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Monday, June 6, 2016

First Do No Harm

Layers in My Life

Today I moved into Richard Rohr's meditation on the 8th and 9th step of AA, his take on how the creator of the 12-Step Program can help anyone to Let Go and Let God.  

This was the hardest day for me so far.  It took me three hours to think through who I have harmed through my addictions to property, privilege and righteousness--and how I might ever make amends.  This is three hours on top of a lifetime of paying attention to the oppressions in play around me.

As I have done for the previous meditations in this series, I let my contemplation culminate in a poem, but it is not a poem.  Rather, it turns out to be "a thinking through" of how to move forward from this moment, how to remove one irritant from the vast field of racism that oppresses people of color.

Steps Eight and Nine: Reparations

“It is the indispensable tool against white supremacy.  One cannot
propose to plunder a people, incur a moral and monetary debt,
propose to never pay it back, and then claim to be seriously
engaging in the fight against white supremacy.”
TA-NEHISI COATES, The Atlantic 1/19/2016 

I didn’t mind taking the apartment
that was offered to me just 'cause my skin
was white, one little needle in the hay,
just one more straw to break a burdened back. 

Besides, I lost a scholarship four years before
because Black students stood up and sat-in
demanding equitable aid at last.
Years later, I finally understand:

I never doubted I could find a way
to borrow, work and pay with a fine home
and way opening up for me.  I had
to struggle, true, but I knew what to do.

Presumed innocent in all my conflicts,
I could assume police would protect me
even when I protested war, even
when they did not (like in cases of rape).

But wait.

I’m here to make lists and amends
and find a way to make reparations
too.  Sifting through my life, I see students
I held back and passed on when I shouldn’t—

Ah! Harm. But now, persist!  If we agree
a subject is worth learning, I’ll learn, too,
and break apart structures to find out why
and who they empower the way they are.

And that’s the question I will answer now:
whose feet am I stepping on to be heard
when I aggress and speak up first because
I can, I have, I will, and I am I?

Still blind, I almost pause to stop the flow
of power to me.  I almost respect
you, Friend.  Any minute now I’ll get it
and pause.  Instead of plowing on, I’ll stop.

And then how will I make amends? Now that
I know experimentally
that I hurt you, can I repay? Or pay
forward what I can never quite retract?
At least do no more harm or hold you back?**


Notes:  If I have made progress today, it's because yesterday I participated in an URG meeting, a gathering of a small group of Quakers, an Un-Doing Racism Group within the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. There I marveled at an unspoken dynamic, one in which I both acted and reacted badly.  Three times women of color and white women and men asked that people be mindful of speaking too much or too often, and I suspected they were cautioning me--that I was the aggressor--and they were trying to do so respectfully.  But I couldn't stop.  In fact, I provoked more because I thought those who cautioned were also avoiding meeting my eyes.   And I was aware of being out of line, but I did it anyway. Ugh.  I couldn't stop.  Now God lets me see myself in an inner ocean of shame, but won't let me stay there. That would be too easy. Instead, I have to become aware, write it down and apologize and change.  And it is in here I finally find humility in myself and practice steps Eight and Nine of the Twelve Steps: 
  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.*

I have written this down so that I may remember it.  I am not too old to learn, and I hope there is more!  I write this down so that I can pay forward by sharing what I learn about white supremacy with other white people.  God knows it takes us a long time--it takes me a lifetime--to inch forward.

*“J,” A Simple Program: A Contemporary Translation of the Book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hyperion: 1996), 55.

**Part of my series Oh, Ye of Little Faith*

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© 2016 Susan L. Chast