My wife and I were leaving a restaurant a couple nights ago with an old friend who was visiting from out of town. He’s a wonderful guy, and also, let’s call it, idiosyncratic! He’ll engage those around him with a quirky ease that verges on unease, but is also keenly aware—alert!—even as he feigns befuddledness. He’s one of a kind.
We walked out of the restaurant and were saying our farewells, when a homeless man approached us. His name was Scottie (but most people call him “Scott”). He was gregarious and unabashed, as typifies a certain such persona, and launched into his rehearsed monologue. It was a poetic and rhythmic biopic-cum-confession, each line punctuated with the phrase, “… I said it was his fault, his fault, her fault!” He would motion in turn to my friend, my wife and me during each run through. It was a dirge for a youth spent blaming the world for his all his problems, but he inverted it in the final stanza to frame his new, awakened recognition that it’s not “his fault, his fault, her fault—but my fault!” slapping his hand on his chest. It ended with the moral that he was now taking total responsibility for his life. That all the problems in his life were his fault.
My friend warmly thanked him, and reached for his wallet. Then he hesitated, put his arm on the man’s shoulder and said, “you know, sometimes it’s not your fault. Sometimes it is another person’s fault.” He then handed him a few dollars. The homeless man expressed his gratitude and moved down the street.
We finished our goodbyes, and my wife and I walked across the street. I started chuckling to myself. My wife told me to stop. “It looks like you’re laughing at that guy.” I couldn’t help myself though. It was such a typical moment for my friend, both wry and truthful and surprisingly present. While I was simply waiting for the conclusion of Scottie’s schtick, my friend was hearing. And he was right, wasn’t he? That’s why I was chuckling. We all own much fault for the plight of our lives, but that cannot mean we are always at fault.
“… you know, sometimes it’s not your fault.” I smile as I write that; as I remember.
It’s true. And the narrative matters.
Like many, I’ve been following with dismay the latest unmasking of a power-predator in the case of Harvey Weinstein. And I’ve been reminded, or maybe made acutely aware, just how brutal and unsafe this world can be for those at a disadvantage of power. And how power corrupts and intoxicates in its varied forms. And how widespread are those affected.
I’ve also been reminded of how the narratives of victimization drift themselves into these nefarious social undertows. How even those who ought to rally in solidarity will falter and flinch and fail us. Fashion designer Donna Karan casually quipped,
How do we present ourselves as women? What are we asking? Are we asking for it by presenting all the sensuality and all the sexuality?
What a brutal statement. After a tsunamic backlash, Karan first back-pedaled, then strongly reversed course, then pled for forgiveness. But you can’t really put that toothpaste back in the tube, and she also wasn’t alone. Such sentiments can be a megaphone of sorts toward victims, insisting that we demand their silence. Insisting that it’s probably their fault; maybe they were “asking for it” or maybe they’re just one of those over-sensitive types that overreact to everything. It’s a scathing two-edged sword.
Since our society is anaphylactically allergic to the language of victimhood, victims are usually left with few outlets for reckoning with their trauma or anguish. Witnessing the #MeToo upswell was both inspiring and saddening. It exhibited courage and solidarity among a hidden and humiliated, harmed and hurting multitude, coming to terms with their pain and offering their voice and vulnerability—that beautiful human unguardedness which itself suffers the cruelest damage. I applaud this! But I also wish it didn’t have to come to that.
The truth of the matter is that we have all been victimized during the course of our lives, and we have victimized others. We’ve been on the giving and receiving end of bullying or lying or defaming or theft or a legion of other harms. It’s never right, but it is always wrong. Having unjustly harmed never makes being unjustly harmed OK. It will not do to glibly brush away serious wrongs done to us, simply because we’ve all done wrong. This only adjusts our moral aperture to an indistinguishable blur, hampering acts of justice, healing and even repentance. It is shallow absolution, and we feel it in our bones.
I think we are allergic to the idea of victimhood, because, deep down, we’re concerned we’ll become one of “those people”. You know, the one’s who go about living in bitter entitlement insisting that the world owes them an incalculable debt. It feels like a sub-human existence, devoid of empathy or responsibility. Maybe we’ve known people like that or been warned of that road to perdition, but it constitutes a paradigmatic dread. Also, it is one of the more frowned upon American archetypes—the pitiable “victim”.
“Americans are resilient!” we tell ourselves, “We don’t make excuses; we rise above! And I’ll be damned if I’ll live my life as a victim.” We’re likely not that patriotic about it, but the very notion of forming the words “I am a victim,” seems fatalistic and defeating in our society.
