the sisyphus prayer

“A man devoid of hope and conscious of being so has ceased to belong to the future.”  Albert Camus

Last night I committed an act of resistance: I allowed myself to feel.

When the hashtags announcing the death of another person of color cease as a trend and become a weekly inevitability, numbness feels like less of a choice and more of a mode of survival. I keep scrolling through my Facebook dash. I avert my eyes from the TV screen. I quiet the clamor of the world with headphones and absorb myself in little happenings that don’t cause my heart to crack.

Then the guilt creeps in. There are others marching, calling government offices, writing, speaking, weeping. This knowledge clings to the edges of my consciousness, much as I resist it at work, at home. The questions persist: Is my silence just another tether for injustice to continue, unchallenged? Should I be doing something? What does it mean that my eyes are dry? 

You’d think that as a social worker, I would understand how trauma works. You’d think I’d be able to point out the symptoms of heartache, the comfort found in desensitizing yourself to it, the body’s reflexes in warding off pain once it threatens to engulf you. Yet it wasn’t until last night when I read the story of Jayson Negron, a 15-year-old boy recently shot and killed by a police officer in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that I realized just how much the constant exposure to racial violence shapes my daily walk in the world.

Under the label of racial violence, I file the black and Latinx persons wrongfully incarcerated, the black sisters and brothers murdered because their bodies are threatening. I catalogue the black kids sent home for having wild hair and tackled for acting out and “being bad.” I index the times a black woman has been exoticized and silenced and dismissed for being too angry. I codify the times a black man has softened the serrations of his anger to navigate the workplace and move up and out. I trace the long line of comments on social media that blame people of color for causing more division and being racist against white people. I find the gaps between files where we are missing; we are too few in the police force, the Senate seats, the boss chairs.

I archive slavery and Jim Crow and urban poverty as well as imperialism and Operation Wetback and xenophobic-ridden ICE raids. Being multi-ethnic means you face oppression on multiple sides.

The sheer amount of data pointing to the existence of racism in my country filters through every outlet connected to my day-to-day life. Maybe once I would have missed it, but now that I am waking to it, I see the shades of it everywhere. It’s a second loss of innocence that many people of color experience at a much earlier age, this realization that the society you were born into was not structured for your flourishing. Hard work and individual effort aside, a black person can do all the “right” things and still end up dead on the street for simply being black. That is the privilege we lack.

I don’t even sense my mind hammering in walls for itself when I’m bombarded by the evidence of this marginalization. I waver between feeling too much and feeling nothing, yet I still blame myself for not fighting back enough. I resist calling myself a victim because I feel like I haven’t lost much–I’m a lighter-skinned, educated woman from an upper-middle class background. Then another police killing happens, and I’m back to figuring out why my gut is twisting inside me.

There is a psychological and spiritual cost in being exposed to examples of racism around you. I use the passive verb “being” intentionally because I do not always choose to hear about these stories–they are often thrown at me and then I have to fly or fight. Even if I don’t experience the situations personally, the racial subtext reinforces the danger, the vulnerability my blackness carries. And because the roots of this positionality are entrenched in histories white people can choose to gloss over or dilute, there is the very great possibility that if I voice my frustration and grief, I will encounter silence rather than open arms.

The Church does not speak to this type of collective trauma enough, and that neglect produces spiritual communities unequipped to comfort and ally with Christians of color as they wrestle with racial suffering. It’s telling that I’m conditioned to react in at least one of three ways when dealing with my own pain in the area of race:

  • Ignore it until it explodes.
  • Talk to other black people. Rant/cry with them.
  • Cry alone and pray.

The last two responses are not bad–in fact, sometimes I just need to commune in a space with other black people and let myself unravel. I also need the spaces where it’s just me and God wrestling through the unexplainables. I have found so much peace in dropping my guard and releasing my pain to Christ because I know He can handle my rage and my questions.

Yet my wounds still ache anew when I see responses from white churches in America and they are cold–or worse, a kindly sort of acquiescence. The temptation to contain my grief, wall it away, sharpens. If racism engineers such tepid responses, how can the institutions that perpetuate it ever crumble when the people whose ancestors built them don’t know or don’t care?

I could also try not to care–I might even find happiness through it. Why exert so much effort to build bridges when it feels like they’re going nowhere? Every life lost feels like censure.

This is where the Gospel flares into life: in the frail smallness of my life against the vast backdrop of racial pain, Jesus is indomitable. Through Him, I have inherited the spirit of a conqueror rather than a slave to history. And He is redeeming all things and wants me to participate in his work. Scripture reminds me that it is injustice, racism that faces a Long Defeat–not me.

