Sometimes I come across the instruction to ‘never be a victim’.
It makes my skin crawl. The implication that in every situation you have a choice, that to be victimised is something you would choose, is just the kind of thing that makes me want to take those people to the places on the very edge of life. The places where you find out what you would do, rather than die. Where you learn about sadism, death, brutality, and brokenness. Where life or death comes down to whether you ducked quickly enough, wore shoes that are good for running that day, or if someone walked in the room just at that moment. They simply cannot be imagined. Only through experience and empathy do we glimpse the horror and misery of being a victim.
The other side of this, is that sometimes, there is a choice. And I still disagree with the instruction.
There are worse things to be in this world than a victim. Sometimes the choices we face are terrible ones. The world of violence and abuse is narrowed down to very few roles. Sometimes there is only a choice between being victim or perpetrator. I know that choice. I’ve felt that temptation, to reclaim power and to inflict fear. I know what it feels like to be wounded and full of rage and want almost more than anything to do to others as has been done to me. To see fear in their eyes and feel powerful instead of small.
Sometimes, choosing to be a victim is an act of courage.
The last time I was made to feel terrified, humiliated, devastated, there was a moment when all the noise had gone and I was alone in a room and I felt the world pause. Two paths opened before me. In one, I took my freedom and ran. In the other, I turned and hunted, furious and seeking to reverse the roles. I weighed my choices with great care, with passion.
I said in my heart, I will let you do this to me. It ends here. I accept, for just this moment, the role you have placed me in. I have been victimised. I’ve fought and you were more powerful. I’m wounded but still recognisable. If I take up the role of perpetrator now, I’ll lose even that. I’ll lose myself. So, I take the hits and I walk away. No revenge. It is human to be frail. It is human to hurt. I’m still who I was. There is a nobility in retaining the power to chose how you will respond, in refusing to be debased by their behaviour. You cannot hold others accountable for actions you choose to overlook in yourself.
It is sadly human to be driven by baser impulses, to tear down, to dehumanise, to humiliate and destroy. It is also incredibly human to rise above this, to be moved by compassion, to act with courage, to hold yourself to a higher standard. Humiliating experiences take away our sense of meaning and introduce us to a world where power is the only thing that matters. It is at times very difficult to hold onto our own moral code when it is seen only as weakness and inferiority. Many violent people believe that we all would behave as they do if only we had the strength. Under their sway we can become lost in their perspectives and forget the reasons we had for choosing to live as we do. Forget that those choices are not for their benefit, but for the protection of our own heart. Some abusers deliberately set up situations where they require the abasement of their target, where they turn mothers against children, coerce siblings into betraying one another, entangle a whole classroom of children into bullying the most vulnerable child. This betrayal feeds into their fantasy that all strength is power and all restraint and self control is only weakness masquerading as virtue.
People who have been victimised often struggle with violence revenge fantasies. Each person finds their own way through an understanding of these, and a way to make peace with them. Sometimes people who have been victimised fought back. I can still taste the blood of someone I once bit when he held me down. The aftermath of being able to fight back can be both empowering and destabilising. Some of us have exercised violence in the protection of someone else. Some of us have first run, and then gone hunting those who once preyed upon us. Some of us have run, and then gone hunting those weaker than ourselves. Some of us take our own pain as permission to wound and alienate people around us who we decide have been less hurt than ourselves. All of us must reconcile ourselves to our own capacity for violence, and find our own morality in choices we have made under incredibly difficult circumstances.
For me there is a peace in knowing that unless I voluntarily surrender my choice to be a person who acts from love and honour, it cannot be easily taken from me. There are things within us that are not easily destroyed, broken as we may feel.
This is why I get angry at the instruction to never be a victim. Even in being victimised there can be a virtue. Even in brokenness there is something whole, something deeply and beautifully human about choosing to live with scars rather than writing our pain in other people’s blood.