Problems of Everyday Life

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Maureen Sheahan

IT’S NOT COURAGE for the big things that’s hard. Sustaining the strength for everyday life—that’s the problem.

I am speaking today as a rape victim and an activist. The rape was in 1978. He had, up until then, merely been a peeping torn.

It wasn’t just me, but my roommate as well. He didn’t know she lived there, but she surprised him.

He didn’t have his own weapons, only our kitchen knives, the hammer, the lamps and their cords.

He raped us for over four hours and thought he’d left us dead. Annie pretended to die, broke out, got help, saved my life.

Back in the neighborhood, six weeks later, I was told: “You’re lucky your boyfriend has taken it so well, a lot of men would be ashamed to be with you.”

The rape wasn’t the hardest to endure, but rather sustaining my heart in day-to-day dealings with normal people, my friends.

For instance, coping with sexual harassment.

Lots of men don’t mean badly, don’t realize they’re offensive. With them, it doesn’t matter to me if I say nasty, angry things back. I want them to understand, to gain some glimmer of relationship that might make them more kind to other women.

Generally, I just act dim, or scuttle away, not able to frame a response as well as I want. I hate this, and I try to find ways to communicate. But it’s difficult, and it’s fighting an ocean with a bucket.

Then there are the men who harass us out of hostility, who are furious at us for having some power, some influence, and who use sexual cracks to put us in our place. Sometimes it’s viciously personal.

But there are some whose hostility isn’t personal. All women are a threat and rebuke to the lives that haven’t given them what they want, lives where they lack the control they want. They tend not to bring their eyes up to ours. Theirs rest on our cunt, making what they think of us clear.

One thing. This happens less as I get older. The openness and vulnerability of the young makes them easier targets.

I took the position after my rape that I would be easy talking about it, making conversation of it, making it clear that I was not ashamed of having been raped. So I’ve heard the “You’re the only one I’ve told” stories: Raped by her brother’s friend in the stairwell of their building. Raped by a car full of men and dumped two hours later. Rape is as common as dirt.

Seven out of ten women are sexually abused in some way during their lifetimes. By their fathers, brothers, boyfriends, strangers, soldiers.

Sometimes I feel a powerful sense of community with other women because so many of us have been raped, and have gone on with our lives. I feel pride in our capacity to endure.

Rape is both a tragedy and, at the same time, an offense as common as breathing.

When my rapist was sentenced to jail, a deal was cut. I was grateful that I did not have to go to trial. The police were angry. He only got fifteen-twenty years with two counts each of attempted murder and rape. They consoled me, though: “Don’t worry. For each time he raped the two of you, he’ll be raped a hundred times in Jackson.”

It’s this day-to-day stuff that is so wearing.

I feel sure that he’ll come out of Jackson more likely to abuse others, more damaged himself.

That’s not what I want.

I hate this violence of our culture, of those in power. The lily-white, privileged violence that parades itself as respect for life, for law and order, for American values. The violence that jails people like throw away garbage.

It’s Reagan’s, Bush’s and Governor Engler’s policies that make the wealthy richer and the poor, poorer.

It’s saying addicted mothers should be prosecuted, without providing funds for treatment It’s pro-lifers who don’t say what to do with unwanted, unable-to-be cared for children—and with overloaded adoption agencies that can’t place kids. It’s the violence that pays for war and not for food, health care, housing and education. It blames, prosecutes, jails, divides. It does not heal or rectify injustice. Nor does it address the underlying problems. It’s propaganda that encourages racism and division.

This is what trickles down from the rich and powerful—the violence of our daily lives.

It’s being afraid to walk in our neighborhoods at night It’s fearing for our children and what they’ll be exposed to—drugs, abuse, lousy schooling.

It’s the dull, overwhelming hell of not having enough money to feed, clothe, get medical care and just care for our families. It’s war that prompts gloating patriotism and pride.

It’s this day-to-day, draining, complex and apparently unredeemable reality that is hard to beat. It seems so pervasive. People have caused each other such unbearable, unspeakable misery throughout the world and time. What can we do?

An Alternative

One thing I know. We have to offer an alternative that is loving, reconciling, healing, forgiving. If we don’t, we’re just giving more of the same crap, packaged in our ideology.

We have to offer the kind of revenge Tomas Borge, Nicaraguan poet, Sandinista and former government minister speaks of: “My personal revenge will be to tell you ‘good morning,’ on a street without beggars or homeless people. When instead of jailing you I suggest you shake away the sadness there that blinds you. And when you who have applied your hands in torture are unable to look up at what surrounds you, my personal revenge will be to give you these hands which once you so mistreated but which have not lost their tenderness.”

For myself, I go through phases. There were years when there were meetings or events, or demonstrations every night. Now, I feel overloaded more quickly, less able to handle the stress.

Sometimes it all seems hopeless. A line from the poet Carolyn Forche rebukes me and pulls me up. “It is not your right to feel powerless. Better people than you were powerless.” Meaning Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Palestinians, South Africans.

There have been years when I’ve fought to bring my politics into how I live my life and my relationships. Making them more honest, more compassionate, more understanding.

I believe that being good is practical. It’s just not as easy in the immediate moment as being unkind, violent, authoritarian, dicta-tonal, selfish. But the long-term payoffs are there.

I look around and think “Why don’t people get it?”

Take the drug war. What good have their laws, their crackdowns, getting tough, done? Will they just keep building prisons, jailing people? Until how many people are in jail? How can this be seen as a “solution”?

