I have been thinking about stories a lot lately. (By a lot I mean even more than usual because I have had stories on the brain for as long as I can remember.) Specifically, I have been thinking about the importance of stories, and just as significant, our tendency to forget them. An 18-year-old boy named Michael Brown was killed by a cop in Missouri a couple of weeks ago. People peacefully protesting his murder are being shot with rubber bullets and tear gassed in the streets by a militarized police force. A few nights ago the police raided a church that was supposed to be a safe haven. They’ve arrested reporters and photographers who were trying to honestly cover the story.
Suffice to say, I know many people who are shocked by these events. “How is this happening in America?” “I can’t believe this!” “What decade is it!?” I am less shocked than I’d like to be because Michael Brown was black. This is part of a bigger story– a story dating back hundreds of years, a story in which the color of your skin grants you less dignity and humanity than other people. I will never understand the full extent of how horrible this kind of oppression is. My skin color renders me privileged enough that if a cop killed one of my brothers (which would likely not happen to begin with) he would lose his job and probably go to jail. He would be deemed psychologically unstable, but there still wouldn’t be a fund to support him. But knowing that other sisters have very legitimate reasons to fear that their brothers will be killed by people meant to serve and protect– and that if they do lose a brother, there will likely be no justice– breaks my heart.
I am not shocked. But I am pained and disturbed and I don’t know what to do. I want to listen to the stories of people who protest, who do not accept injustice and face the abuse of power head-on. I want to make sure that these stories are heard and connected. I want us to see how all of our stories are woven together, how far they go back, how there’s no such thing as an isolated incident. I want justice and I want us to remember. It’s so dangerous to forget.
In that spirit I urge you all (especially my fellow privileged folks) to seek out the truth not only in present events but in our history. Shock doesn’t help us move forward the way understanding does. Because I have very little intellectual authority on this matter I will stop talking now because it’s not my voice that needs to be heard, but please follow some of these links and hear the stories of others. Please do not allow history to be forgotten, because that is when we give it the power to repeat.
Some stories that have been on my mind as I have followed Michael Brown’s death and the protests in Ferguson:
(Author’s note: I am not here to argue about particulars or discuss politics. I am reflecting upon these events honestly and earnestly in the context of history and the power of story. I know that I do not know everything about these events, but I do know that I do not believe that anyone deserves to be killed in the street and I do know that this event is symptomatic of something much bigger.)
My brother, Noah, was born a month and a half after I turned one, so I literally cannot remember a time when I wasn’t a big sister. Isaiah was born a year and a half after that, so by age three the title “big sister” was very much ingrained into my identity. This, combined with strong values of inclusion taught to me by my parents, has lead to a life of being a big sister, not only to my biological brothers, but to many brothers and sisters whom I have encountered.
This theme has become increasingly apparent in the passed 8 years. During my teen years I walked with friends (some younger than me, some not) through situations I could never have imagined dealing with at age 12; such as pregnancy scares, drug and alcohol abuse, abusive partners and parents, date rape, suicidal tendencies, depression, anxiety, as well as situations almost everyone faces during adolescence; crushes, low self-esteem, break-ups, etc. As a 12-year-old who didn’t even know what a blow job was, I couldn’t anticipate becoming the go-to peer guidance counsellor for half a dozen people at any given time during my teen years. To be honest it used to exhaust me. As a 13, 14 and 15-year-old I would lie awake at night trying to “fix” everyone’s problems or come up with the perfect advice that would make everything all better. I would cry to my mom because I had over-empathized with three different friends that week and I was feeling EVERYTHING. I would get frustrated because I didn’t know the answers to the questions people asked. I would wish they would talk to someone else, because I didn’t feel capable of dealing with their situation.
I would desperately explain to my parents that I didn’t go looking for this and I didn’t know what to do. Of course, as he often does, my dad had helpful insight into the matter. Turns out that this is another way in which I am very much my father’s daughter, and as something he’d dealt with from around the same age he’d wisely point out that if being a big sister is part of who I am, then the people who need big sisters will find you and you can choose to “accept your mission” or reject it. It’s not about being capable of fixing people, it’s not about making it all better, it’s about choosing to love people who need love, whether they are the easy people to love or not. This was something I felt called to. However, loving in a healthy way takes a lot of work and a lot of learning. To be honest, I feel like some of the most valuable things about my teen years were the lessons I learned about loving people and being a big sister. Such as:
1. As counterintuitive as it may sound, distancing yourself from the emotional center of the crisis is incredibly helpful if your goal is to love and support the person going through it. You can’t carry someone else’s emotional weight, trust me, I have tried, it simply can’t be done. The only outcome is that now you’re both exhausted and nothing has changed. One of the most useful things about being the person outside of the problem is that you don’t have the emotional weight so you are able to be calm, supportive and pragmatic.
2. Sometimes (read: often) people just need someone to talk to who they know will be supportive and caring, not someone who will try to fix them. A quote that I often remind myself of while caring for others is, “You cannot save people. You can only love them.” Which not only serves to remind me that the full responsibility is not on me and is, I believe an accurate summary of how Jesus showed us to live. As human beings we cannot save anyone, we can only love them and there’s a lot more power in that than we realize.