I have nothing to prove, no one to please but Him. He frees me from the self-consciousness that shames my tears, and He meets me in midst of racial trauma. My heart learns to be pliant rather than hard, and leaning on Him, crumpling there in His arms with more questions than answers, I re-learn to feel.

So I curled into my pillow last night, and I wept. I cried for Jayson–and for the other black boys and girls lost this year. I thought of my brother, a black boy who just entered college, and I allowed my fear for him to spill out, pooling into the thick summer night. He’s in danger God. Protect him. Please protect him, I pleaded. I don’t want anything to happen to him. I ranted to God about how helpless I feel sometimes, how much I wish all white people could just understand, how guilty I feel inside the walls of academia when there is so much suffering outside them.

I stopped censoring myself in that moment, stopped pretending the pain wasn’t there, and my guards dropped away, leaving me more vulnerable but also more human than I had allowed myself to be. My defense mechanisms may help me keep it together, but they also resign me to a life dependent on my own capacity to process pain. I am called instead to submit all I am to God, whose capacity is limitless.

In the everyday, it means I am in constant contact with Him through prayer, through silence. It means I am wrestling with the pain and letting that process inform how I engage with people. Sometimes it’s too raw and I need to retreat, but I will not build more walls to defend myself. Trusting God to be my shield is uncomfortably counter-intuitive but also desperately needed. There is a way of being that exists apart from the roles of silent sufferer and hyper-vigilant martyr that black people are pressured to play.

I am sick of being strong. Black women are encouraged, praised to be strong. I seek instead the kind of equity that gives me access to vulnerability so I become more human, less of an object conditioned to resist battering. I want to taste more of the freedom rooted in God’s incredible love for me and inhabit that space where I am no longer resisting injustice alone–and I am not alone.

This is my daily rebellious exercise: When I feel the weight of my world like a rock, I pray its movement forward, inch by inch. My fingers may ache, my back grow sore, but I know this weight will not crush me. This is no futile strain. There are hands far stronger keeping me in place as I look past the rock to where the mountain peak waits.

This is endurance–not that I am strong, but rather that I am allowed weakness.

 

*Learn about Sisyphus here

 

 

interlude

It’s been almost a month since I last posted on this blog. It hits me on the train ride home from work, the sky already wrapped in pitch at only 6pm, and I feel the haunting prickle at my neck because it’s been a month

Settling into a new job and season of life has set more hurdles for me in terms of writing and working on other projects, despite my commitment to using words to examine the world I’ve been placed in and impact it for the better. Sometimes my words are carefully mapped and revised over several days; sometimes, like today, I let the words run and ramble but hope they will say what is burdening my heart. And I think that black and brown people, my minority brothers and sisters of Asian and indigenous descent, we should not be ashamed of the interludes where we don’t have everything together–where we are messy and unfiltered and simply trying to recuperate and process all we are doing and desire to do.

We need to prioritize our mental and emotional health, despite the demands placed on us by our own sense of responsibility and our broken world.  I have to remind myself of this all the time, especially a few days ago when I found myself stressed out by the idea that I wasn’t doing enough to help my people.

The thought gnaws at me in waking and sleeping hours, the question of authenticity (am I woke enough-Black enough?) and the question of empathy (do I care enough?) present with the doubt, especially when the evidence of my country’s racial toxicity stains the air of each breath. The problem in many cases is not my apathy or negligence, but rather my caring so much that I end up extending well past my emotional and physical limits. It’s found in the taut, trembling lines of my arms, the tension twofold as I deal with being conscious of racism everyday and with my perceived responsibility to respond to that along with all the other wrongs of the world brought to my attention.

The counterpoint to white fragility may be the insistent pressure upon people of color to endure racial discomfort without complaint or concession.

Yes, I should challenge racism (easy enough to answer–next!). Yes, I should keep pushing for racial reconciliation even though it involves grueling effort and a high emotional toll. Yes, I know I can’t get desensitized to suffering. I know this. But while God enables me to love others and advocate for them (and myself) far better and far more than I could do alone, His infinitude reminds me in whispers that I was not the one to die on the Cross for the world’s atrocities. I am limited in what my heart can hold in any one moment, and that is no error–it is a blessing.

