Archive for backstory

The Dance of Withdrawal

Just recently, I experienced someone withdrawing from relationship with me.

This was a significant relationship. It had been a close relationship. The reason for the withdrawal was one I understood and respected, and was not permanent.

But it still hurt.

Not only did it hurt in the moment, and the days of moments which followed, but it tapped into past experiences of withdrawal. It tapped into the pattern of relating in a long-term relationship where withdrawal was a tactic used to keep me and my concerns at arm’s length – so that valid issues did not need to be addressed. It tapped into another relationship in which a friend would withdraw until they sorted things out – and only then, if I was lucky, would I find out what some of the concerns might have been.

We’ve all experienced withdrawal, and it always hurts. We felt it in childhood when a good friend wouldn’t ‘play with us anymore’. We experienced it in adolescence when young love is not reciprocated or our boy/girlfriend ‘drops’ us for another. We sense it in intimate relationships when our partner is not ‘with us’ even though they may be physically present.

And the reason withdrawal hurts so much is that feelings of rejection usually come along for the ride. We question ourselves, our worth, and our ability to love and be loved. Everything about us is called into question – because there must be something wrong with us or why else did the other person withdraw? Right?

I didn’t quite go there, because I know I’m OK – not perfect but quite OK. But what I really wanted to do was withdraw myself, harden my heart, and distance myself from the situation.

But I had a new path to take.

I have started reading some of the writings of Franciscan friar, Richard Rohr. He wrote, “Our experiences of ordinary life will transform us if we are willing to experience them fully.” He went on to say that “We see this ‘ordinariness’ in the…sin and war, adultery and affairs, kings and killings, intrigues and deceit, and the ordinary, wonderful and sad events of human life.”

Rohr concluded his reflection by noting that it was into this ordinariness that God stepped in the person of Jesus – the implication, for me, was blinding.

I was not to withdraw from the ordinary messiness of the situation I was in. I certainly had to allow my friend the space they needed but, even though I was hurt, I was not to withdraw – I was to stay engaged.

Withdrawal is part of my backstory. Those experiences of withdrawal had the potential to keep me in a pattern of behaviour – you withdraw, I withdraw. But now, I had the chance to turn my backstory of withdrawal into a superpower of engagement.

That decision to stay emotionally engaged did not take away the pain, but gave me purpose. It shaped how I responded to the next few weeks. It shaped my attitudes and my actions.

What had the potential to keep me stuck, and anchored to past ways of behaving, became a sail to catch the wind so that I could move into the future of this relationship freely and lightly.

What's your water?

There’s an old Chinese proverb which says: a fish is the last one to know what water is. The idea is that all of us have unconscious understandings of the world based on our cultural and racial heritage which influence what we do, the decisions we make and the attitudes we hold.

I’m a child of the 60s and a teenager of the 70s. I grew up in conservative, white, middle-class, Protestant Bible-belt Australia.

Fast-forward to 2012.

I’m a single-again mid-life woman working with The Salvation Army when it is awarded a contract by the Australian Government to provide welfare services for asylum seekers in the newly-reopened off-shore detention and processing centres on the Republic of Nauru and Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea.) I volunteered for a four-week rotation on Nauru, not because I had a burning desire to work with asylum seekers, not because I wanted to work in a developing nation, and definitely not because I wanted to work in the tropics.

I volunteered because I couldn’t think of any reason why not to.

After catching the red-eye from Brisbane, Australia, with 80 or so others, I stepped out into the tropical heat wondered what I’d got myself into. After a full day of orientation, and having been up for over 24 hours, the last item on the day’s agenda was to check out ‘the camp’ where the 400 or so men were being housed in green army tents. As my group walked between the rows of tents and I watched the men sitting on their stretchers or talking to each other. Some looked at us with vague interest, but mostly we were ignored. However, I became aware of feeling afraid.

As I reflected on that feeling of fear and realised that it had no physical basis I saw that this fear was solely based on ‘otherness’.

These men were ‘other’ to me: other nationalities, other faiths, other languages. What was shocking for me was to realise that in me was a latent racism based purely on the homogenous ‘water’ of my childhood and upbringing. I had always said I didn’t have a racist bone in my body – I now knew that this was untrue.

Some months later, I discovered some more about my personal ‘water’. I was a white university-educated Aussie, working in a facility run by Australians with a team of Nauruans providing support services, as teacher’s aides, running the canteen, being part of the welfare team. There was little collaboration by the Aussie leadership with the Nauruans and the longer I was there, the more I became aware of sense of superiority that characterised the interactions between Aussies and Nauruans – including my own.

I spoke of my burgeoning understanding of this superiority I felt to the woman leading the Nauruan team. Her comment was that the Nauruans felt it too but just knew this was the way we were. I was appalled.

On returning to Australia when the contract ended I took a good look at myself and my life. I started asking questions and talking to people about what I’d learnt about myself. I discovered that there was name for that combination of fear and superiority that people like me felt when confronted with difference – white privilege.

That was my ‘water’ and it impacted all my interactions with others and especially those who were different to me.

The stories we tell and the stories we hear

Much has been said about Fremantle Council’s recent decision to cancel the fireworks at Australia Day celebrations out of respect for indigenous Australians.

An editorial in a well-known paper, after outlining the writer’s stance on Australia Day as a day to both celebrate and think, then referred to ‘the isolated moments of darkness in our dealings with Aboriginal Australians’. The writer then described January 26, 1788 as a ‘nasty surprise’ for ‘our indigenous mates’.

This writer was telling the story of the landing of British troops and convicts in Australia and the ongoing implications and consequences.

However, the story I heard was one of white entitlement to a land that was already occupied.

What I heard was an attempt to reduce the impact of white settlement to a ‘nasty surprise’ – in much the same way as a spider in your shoe is a nasty surprise. What I heard was a white Australian conflating 200+ years of discrimination, forced removal of children, rape, murder and disenfranchising to ‘isolated moments’.

However, I’m also sure that other readers heard a corroboration of their stance that Australia Day should be left alone and that indigenous Australians need to just stop whingeing and let bye-gones be bye-gones – after all, we’ve said ‘sorry’.

Now I get this. I’m a white Australian who loves this country dearly.

For years, I couldn’t understand why indigenous Australians banged on so much about their connection to the land; I didn’t understand why Mabo was so important; I didn’t understand why we couldn’t all just be Aussies together.

But what I really didn’t understand was that indigenous Australians were only considered Australian citizens during my lifetime. I didn’t understand that indigenous Australians had been classified as flora and fauna.

I didn’t understand that what I’d been taught in school about European settlement of Australia had a very different perspective if you were indigenous. I didn’t understand that the stories we tell can be heard very differently depending on who you are and what your background is.

It took an experience working in off-shore processing with asylum seekers to open my eyes to a new perspective.

White settlement or white invasion is the backstory of my nation. The intentional attempt to decimate a whole people or the intentional attempt to build a new country is the backstory of my nation.

How this story is heard depends on where you stand.