How do we understand and respond to grave injustice in the world? As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, this isn’t a rhetorical question to me. Being told “it’s all in God’s plan” or “forgive and forget” doesn’t provide any comfort to me. I don’t believe we signed a contract before we were born for torture, or that our present difficulties are the result of karmic leftovers from a previous life. I have no logical answer for why some of us experience more injustice than others—why some of us are born into a society that automatically judges our race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, ableness and a host of other differences as “less than” and treats us accordingly. I reject any attempt to deny or diminish the suffering we endure at the hands of our fellow humans.
What I do know to be true is that there is a world of difference between suffering alone and suffering while supported. Research on “toxic stress” during infancy and childhood shows us that it isn’t the specific horrors we might endure that tip us into the endangered brain territory, it is suffering them without a supportive parent or caregiver in our lives. The “no one to turn to” is the final arbitrator between how deep the wound will go, and how long it will take to heal. As a result, a potent form of healing that we can offer to each other and that Goddess offers to us is to just be there. She lets us know we are seen and heard, even in our aching, wounded hearts.
Goddess of Compassion
This is the first time I am referencing a specific Goddess in a post, which makes me nervous. In my everyday life, I strive to be appreciative of cultural diversity and sensitive to cultural appropriation. My particular viewpoint on Goddess Spirituality, which is only one of many perspectives, is to see Goddess primarily as a reflection of our inner wisdom and collective consciousness. From this standpoint, I want to balance an historical understanding of the origins of a Goddess with a modern reinterpretation through an archetypal lens. If nothing else, I think I have to start where I am at, make some mistakes, and learn and grow through the process!
A particular Goddess to which I’ve been drawn over several years is Kuan Yin. She is the Buddhist Goddess of compassion. In The Goddess Guide, Priestess Brandi Auset describes her as Deity to whom healers may dedicate themselves. She also notes her name as translating to “She Who Hears the Weeping World.” Her mythology, described in Patricia Monaghan’s Encyclopedia of Goddesses & Heroines, involves a journey to the underworld and a decision to remain in human form to continue to minister to people. Her legend sometimes blurs with that of a male deity, Avalokiteśvara, resulting in her being portrayed with a thousand arms and eyes in order to respond to the needs of the world. This sense of her compassionately responding to suffering has given me great comfort. It leads me to think about how we can fulfill this role for ourselves and for those with whom we come into contact.
There have been a few times in my life where I’ve felt truly seen in the most vulnerable places in me, and those moments are etched in my memory. Something transformative happens when we allow another being into this sacred ground. This is different than re-enacting past traumas or having a flashback because we are able to keep one foot in the present and integrate the experience. When I first shared my experiences of childhood sexual abuse, the impression I had of the person listening was that he had “storm-clouds” in his eyes. I can’t express it well in words, but it felt like a concrete reflection of my inner world and was the first time the traumatized parts of me felt “seen.”
In interacting with people who are in deep emotional pain, I feel the vulnerability and power I hold in my being as I deliberate how to respond. I think these moments are recognizable because they have the potential to induce shame or to instill hope. If I have one thing I want to avoid in this world, it is causing someone else shame. At times, my viewpoint has been too narrow and I failed the task. I know I’ve caused others to feel worse in these cases, and, even though I apologize, it doesn’t take the sting out of my actions for me.
In other situations, I had no idea if what I said was helpful, but I knew I hadn’t added to the person’s struggle and that meant something. I think the more we are comfortable with our own flaws, insecurities, wounds and shame, the more likely we are to be able to respond to another from a place of compassion instead of judgment. I think this can be even more important than being able to say “I know what it’s like” when we’ve experienced a similar situation. Sometimes feeling like we can relate short-circuits our ability to listen carefully and really hear the nuance in what someone is saying. Instead, holding space mentally for others, letting their stories take center stage, with eyes of compassion, can speak volumes.
Advocates typically fight for systemic change. Individual acts of violence and trauma do not happen in a vacuum; they happen because systems allow for them. This battle can include seeking individual accountability but it can also include advocacy to change laws and traditions. I have discomfort here because I clearly know in me this isn’t the main type of expression to which I’m called, but it’s hard for me to give myself permission to be a witness instead of a standard-bearer. Perhaps my role will shift with time. I suspect there are people who can play both parts, but I think the burden of either weighs enough on its own.
I can see an ultimate goal of advocacy around areas related to trauma and injustice as also relating to reducing shame in one form or another. For instance, it may be to reduce the shame of our sexual desires so people can talk openly and seek consent before engaging in sex, or to reduce shame around our failings as humans that might lead us to otherwise lash out at others who are different from us. Calling out injustice and breaking down the systemic barriers that lead to it frees us all from internalizing shame.
Life tends to give us plenty of opportunities to use our eyes, our hand, our whole bodies, in response to others’ suffering. It’s usually easy to access a place of empathy when the person we see in front of us reminds us of a younger version of ourselves or seems particularly vulnerable. It’s harder when this person is different from us, difficult, or doesn’t seem interested in having anyone serve as a witness or advocate. And it may be hardest of all when we’re looking in a mirror. Through Goddesses like Kuan Yin, we can internalize a model of compassion that shows up and stands up no matter what is in front of us.