Disturbed (A Flashback)

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What does it mean to be disturbed, and is it always bad? I’m working on an essay that uses this quote from the internationally acclaimed graffiti artist Banksy:  Good art comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. The essay is about a time in college when my best friend and I graffitied a mandala over a hate symbol. It explores the power of art as transformation, but it also asks a lot of uncomfortable questions that lack definitive answers. Questions like: What is art and what purpose does it serve? What makes it good or bad? What makes people good or bad, and who gets to decide it all? While I wrestle with it all, I keep returning to that word disturbed.

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I attended a MLK march today, and I was disturbed by many things. Before I give voice to the specifics of my grief, I want to talk about shame. Shame is a word that makes people cringe, but shame researchers often call it the “master emotion,” and the more I learn about it, the more I see how it affects all of us, and I notice the ones who deny it most are the ones who become enslaved to it. So many times when people lose their temper, I’ve observed shame at work. When people feel shame, they want to blame something or someone. (If you are interested in learning more about this without doing a ton of research. Brene Brown has two great, accessible TED talks that explain a lot of this. Here are links to both talks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o  &  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psN1DORYYV0).

I wanted to preface my MLK day grief with a bit about shame, because anytime we write or talk about difficult subjects, shame plays a role. If people feel disturbed, it is not uncommon to default to shame. Instead of noticing that shame, they get angry and find a way to dismiss the writer or speaker before actually considering the words. That being said, as an artist, as an activist, and as a human being who loves the world, I want to disturb people. To change, we must be open to change, and to be open we must be vulnerable. To be disturbed is to be vulnerable, because to be disturbed is to be uncertain.

I heard a wonderful speech at the service following today’s march about how we have made a Disney character out of MLK. We focus on the peace, love, and nonviolence without understanding what it really means. I think this oversimplifying and softening of peace leaders and religious leaders is common. I think it has to do with Love and it’s power.

We are uncomfortable with what we don’t understand, which means we often like everything simple and fast. I don’t know if it’s fear or laziness, but I think the mysterious power of Love threatens all of us at times, because we can’t always explain it. We prefer Hallmark love, romantic love, and Leave it to Beaver love. We don’t like to think about the love that requires kicking a loved one out of the house or threatening to call the police on a suicidal friend. MLK loved the world enough to know it needed change. He set out to disrupt it. He left the world unsettled with injustice, and I’m thankful.

This is where I am trying to stay mindful of shame. Disturbing someone naturally triggers shame in most people. However, we can disrupt in a way that amplifies the shame by judging and chastising, or we can do so in a way that provokes thought and self-reflection. As an artist, as a blogger, and as an activist, I want to disturb with Love. Now, let me disturb you if I may.

Right at the start of the march, I was severely disappointed by the lack of turnout and the lack of white people. I think I was one of the only white people–possibly THE only white person–for a majority of the march. We had some join us near campus and for the service, which I’m grateful for. But there’s a ton of white people in the town, so all I can say is SERIOUSLY?! Now, this isn’t to shame my white friends who didn’t show up, or to make myself look heroic. I didn’t attend the march the past two years. That’s some of what disturbs me.

What kept me from going to marches in the past? 1) Anxiety. I often get scared to show up in new and crowded places by myself…like not just a little scared, but enough to make me stay home. 2) Pride. I often get embarrassed to admit just how anxious I get in crowds, and so I don’t reach out to friends to ask if I can go with them. 3) Despair. Like everyone else, I have moments of “What’s the point?” It’s easy to think about how I’m one person, and if I’m one tired or moody person, I’m quick to assume my presence doesn’t make a difference. What unsettles me most about today is that despite the huge reminder that every physical body counts and matters and makes a difference in a march, I know that anxiety, pride, and despair will keep me from other protests and marches in the future. It’s not like magically, from today on, I’m going to go to every march and protest for the rest of my life.  I am disturbed by that, and I think that’s a good thing.

To be disturbed by it doesn’t mean I need to beat myself up and feel shame about it. In fact, beating myself up and shaming myself is the kind of thing that makes people stop paying attention. They get overwhelmed and can’t accept their human limitations. They focus too much on what they “should” be doing. It gets too painful, and so they stop thinking about what they “should” be doing at all by distracting themselves with other things. The best way to stay open-hearted is to know your limitations. Knowing my limitations is how I practice self-care. Self-care is what keeps me from burning out.

When I lived with the nuns, I had the honor of hearing the famous activist Father John Dear speak. He talked about the importance of having activist friends. He said being an activist is hard, and you will burn out. Burning out doesn’t have to be permanent, provided you are prepared for it. He said that when you have activist friends, you each have different periods of burnout. This is how to sustain yourself and each other. Whoever is burned out leans on the others for a while.

To live with an open heart might be one of the hardest parts of being human. Being open is what lets us experience joy and jubilation. But to earn that, we also must face unthinkable tragedy and trauma. I’m amazed at how many people are content living a joyless life, because they don’t want to feel the grit of grief.

Despite feeling grief and being disturbed by today, it was a good day. The weather was 65 and sunny. I felt the power of community. I sat with trees and wrote, talked to my younger sister–who is starting to get into activism–and I skateboarded. I’m thankful and disturbed, and I hope that juxtaposition disturbs you into some self-reflection and contemplation too.

Happy MLK Day all!

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