Over the last year I have struggled to watch the news reports of violence against women. Like many my heart cries a little bit each time. I cry both for the women who are the victims and for myself. For each and every one of the ordinary moments when — always smaller and weaker than the men and boys in my circle — I could have been harmed.
When I think about what could have been I try to ground myself. I take a deep breath and focus on being thankful. But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the voices that criticize how she was dressed, question her alcohol level or observe how long it took her to come forward. I feel compelled to convince those voices that empathy and not blame is the right response when we listen to the women who come forward. That compulsion comes not from any generosity on my part, but from a certainty that those women could have been me and that it is not some strength of character that has saved me from harm but simple luck. Circumstances not skill.
I grew up as a strong-willed but physically unimpressive person. I was acutely aware of the fact that I would not get myself out of situations through brute force and that if I wanted to achieve my ambitions it would be through influence not imposition. I could boss around my two younger brothers, but if I tried to boss around the rest of the world they would surely laugh. You know, like the way people laugh at an angrily yipping chihuahua.
Awww how cute. Totally ineffective, but soooo cute.
And that awareness of my own inability to win in any physical fight frames my entire world view. It has led me to a leadership style that is collaborative and inclusive and not authoritarian and command and control. It has led me to reject the idea that power should lead to position and that bullying is just the law of the jungle. So when I read today about a 30-year old woman that was found chained in a shipping container my first thought was not, “Wow, how did she let that happen to her?” It was, “Crap, that could have been me. What if that was me? Why would any human being feel like it was their right to do that to her?”
I don’t have any answers. I do have two things that I do to move beyond the paralyzing fear and back to a life of possibility.
I listen to the stories of women who were not as lucky as I am. They do not apologize for the violence against them. Instead, they speak of their experiences as testimony to their capacity to survive and ultimately thrive. I listen to the stories of women I know personally and countless others who I will likely never meet. It is in their example that I find comfort. I choose to believe that yes it could happen to me but if it did I could find the strength to push beyond it.
I watch the actions of the men who live with respect for all. They reject the narrative of might as right and the idea that human nature means that the less powerful will always be victims of the more powerful. They don’t make wide-sweeping assertions, they ask questions. They listen to stories with interest not judgement. It is in their example that I find comfort. I choose to believe that yes it could happen to me but if it did I could trust that good men with power would reject the violence and not me.
As I get older the stories of violence are really less and less about me and more and more about the next generation. They are about young girls in high school and college growing up in a world of always on media. The stories are reflected in my amazing teenage daughter who is ready to head out into the world without the constant protection of her father and I. Unlike me, she has a classic beauty that some will see as an invitation — I worry that will increase the odds that she will be harmed. But I can’t lock her away any more than my parents could have locked me away; any more than I would lock myself away now. So instead I tell her the stories of strength and I show her what respect looks like. I am focused on making her as capable of surviving whatever the world throws at her as I can.
And someday when the time comes to pass the world onto her daughter I hope we can both worry less.