I think of the way JRR Tolkien designed the race of Men in his fantasy works. Eru the Creator (delving into serious nerd territory here) designed humans as the Secondborn Children after the immortal Elves. Humans were created with a multitude of talents and gifts and with ambitious, persistent spirits. They were also created mortal–and they hated it. Tolkien called it “the Doom of Man,” but in this case, “doom” carries two layers of significance. Humans viewed their mortality, their “doom” as tragic and unfair, especially when they compared themselves to those O so wise ancient Elves that had millennia to be heroes and fight great battles and do generally amazing things (not that the Elves had it easy either). However, their Creator viewed their “doom” as His greatest gift to them; because they were finite, they would treasure the lives they were given and achieve great things even while striving within the boundaries of their shorter lifespan. Their acceptance of their weakness, their finitude would simultaneously inspire their dreams to improve their environment and help them prioritize their day-to-day actions. Their limitations were meant to play a special role in the shaping of Middle-Earth and its destiny; their limitations helped them clarify the things that mattered most.

I think Tolkien was pointing to something compelling about our own human lives, and it is especially relevant to people of color who can feel the pressure of too much to do, too much to overcome, too much to grieve, and with too little time. Our limitations do not restrict our movement–they give our chosen movements greater weight. Our investment in what we choose to prioritize reaps more fruit when we submit to this truth. I can and will choose to mourn and pray about my government’s betrayal and negligence of our indigenous peoples. I will use my typing fingers to declare with each press of the keyboard that Black Lives Matter. I educate myself about my own Latinx and black histories to work through my internalized racism. I will feel the weight of each step refugees take beyond the lands they once called home and call attention to it.

If I am given the opportunity and conviction to act on behalf of others and fail to, that should weigh on me. However, it is also my responsibility to exercise honesty when I sense myself hitting the emotional threshold and act upon that awareness to keep myself healthy. This is where I throw out my good-intentioned savior complex, surrender the crushing weight of national sins, and acknowledge God’s sovereignty over what my hands can’t reach.

I spoke of racial trauma in another post, and I believe it’s a reality for a lot of us. Sometimes when I watch the news or read comments on an article about racism, it triggers this aching sadness or this twisting anger in my gut. When I get overwhelmed by how divided and hurtful this world is and how many people are suffering, I don’t always know what to do with it. I am weighed down, and tears are close. My impulse is to do more, do more, do more, sometimes propelled by the guilty knowledge that I have failed to act in the past, sometimes by the rightful urgency these problems require.

But I have not been designed to weather every storm at every moment, nor should I blame myself for seeking shelter when my body is rain-ridden and weary. I throw words at God (and He can take it): THIS WORLD IS SCREWED UP!!! I HATE how I feel and why is there so much racism God, so many deaths WHY and WHY do I feel too much and WHY does it hurt and I don’t know how to hold it…

….help me.

In those moments, mortality comes crashing down on me. I think of everything I should be doing–articles to write, protests to show up to, books to read, people to speak to and I’m overwhelmed by a paralyzing sense of failure because it feels like I’m not doing enough and because of that, I’m just perpetuating the problems.

We have to stop blaming ourselves and castigating our limits when our limits keep us from choking. I can’t think or do everything, even though there are projects I want to take on and things I will need to do in the future–I’m not neglecting that. But right now, in this moment, giving weight to my need to laugh, giving weight to learning at my job, giving weight to celebrating my friend’s birthday allows me to find my bearings. I am freed to do a few things with full attention and love and clarity and see myself flourish rather than strain myself, tear muscle and exhaust bone to either appease the historical demands of Whiteness and endure-purge my tears- or attempt to drain myself of life to give it to others in need. That will help no one, and it is not sustainable.

Sometimes all the suffering I am exposed to is beyond my coping ability; I shouldn’t feel ashamed of that. I should be able to turn off the news for a moment and look out my window and watch the sun simply pour into my bedroom. I should be able to remember that I am not a summary of causes and tasks. When I focus on transitioning into a job or new friendships or positions of leadership, when I choose to eat and cry and dance and watch bad Netflix movies and go to therapy, I am not dismissing the other burdens on my heart; I am allocating space to all the things that should matter–including my mental and emotional health. I am choosing to see value in the numbered things I can process and do within the span of each day.

Are interludes a privilege? Perhaps. Some people do not have the luxury of a moment to simply breathe amidst the chaos around them. Should they still be encouraged? Yes, and our society needs to work at valuing the mental and emotional health of people of color and acknowledging that we are indeed finite and cannot fix America’s problems. We cannot be on-call 24/7 on race duty when there are also bills to pay, homework to finish, weddings to plan, vacations (yes vacations) to set off to. Those viewed as squatters must be given a room of their own and allowed to live rather than expected to just survive.

