I never thought I would entitle a blog post as such, but, alas, I now know how to file for an HRO–an harassment restraining order. I’ve been writing about sexual harassment in my medical school program because I’ve been experiencing it for over a year now. I’ve followed every procedure to the letter, and the harasser will not stop. He has escalated to making veiled threats against my children. He is a 26 year-old dude for crying out loud. Only five years older than my daughter! And yet he has fixated on me. It has created a very strange reality; I’m actually afraid.
On Tuesday last, I went out to dinner with another student who has experienced similar circumstances in our program, and I had a wonderful time. She is a very courageous woman who has navigated the legal system with the help of an advocate from a local women’s advocacy center. I felt profound admiration for her tenacity and deep anger for the injustice of her situation. As she narrated her story to me over dinner, I could scarcely believe it. A restraining order? Against a fellow student? In our school? And the very next day, I had to do the exact same thing.
The student who has been harassing me escalated his behavior. I felt paralyzed. Lo, guess who was just a room away. My new friend who was just with me the previous evening. She swept in and took me to the women’s advocacy center. I disclosed the situation to two advocates, showed them all my previously filed legal documents with the Office of Civil Rights, the legal disclosures filed with the school, and personal documentation of his past actions. The advocates unanimously agreed that the best course of action was to fill out and file an HRO. In this way, the police could act upon my behalf, and steps could be taken to keep me and my minor children safe.
Can I just say that none of that felt real to me? I felt out of body and triggered by the entire circumstance. I was having a problem speaking words. But, I did it. I filled out the HRO and printed out every piece of supporting evidence for the court. My new friend and another woman from school went with me to the courthouse on Friday morning as I filed the HRO. At that point, it is a petition for an HRO. A judge has to grant it. We went to a diner across the street, had breakfast, and waited together. The court called me a few hours later. My hands were trembling when I answered the phone.
The judge granted it. I now have a restraining order against my harasser. He has 20 days to contest it, and, if he does, I have to go to a hearing with an attorney.
There are obvious reasons why this situation is unjust and wrong. I could go into great detail about it, but I won’t.
To me, however, there is one reason why this situation has been really good. I have experienced the support of fellow women in a truly meaningful way in the context of social injustice. There have been people in my program who have looked the other way and pretended that nothing was going on. Teachers and administrators as well. Even worse, other students have observed the harassment and buried their heads in the sand so to speak. The community at large has condoned the harassment, and this is what perpetuates it. Think about it. If an entire workplace of employees protested sexual harassment, then would it continue? If an entire university or college protested sexual harassment and violence, would the administration continue to support the student perpetrators? Consider Penn State. Well, they couldn’t. They must get tuition from somewhere. Sexual violence, hatred, and bigotry are as much a community problem as they are an administration problem. One blames the victim while the other condones harassment and violence through silence.
It’s a difficult subject because once you start to speak up on behalf of someone else, you start to become an advocate; and advocacy will always cost you something. You could experience retaliation. Other people may distance themselves from you because they associate you with the people you are advocating for–guilt by association. You could become a proxy representation and begin to receive more abuse than anyone else. Look at Martin Luther King, Jr or Harvey Milk. Advocacy doesn’t end well sometimes. There are risks, and, let’s be real, who signs up for this? No one. But, who signs up for harassment? No one. Someone has to do something. Don’t they? Who’s going to be the person who stands alongside victims and say, “I stand by you. This won’t continue. I’ll do something about this”?
Here’s the thing. Nothing will change in a meaningful or permanent way if we don’t start standing up for one another. And, I’m not necessarily talking about change on a macro-level. I’m talking about micro-changes. Using my college as an example, there is an established and documented pattern of sexual harassment within the school environment as more than one student experienced it. We also experienced and continue to experience an apathetic response from the administration. We are referred to law enforcement if we need help. One might say, “Well, that is the school’s right. They don’t have to help their students deal with harassers. What’s the problem?” Good point.
The problem is that if a school receives federal funding, then they must comply with all Title IX laws concerning discrimination. Under Title IX, sexual harassment falls under discrimination, and the legal language is very specific about definitions and what a school is required to do about it. If a school does not comply with Title IX, then they are in violation of it. They have broken federal laws. If a school is aware of discrimination and fails to address it, then they are not in compliance and must be investigated.
This is where documentation and reporting are absolutely vital. The more people who are willing to report what they see, the better. The more people who are willing to do this in a legal sense, the better. Victims of harassment on school campuses can get little action from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) without documentation. This is, however, how real social change comes about. We’ve seen it happen right before our eyes this year what with the Weinstein Effect. Story upon story came forth, thusly, destroying Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Entertainment. Witnesses finally came forward to corroborate other witness statements. It was never one big event that took down the giant. Just a community of people who stood up for each other in real time and risked something.
