Let me say from the outset that my aim is not to be pious nor is my purpose to tell people how they should lead their lives. Moreover, I’m not writing this from a perch of enlightenment. All of us are traveling the same roads to discovery; some might be a bit further ahead than others but not one among us can say that they have figured out this most befuddling riddle called life. Therefore take this article not so much as a sermon from the mount but more as an advice from a fellow traveler.
There are copious pearls of wisdom my father passed on to me, but there was one advice he gave me that wound up salvaging my life. Though I did not realize it at the time—I was too busy rebelling against my father to understand his sagacity—his stern admonishments were training me for a future dance with adversity that I could never have imagined during my tenure as a high priced consultant. My father’s rebukes, though it fell on barren soil in my youth, eventually sprouted and paved a new path away from bitterness and towards redemption.
Growing up as a first generation immigrant from Ethiopia was no crystal stair. After reading “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison in high school, I started to call myself the Invisible Ethiopian. The book spoke to me; I felt like I belonged nowhere and everywhere concurrently. Too disconnected from Ethiopians and not fully embraced by African-Americans, I felt like a fellow without a nation. Yet, each time I ran to my father to complain about a slight I felt or the way I was being treated differently from others, he would say “stop being a victim”.
I know some will see callousness in those words; I don’t blame people who do because for a long time I too thought that my father could have been more emotive and applied equal parts tender care to his tough love. It was not until after his passing and realizing that he loved me the way he knew how and that he cared for me through his prism that I realized the true greatness of my dad. It’s not that my father did not care, he did not want me to let the cruelty of this world sink me into the abyss of victim mode.
Here is what I know. Being victimized does not mean one has to be a victim. The former is an action, the latter is taking ownership of it. Our life experiences are grand and expansive, one facet should not define the totality of who we are. There were times in my life where I dealt with the most debilitating depression, but I learned to stop saying I have depression. I don’t have depression neither does depression have me.Life circumstances should not be lifetime sentences; even people who struggle with crippling mental conditions and impairments are a lot more than their struggle. Click To Tweet
During my two year journey where I fell from upper-middle class comforts to mission and shelter abodes, I bumped into someone who was severely bipolar and was schizophrenic at the Greenville Mission in South Carolina. I’m not going to lie, my initial reaction was to avoid him like he was a leper—what is unknown has a way of conjuring fear and angst in our souls. But that day, I paused and made it a point to stop averting my eyes from people who are different than what society deems normal. So I swallowed hard and tepidly walk up to the disheveled guy and asked him what his name was.
Over the next 30 minutes, we shared a conversation as two fellow humans. A couple of minutes into the conversation, I asked him if he always heard voices. Initially he said yes, I persisted and asked a follow up question. I asked him if he heard voices even as a kid. He paused for a minute and then told me that the voices in his head started when he was 17. I asked him if there were any traumatic experiences that happened when he was 17.
He went on to tell me that he and his then girlfriend used to get high together as they inhaled everything from pure oxygen to hard core drugs. He recounted how he walked in his bedroom one day only to find his girlfriend’s lifeless body with blood streaming from one of her eyes. Hearing this story made me blanch so I can only imagine how he must have felt to experience this most horrific scene. I gathered myself and asked him if he ever made peace with her death.
He told me that he tried to forget it ever happened. Grant it, I’m not a trained psychologist and neither am I a licensed therapist, but from my own personal experiences I know that running from the past only ensures we get imprisoned by memories no matter how fast we make a dash from them. I told him about my own experiences with hardship and how I dealt with gnawing memories of traumatic events in my life and told him that the throbbing memories subsided once I stopped running away. I told him that he should visit her grave, talk to her one last time and then tell himself that he was going to release her memory and move on with his life.
Perhaps it was precisely because I talked to him from a place of compassion instead of diagnosing him clinically that he was so moved. At the end of our conversation, he told me that he has been to dozens of psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health professionals and that I was the first person to talk to him like a human. He gave me a hug and noted that for the first time in a long time he felt calm without taking Xanax.
I’m telling this story not to present myself as some shaman. What I did for that man in the Greenville Mission was done for me by plenty of people in my life. All I did was break his self-talk and the rumination of negative chatter that was haunting his mind. The same kindness was passed on to me by a chaplain named Jason when I was in Colorado not too long ago. After losing everything and being condemned to skid row, I literally thought my life was over and was doomed to walk in the shadows of permanent regret. Jason planted a seed of hope in my mind even though my heart was beset by ennui that seemed bottomless.
We all travel these roads in life. One thing I realized in my journeys is that pain is the connective tissue of humanity. Moreover, pain is relative to what we know. My broken leg will not throb any less just because a man in a wheelchair walks into my line of sight. Beyond pain being a common denominator, there is another constant in life that we all share. Try hard as we might, we have no control of what happens in our lives—we are all victims to circumstances and the actions of others. What we control is how we react when hardships intrude in our lives.
We live in an age of endless grievance groups. Everyday a demagogue is pushed to the forefront by pundits, politicians and media personalities not to salve wounds but to rip open scars for the sake of splintering society into encampments. I really hope that people don’t read this article as a condemnation of women who took part in the #MeToo movement nor as a rebuke of anyone else who joined a cause based on ideology and/or identity. Far be it from me to discount what people do in order to cope and find a way to heal from injury. Just be cautious of folks and groups who dispense advice with hidden agendas.
People who are trying to convince you that you are a victim are conditioning you to need their help—they are victimizing you with their “help”. There is a profit motive to keeping people dependent, there is a never ending supply of people who love to give fish but there are few teachers among them. That is because there is a profit motive to keeping others dependent. If you truly want to heal, you can only do so by seeing yourself as a victor instead of defining your soul as a victim. There is profound strength to be found in enduring acute pains; the victimized can be victors if we refuse to let injustice be our narratives. #NotAVictim
Mangled roots and warped branches yet these things bear fruit::
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We all have stories to share, this Ghion Cast below is one where I discuss how we can alleviate suffering by helping each other instead of bashing each other with politics.
Check out the Ghion Cast below where I share some of my testimony from my time in Colorado and the roads I traveled from brokenness to redemption.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.