3. You have to be able to take space. You cannot be constantly available, physically or emotionally, it’s not healthy for you or for the people you care for. It’s very easy for boundaries to become blurred when someone is going through a crisis, but it is important for you to realize when you need space and to take it. This doesn’t necessarily mean simply taking alone time, I am very extroverted, so for me taking space means making time for my friends who don’t need me to be a big sister. Learning what taking that space means for you is very a very important part of being a healthy big sister. Nurture yourself as well as other people. Trust that you take time for you and the world won’t come crashing down.
4. Honesty is the best policy. Telling people what they want to hear isn’t helpful. Gently communicating, truthfully, how you’re reading the situation is more helpful then simply confirming everything people say. Sometimes an outside perspective is incredibly helpful.
5. Google is your friend. Yes, I know this one sounds out of place, but believe me, once you are as skilled at looking up the symptoms of viruses or where the nearest teen crisis shelter is, you will feel so much more prepared to offer solutions and resources when people need them. Plus, soon enough you will be able to answer questions like, “How does the morning after pill work, exactly?” and “Why are my lymph nodes swollen?” Which comes in handy a whole lot more than you’d expect.
6. Learn when to ask for further help. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a therapist, I am not a teacher or a parent, and sometimes there comes a point when I am not equipped to deal with the situation and just being a loving friend isn’t going to help this person anymore. That’s when you a) recommend a professional or b) contact a safe person who has the skills needed to help. You are NOT solely responsible for this person’s well-being.
7. Take your own advice. This is one I have to work on. It’s much easier to remind people to drink water, ask for help when they need it, eat enough food, try something new, allow themselves to feel their feelings, let people care for them etc. than it is to do that stuff yourself. But if you’re expending energy to care for others you deserve to care for yourself. In this same vein, be as kind, caring and loving towards yourself as you are to others. You truly believe they are beautiful, loved and that they will be taken care of? Great, guess what, the same is true for you. Make sure to remind yourself of that as well as reminding other people.
8. Remember that you don’t know everything. Sometimes, as much as we love people, we don’t know what’s best for them. People go through things that we don’t understand, things we can’t give advice about. However, people always need to be heard, so, listen, learn and love.
Accepting my big sister tendencies, including even the fact that I seem to draw people who need big sisters into my life, has definitely been (and continues to be) a journey and a learning experience. I have ceased wishing that I didn’t have to deal with it. However, embracing my role as a big sister doesn’t (as a previously expected) mean being “on duty” 100% of the time. It means learning to be gentle and care for myself as well, and learning to trust that I don’t have to save people, I just have to love them.
In the passed two years I have become increasingly aware that adulthood is something that you grow into very slowly. It’s a process. And often it doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere. I see posts from my peers all over social media sites making jokes about how bad they are “at adulthood”. “Eating ice cream for breakfast, because I’m an adult.” Or, “I didn’t realize adulthood would mostly involve crying into mac ‘n’ cheese while watching Frozen.” They joke, self-deprecatingly. Two semesters ago I took a Shakespeare class at college, the class itself was mildly disappointing, but one thing my professor said really stuck with me. She theorized that the things we joke about the most are the things we have anxiety about as a culture or as individuals. I think about this insight a lot, and I think that in this instance it’s true. People my age have a lot of anxiety about whether or not they are “doing adulthood” right. I am far from immune to this, I often worry that my choice to live with my parents during college will somehow stunt my adulthood and independence, even though I believe that I have made the best choice for myself. I worry that no matter how hard I work in college I won’t be ready to work hard at a job and that I am inherently too lazy to be a functional adult. These aren’t very well-founded fears, but they are fears nonetheless.
Recently I have been thinking a lot about why so many of my peers have this fear of not being good at being adults. Are our expectations about adulthood wrong? I think that is part of the problem. Books, movies and TV shows so often show adulthood as this glittering life of independence, adventure and romance. They do not highlight the loneliness, stress, and messiness of figuring out life on your own. But even more than that, I think a huge contributing factor to our adulthood anxieties is the myth of readiness. As a kid and teenager there were lots of things where I just assumed that when the time came I would be ready and I would know what to do. For me, adulthood has come with the realization that this is not the case. I think that for most of us there will always be things we don’t feel ready for, but that the actual adventure of adulthood lies in making the choices to do those things anyways.
Choosing to do things you don’t feel ready for is not the comfortable option. But I think many of us postpone finding meaning and doing what we are passionate about because we don’t feel ready yet, or because we’re afraid other people will think we’re not ready. I know that I struggle with this, especially in my writing. I constantly worry that what I have to say is of no value and that I am not ready or qualified to express my ideas as if they may be useful. However, I think that continually putting the things we want to do on hold often means that they never happen simply because we never feel ready. Of course, there is a balance, some things you do have to work towards, but even after working towards a career or a project or whatever it is sometimes you still won’t feel ready. For me, part of embracing adulthood has been embracing that lack of readiness and choosing to trust that if I am passionate and work hard then I am capable of doing the things I want to do here and now, whether I feel ready or not.