I, therefore, challenge you. We can’t complain about sexual harassment and terrible bosses, fellow employees and students if we ourselves won’t say anything or support another person experiencing it. If we see it and know about it but fail to do anything, then how are we essentially different from the harassers? We are creating the environment that enables the abuse. Social injustice will not stop until the environment that supports it makes no room for it any longer. That begins with you. And me.
Title IX: Know Your Rights
The Office of Civil Rights and Harassment Complaints
About the Office of Civil Rights (OCR)
In a state of anxious frustration, I wrote about sexual harassment a few month’s ago. Another student was sexually harassing me, and my school’s administration was less than stellar in their handling of the situation. Well, they really didn’t handle it. The situation is still “pending” in that other women have come forward with similar complaints about the same student. I have learned that this student is a known offender, and the administration had known about his propensity to harass women for at least a year if not longer prior to my complaint. And, they did nothing. What’s more, he is studying to be a healthcare practitioner! Do you want to spend time alone in a room with a guy like this? I do not. Alas, my school seems oblivious to the implications of graduating a predator, and I’m personally very alarmed by this.
I’m profoundly troubled not to mention I have two classes with this person. He sits directly behind me in one them and mouth breaths the entire time.
Or, he turns around and stares directly at me glaring in a menacing way. Either way, it is uncomfortable and disconcerting. Knowing now that the school administration lied to me about his history of harassment fires me up. I am taking action, but, at the same time, I feel tremendous anxiety about doing so. And this is where the rubber meets the road in terms of how both men and women must deal with social injustice in institutions.
Why is it so difficult and fear provoking? When faced with taking on an institution like a corporation or a college, why do so many people weight the costs and decide to absorb the inequity of the injustice?
The first reason is because institutions tend to exist well after complaints are made against them largely because they have almost infinite resources compared to complainants. They often have a fleet of lawyers on retainer compared to the sole advocate that a complainant brings to the table. This alone is often enough to deter a person from pursuing a complaint. Institutions have financial resources that dwarf an individual’s bank account, and they have the will to go the distance in terms of the legal process. Most individuals don’t have the time, energy, or money to devote to that process.
The second reason many people don’t pursue complaints against institutions is fear of retaliation. People need their jobs, and students need to finish their degrees with the favor they’ve earned from their teachers. Filing complaints can often obliterate favor, provoke bullying, and get you fired. I was once fired from a job after I lodged a complaint of sexual harassment in my workplace. The harassment was prolonged and severe. A man in my office actually locked himself in the women’s bathroom with me and forced himself on me and engaged in forced sexual touching. The company was in the middle of an IPO. Rather than fire the man for harassment, the company fired me for saying anything. This culture of gender discrimination is common, and it has become evident the world over what with the cascade of revelations following the Weinstein Effect and the #metoo movement. So many men and women tolerated the intolerable for fear of retaliation.
I filed an official complaint with a governmental body that oversees colleges and universities, and I’m very fearful. My fear is based in past experience with sexual trauma, and this is the third reason people often don’t report sexual harassment. It provokes latent feelings of fear associated with past trauma that were never fully resolved. In my case, it is so difficult to resolve the original trauma. It is known on my blog that I survived human trafficking. I was abducted when I was 18 years-old by a neighbor who masqueraded as a real estate agent. In reality, he was a participant in an international human trafficking ring. He was wanted by Interpol and other international law enforcement agencies. I was taken across the country to a port city to be sold at auction. Yes, there are super-wealthy men in the world who actually get together and bid on women in order to buy sex slaves. If you’ve seen the movie “Taken”, it was startlingly similar to that except Liam Neeson didn’t rescue me. I ran for my life and succeeded against all odds. It was by far the weirdest and worst experience I’ve ever had.
I never had a chance to accuse my perpetrator in a court. I did, however, live in fear of his finding me and taking me again for years. He became the amorphous fear that haunted me. He became the ultimate retaliation. My escape and survival represented the complaint. I was convinced that he was going to rain vengeance down upon me for staying alive. Consequently, I learned to stay hidden in my life. Don’t complain. Be quiet. Swallow mistreatment. While my experience is extreme, it’s not difficult to make a comparison to other experiences. When we have experiences in life that cause us to feel fear in terms of speaking up and self-advocating, we may discover that absorbing mistreatment is the better path if only to get us through the moments. This might be adaptive in those moments, but, later on, this can become a habit. This habit can become maladaptive later causing us to become victims of mistreatment and abuse. We lose our ability to self-advocate and even begin to invite mistreatment largely because we lack a standard for how we should be treated. We will tolerate anything because we are too fearful to say ‘no’. And the fear is no longer valid. The original object of our fear is long gone. But, the fear remains, and the fear is no longer purposeful. This purposeless fear is what I feel today. It’s real, but it serves only to limit me. It is purely trauma-based.
