Sunday, April 24, 2011

Passover Insights : Slave Mentality and Blaming the Victim

We are in the final stretch of Passover week, and I've been thinking about the basic holiday themes - miracles, faith, and courage - especially courage.  As I understand it, courage is the willingness to do the right thing even when you are afraid to do it. I've felt for a long, long time that I am a person with little courage. Many people have told me they think of me as courageous, because I'm willing to admit and talk about things they might be too scared to. But the things they see as courageous aren't that difficult for me. I've always been bold.

The kind of courage I'm talking about is the willingness to be...unplanned. I always have a plan. I was hurt, and after I got hurt I made a decision to try to protect myself the best ways I knew how. This involved, among other things, the decision to always have a plan. I would choose to be in a dangerous and hurtful situation rather than a situation I can't plan for. I've been in a lot of situations I didn't want to be in, and still find myself in (although less so) because of my emotional drive to have a plan.

I saw evidence all around me of people with courage. People who had put down self-destructive patterns and were talking about how wonderful their lives were and how happy and peaceful and harmonious they felt. And I was the dud.  How little I think of myself is my biggest shame. And how far I can go without caring for and protecting myself is my biggest resentment towards myself. How I cave in to fear. I figured that made me pretty pathetic and weak. I despised myself for it without questioning.

And then a few years ago, a friend said something that disrupted the mental process of guilt, shame, self-hatred for my weakness and my pandering to fear. She said, "You cannot get a dog to stop cowering by beating it." 

Hearing this, I was stumped. I was pathetic, weak and unworthy of life. If I didn't have the courage to stand up for myself, it would be better for me to be culled from the human herd. People who will act based on fear were responsible for the deplorable state of our planet and should be taken out of the equation because they were defective. I didn't want to be one of those people. I wanted to be free and secure with a burning passion, but every time I moved towards not having a plan, I stopped myself. I just didn't take risks like that. And that just added to the self-hatred because I didn't have the guts to kill myself and get it over with. But the logic of what she said was irrefutable. You cannot make a scared dog stop cowering by beating it. You can make it shit all over itself as it continues to shake in fear, or the dog can become dangerous to itself and others due to a terror-driven aggression. But you can't "force" it to feel confident and safe. Not by hurting it.

Despite how much I hated myself for my fearfulness and cower-dice, I could understand the logic that a dog will not stop cowering if you beat it. I could also understand that the dog wasn't "defective" for it's responses. You can't make a dog stop cowering by beating it. It just doesn't work like that. Similarly, hating myself, berating myself and punishing myself for my "cower"-dice was not working. I still hate myself, but I haven't been able to keep hating myself with the same intensity and persistence since I heard this statement. Thank God/dess.

Let's backtrack to the Passover holiday for a few moments. The basic story goes like this: Israelites were enslaved, they escaped, they were pursued, they wandered through the desert, they got the Torah. Sounds like a great story, and it is. But it leaves out the part about how the Israelites wanted to turn back because they were scared. And the part about how they were afraid they'd starve to death. It even leaves out the midrash about how God forced the Israelites to dig their graves and sleep in them once a year in the month of Av, and how each year some didn't get up the next morning (exempting the final time, when all arose). 

Throughout the commentaries and articles I've been able to find on Passover, the term "slave mentality" has been liberally threaded. The saying goes, God had to let the old generation die out because of a "slave mentality". The Israelites wanted to turn back because of a "slave mentality". The term "slave mentality" seems to be an insult dressed in intellectualist clothing. So let me undress it for you, because underneath it's clothing it has name  - BLAMING THE VICTIM. Labelling an individual or group as having a "slave mentality" means, in my opinion, "They got you. They make you flinch and they're not even around. You're still scared. You're their 'bitch' (notice the use of feminization as an insult). Therefore, you are weak. You "deserve" abuse. You "brought it on" yourself. It's your fault. How dare you be so penetrable, so vulnerable?"

Being afraid, acting in fear, and even blaming the victim are all "slave mentality". They are indications of a  survivor mentality, a terrified mentality, and, ultimately, a human mentality. They are not "defective" or weak. They are natural responses to trauma. And you know what? I've been trying to beat them out of myself and hating myself for having them for a long time. And that hasn't been working well for me, if at all.

And I am among family in being traumatized. All across Mother Earth, people have been raped, tortured, murdered, work-tortured, abused, and heartbroken. And somehow, despite this, we've been surviving. We've been afraid, we've compromised, we've lacked courage to care for, protect and cherish ourselves. That means I'm not "defective", and neither are you if you identify with what you're reading. It means we are squarely ordinary. Plainly human. 

It also means something very hopeful and wonderful. If we believe that another way is possible, that there are people out there with courage living happy lives, if we want desperately to experience the "freedom" that victim-turned-healers talk about in self-help books, healing circles, and on Oprah, we are capable. Us, with our dirty evil "slave mentality", our fear, our trauma and our "unenlightened" or "unevolved" struggles. Let's remember that "lightening" and "evolution" are concepts that have been widely misused and misunderstood by fascist movements. Maybe the understanding we have of "enlightenment", "evolution" and "spirituality" are the "slave mentality" we need to question.  

So after the seders, the soirees and the fun this week, let's remember to put down the overseers' whips and love ourselves and our sisters and brothers.

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