What about if we handled it more lovingly? It would deny us the illusion of a quick fix. (The same illusion that makes war so alluring.) It would mean changing conditions that lead to poverty; miserable lives, drug abuse. It would mean handling abusers and criminals as human beings with the right to be healed, cared for, and respected. It would mean treatment programs, schooling, jobs, housing. It would be hard, time consuming, expensive. But what they’re doing now is hard and expensive and has no end.

Being loving takes up-front effort Instead of the pain coming after acting badly, it means deciding to take on the trouble as you act Take honesty, for example. A lot of pain is caused by what’s not said between people. A lot of confusion, a lot of wasted time and effort and lives. But honesty is one of the scariest disciplines to practice. Yet, if I can’t find a path to mutual understanding and respect for people right next to me in my life, how can I imagine creating a more just world?

It drives me crazy that we drive each other crazy as we righteously criticize how the others are running the world. It has to be concurrent—changing ourselves, trying to change the world. Each informs the other.

For me the struggle is learning to be strong without being brutal, formidable without being violent, powerful without being a bully, and effective without being unkind.

I have heard from two men of different classes and different generations that all men size each other up and decide who could beat whom. I was stunned; I thought that was outdated. But I guess not.

How do we move in this world, knowing these standards exist? So far, the best answer comes through honesty and substance.

Being willing to do the work draws a lot of power to you. Being willing to name what is real but uncomfortable can terrify other people as well as heal them. It disarms the destructive and strengthens the struggling. Calmness is an armor that cuts through bluster Firmness can persist when bullying won’t Substance, potentially, can reveal the garbage which the powerful try to pass off as truth.

Yet even though I can say this is what I think and feel, it’s so hard to face the same efforts, the same struggles day-to-day. It seems unbearable at times.

The truth is not simple. It’s not captured in slogans. It doesn’t necessarily come easily or quickly. And people want quick, easy answers. They can dismiss you if your first sentence isn’t just right So many blaming labels—sexist, racist, militarist, liberal, bourgeois—allow us not to hear each other. And it takes hard-to-say, hard-to hear communicating to create community.

Community is the grace that can come with activism. Friends who feel like family—in some sense, are family more easily than family itself because they share basic values and beliefs with us. Over the years, they share history. The struggle, the disappointment, the small victories. And shared history really creates family.

There are women and men who have loved me, valued what I give, tolerated and put light on my faults, and helped me through pain.

I imagine that the relationships of activists might have more depth, more substance than those of people who don’t know what it means to live their lives guided by values. This means—or ought to mean—that conversation, relationships, activities, have a deeper, richer base to build on. Our lives seem more interesting to me than the lives of people who just know the round of work, TV, sports, meals and sleep. Whose world is only as big as their own experience.

I do know that activism has to lie in hope to be healthy, has to be built on a vibrant sense of connectedness with other people. It gets hard. The perpetrated misery of the world is so immense. Our ability to tip the scales toward justice seems so feeble. We have to realize that we do it for ourselves each minute we do it for others. Activism and commitment add value to our own lives. Apathy —that compound of anger, despair, powerlessness and cynicism—is too high a price to pay for having a rational analysis of how impossible it is to turn the world from evil. I don’t want that.

So I don’t—my friends don’t—work for change because we know it’s around the cornet Throughout the world and time, some people have added to the damage, some have contained it, some have healed it We have to choose where we want to hang out on that spectrum.

It’s a shame, but the choice to be honest, to be good, isn’t one that gets to be made once and, once made, settles everything. It’s one of the very hard things about life that all commitments, all decisions, all values to be living and real have to be renewed all the time, get challenged in new and varied ways all the time, and try our hearts over and over.

Being honest never gets easy. It’s this courage for everyday living that’s the hard part. But it’s a choice to make in our deepest hearts about our own individual lives, and then we try to make a difference in community with others.

Detroit is dying each day of greed, racism, and their propaganda crap.

In Central America our country is bankrolling, as it has since forever, torture, rape, murder, poverty, twenty-five percent of the kids dying before they’re five, the destruction of indigenous life. In 1980, when I started protesting U.S. support for the government of El Salvador, I had no idea that ten years later, it would all still be going on. Much less, that I’d know so much better about all the other horrors going on throughout the world in the United States’ interests.

The Courage to Continue

Continuing to struggle, year after year, is what requires the most courage. We rebuild ourselves, gain strength for the struggle, know joy with which to go forward, learn skills for caring, in community with our friends and families.

For the future, I hope to have the day-to-day strength to keep fighting, to keep organizing, to keep meeting, to keep demonstrating, to keep trying to reach out across boundaries. I’m telling all of us in this room that we need each other to stay strong, to hold onto the capacity to love.

We’ve got to be kind, compassionate and good-humored with each other. We must give each other enduring, replenishing love so that we can keep struggling to transform our world.

As women, we can offer an affirmation of the central importance of emotion and of love in changing the world. I don’t know if it’s culture or genetics, but generally we’re more articulate at intimacy, more able to recognize the importance of relationship. It’s our strength, although it often feels like our cross.

In so far as we embrace our own liberation—as we break down the barriers limiting what we can be, what we can have and what we can accomplish—we gain power to love, and we can give our love more freely.

Our love is what we have of most value to offer empowering, strengthening, tough love.

July-August 1991, ATC 33