This is why I’m such a fierce advocate of healing trauma. Our post-trauma brains served us once. We survived our traumas, and that’s brilliant. We should feel proud that our brains and bodies did that for us. At the same time, post-trauma responses often become self-limiting because they do not serve us once the situations that cause trauma pass. We must learn to deactivate the mechanisms in our bodies that keep us locked into Trauma Brain and Trauma Body so that we can do what must be done like report sexual harassment or advocate for those being victimized and not get triggered while doing so.
I do not know what will happen now that I’ve made an official complaint. I’m not happy about this situation, but I did the right thing. That has to be enough for now.
It might be springtime where you live, but we just got hit with a doozy of a blizzard that dropped over a foot of snow on us. And it’s still snowing. Go home, Mother Nature. You’re clearly drunk.
I thought I would use my time wisely indoors, but I didn’t. After studying like a maniac for my hellish finals I crashed. I decided to watch “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”. Now, I loved “Seinfeld” the TV show, but Jerry Seinfeld the man doesn’t seem quite so affable playing himself. He’s a bit of a trope really which disappoints me–guy gets rich and famous and doesn’t have to pretend to be a good person anymore because he can buy favor and has more money than he can spend. You can observe this in the episode with Trevor Noah which is worth watching just to listen to what Trevor Noah has to say.
While Noah and Seinfeld are having coffee, Seinfeld does say something rather notable, and it threw me a bit because, to date, I haven’t heard Jerry Seinfeld say anything noteworthy.
He illustrated his point by saying:
“When you stub your toe on the foot of the bed, that was a gap in knowledge. And the pain is a lot of knowledge really quick. That’s what pain is.”
That is an interesting perspective on pain. Very rational. I like it. I tend to be emotionally driven; so, I appreciate a highly rational perspective on pain. It brings balance to my overly internalized process which often becomes dangerously introspective and too contemplative. Perseverative even.
Of course, there is no wisdom here concerning how to deal with whatever new information is causing pain. It is merely another perspective. Void of blame and accusation. I think that’s why it’s appealing.
You may find it to be a useful perspective the next time you stub your toe in real time or metaphorically.
Well, I did it. I saw my mother and stepfather. I wasn’t nervous at all until about an hour before I had to leave, and then it hit me. I was suddenly scared that she was going to be unkind to me. I was also scared that I wouldn’t have what it takes to withstand it.
My mother’s unkindnesses usually began as passive aggressive comments about my appearance, and, for some reason, I always experienced that as more painful than most of her other criticisms. It’s so high school, I know, but I think that’s why I found it hard to bear. Growing up, we put up with a lot of social garbage. We don’t expect to come home to it as well, but my mother was the ultimate Mean Girl. I feared that I was about to go out to lunch with that persona again. Frankly, I’m over that, and I’m really over pandering to that to keep the peace.
But, it doesn’t mean that the remarks don’t sting. They do because mothers have a way of making them feel very personal because they know us.
In my previous post, I described my mother like Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in “Mommy Dearest”. That’s accurate. Socially, however, my mother used to be very much like Lucille Bluth, the mother on “Arrested Development”:
Two of my daughters wanted to see my mother as well, and my other daughter decided to externalize her anger towards my mom twenty minutes before we had to leave causing conflict between all of us. I was functioning at capacity at that point. It made the drive to the restaurant a time of “trying to get one’s shit together” rather than a time to just relax. In other words, I was trying really hard not to cry.
When we arrived, I saw my mother and stepfather sitting in the restaurant, and I froze for a second. My stepfather hasn’t changed. He’s hardly aged. It’s the weirdest thing! My mother, on the other hand, has aged a lot. In ten years, she looks to me like she’s aged twenty years. She looked frail and small. The girls went ahead of me, and, as soon as they saw us, they stood up. My stepfather started tearing up right away and hugged them. My mother told them how much they’d grown and how beautiful they looked.
Pause: I have never heard my mother tell anyone that they look beautiful. She never gives compliments. That startled me. I was starting to wonder if she might say something nice to me.
Play: She came over to me and hugged me. She then said, “Oh well…don’t you look…older. And all grown up now. And…older.”
I sat with it for a minute. Older. Of all the things to say that’s what she went with. What makes this funny is that I joked with friends that she was going call me old: “I’ll wager that my mother is going to say I look old or something,” and, sure enough, she did! It could have been so much worse and, in times past, usually was. So, I moved on in the moment.
The lunch lasted a long time. Everyone behaved. I saw my mother as just a woman. She was no longer this powerful perpetrator who had power over me. She was a woman with health problems whose health was declining. She didn’t say anything new or unusual, but she still clung to a certain narrative particularly about me:
“Aren’t you glad I so strongly encouraged you to take Latin now that you’re in medical school?”
She has always taken credit for that and brings it up whenever she can. I just nod my head now. It doesn’t cost me anything at this point to let her have it. She did indeed encourage me to take Latin I. Not four years of it. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s time to let it go.