For myself, I must move towards trusting God to mourn and act transcendent of my limitations; in fact, I must depend upon it. My Doom is to be a woman of color who doesn’t have to save my race or be defined by tasks unchecked. Thank God for that.

respite

I learned in a social work course about grief, loss, and bereavement that the stages of grief do not exist. I watched my classmates’ eyes widen as the professor explained with an irreverent toss of hand that there is no slow, steady progression through the realms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Grief is a river hitting bends and drops; it is an ocean in thrall and then unexpectedly placid. No expectations should be imposed on the grieving process by an outsider-even a social worker-because no one will experience loss in the same way.

This knowledge galled me. I am used to fixing things–the vestiges of my teenage savior-complex coupled with a once insatiable thirst for perfectionism. Asking questions like bullet points and preparing conclusions on lined paper, I bask in the certainty and security of what is known to me, what I can figure out and puzzle solutions to address. People can be understood for anyone with the willingness to listen, and the effects of any problem can fit neatly into a preexisting model.

My practiced patterns fly apart on the night before I’m headed back to the U.S. mainland from vacation abroad, and I see the Alton Sterling video. Until that point, I had avoided seeing videos of any previous police shootings. I see this one, and my heart sinks like lead.

I return to the U.S and the Philando Castile video materializes. Though an inner voice pleads with me to stop looking, I watch news segments where white lawyers and political agents with stone faces try to find some way to justify these men’s deaths. As my Facebook feed becomes an endless sprawl of articles, posts from my friends of color about the racism in this country, posts that vibrate with rage and sorrow, grief in that moment means a simmering anger triggered by every word related to race. Beneath my smiles and daily living routines, I rattle with fury.

Not again. Not again…

Then, suddenly, the overwhelming weight of everything wrong with my country drags me down, down and there are no words, nothing to make it disappear. I’m still on vacation, but I lock myself in a bathroom in a Texas mall and try to stifle the sound of my tears. Afterwards, I crumple toilet paper to rub the evidence away and re-enter the world a composed black woman.

This past week, these past years have awakened me to the reality of what being a black, a Latina woman in this country means. Before, determined to view my surroundings with a brightened lens, I would have downplayed what I see in the news. Surely it’s not as bad as it seems. But I have listened to those far wiser than me and those who have experienced more than me, and I am taking the time to learn my history; I know now that the sepia-tinged  America never existed, and black lives do not matter here in the way our Creator intended them to be valued.

Anger propels me. I must write something–everyone is writing something. Everyone is posting a response, laying out arguments, spilling out the storm inside them. I cannot be silent when I know that injustice will not end with this latest shooting; this story began long ago and there are no brakes in sight as it throttles into the future. But after sharing every post that strikes a chord, ruminating every new headline (then Dallas happens), I am emptied out, hollowed. I am tired.

Psychologists and sociologists have been conducting more research lately on the concept of race-based trauma, where exposure to race-related horrific events and/or discrimination experienced by you or members of your racial/ethnic community result in emotional and psychological stress. NPR labeled it “coping while black,” struggling along the path of resilience when you are constantly battered by the news of yet another example of racism in your country or encountering the markers of racial oppression in your daily life.

The microaggressions pile up, the little rhetorical gestures that subtly invalidate the pain of your community and remind you of your position of inferiority, even if you are a middle class black girl whose family member has never been shot (the they could be speaks louder). Enforced silences bind your throat because no matter how many carefully structured responses you provide, you will inevitably encounter the same questions from a white colleague, friend, or acquaintance another day. You are taught to resign yourself to the perpetual play of question-answer-apology or take shelter in silence. Find a good enough hiding spot and even in predominantly white spaces, maybe no one will seek you.

Some members of the black community call it “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” and they’re not far off. The multigenerational nature of racism in my country is such that the impact is experienced in both invisible and blatant ways now. We may never know what it is like to be in chains, whipped and sold, but we do see sons and daughters incarcerated in record numbers and stripped of the right to vote, get a job, maintain a stable family. We may never know what it is to sit on the back of a bus or use a separate bathroom, but we do see our under-resourced city schools that serve black children, the red lines around “bad neighborhoods,” and we see our community lampooned in the media, made into minstrels for viral videos and sassy baby mamas to incite laughter and wise negro friends to aid white enlightenment. We have inherited generations of unaddressed suffering, and our bodies pulse with the familiar rhythms of it, even when we are young and cannot name it.

There is a spiritual ache that heavies your limbs when you sense the strongholds of division and national blindness that prevent your communities from flourishing. It feels like masochism at times to keep drawing near the articles and and scholarly treatises and news updates and even movies because each is one of a thousand cuts and my heart bleeds.

