The Marriage of Abuse and Vulnerability.
The title comes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. I don’t know if his theme relates to the theme of “two under-cultures” or not. The title does relate, however, at least superficially.
The basic idea is that we are, personally and collectively, a very complicated and intense marriage of opposing forces: heaven/hell; oppression/humanizing; abuse/vulnerability. We’re not one or the other. If this idea has weight, it has everything to do with how we think and do our personal lives and politics.
I want to lean on Bell Hooks to help me explore this more concretely. I have just begun reading her All About Love: New Visions. Very taken with it (and even a bit envious). She is so good at keeping her personal stories quite concrete, and thereby so reflective of the political issues we struggle with. This is from page 5:
An overwhelming majority of us come from dysfunctional families in which we were taught we were not okay, where we were shamed, verbally and/or physically abused, and emotionally neglected even as were also taught to believe that we were loved. For most folks it is just too threatening to embrace a definition of love that would no longer enable us to see love as present in our families. Too many of us need to cling to a notion of love that either makes abuse acceptable or at least makes it seem that whatever happened was not that bad.
I struggle through my internal mazes to move out of clinging to my “notions of love.” Or “mis-notions of love,” if I may a coin a term. In fact, I am going through the break-up of a close relationship right now. It’s turning out to be as enlightening about the connections between abuse and vulnerability as it is personally difficult.
I have reached a point where I can’t weather verbal abuse—or what I experience as abuse—when I am trying to push my envelope of vulnerability. I need more than “a little help from my friends” to lower my defenses. My limits show up in me saying, “I just can’t put up with this, and I’m not going to. I don’t need to analyze it, justify it, explain it, or anything like that. I simply can’t and won’t keep engaging with it.”
At the same time I am discovering that I don’t have to hate anyone or be in a fury at anybody because I am choosing to limit an important relationship. That will just mire me in the muck. I am limited, and no one needs to be blamed. Rather, reality needs to be accepted.
I want to get to a personal place where my being doesn’t feel wronged even when my ‘self’ feels it is being mauled. It’s just that I want to keep that part of me—that ‘self’—out of the abusive spaces I am drawn to either to take the victim or victimizer role. I want that ‘escape’ so I can have the space to create good, exciting, loving experiences without getting trapped by my mis-notions of love. I am limited no matter how I would like to see myself.
The important point here in this blog is that what I am learning personally about vulnerability and abuse is politically relevant. Relevant because the way each of us has uniquely learned to deal with vulnerability and abuse—in both the ‘victimizer’ and ‘victim’ roles—is shaped profoundly by the culture we share. The mis-notions of love bell hooks talks about are pervasive. The over-riding problem in the social sphere manifests as institutional and systemic forms of political and economic abuse—oppression.
There are many differences for sure, but no basic discontinuity between personal and political abuse. My professional struggles to reverse oppression shine light on my personal experiences with abuse and vulnerability. And it works in the direction way as well.
For example, there is no escape from either vulnerability or abuse. Vulnerability is a condition of life. It begins with our conception, and will be a primal factor until we die. And there is no escape from abuse. I don’t know if its an inherent thing or not, but It is pervasive in human life as we know it. Personally, I have to accept both as part of the territory I live in, and be very aware of how it is manifesting. Particularly, how my mis-notions of both love and cooperation draw me toward abuse either as victim or victimizer.
My ‘liberation’ lies in living out of my vulnerability, which lies somewhere beyond my outrage at and my fear of abuse. It lies within me and in communities of trust and transparency I can help build. With my taking full responsibility for my experience and within communities that support that for all its members. With learning to navigate my way to more and more grounded openness, and with creating the kind of relationships and new kinds of economic and political processes that nurture that.
I know this is possible personally because I have been able to do it ever so slowly since the spring of 2001. And that level of liberation came after 20 years of focused work in a community that fostered that kind of growth. And I keep seeing—murkily at first, with some clarity later—how each issue, challenge, problem in my personal and collective life can be transformative. As clumsy as it is with every step, it is a marvelous way forward. And I see it not just in me, but in others who are moving toward taking radical responsibility to shape their lives as well as they can.
I believe our ‘liberation’ politically on a large scale lies in the same direction. We have to be liberating ourselves as we seek to make another world possible. Accepting that the world is the way it is, and not wasting precious energy demanding it be something else. Not being paralyzed by the enormity of the work political transformation demands. Freeing ourselves up from our self-defeating mis-notions of love to see how our world can become something better. Skirting the whirlpools of our outrage rather than being sucked down into it. Going for the joy by accepting that struggle is struggle.