There was no drama. There was very little jockeying for power. She appeared to really want to try to reconnect without the past bad behavior. We all saw a movie after lunch, and then we parted ways although she was her typical self when she told the guy filling our popcorn order to layer the butter:
“Young man, I want you to layer the butter. Laaaaayer it! Do you understand? Really layer it. I want it layered! Layer the butter!”
Classic mom right there. You know what? I have never had popcorn so perfectly layered with butter. That kid spent so much time trying to layer that popcorn with butter because he could feel my mother’s eyes boring into his back! I just stood back and watched. She has zero assertiveness problems. NONE.
All in all, it was a positive experience, and I didn’t feel triggered. My daughters had positive experiences as well. She didn’t display any past borderline behaviors, and my stepfather was, as always, himself.
I did feel very drained when I got home as did my daughters. It was emotionally exhausting. I have final exams this week, and I couldn’t study at all. I could hardly process a thought. I think the significance of the event didn’t land until yesterday. I woke up feeling completely trashed.
I don’t know when I’ll see her again, but I know that they will want to visit. I feel okay about that at this point. I’ve worked really hard to achieve this state of mind. A few years ago, I would not have imagined ever feeling that a day like that was possible not because of my mother per se but because I couldn’t imagine feeling well enough emotionally. I honestly didn’t feel triggered by her–even by the remnant behaviors that would have triggered me in the past. Calling me “older” would have bothered me simply because it could be perceived as a criticism of my appearance, and I used to be hypervigilant to things like that. My mother’s demands upon the guy at the movie theatre would have triggered me in the past because that’s how she was towards me all the time. I would have identified with him too much. Her mentioning Latin class for the millionth time would have triggered me because my mother overly identified with my accomplishments always taking credit for everything I did. It was as if she were me, and I would have felt diminished and engulfed by her.
But now? It all felt irrelevant. I told my friends that she called me “older”, and we all laughed about it–a lot! My boyfriend didn’t hold back either. People filled in that gap for me so that what she said wouldn’t find a place in me. I don’t need my mother’s approval or emotional support, and most of the trauma associated with her has healed. It is very possible to achieve that given time and effort–as much time as you need. I’ve needed over a decade.
So, if you find yourself estranged from a parent and harbor even a flicker of hope that perhaps you will one day see them again under better emotional circumstances, don’t give up that hope. It’s possible. I don’t say this with a Pollyanna-esque attitude. I am in no way BFFs with my mother. It was one lunch, and it went well. That may be all that we ever achieve. Quarterly lunches if that. I may not see her for another year, but I feel very good that I did see her. It feels like an accomplishment.
I wonder if that’s because I’m older…
Today is a momentous day. I see my mother at noon today for the first time in almost ten years. At least I think it’s ten years.
I have some long-time readers who will know that this is a big deal. I have many readers who aren’t familiar with this situation. To quickly recap, my mother has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and clinical depression. I have always had great compassion for her. I spent most of my life feeling responsible for her well-being to the point of parentification, and, due to her inordinate fear of abandonment and simultaneous fear of engulfment, my mother exploited my natural people pleasing disposition to an abusive degree.
I was a non-entity growing up. I was only allowed the personality, will, and opinions that she permitted me to have. I was all at once The Good Child, Bad Child, and Scapegoat*. My role changed according to her momentary whims. I have written extensively about BPD on my blog, and I fear repeating myself. I also don’t want to stigmatize the diagnosis as it’s already a charged one pregnant with assumptions and implications.
What I want to discuss is achieving a reality in which one could see a formerly close family member who was also a perpetrator of profound abuse. How is something like that possible? There is a reason BPD gets a bad rap. While the disorder can express itself in various ways, when it expresses itself through manifestations of talionic rage bystanders are in danger. Emotional dysregulation is a hallmark of BPD, and this emotional turmoil manifests in myriad ways to loved ones. Children are the most vulnerable to subsequent trauma. So, how does one move from a post-traumatic state to a confident state of mind? Or, at least, confident enough for a meet-and-greet? That is a valid question.
A few friends are not thrilled that I’m meeting with my mother. They know the stories of her past behavior. They have witnessed her fight every boundary I put up. For those of you with a close family member carrying a BPD diagnosis, you’ll be able to read between the lines here. For readers who are not familiar with anything I’m attempting to gently imply, I’d recommend watching “Mommy Dearest” if you are at all curious. Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford is spot on in terms of representing a woman with BPD, *Queen/Witch subtype. My mother is a *Queen/Witch, and my mother behaved a lot like Joan Crawford in this film.
So, what have I been doing for the past ten years then that helped me heal?
