I put this? I feel that I have experiences that inform my view on these issues. I feel that experiences that come from real life have a value and immediacy that needs to be present in a discussion on violence and related issues. However, it’s not just real life experience that shapes my views, I’ve also read a lot on these issues, I’ve gone to therapy, I’ve done some hard work. Also, I’m not necessarily right. I have no doubt that what I say and what I believe on these issues is the best view I can come up with for me at the moment, and it was not one easily reached, it’s not coming from a point of ignorance. But should new information become available, I’m totally willing to revise my views, because that’s what learning more is about. So it makes me uncomfortable if someone seems to be setting me up on a pedestal as if my experience gives me the final word.

And that pedestal doesn’t just make me the “resident expert,” a role I don’t think I can fill. It also objectifies me, because it implies that I’m nothing more than the sum of my experience. And because I’m articulate, in those settings, I hate to feel set aside as some kind of example of “the person we want to help.” This is so tricky, but the point is that all victims of violence are different. Some victims of violence are violent themselves actually, and then it is the culture of violence we need to address. Some victims of violence repeatedly put themselves in bad situations and tend to refuse help, but that doesn’t mean they’re less deserving. Some victims of violence are mentally disabled, physically disabled, elderly, or very young, or whatever other conditions limits their ability to help themselves. Some victims of violence don’t do well testifying in court because they aren’t very nice or likable people, but they still deserve help. Some victims of violence are men, and people feel they should be able to defend themselves, but they also don’t deserve to be mistreated.

But to go back to the idealization: I’m not here to necessarily save others. I want to help people, I care about people. But I’m still a person, with other interests and hobbies and my own beliefs. I have a different background and culture from some of the others present as well. I’m not a poster child. I’m not going to like every other survivor I ever meet–sometimes my personality and theirs just won’t mesh. I don’t represent someone else’s goals or illustrate their points.

I’m just me, navigating a difficult existence and trying to find answers and if an answer seems to work for me, I’ll pass it along. It has frightened me in the past, in such group settings, that the leaders often hold some foregone conclusions and then work backwards from those conclusions, looking in the group for examples. To me, I don’t think we have all the answers yet regarding either the roots of violence, the solutions to stopping violence, or on recovery either. I found that some of the accepted “wisdom” didn’t work for me and could actually be damaging or limiting to me. I’m interested in what works, not what tops the best seller list.

Another trap is the feeling that if I share too much information people judge all my ideas and actions subsequently on the basis of that information. I’m not sure what to say on that one. I don’t want to put myself in a position where people have a reason to think less of me and dismiss my ideas. But I also don’t want to hide a huge part of my experience because I’m afraid of ignorance. I have personally had some negative experiences in that regard, where people have claimed that I’m “single issue” because of my background, or that I’m so emotional on topics of violence that I can’t hold a rational view. But there’s a more insidious thing where someone can be very sympathetic, but the stereotype they hold in their mind of what a victim is, makes them underestimate my abilities and input in the future.

The stupidest part of this whole thing for me has actually been, after going through therapy, realizing there are a lot of people out there who don’t handle stress, emotions, conflict, etc. very well. In many cases this isn’t a result of abuse or some kind of traumatic injury; it’s more about growing up without ever being taught good cooperative skills for working with others. So when I consider that, it makes it seem all the ludicrous to me that someone could be thought less of for having had a troubled past, as opposed to being judged on ongoing performance. But it’s always a risk to those of us who open up to others.

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February 9, 2007

Tradition vs. Veganism

Posted in family, happiness, vegan at 1:38 pm by nevavegan

In many ways I feel strangely qualified to address the issue of how we can honor and uphold family traditions while still being vegan. I grew up in a family with farming roots, my father and grandfather hunted. My great grandfather made his original money, the seed money for his hardware store, off of cock fighting. Which in a way makes my very existence now dependent on cruel cock fights that took place 90 years ago or more.

When I first decided that I had to become a vegetarian my mother felt I was turning my back on my heritage. Much moaning and wailing ensued. Apparently she felt I was rejecting her values and giving up everything that made our family unique. I’ve heard similar statements from others, like “I would go vegan, but I’m descended from farmers; it’s part of who I am.”

