This week I presented in front of my class. The topic – artistic responses to oppression. Yes, it was one of those classes. For the last few months we had been discussing civil war, gender based violence, globalization, international trade, neo-colonialism, racism and the list goes on and on. There was a lot of theory being discussed and governance approaches were broken down, analyzed and we were supposed to think critically and there was a flavor of “here is what is wrong and what ought to be done differently” in the air. Some seemed to cherish the discussions, the debates and the learning; some were quiet and listened while others, perhaps feeling cynical after many years of passive sitting and being lectured to, seemed to be in some distant place or time – anywhere but the here and now. I fell into the latter category.
I had viewed the presentation as the highlight of the course. I started by saying “I really appreciate that we have the chance to talk about art and artists. Theory is useful but dry and it lacks the human element and for me, artists make theory come alive in a way that reminds you that for every grand political theory there are thousands of lives who couldn’t care less about what was being thought about in some distant university and who lived – actually lived – what you were good naturedly conversing about with your classmates”. Well, I said something along those lines and then presented on the Poetry of Social Healing.
I had picked Sierra Leone as my case study and spoke about the power of poetry to give voice to unimaginable human traumas. You might remember the long and brutal civil war of the 1990’s? I brought a book and quoted how poets found healing in collective words, documenting in bits and pieces both violence and small spaces of peace. I mentioned how their lines sang pain, expressed sorrow and the loss of innocence and how they groped for pathways home that no longer seemed to exist.
I was idealistic and proclaimed how poetry does not cover the continuous swells of experiences as if they did not exist, but it keeps noticing, making it the historical enemy of human forgetfulness. Also a quote. I liked it and still do.
I talked about voice and meaning and pain and healing and at the end the class was silent, then applauded and I waited for questions. One such question had been forming in my mind as I presented and I was dreading having to answer it. I expected someone to utter it and expected to mutter an incoherent response. It never came. No one spoke and yet, I still had to face my own, internal inquisitor.
Who was I, a middle class Caucasian male attending a prestigious University, to bring up stories of pain and suffering and healing of people I did not know, would never know and did not have the capacity to know? Who was I to hoist poetry up and up and state how powerful it could be as a means to heal, find voice and find meaning?; citation included, of course; one does not like to lose marks on such matters – highly annoying!
When I finally faced myself that afternoon, sitting by the Vancouver ocean, listening to the waves, it was with cynicism and my smile was sad. Ever since I had stepped into the role of a student and had written my first paper on subject – fill in the blank – , I had been discussing someone, somewhere, far removed from my reality. As much as we were taught to be dispassionate observers of facts and truth(s) I couldn’t help but feel that we were violating someone’s story, speaking for them, about them, but never with them. Our perception of their life, as experienced through teachings and readings, became, for all intents and purposes, their life.
I say they, you see. I have no names to share. I only know ‘these people’ as some ‘distant other’.
I come and speak from a place of privilege. An interesting word – privilege. I read somewhere that for a straight ‘white’ male in my position, privilege is like living life at a default setting (yes, a video game analogy) of easy while all others have their life set to medium or difficult. Makes sense to me.
Where does this leave me, however? Sometimes I feel sad, depressed, lonely, frightened; sometimes I cry or can’t sleep at night or feel utterly lost. In such situations, I had made it a game to tell my vulnerable self that whatever I was feeling was not nearly as bad as what someone else, somewhere else was going through. Therefore, I ought to – oh no, ‘man up’ – and get on with my life.
Over time this strategy has come back to haunt me. Now, whenever these feelings come creeping up I look at them with disgust. They are illegitimate. It is as if I cannot allow myself to feel them because I, in some way, do not do them justice. My pain, so a voice says, is small compared to other pains and laughable. So I attempt to rid myself of all these ridiculous feelings and shun them. I am an individual of privilege; I ought not to feel self-pity, a self-pity that seemed to be an affront to everyone that suffered more and deeper.
This has made things build up within me and I feel tense; restless. I want to escape and yell, scream and break free! But how?
To this day, I still do not really know how to deal with this seeming contradiction. On the one hand there is me, privileged, healthy, well-off and living a rather decent life and on the other hand there is also me, feeling what I feel of sadness, loneliness, despair…
I have an inkling that what seems like a contradiction might actually not be one at all and that there is no patent on what can or cannot be called a legitimate feeling. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said that “the point is, to live everything”. Perhaps what he meant was that our feelings need to be lived to the fullest? That they ought to be given the space to develop and be given respect as something that is undeniably part of ourselves and therefore, sacred?