I made a career out of going to therapy. While my father was abusive in his own right, my mother’s abuse proved to be the most psychologically pervasive and damaging. She was in my head. I used to have crippling social anxiety because I could almost hear her voice in my head criticizing me largely because my mother openly ridiculed me publicly by critiquing my appearance throughout my adolescence. My hair, my face, my teeth, my body, and general appearance were all in her crosshairs, and she looked gleeful as she crushed me. It was as if she had to humiliate me in order to feel good. She was a bully. So, I spent years dealing with everything that she did including her rages which caused her to act out extreme physical violence against other people. Her public sadism is actually what I’m most anxious about today.
I practiced being assertive. This is still very difficult for me. I was not permitted to say no or have a differing opinion with either of my parents. I recall saying no to my mother only one time. She slapped me across the face so hard that my head snapped back. My father was a Green Beret and Army sniper in Vietnam. You just didn’t say no to him. Ever. I grew up very afraid of authority, but, at the same time, my natural personality is assertive and a bit contrary. I will stand up for myself and other people. So, part of the recovery process has been looking for opportunities to be assertive even if it’s only returning coffee drinks that have been made improperly–something that makes me sweat.
I stopped being friends with people who were exploitative and took advantage of my nature. What do I mean by that? People who are naturally kind are easy to exploit because we will absorb relational inequities believing that somehow our personal sacrifices will help the other person. Believe me, they won’t. We will build the bridge to get to the other person in the relationship because of an empathetic nature. It is, however, worth nothing that women have a tendency to do this more than men due to social gender biases as noted in this study– A study by the Harvard Business Review(link is external) showed that only 7 % of female MBA graduates attempted to negotiate their salary with their new employers while 57% negotiated.
“I was raised to be an educated, polite, and respectful girl. You might have been, too. I was taught to think of others and their well-being. I consciously made an effort to treat others how I wanted to be treated. In short, I was always trying to be a good girl.” (Are You a Good Girl?)
I was definitely raised like this. It wasn’t a choice. It was a necessity. For survival. There are men who were raised like this as well, and I don’t want to discount that. I have met men who struggle with something like The Dutiful Son. They, too, must be educated, polite, and respectful always thinking of others and their well-being, willing to sacrifice themselves and their interests for the benefit of their family. The “Good Girl” phenomenon isn’t isolated to women. This spans the gender gap.
I also thought that this was the way of the world:
“I naively thought this was the way everybody was raised. I assumed everyone would go out of their way to treat each other well. I thought we were all living in a world where we respected each other and each other’s choices. I thought being considerate towards others would mean others would be equally considerate towards me. Turns out, I was wrong.” (Are You a Good Girl?)
I re-examined that assumption because I discovered in the past ten years that many people are not interested in personal development, bettering the world, or even being kind. There is a lot of brokenness in the world, and needs often drive behaviors far more than intention:
“…there have been plenty of people who saw my being polite as an opportunity to test my boundaries. There have been many who saw my being kind as a sign to trample all over me. Apparently, when you’re seen as a good girl, people think they can get away with anything, because they know you’ll continue to behave like a mature, respectful adult regardless of what’s thrown in your face.
Worst of all, I found myself getting sucked into the role more and more. I tried so hard to please everybody around me. I checked in with people to make sure they were OK with the life choices I was making. I said yes to things I would never dream of doing on my own. I became an obsessive perfectionist, especially when it came to how I presented myself and what I did. Best of all, I pretended to enjoy all of this and did it with a smile on my face. Sometimes I was so deep in it that I started to mistakenly believe I did. It was terrifying and exhausting, all at once.” (Are You a Good Girl?)
Does this ring true for anyone? It’s an interesting description, isn’t it? Living a life without personal boundaries. And, it’s all too easy to do that when you come from a family wherein you were not permitted to have any. I think that building a life with appropriate boundaries, starting at the identity level and moving outward like rings on a tree, is the most important thing you can do for yourself and your relationships when you come from an abusive family of origin. After that, learning how to enforce them in the context of interacting with people particularly with people who will challenge them comes next.
What does that look like? Life coach Susanna Halonen lists concrete actions to take that will go to building and reinforcing personal boundaries:
1. Ask for what you want and deserve.
Want to take on a new project at work? Ask for it. Want a raise or a bonus? Justify it to your boss. Want better treatment from your inconsiderate friend? Tell them.
2. Say no.
People will always ask for help. You probably do, too, as do I. There is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with helping. Unless you’re exhausted. Wiped. And burned-out. You can’t say yes to everything, and you can’t help everyone. You have to put yourself, your health, and your well-being first and foremost. If you don’t, there will be nothing left of you, and then you will be able to help no one.
3. Speak up.
If somebody disrespects you, don’t ignore it. If somebody is being rude, point it out to them. If somebody tries to change you, tell them you’re happy with who you are. If you don’t speak up, nobody will hear you. If you don’t put boundaries up, people will keep pushing them. Be brave, be bold, and be loud.
