Advocacy, Success, and Vulnerability in Public

I wrote this post a long time ago and let it rest until I felt ready to share. I’ve wrestled a lot over the past few years with these issues and I’m making my peace with an imperfect and very human place in the world.

I miss this blog, but my world has changed a lot in the last year and I’m having to find new ways to engage and deal with new risks. I’m in a strange place it’s difficult to find words for – so much has gone right lately and I’m so ecstatically happy. I’m also so stressed, sleep deprived, and vulnerable. All the happy endings don’t take away the pain that came before, they just make it harder to accept and speak about. They add shame and confusion about why you’re still hurting when everything is so perfect.

I had the strange experience the other morning on my birthday of waking up and being excited to be online because I knew I was going to be getting birthday messages. For a few hours I felt special and cared about and safe. It made me realise even more strongly how unsafe I’ve been feeling lately. This blog is reaching a new audience, of people in positions of power and wealth. I feel exposed in a way I haven’t felt before. My lovely video about diversity in the workplace reached thousands of people and I found myself feeling embarrassed to be handing out my ‘face painting’ style business card to CEO’s and heads of industry. Thrilled and excited to feel like I have a career path, and also exposed and ashamed, even by this beautiful blog. I want to hide how I got here, how these skills were developed.

I use myself as an instrument. It’s a key aspect of my work as an artist/poet/writer, and also as a facilitator. I tune into my self and my body and I notice things. I notice when I feel defensive and I get curious about that. I notice when I feel afraid, or angry, or when I want to hide. I accept the feelings and the gut instinct but I try not to act on them until I’ve thought them through more. My world has changed a lot lately and I’m sailing through some pretty intense mood swings as I navigate the excitement and joy of that, and the stress and fear of it too. For the first time since I started sharing online I recently found myself gripped by an intense fear about having this blog public. The change in readership, or rather, the new readership has thrown me. People with power and money are people I find difficult to see as people and tend to see as embodiment of their roles, distant authority figures. My experiences since early years has been that they do not understand me or my life or the ways in which I am harmed while I am under their care.

I am practising spending time in new cultures, practising dealing with my prejudices and stereotypes, making myself make eye contact, speak as equals, see the people behind the roles, have empathy for them, understand them, find our shared humanity. Trying to get over a lifetime of instinct to flinch or snarl. Wrestling with a lifetime of thinking as these people as ‘the other’ and not being able see the ways in which we are alike, the burdens they labour beneath, the loneliness of their roles, the ways in which they too are brilliant, or unsafe, or wounded, or split off from their own truths. The contexts in which they live and the pressures that shape them. What does courage look like in that world? It’s different to what it looks like on the streets or in poverty. What does compassion look like? What are the things it is impossible to say, or even think? Where is the pain held and what does it look like? What does love look like in this place?

I came home a while ago from a shiny event with people who have done many impressive things and fought off the impulse to tear apart this blog. I felt unbearably exposed and wanted to go back and pull down everything in which I struggle, every post that showed my confusion or distress, every evidence of pain, every raw expression of loneliness or bewilderment or grief. It was unbearable. I quivered with distress. I sat with it and did nothing but listen to it. What is going on, my heart? Why?

Success has a kind of draw, I’m finding. A lure, like a light in the deep ocean, the fish come close and everyone hopes to be part of it, to have a little of the glittery phosphorescence rub off on them too. I watch people elevate or dismiss me depending on who in my system is out that moment, and whether we are showing our shiny side or our vulnerable one. I watch myself respond to the environment with pathological shame for my humanity, and a desire to conceal my awkward fumbling. I am not and never was uncertain. I am not and never was hurting. I am just shiny. I am success embodied. I am desirable. I never make mistakes. I never hurt. I am never lost. My livelihood depends on this. My life depends on this. Be the shiniest fish in the dark deeps. Don’t let anyone see anything else.

No one is saying these things to me overtly. But I feel the fear in the air, magnified through my own terror and my own vulnerability and my history of powerlessness. The carefulness in how we present ourselves, the concern about what others might be thinking or saying about us. Image management. A deeply ingrained caution, a reluctance to be seen. I feel it in my own impulse to run, in the way that we flinch from rawness, the honing of our masks of professionalism.

And the wrestle that comes with this, as I gnaw on my limbs and feel shame and distress. Why am I feeling this way? What of my values and beliefs? What am I turning into? Self destruction like a lure beneath the struggle, my own terror of being changed into something I do not recognise or respect. My instinct to set my life on fire rather than face my own darkness. I too, want power, and money, and crave status. I too, want an easier life for myself and my children, even at the cost of others ease. I too, can choose not to see what is inconvenient for me to acknowledge about the shadow I cast, and the prices we pay – or make others pay – for success.

The struggle itself is so worthwhile. There’s something beautiful in it. Even in the aspects I feel ashamed of. It tells me things about the world and myself, and about people and what we bring out in each other.

I resist the urge to hide. I retreat from being public at some times and in some ways, but don’t destroy the evidence of my humanity. I hold tight and look and learn and decide how I will respond.

I’ve also been able to see some things more clearly that had eluded me before. Like fish in water, in some ways it’s most difficult to understand the context you are most familiar with. I’ve spent so much of my life so anxious about the effects of power and the lure of money that I’ve not appreciated the effects of powerlessness and the harms of poverty. My ‘safe place’ to return to when I am afraid of my own ambition is not safe. It is merely destructive in a different way.

When I was very young
I was taught that power corrupts
No one mentioned the acid of powerlessness
The way it leeches you of worth
Hope, value, voice. 

I was warned of the dangers of money
But not of the grinding misery of poverty
The way it is like a thorn in each heel

The chronic pain of it, how it shapes your movements
Closes doors, leaves scars. 

(I think of all my friends who died of exposure,
And I remember all the ones who died for the lack of it. -Nick Cave)

I’ve been so pinned between
My fear of success and my horror at failure
Devoured by my demons in a place without peace
The truth is – there’s no limit to the number of days
I can sacrifice on the altar of proving myself worthy.

There is no way to live without risk
And the first loss is joy
It is lightness and laughter and play. 

Surely, if I have found ways
To be human despite all that’s befallen me
I can risk success?
If poverty has not destroyed me, I can risk money?
All my life I’ve feared losing myself, 
One hand on the self destruct button
Who says poverty and vulnerability are safe from harm?

They are no haven of purity, just
A familiar kind of hell. 
Just devils I know. 

A life deeply lived calls for courage
Sometimes courage looks like walking out onto the street
With no idea of where a bed or meal or kind face will next be found. 

Sometimes it looks like putting on my best clothes
Going to work, and getting paid. 

3 thoughts on “Advocacy, Success, and Vulnerability in Public

  1. We’re really happy to hear that things are going so well for you. Thank you also for writing these thoughts so beautifully, and for giving so much of yourself. We really hope things continue to be good.

    Liked by 1 person

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