James ended his life by suicide in 2010 at the age of 49. He came to this country from Zimbabwe when he was a young man and attended colleges in ND/MN. My family’s church was very active in sponsoring this family and helping them with education. He arrived with only a suitcase and the dream of making a good life. I met him when I was in college and for some reason felt an emotional connection with him. He was kind, observant and reserved, rarely sharing information about his inner life and history. James presented as upbeat, ambitious and eager to succeed in America. With my young perspective, I felt curious about how he could just leave his country, culture, family and friends and what it would feel like. I couldn’t imagine it myself, being the “follow the rules” type of personality. This went against my perception of myself as a bit of a rebel and coincided with the protests of the Viet Nam war, wearing bell bottom blue jeans to school and partying which created its own furor in the small ND community where I lived. I had these different sides of me that showed up depending on context. This integration that is a stage in the late teen/young adult years took it’s time with me. Understanding the world in the 70’s wasn’t easy. Understanding the world now is even less so yet with my “wizened” perspectives I have an opportunity to face the realities of today and walk with more presence and empowerment.
I loved James. He was a great friend. Defining our relationship was difficult and confusing in those early days. He was Black and I was Caucasian. When we would walk down the street together in Fargo, we’d sometimes get insults hurled out a car window about his race and being with a “white woman.” I was shocked and deeply affected which I’m sure was minimized as a fluke. Whenever we would do something together, the energy of what might happen was felt yet never expressed. I considered a more romantic relationship with him and felt the uncertainties, pressures and future issues that were never discussed with him or anyone. Freedom of expression was viewed through a narrow field, yet I worked in the area of social work, communication and emotions. Incongruence…. I simply didn’t have my voice in this arena and didn’t know any better. On the surface I said the right things, but underneath, my emotions and behaviors were driven by prejudice. Being myself was an illusion.
The Black Lives Matter protests have awakened a new awareness within me that has fired up a new hope within me that carries a light for humanity. Given my lack of experience in living in diverse communities, I had downplayed the impact of the racism in America and was under the illusion that it was getting better the way it was. Little did I know, I’d been impacted deeply in ways I had little awareness of…. a type of cultural brainwashing that I was naive to all my life. Outwardly, I perceived myself as “modern” and “progressive.” I believed in freedom and equality for all while huge incongruencies and blind spots were everywhere. I see now how white privilege can color and influence our behaviors in very subtle ways from daily functioning to life choices to spiritual practices.
James focused on “living the good life,” making a good living and being perceived by others as successful. He was generous and wanted to help others around him. He was active in the Methodist Church. Many relied on him for help both in his home country and the family he created here. He had one marriage to a white woman and the other to a black American. Neither turned out well. My perception was the pressure that never ceased to be there for him. I believed him when he said all would work out, that whatever pressures he felt would be dealt with. He just needed to rest awhile. I always wondered why he wanted to stay in this country after he graduated from college. Instead of communicating to me his thoughts and feelings about things he would ask me how I was, and this was an easy distraction. In my grief after his death I was hard on myself for not being a better friend, following my inner ding that something was wrong. It took a long time to work that through. Now, I see more clearly how so many factors were a part of his decision to take his own life that Sunday morning before church. Being male, black, from another country and full of pride to do well. Depression was not something to be open about and I had missed it. I had no language for what was really happening both with myself and for him.
I see with new clarity the necessity of systemic change. As a therapist, I work closely with people as they peel back the layers of stress and pain and begin to heal from those things that no longer serve them. Old hurts, traumas, and conflicts that aren’t resolved are stored in the body as energetic frequencies. Now, research knows this and yet our stressful lives continue status quo. I believe each one of us has the right to be seen, heard and respected. Each one of our names are important. With the murder of George Floyd all of us are witnessing the impact of racism in a new way; one that impacts many levels. It all matters. Virginia Satir, author and notable social worker/peacemaker said many years ago that we all deserve to be seen and understood and conflicts negotiated with humanity. When I work with couples, this is my guiding light. What I didn’t completely understand is how this light can be so dimmed and its potential brilliance unseen. I am committing to myself to work in my own way to support changes that will help bring this light of change. For me, the awareness is the first step. Finding ways to empower my own light in being seen, heard and respected is another important step. The rest will show up.
James made his mark in this world and did the best he could under his circumstances. I was angry at him for a long time. One day, while driving to work, just a few blocks from my home, I had one of those “experiences” when out of the blue I heard his voice speak to me. It was brief and I wanted to hold onto whatever it was and “just talk” but what happened was unexpected. It was a felt sense of inner peace that his life was as it should be, lessons were learned, and that I was valued and loved. That was that. It was a great relief and comfort to me. Little did I know that he would inspire me to my own wake up call at this period of history. These are historic times when you combine the pandemic, the me-too movement and political unrest. We need to be strong and awake.
I encourage you to look in the mirror the next time you see one and stop for a moment. Judgement and negative criticsm to self or others is its own type of violence. You can do something with that inner critic. Say the magic words inspired by Virginia Satir and Louise Hay – Use your name and say, I love you, I really love you and take a moment to see and respect the treasure that is called by your name. Then get to work and be part of the solution in whatever way you are called. Allow those blinds spots to show themselves and evolve to your heart’s potential and create your new pathways and define your own perceptions.
“I BELIEVE THE GREATEST GIFT i CAN CONCEIVE OF HAVING FROM ANYONE IS TO BE SEEN BY THEM, HEARD BY THEM, TO BE UNDERSTOOD AND TOUCHED BY THEM.” VIRGINIA SATIR