4. Stand your ground.
There is nothing wrong with living your life according to your values. There is nothing wrong with making the life choices that are right for you. There is nothing wrong with you. Believe that — and stand tall with it. People often try to influence your life trajectory or give clear opinions on what they think you should do, especially if you’re a good girl. Don’t let them sway you. Thank them for their input, and tell them that you have made your decision based on what you think and feel is right.
5. Treat others how you’d like to be treated.
Transforming from a good girl to a strong girl doesn’t mean you start being rude. You will continue to be polite, considerate, and respectful — but you will no longer do so at your expense. (Are You a Good Girl?)
My final thoughts on this might be that personal development is a lifelong process as is healing. Some things stick around in our minds. We do not forget them, and I’ve concluded that we should not forget certain things. It is important to remember the profundity of our past experiences so that we always know our own strength. Recovery and healing are so much harder than many people understand and yet here we stand. So, we cannot forget. You are resilient today because you were once hurt then. And that is ultimately why I can see my mother today. I withstood the worst that she was capable of, and none of it got the best of me. I’m still me. There is no power in that place anymore. That is why I remember. Your former battlegrounds and fields of defeat can become the place where you ultimately forge your greatest victories. The places where you overcome, shake the dust off your feet, and walk away.
May you forge new victories as you keep going.
We celebrated Passover last night with the customary Seder–the ceremonial dinner for the first night or first two nights of Passover. My house is usually the gathering place. It is a big job. Traditionally, the preparation that goes into preparing one’s home, kitchen, dishes, and even inner self for Passover is daunting. In many observant homes, there is separate dishware that must be used during Passover. One’s house must be cleaned thoroughly (“kashered”) in order to rid the house of “chametz”, or any kind of leavened bread or leavening. All uneaten and unopened leavened food products must be donated while opened and partially eaten leavened food products must be disposed of. The kitchen must be thoroughly cleaned, and there are detailed instructions on how to do this. I learned just last week that the Israeli army just replaces all their metal kitchen shelving with Passover shelving. When Passover is over, out comes the non-festival shelving.
I have kashered my house a few times. The result? My house was clean. It felt clean, but I was exhausted. It helped me, however, experience the spectrum of Jewish observance. Today, I can’t be that observant although there is something about going through all your kitchen shelves and drawers and thoroughly cleaning them that scratches a particular itch. It cannot be about what is “good enough” though. It is about preparing my mind and heart for what this particular Seder will speak forth. What does that mean?
Every year, the Seder is different. For those of you who are still mystified by what I’m saying when I say “seder”, the Seder is essentially a meal directed by a liturgical ritual. The word “seder” itself means “order”, and we follow the order of this customary Passover meal from a text called the Haggadah.
It is the same order every year because the Haggadah tells the same story–the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery. I like a very meaningful, thoughtful Seder because one of the key elements of the Seder is to read this story as if it were happening to you. In fact, the Haggadah that we used stated: “In each generation, everyone must think of himself or herself as having personally left Egypt.” The texts are supposed to be read as if you are living them out. This is why they remain relevant. What could be analogous to your life experience in the present? Who are you in the text? Who is your personal Pharaoh? Are you experiencing a metaphorical plague? Do you feel enslaved to something and require help or intervention? Do you feel hopeless? As our Haggadah said, “Our Seder goal is to relate personally to the Passover story.”
I remember going to a Seder at synagogue a few months before my marriage ended. I felt on edge, scared, and almost hopelessly uncertain about my future. My oldest daughter was about to graduate from high school, and I had three other daughters to think about. I needed surgery for an injury I sustained from my now ex-husband, and I had no idea how I was going to keep going forward. What did that Seder speak forth at that time? I looked around the table I was sitting at and saw people around me who would help me. I saw a community. I slowly began to realize that I would not leave “slavery” alone. I would go out with a group. I could try, and I did. Only two months later. My life, three years later, has changed dramatically–for the better.
What did last night’s Seder speak forth? At the end of the Haggadah, we read this:
“Redemption requires our participation. The Midrash says that God did not split the sea until one person, Nachson Ben Aminadav, took the first step into the water. If we take the first step, God will help us the rest of the way.” (A Family Haggadah)
Whether or not people believe in God’s intervention (or even a Divine) need not detract from the greater meaning of the experience. There are Jews who do not believe that God intervenes into the affairs of mankind. What I want to emphasize here is that action is required in order to obtain any sort of freedom from that which creates personal inertia and bondage. It can be almost terrifying to take first steps particularly when a big life choice is at hand. Divorce? Marriage? Career change? A confrontation that might drastically change a relationship? Moving to another part of the world? Going to therapy for the first time? Choosing colleges? Dating again after a long-term relationship? You name it. If it feels daunting and freezes you up in your life, then you’ve got a personal Egypt. In my experience, taking first steps often creates momentum and opens doors. I am experiencing this phenomenon right now in my life, but so often we don’t experience a fulfilling or meaningful life because we are stuck. We feel paralyzed or too fearful to take a first step. Or, we don’t know what the first step even is.