We mistake victimization for victimhood, though. And this is such a costly mistake.
When someone with power over us uses their power (physical, psychological, political, economic, social or any matrix of the above) to harm or exploit us, we have been victimized. And we’ve all been victimized, but some episodes of victimization are darker in their power than others. Sexual victimization is among the darkest. When we are victimized, we experience a form of powerlessness leading to loss and suffocating terror. It is a dehumanizing experience, and all such experiences, left un-dealt-with, decay and deteriorate us in insidious ways.
We’re afraid that episodes of victimization will topple us into the state of victimhood—which is itself a sub-human version of existence—where our bitterness alienates us from others and effectively precludes trust and intimacy, our pain undermines our confidence and we relate to ourselves as adrift and disenfranchised entities in this world. That is to say we lose contact with our agency, and “victim” becomes our operational identity. We become objects instead of subjects. It is a macrocosm of the episode of victimization engulfing all of life, and we’re repulsed by the prospect of it. And so we quarantine our pain, our sorrow, our self-hatred as best we can, and attempt to go on living.
But, in doing so, we unwittingly allow victimhood to retain its power over us—within us! It lives in us and haunts our lives in far-reaching ways. This is something we must allow ourselves permission to admit, lest we blindly fall into that pitfall victimhood might dig for us.
To be a victim is to be victimized; to have another person (or group of people) use power over us in a dehumanizing way. Starkly naming this becomes our first exercise in regaining power. Then we must pass bravely through the opaqueness of shame, humiliation and pain. Who can forget the late Robin Williams, in his role as Dr Sean Maguire in the film Good Will Hunting, embracing the brash and brilliant Will, adamantly insisting over and over again, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.” until the truth of the statement finally prevailed?
It’s not your fault. Sometimes it really is someone else’s fault.
Being victimized is not only a dehumanizing violation of our agency (an episode of helplessness), but an violation of our human dignity. As such, it would be natural to locate the episode somehow in our own defectiveness. Should a masterpiece be vandalized with impunity, one might be left with an interpretive quandary. But we must stay on the scent of truth!
The path that opens before those who confront their victimization is one of surprising power and surprising life, albeit, with its share of surprising sorrow. (Grieving is, after all, among the most important things a victim must learn to do.) It may be a journey back from the precipices of self-hatred or a return to trust and intimacy. You may find strength to confront those who have perpetrated their harm, and protect many in the doing. You may find a voice that offers safety and courage to others in the midst of their isolation and pain. You will certainly have opportunities to bring words and actions of healing to the many victims you’ll encounter along the ways, writhing, as it were, on the roadsides—moribund. You may even find yourself living out that most miraculous and victorious of human potency, forgiveness!
You’ll also encounter your share of naysayers. These tend to be those who’ve never come to terms with the victimizations of their own lives. You may even be given the chance to break their evil enchantment. At minimum, you might be allowed to transcend anger and disappointment toward these in lieu of grieving for them.
You’ll rediscover your agency, and an amplified one at that. It was Jesus who said that the truth could set one free!
If you are dealing with a crippling battle of victimization—maybe you are a “me too”—I deeply grieve the damage that has been inflicted upon you. You may have been dehumanized, but it wasn’t you who were being sub-human. I deeply grieve the debilitating victim narrative that silences and isolates. I grieve the language of religion, civility or pragmatism that has been forged into a kind of cage in many communities.
I agree so deeply with writer and pastor Nate Pyle‘s sentiment:
A facile absolution of harm is a tacit justification of harm. In this way, the most well-meaning cause the most harm; or at least make allowance for it. Naming the victimization that we and others have experienced (or are experiencing) breaches the bulwarks of an occupying malice, and grants one to raise their own flag again over the realm of self.
We need to offer up speech and hearing for this to take place. Because if anything rivals the tragedy of power employed for harm, it is the squandered power represented among those victims who might enact such victorious good together if only they could be allowed into one another’s suffering.
The lovely and talented Lupita Nyong’o was just one of the many women preyed upon by Harvey Weinstein. She wrote her important and eye-opening account in this week’s New York Times. I can’t improve upon her concluding remarks:
Though we may have endured powerlessness at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, by speaking up, speaking out and speaking together, we regain that power. And we hopefully ensure that this kind of rampant predatory behavior as an accepted feature of our industry dies here and now.
Now that we are speaking, let us never shut up about this kind of thing. I speak up to make certain that this is not the kind of misconduct that deserves a second chance. I speak up to contribute to the end of the conspiracy of silence.