What is most wearying is the expectation to respond. A race-related event occurs, and the person of color is on-air 24/7, ready to defend themselves and their community or ready to contextualize events to ease the blow for the mainstream. What I think many white people do not grasp is that to be a person of color signifies that you are a public body  in almost every space you inhabit–with the exception of the company of other people within your ethnic/racial community. Outside of that kinship of experience, I am conscious of my skinned walk in the world, and the world has taught me that I will be explaining my skinned life until the Lord’s new kingdom unfolds in fullness.

There are those who complain that as people of color we are “whiny” and “holding ourselves back” by raging against racism so much. There are white people who accuse people of color of “playing the race card.” But this is not a game. We are not trying to manipulate events in our favor or writing about abuses allowed against our communities to garner pity and make white people feel bad. The stakes are death and life, imprisonment and freedom. There are insidious crimes against people of color being committed on American soil; the matrix of privilege and ignorance can only envelop the public for so long.

I can speak, should speak. There are facts to unveil, histories to be re-evaluated–but I am tired. I am sad because so many people, black, white, Latinx, Asian, indigenous, are hurting right now and racism is a demonic stronghold gnawing at my country’s roots. I am angry that the pain of people of color does not merit as much attention on Sunday mornings as the losses of white people. I am in denial that the same police shootings keep happening. I am overjoyed to see the those of the diaspora, black people around the world, chanting “Black Lives Matter” in their cities. I find peace in praying for my broken Church even as the lament ends in tears. I am all these things at once, grief un-staged and shifting form.

Isaiah 40:28-31 provides a vision for the brokenhearted: a God who is relentless when we are weary of doing good and experiencing evil. It reminds me that I don’t have to be strong, even when the impulse to be strong and endure all this sorrow persists. The media, my neighbors are not entitled to my response wrapped in words when words fail me. I can’t avoid what is happening around me (and neither should I), but finding rest does not equate to running away.

So many expectations are placed upon people of color to explain current events and historical realities to those outside of their racial/ethnic communities. We are brought to the stand to defend, justify, ease tensions, deny hate, express condolences and listen to the well-intentioned and passionate rants of white allies. I am inured to creating space for others to rise and feel better even as my wings are clipped.

When numbed by grief and overwhelmed by the injustice made all too real everyday, I encourage my brothers and sisters of color to rest. I tell myself to rest, to take time to breathe for a moment. I take breaks from social media, spend time with my family, spend time alone, spend time with God. I try to make it clear when I cannot talk about the news with white friends. I could write a series of posts decrying racism and calling people to action, but I choose to come to God as my hurting self and ask for relief, trusting that He will reveal for me quiet waters after the shadow of death has touched me. I seek security in the presence of the One who does not falter even when I am weak and beyond words.

I rest when I accept my grief for what it is: ongoing and reflective of God’s heart for the marginalized and oppressed. I am right in feeling this pressure; it is pointing to a spiritual reality of systemic and individual racial sin. The world is not the way He designed it to be, and when I allow myself to process the weight of that, God frees me from the anxiety of conforming to other’s expectations and directs my attention to Him, the one who transcends the atrocity and doggedly redeems it. In this space created for me by Christ, who understands human frailty intimately, I can rage and weep and laugh and wait to re-enter the fray when equipped to do so. The world does not offer people of color enough space to be themselves untethered from explanations, but in the presence of Christ, we have the opportunity to renew our strength in communion with Him and see our pain validated and comforted in every way.

Friends, allies, co-laborers in the Church who are not black: I encourage you be conscious of what you ask of people of color in your conversations and even your efforts towards justice. There are times when I appreciate your intentions but am too tired to thoroughly respond. There are times when the people you care about need your listening ear and quiet presence as well as your consideration when solitude is vital. This is not your moment to prove how great of an ally you are, but rather to grieve with them and be present. Mourn with those who mourn without defensiveness, for there is a time to extrapolate and a time to simply acknowledge black suffering and lay it before God as your loved ones rest.

The causes of grief are not erased. Injustice jaunts through the nation, unconfronted. But between the headlines, I find my haven. The trauma of living black in a broken world that obsesses over analyzing my communities’ losses is not forgotten by Christ; in fact, He pursues the weary ones and gives them what few remember to offer: respite.

Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.  Isaiah 40:28-31

Take rest and let no one shame you from choosing to remove yourself from stifling spaces. Immerse in the little things that bring you joy and rejuvenation, and allow God to minister to your soul by providing comfort without anxiety to perform and love without obligation to justify yourself. The world will not fall apart in the pauses where you exhale.