Engaging in the annual Seder ritual can prepare our hearts and minds for self-examination. If we have a relationship with God, then the Seder sets aside time for conversations about very specific situations in which we can listen to what God might say to us about our very personal Exodus story. If we are not theists, the Seder is still of value because the ritual itself provides time to reflect, look back, and then look forward. Because the Seder is an annual celebration, we experience an opportunity to track the trajectory of our lives, and this is what I find so interesting. I can look back a few years ago and recall what I took from that particular Seder–what I internalized as a much needed truth and encouragement. Yesterday, I contemplated where I had been and where I was going in the context of my present circumstances. I hope everyone who attended our Seder was able to enjoy some contemplation even though a Seder at our house is a little more like a festival celebration at the Goldbergs.
We try to be solemn and honor the sacred, but, in the end, it just ends up like that. My daughter’s boyfriend joined us. One man in a room full of loud, opinionated women. He said very little. I’ll crochet him a Pokemon yarmulke for next year. He’ll fit right in.
Making time–even if it is once a year–to contemplate your path and examine your state of freedom is a part of the Seder experience. You do not have to be Jewish to make this idea a part of your life. It is rewarding, useful, mindful, and helpful in terms of crafting a life that not only fulfills you but contributes to the betterment of the world around you.
It is another way to enjoy life so that you can keep going.
Did everyone make it through the Ides of March intact? When I was in high school, I was the only student in the history of my school to study Latin 3 or 4. Nowadays, schools would delete the offering, but I guess the school administration just forgot about the classes. I signed up for it and was promptly put in the corner of the Latin 2 class. There was no curriculum to speak of forcing Ms. Jennings, my Latin teacher, to make it up. She decided that translation was the way to go. So, for two years I translated Ovid, Catullus, Cicero, and, my nemesis, Virgil–author of The Aeneid. I was that kid who sat in the back of the classroom and talked to no one.
In the middle of all this classical, academic conviviality (I do not include Virgil here), we Latin students were forced to re-enact ancient Roman practices from time to time. During December, for example, we had to run around the halls yelling, “Io Saturnalia!” You can imagine that this might have caused a ruckus. Ms. Jennings liked the juxtaposition of ancient life and modern, and she really liked to insert ancient traditions into our modern ones. I won’t even discuss what she did with Easter. But, the Ides of March was like giving her center stage. The Ides of March was a date on the ancient Roman calendar that corresponded to March 15th. In the ancient Roman imagination, the Ides of March was roughly equivocal to the American April 15th in terms of emotional weight. You know, tax day. Except to the Romans, March 15th was the day that you must settle your debts. It bears a similar weight, doesn’t it? On April 15th, all Americans must settle their debts with Uncle Sam. The Ides of March then became the perfect day to assassinate Julius Caesar in the Senate. Sixty senators were seeing to it that Caesar settled his debts with Rome.
Every March 15th, the entirety of the Latin classes had to run around the school pretending to be the sixty senators conspiring to find and assassinate Julius Caesar. No one wanted to be Julius Caesar. Where was the fun in being murdered by a pack of overzealous high schoolers while muttering, “Et tu, Brute?” during feigned death throes? I, of course, had to be Caesar. I didn’t exactly participate. I tried to evade capture. I was scolded by Ms. Jennings for eluding the assassination: “The Ides of March was not an assassination attempt! Now, go out into the halls and die gloriously!” It felt personal. Being a placeholder for Julius Caesar. I didn’t want to be assassinated particularly by a bunch of underclassmen who were still figuring out how to conjugate sum (I was a total Latin snob in high school I admit with shame). Alas, I had to die, and I resented it. I resented it because the two people playing Brutus and Cassius, the assassins, lorded it over me for weeks in typical teenage fashion. Their account of how they found me, how I died, and their ultimate victory over high school Rome became bigger, badder, and more ridiculous with each taunt and retelling.
I’m annoyed even now as I retell this story. What’s even funnier is that when I am presently forced to participate in group activities, I immediately remember being Julius Caesar. I remember how much I hated it. I remember how it felt to be stalked in the halls. I remember how embarrassed I felt to have to wear those ridiculous togas made of bedsheets (yes, we had to do that) to every class. I went to an urban Texan high school! No one lets you live that down! I didn’t sign up for that nonsense, but we were graded on our participation; and I was Julius Caesar destined to die on the Ides of March–in the hallways during passing time. O the mockery!
Why do we do this? Remember the past when we experience life now or even try to plan an upcoming event? What does a past event like the Ides of March Latin Class Extravaganza have to do with my future participation in a group presentation on ovarian cancer? This has something to do with it:
“Professor of Psychological and Brain Science Kathleen McDermott, of Washington University, cites results of brain scans demonstrating that when subjects imagine potential future events it is the memory processing centers in the brain that light up.
