Content Notes: Stigma, shaming, religious context, mental health
I used to visit this church when I was still actively seeking a spiritual community. One day I was chatting with the pastor and he asked me what I did for a living. “I own and operate Self Care Housekeeping,” I replied, and then continued to explain our what and why. As he was listening, he got that glint in his eyes that people get when they connect a conversation to an experience.
When I finished, he told me about something that happened with a former member of the church. As much as I tried to keep it under control, it was with clenched teeth and slightly widened eyes that I listened to his story. It wasn’t because I was shocked. I’m certainly familiar with the stories similar to his as a social norm. The problem is that I know it is a flat out wrong way to perceive people and can be very harmful.
As he tells it, this person confided in him that they were struggling with their home, so he offered to help. He described how much work it was for him – that it took all day to finish – the hours…o the never ending hours…and how grossed out he was by the conditions. I mean, there were consistent sidebars to reiterate how messed up he found their home to be with accompanying facial expressions and gestures. After he finished explaining his experience, he got to what I felt was the crescendo of the conversation – that the person stopped coming to church after that. When he reached out and asked why, they told him that they felt judged by him and that they would be judged by the other church-goers.
He, of course, didn’t understand why they felt this way after all the dedicated time and work he just put in. That’s love, right? After all he did – what he suffered through to help – how could they not feel comfortable in that church anymore? If anything, they should feel more connected to the church family, right? Nah.
Let me first say that I get it. It takes a lot of intention and/or lived experience to be truly empathetic; especially when the subject is taboo to begin with. There is already wild stigma around home and personal care. Even when we are trying hard to understand, ignorance can keep us in the unhelpful and maybe even harmful category.
This pastor couldn’t get through a casual conversation with a virtual stranger (me) without condemning this person’s home and therefore condemning the homeowner. I couldn’t help but to think of my own home when I’m struggling. I could see the faces of all the people that I didn’t feel comfortable telling that I wasn’t ok and needed help out of fear that, at best, they would treat me like this pastor – show up to help, but then I would become a permanent feature in their big book of jokes and unworthiness. At worst, I was afraid that I would be labeled some variation of a “bad person” and people would stay away from me or that I would lose opportunities because people would no longer be confident in me. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be seen or understood and no one would care. So, I kept my struggles to myself for a long time.
This pastor did not empathize with or validate his former member. He did not “see” them. In social work, “seeing” is called unconditional positive regard. I am constantly being and feeling unseen because my challenges aren’t worn on my body. When your community can’t or won’t see you, they also can’t show up for you and it is so easy to not see people. Look at our guy, here. He’s a pastor. His literal job requires him to be compassionate and yet, those unseen places of humanity puts him in a position to harm folks without likely realizing it. To not be acknowledged as your whole self is such a painfully isolating experience.
When everywhere you go people are cracking jokes about how folks’ are a mess because of the state of their homes or something they did or are living, it shows a lack of seeing. We’ve all come across the memes on Facebook of someone’s home in disarray. That means that someone saw a person struggling and, instead of helping or at least minding their privacy, used it as an opportunity to tear someone down to boost themselves up while that person has to live with being dehumanized indefinitely. Countless people harbor feelings of inadequacy because of the constant invalidation of quite natural and normal challenges.
So, why would anyone own their struggle when the threat of being judged, laughed at, and maybe even harmed is a very real risk? For me, speaking my truth means reclaiming my narrative from ignorance and ableism.
In my journey, what I’ve found to be incredibly powerful is the practice and embodiment of vulnerability. Quiet as it’s kept, it’s our facades and not our imperfections, that make us weak. We are all imperfect and we all fall short in many ways. But when we hide our imperfections away thinking that we are protecting ourselves, what we are really doing is creating points of weakness. Meanwhile, the things you are hiding about yourself are likely shared experiences that could spark bonding and healing, if only you would be open about them. By no means has it been easy to be openly vulnerable and it’s still difficult sometimes. But what it has done is both protect me from being harmed by my own narrative while also showing other people that it is ok to be whole and authentic and that they are not alone.
We all struggle in our own ways and that is ok. I encourage you to reclaim your narrative so that you can have the support that you deserve. Your story is your superpower – own it and no one else will own you.
One last thing: in the moments when you find yourself judging someone because you couldn’t imagine doing what they did or being in the position that they are in, remember that your privilege is that you don’t know. That means that it’s your responsibility to understand and encourage, not judge. Judging peoples’ struggles and circumstances is garbage behavior.
Thank you for coming to my TEDTalk (jk.)
Additional note (content may be triggering): When you exist in a Black body, you carry many realities that are often in conflict with each other. The present and historic scars from domestic terrorism and violent subjugation interwoven with Black accomplishment, ingenuity, resiliency, and love. As a Black woman, I carry all of that and so much more. I am not a fan of basketball and never have been. However I recognize the role and impact Kobe Bryant has on my existence directly and indirectly. He, now our ancestor along with his young daughter, Gianna, are now forever woven into our complicated tapestry. We, Black bodies – Black people, mourn a loss of two of our own. Rest In Peace, Kobe and Gianna Bryant.
— Shanon Williams, Self Care Housekeeping
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