When There’s No Hugging or Learning Moment

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Heather Caliri - Deep Peace4I went to the Festival of Faith and Writing in April with the goal of getting my memoir about my childhood published. Getting published is hard. Writing honestly about family is harder. But even more difficult were the conversations that happened before I wrote the book—questions uncovering old history, anger, questions, and pain.

I spent a good six months in hard conversations with my family. Funnily enough, those conversations also sparked dialogue in my marriage, with friends, at church, and online. I struggle with being a people pleaser, but like riding your bike, speaking your mind apparently gets easier with practice.

It was at the Festival, those conversations heavy on my mind, that I heard Dani Shapiro speak about her novel, Black and White.

Here’s the plot: a photographer makes her career with a series of photos of her youngest daughter, Clara, starting from the age of three. The photographs are mostly nude, and, some critics insist, pornographic.

As an adult, Clara returns to her dying mother’s home after 14 years of estrangement. Fourteen years of never asking why her mother betrayed her. Fourteen years of her naked images being used without her consent.

After a few weeks of tiptoeing around the past, Clara confronts her mother about the betrayal.

Here’s her mother’s response. “I wish you weren’t still so worked up about all this. It’s ancient history. How can it possibly matter?”

It’s not a hugging or a learning moment.

If I were Clara, I might have responded to her this way: “What the *&^%?”

Because how the heck can anyone be so awful?

Except—sometimes people are awful. (And I include myself in that list.)

When I speak up about deep hurts, more often than I’d like, I get what the heck responses. Defensiveness. Coldness. Indifference. Excuses, rationalization, blame, or just an earful of vitriol. Looking back, I have sometimes given what the heck responses too.

I’d love life to be like the Brady Bunch—hugs, learning, roll credits. I’d love it if everyone I have conflict with reacted just how I want. I’d love it if I reacted well to hard conversations.

But the older I get, the more I realize that what the heck responses aren’t unusual. Sometimes, when we reach out in bravery to people we love, we get our teeth kicked in.

But please: don’t question whether speaking up is worth it. Because there’s really good news.

What the heck moments, if you stop being surprised by them, can teach you an insanely good lesson:

Power doesn’t lie with the person you’re speaking to.

No: all the power lies in opening your mouth. Period.

When you start making a habit of saying what you need, why you are angry, and what needs to be healed, you start practicing the courage that literally will transform your life.

It frees you from prison.

In Shapiro’s book, Clara avoided her mother (for good reason) for more than a decade. She avoided sharing her story with other people, even her own daughter. She stayed in hiding. When she was forced to open up her mouth and reckon with the past, it unleashed a healing force that forever broke the power those photos had over her.

She was transformed even though there was never a neat, tidy hugging-and-learning moment with her mother.

I don’t want to get too airy-fairy about this, especially given the danger of speaking up in domestic abuse situations, or a person of color protesting an unjust traffic stop. I don’t want to gloss over the real danger there is in confronting injustice. We have to be wise and safe when confronting unsafe people.

But when our lives aren’t threatened and we’re in a faltering marriage, dealing with a painful childhood memories, a problematic sermon, or an unjust policy—it’s worth speaking up. It’s worth saying things out loud, even if you don’t expect to be taken seriously. It’s always worth advocating for yourself.

I’ve found such freedom in measuring the success of hard conversations by whether or not I was authentically, lovingly me, no matter whether or not the other person responds well. I release myself from prison every time I refuse to silently condone someone hurting me. I release myself from prison every time I practice responding to other people’s hurt with the kindness I’d like to receive in turn.

The more I’m able to take my peace of mind out of the hands of other people, the less it bothers me when they are not ready to learn or hug. Oddly enough, not needing people to respond in any particular way to me also makes it easier to forgive them when they respond hurtfully. It’s easier to have compassion for defensiveness, brittleness, or indifference when you realize it has little to do with you.

Jesus promised abundant life, peace, safety and justice. He promised these, despite being an oppressed minority in a brutal political climate. He promised peace even as he looked towards the cross.

I’m convinced that peace lies deep within us. That with Christ’s power, there’s nothing that can prevent us from tasting it. And that we’re always invited to move toward it, no matter what the heck comes our way.

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