Further, subjects with amnesia are unable to imagine the future. We have to look back in order to look forward. Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter asserts: Memory is set up to use the past to imagine the future.” (Re-story Your Life)
I love this explanation. When we plan, imagine, and attempt to engage in anything, our brain relies on past events and experiences to support us in terms of expectations and potential futures in order to, in a way, help us erase uncertainties. Humans don’t do well with uncertainty. So, our brains, whether we know it or not, do a lot of the heavy lifting for us by connecting past stories together to weave a narrative flow that will help us predict an outcome.
But, what if we don’t have good stories? Or, in a specific case, what if I’ve only had bad experiences with group projects, and I’m now being assigned a group project? What do you suppose my new narrative will be? What feelings will become intertwined within the potential futures my brain brings forth? Realistically, I know that I will not literally be assassinated, but the entire high school endeavor was one of awkward disempowerment and feeling singled-out. That defines “high school” for many people. I know people who still struggle with the emotional impact of their high school experiences due to the narrative mark it left upon them. If their past narratives are never re-examined, then how do you suppose they approach new life experiences when their past narrative identity is still partially rooted in such negative events? If I never re-examined my Julius Caesar experience, would you want to partner with me in a group? For real, would you? I wouldn’t.
This idea is applicable to so many life experiences. One single event can change our narrative–the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and our place in the world, in our personal relationships, and even our relationship with ourselves.
So, how do we incorporate this idea and make it work for us?
“Our stories are always shifting, moving and incorporating this moment and the next possible moment. Our stories are fluid.
Psychologist and storytelling researcher Dan McAdams explains that our stories make up our narrative identity. But we don’t live one story or one identity. Instead, this narrative of self is ongoing, always integrating the latest information and developing into something new.
The stories we construct to make sense of our lives are fundamentally about our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, are, and might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are, and might be in the social contexts of family, community, the workplace, ethnicity, religion, gender, social class, and culture writ large.
So how exactly do we take on the challenge of rewriting our story? We can start by seeing ourselves “in the middle.”
Like all good plots, the middle of our story includes themes that form a coherent narrative. But the unsettling secret is that each of us is both the protagonist and the narrator of a story in which we have no idea what will happen next.” (Re-story Your Life)
There it is again. That dreaded uncertainty. What is going to happen to us next? Recall the research. We can only imagine what will happen to us next by relying on our past memories–that’s the part of your brain being used when you imagine your future. So, for crying out loud, what then?
I’m going to rely on Willy Wonka for guidance:
“You can’t get out backwards. You have to go forward to go back.”
“For many of us, the uncertainty that comes with middle age brings an inclination to solidify the story. In the effort to control our anxiety about change, we form a kind of crust over the current. In time the crust hardens. We set the past: this is what happened, these are my regrets and these are my triumphs, no need to look back any further. What’s done is done.
Next we fix the future with our expectations and demands: this is what will happen. We expect to live without further twists or evolutions. While this may calm our anxiety of the moment, we deprive ourselves of creative involvement with our becoming.
Since plot twists are the secret to a great story, we need to get creative with ours.” (Re-story Your Life)
If you want to go back and look at what is hindering you, then you have to begin to move forward. You can’t go back to go forward. You have to go forward to go back. You will only know what you are afraid of, what is paralyzing you, what your greatest struggle is, and from whence they originate when you begin to try to leave your residence. Looking forward gives us a reason to look back–to gauge our starting point. Looking back continually is futility because we gauge nothing except where we once were. It provides us with no present perspective or even trajectory. It only provides distortion. You don’t even gain new information. No one makes a plan with old information.
It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But, what is left? I could remain Julius Caesar in my mind whenever I’m called upon to do a group project dragging my past into my present effectively demoting myself perpetually. That is very un-Caesar-like. Or, I could create a better narrative for myself in which I engage the uncertainty while also feeling certain that no one I work with will ever try to hunt me down in a high school hallway again while wearing a bedsheet toga in order to mock stab me. This I actually can feel certain about.
The idea is absurd, and I deliberately chose an absurd example to better elucidate the idea. What we so often fear will overtake us will not, or, if it could, it will not affect us in the same way because we are not the same person now developmentally, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. We are very different people in the present than we were in the past, but we recall the past with the perspective of our past selves rather than with our more developed present perspectives. So, while what we fear could, for the sake of argument, happen again, we would respond very differently because we are far more resilient and capable because we have lived life and matured–we have gained skills. It is in this exercise that we discover our deficiencies. If we find that in going forward we truly are hindered by a lack of skills or an inability to recall the past from the present due to pain or trauma, then we have new information. From here, we can create a new plan of action and implement it. And, this new plan of action is actually moving forward.
This is a very big idea to be sure. I sit with it a lot. It is, however, such a powerful idea. We have immense say over our potential futures, and our influence comes from choosing to move forward even when it’s hard and scary.
Go forward to go back. This is a very effective way to keep going.