Another weird logical trap I’ve seen people fall into is the “I wouldn’t be here” trap. For example, “if it weren’t for dairy farming, my grandparents would have starved, and I would never have been born. So it can’t be wrong.” But the wonderful thing about becoming vegan today is that it is only a commitment from this day forward to try to live with compassion toward animals and practice a more environmentally sound diet. I don’t own a time machine and I’m not going back in time to wipe your grandparents or mine off the face of the earth. I’m only talking about the choices we make right now, today, and how those choices affect the world around us.

I don’t want to take a revisionist view of history; I’m not going condemn my departed family members for having eaten meat. I like to think that if they’d been exposed to the idea of veganism they would have tried it, but I don’t know that for certain. What I can know is that while what I choose to eat is an important ethical decision for me, for my ancestors it was largely a matter of convenience and availability, not an issue of conscience. This gives me a lot of wiggle room to honor tradition and keep in touch with my heritage while still being vegan. I just pick and choose the traditions to keep. Amazingly, I’ve realized that’s what everyone does, vegan or not.

For example, I cook and eat black eyed peas and collard greens every year for New Year’s day. This is a long standing tradition in my family and in most families from the Southern United States. It is a tradition about abundance, simple foods, warmth and sharing, and it encompasses our hopes for the coming year. My great grandmother cooked hers with bacon grease, I cook mine with olive oil and herbs, but still every year when I cook them I think of her and my great uncles as I stir the pot.

I was closest to one of my great uncles and I’ve found a couple of important traditions that I can honor in his memory. First of all, he loved dogs and never had less than ten dogs at any given time as far as I know. Many of his dogs simply showed up at his door begging for food and stayed. He wasn’t wealthy, but since there were never any puppies or any fights, it seems he got them all altered. One of his dogs he found trapped in a leghold trap while hiking in the woods. He freed her and carried her home and from then on she was the most pampered of his dogs. So even though my great uncle would never have thought to protest anything, when I protest or write letter against leghold traps I’m honoring his belief that they were cruel and should be outlawed. When I rescue homeless animals I’m honoring his compassion and generosity. When I educate people on companion animal care or push for spay/neuter programs I’m honoring his devotion to canines.

But you don’t have to have a leghold trap-hating great uncle to honor family traditions. For most of us our compassion for non-human animals didn’t come out of thin air. We had family members who liked cats or dogs for example, or a nature-loving aunt, or whatever. We simply built on the values expressed by those family members and took them to the logical conclusion given the world we live in, that exploitation must end and compassion is the ultimate goal.

Like I said, everyone picks and choose the family traditions they follow. My very own mother, who thought my veganism was turning away from my heritage, hid from me the fact that many of my older relatives were avid tarot card readers. That was a tradition my mother didn’t like, but it sits fine with me. A lot of my ancestors made their way through prison at one time or another, a tradition that my parents, grandparents, and my siblings and I have all turned away from. Though my parents felt hunting was a great family tradition, nobody was proud of the cockfighting done by my great grandfather; they considered it low class and degrading. When it comes to food though, I think my grandfather said it best of all.

“When I was little my momma would send me down to the creek with a bucket of pig intestines, cause she didn’t want to wash them by the house. It was awful. I had to wash and wash them in the creek, all the while trying to keep the sand out of them. I’ll never forget that smell. Finally I’d take them home and she’d put them in a pot with seasoning and cook them all day long to make chitlins. When I grew up I moved out of the South and joined the Air Force and I’m never going to have to eat chitlins again in my life and nobody can make me eat them.”

Interestingly enough though, chitlins were not a favorite, cherished recipe carried here from the old country. They were an effort by our ancestors to not waste anything and to make use of every resource available to them, even if it was distasteful. Perhaps the tradition to honor is this case is the frugality and creativity that led our forbearers to make this Southern dish, and not the dish itself. As we’re faced with unprecedented strains on our environment, maybe the take home message is “make do with less and waste nothing.”

We all pick the traditions we’d like to keep; it’s not so hard to pick the compassionate ones to honor and keep.