Susan Pearson reflects on silence at the Women in Black vigil
Among the women I have long admired are the Abuelas of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who held vigil in a setting far more dangerous than my own. They walked outside their country’s presidential palace to protest the disappearance, usually followed by torture and murder, of their daughters and sons between 1976 and 1983. Babies born during imprisonment were often given to families connected with the brutal government. The grandmothers, or abuelas, continue in their attempts to locate their kin.
On learning about Women in Black, I felt moved at an opportunity to honor these women, while joining women throughout the world in taking a stand against violence, in all its brutal forms. To my mind, we are not only taking a stand against violence, but standing also FOR a new way of understanding humanity, our basic natures, and the way we construct the meaning and the resolution of difference and discord.
Silence, as a political tool, I see as opening a door, inviting new ways of thinking and responding. To stand in silence is to grieve the unspeakable horrors committed in the name of self-defense. It is a powerful reminder of loss—loss of home, of those we love, of safety, culture, health, the natural world, and hope. Silent vigil provides space for entry into the construction of reality that women’s voice has been. And that voice has been for too many centuries ignored, degraded, or absent. To invite others into a new understanding, a safe entryway must be prepared.
Words have lost reliability in this age of advertising, public relations, speech writers, and deception by euphemism. Politically charged words, laden with a cultural history, lose their ability to label accurately or to invite critical thinking. They become code words by which observers categorize and dismiss, according to their own preconceptions.
Silence, in contrast, invites curiosity, leaves space for creative engagement of the observer’s imagination. Silence, with gravity of spirit, conveys the import of the subject. Silence, with warmth of spirit, provides the sense of safety that allows others to dare to approach. Silence, imbued with the color black, acknowledges, within the symbols of Western culture, our common bond in grief. To stand each week outside labels (at least by my intent, if not always in others’ perception) leaves room for others to think without having to defend themselves against whatever threat they may perceive us to represent. It defines a safe territory for us to meet.
Words loaded with cultural antagonisms also lose their ability to communicate their original idea. As an example, the words by which People of Color have chosen to identify themselves have required change over time. As one word becomes laden with the associations of cultural racism, a new word becomes necessary to convey the dignity appropriate for that group.
Words have great power and I am glad for them. They recount our stories, give expression to inner states, and bring order to chaos. They help us to hear and draw close to others, to gather significant information, and to clarify our thoughts, and to build upon those thoughts as others’ words inform our own. I do not consider silence a substitute for words, but, rather, another form—and a potent one—of communication.
Audre Lorde wrote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those...who still define the master’s house as their only source of support. . . . (It) is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” Combat is the master’s tool I seek to resist. I struggle daily against the pull to combat, as a method of perceiving and a method of responding.
I once worked as a therapist with drug-addicted veterans of the Viet Nam War. Their decision to go to war, when it was their decision, had little to do with whatever the objectives of that war may have been. They enlisted to show their fathers they were real men, to gain respect in their communities, to earn more money than they could envision anywhere else. They returned tortured by memories of what they had done, what they had seen, and how the American culture perceived them. I think of them as I select the forms of public discourse I will support. To whatever degree possible, short of taking no action or ineffectual action, I do not want to violate these victims of war and their families. At this stage of my life, I want my public statements, silent or vocal, to be those that anyone could potentially, if not inevitably, join. I favor public statements that invite complexity of understanding—or a greater simplicity that arises from complexity—about victims, perpetrators, bystanders, blame and justice. I believe the silence of Farmington’s Women in Black and the handouts we offer are consonant with that priority.
As we dress in black each week, we insert the face of grieving into the daily life of the community. Repetition of this image holds the promise of cutting through the cultural numbing which arises from too many images, too much distracting information, too little follow-up about consequences, and too many simulated worlds. The image of our vigil leaves a clear space for the imaginations of those who pass us to integrate their own experiences into the gaps left by the silence.
When I stand with Women in Black, I feel less powerless and despairing in the face of the disasters we humans perpetrate. I draw strength from standing firmly in solidarity, grief, and determination, with women across the earth. I am moved as I watch the small dramas of ordinary life pass by....the woman who read our handout and cried;... the man who said “no thank you” to our handout on his way into the post office and, on the way out, accepted one;...the World War II veteran whose accounts of his wartime experience, I assumed, were a means of accusing us of ingratitude for his suffering and, it turned out, were an introduction to his thanking us for our stand;...the woman, on her way into the post office with 2 large boxes, a baby in her arms and a toddler holding her hand whom one of the Women in Black assisted. As the weeks go on, I find more people beeping, calling, or gesturing support. There was a woman who refused our handout whose face was laden with pain. I wondered about the source of her pain. I imagined that she had lost someone or feared the loss of someone in our current military conflicts. I was sorry she did not read our handout so that she could know we are not standing in opposition to that someone. I was glad that, whatever she assumed about the reasons for our presence, I felt my message had the integrity of resonance with her pain, whatever her pain may have been.
As I stand there I practice maintaining the attitude of heart consistent with the purposes of our vigils on a global scale. As a car of loud young men passes by mocking our stand, I seek, inside myself, the presence of mind which can understand them beyond our respective disagreements and fears. On the times I am unable to do so, I work on washing away the pain of their reaction and my own, enabling me to continue on confidently, trusting the strength of what I am representing.
Over the years, I have been wary of statements suggesting that peace in the world must begin with peace inside oneself. The danger I see in this concept lies in its tendency to slip into, “Well, I’m peaceful inside so, if you aren’t, there is something wrong with you and you deserve your pain”...a version of karma-turned-blame. Additionally, I cannot wait until I have achieved inner peace before I strive for it in the world. And I cannot rely on peace in the world as my means of achieving inner peace. I believe they are both lifelong and mutually supportive endeavors.
While I stand vigil with Women in Black, I treat each of my thoughts of judgment or anxiety as a mushroom cloud on the bright noonday sun. We humans will not change what has been assumed to be our natures easily, and scant resources from the culture are offered in its support. I believe I must use each conscious waking moment I am able to counter that tendency in myself that I am urging humanity to do as a whole. The stakes get higher and time speeds on more quickly, at the expense of self-reflection. Inner change does not preclude action, but I trust that the more I am able to hold peace within, the greater the likelihood that my actions will reflect my values. The Women in Black vigil is a time for me when new ways of relating to myself and those around me come most easily.
For years I have been grieving global cruelty and suffering, to the point that it was drowning me. The strength of our stand together is, for me, a life raft. I dare to feel the pain of human cruelty when others join me there. I feel less obligation to carry it all when I know that I am not carrying it alone.
As I walk away at 12:30 each Friday, I feel lighter, brighter, and stronger. The bond built with the women beside me, both in Farmington and across the world, holds me throughout the week to follow.