Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Driving Out Darkness

The shootings Sunday in a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, have affected me very much as they have affected others. I am sad, shocked, stricken. Coming so soon on the heels of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, it's hard not to feel that hate and violence have gained the upper hand.

About the same time I heard about the shootings in Oak Creek, I found myself on the receiving end of some nasty vitriol. This happens from time to time when you're very fat, as I am. Many people believe it's possible—and obligatory—for all of us who are larger than average to better conform to the norm. In my experience, in this body I live in, I have not found it possible for longer than a year or so.

My many determined attempts earlier in my life to lose weight always ended in misery, with me gaining back all the weight I lost, and then another 25 percent besides, at which point I hated myself and my body more than ever. I have come to accept, though, that my body is more determined to save me from starvation than I could ever be to whittle it down to a socially acceptable size on a long-term basis.

After a long and tortuous journey, I have come to love and respect the body I live in, to honor what my body and I have been through together, to reject the ubiquitous pressure to be other than I am. That doesn't mean I've given up. Quite the contrary. It means that my relationship with my body is on much friendlier terms and I am free to care for it in the ways that work best for me. I also believe that my relationship with my body is my business alone. I am under no obligation to explain or apologize for my size. The judgments of others are not my problem unless I allow them to be.

But every now and then, judgment and hate come from an unexpected quarter, from someone I consider an ally, a fellow traveler. This happened Sunday on Facebook. Every time this sort of thing occurs, I have to shore myself up, give myself a good talking to, and actively resist colluding in the judgment of the hater.

Coming from someone I had thought a friend, the hate was very hard to take. I was hurt, and I took it personally. I had expressed my objection to a photo making the rounds that showed a very fat person sitting on a flimsy chair. That photo, taken from the back and not showing the person's head, is in itself designed to dehumanize and objectify the person. In the photo, "Chick-fil-A" had been photoshopped onto the back of the chair, and the text said "Welcome to Chick-fil-A, where being obese is 'genetic' but being gay is a 'lifestyle choice.'"

I felt I had to respond, because in such instances silence is the same as giving assent. I couldn't, in good conscience, do that. I registered my objection by posting a link to a Jezebel article by Lindy West, "I Know You're Mad at Chick-fil-A, but Stop Taking It Out on Fat People," that very articulately raises the same points I wanted to make. I never expected the venomous response I got. I pointed out that the hater was talking about me personally. And I tried to make sure that he had read the most salient part of the article:
We live in a culture where bullying is both socially acceptable and state-sanctioned. And it's that fucked-up aspect of our culture that makes Chick-Fil-A's anti-gay bullying a legitimate political stance rather than just the ramblings of some wacko fringe pariah. Our permissiveness around bullying is what's fueling this entire "debate." So to fight those bullies with bullying of our own isn't just counterintuitive—it contributes directly to the climate that keeps bigots like Chick-Fil-A above water.
Alas, not much of that sunk in, and after a couple more hateful exchanges, I gave up. I just couldn't subject myself to any more of it.

But I have a dear friend who also spoke up. I had reacted defensively, as though the entire conversation was really all about me. But my friend was more understanding. She engaged him further, and ultimately he admitted that his hatred was really directed at himself and his own body. He had lost some weight; he had hated himself when he was heavier. He felt justified in his hate.

What a revelation this was to me. First, given my personal vulnerability, I am so grateful that I didn't wade into these perilous waters alone. Second, my friend was able to practice kindness when I was not. Her persistence was a gift to me. Whereas before I had felt only horror, after I read what the hater said about hating himself when he was fat, I understood that the conversation had very little to do with me.

Thus my friend handed me the only really effective means of driving out the darkness of hate: forgiveness. In fact, when I understood what was really going on, I realized that forgiving this hater was no different from forgiving my former fat-loathing self. It took me a long, long time to be able to love myself the way I am. Perhaps it will take this hater as long or longer. I can only wish him well on his journey.

Perhaps hate always involves our feelings about ourselves—fears, insecurities, perceived inadequacies. In understanding this, I came to feel compassion for the hater, and I felt free to love him and forgive him and wish him well. I consider him a fellow traveler now more than I did before. He may not consider me the same, but it doesn't matter. I have my weapon—forgiveness—and I will wield it as ruthlessly as I'm able to drive out both the darkness within and the darkness without.

I'm not altogether sure how to wield it where the shootings in Oak Creek are concerned, but certainly the shooter's act was motivated by hate. And certainly at some point in processing what has happened, forgiveness will or can be a force for healing. We must counter hate as best we can in all its guises—the gross, horrific ones and the small, sad ones, both of which I experienced on Sunday.

Certainly our impulses toward solidarity and support that cross the barriers that usually divide us must be nurtured and encouraged as expressions of the imperative need for love to triumph over hate. The lessons we learn as we strive for healing must be shared and remembered and emblazoned on our hearts.

For my part, I will think twice when next I personally encounter hate. I will think about what it is in the hater's life that drives them and binds them. I will seek to forgive and to understand as best I can. I hope I will remember that they are not really all that different from me, and that the worst of their hatred is directed inward.

At the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon on loving our enemies. He wrote it while in jail during the Montgomery bus boycott. It's well worth taking the time to read the whole thing—it's not that long—but here's the most powerful part:
To our most bitter opponents we say: "We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. ... Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. ... We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory."

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Many thanks to the Overpass Light Brigade for the "Practice Peace" photo.


  1. Forgiveness, your message is wrapped in a story and from your soul force. The anger and hatred I have faced in recent weeks was due to my choices to use alternative resources during a cancer challenge - breast and lymphoma - and imagine the shock that there are so many who are online going to war against those who choose alternatives and educate one another. Even attempting to destroy my reputation and business. Your message has lifted me up, last week for an hour I just wanted to shoot myself though stronger now, and needed to hear this Mary. Thanks, hugs, miss all you guys.

  2. I'm glad, Essa. Bless you in your fight to care for your health as you see fit!