On Leaving

written by AMANDA K GROSS

I started making Trauma Containers soon after purchasing a home in a city still new to me. I wasn’t actually residing in my relatively new home at the moment of their first construction. Instead, I was taking my first Restorative Justice course at my undergraduate alma mater and was feeling overwhelmed by the stories of violence that had led the family members of murdered loved ones to sit down with those who had committed the violent acts in an effort to reconcile, possibly forgive, and restore — or maybe more accurately, transform — what had become harmful relationship.

But this post is more about divergence than conjoinment. And at the time, I was motivated by my own personal overwhelm from hearing other people’s traumas, not from experiencing my own.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

I needed a way to hold their stories respectfully, but I also wanted a container external to myself, with a lid so I could write down the bits and images of their stories, which kept following me across wakefulness into my dreams.

My first Trauma Container was small and soft and green with a button and string. She fit cozily in the palm of my hand. After a heavy case study was shared, I would write the stickiest of details down, whisper a prayer for the people involved, and neatly roll up their traumas so I wouldn’t internalize stuff that wasn’t mine.

Thus began a decade of me and Trauma Containers. They took on many forms over the years and evolved as gifts for friends embarking on hard journeys, as a collective activity for White Women’s Group in initiation of our anti-racist family history projects, as a personal tool for processing my internalized dualism, and as a vessel for healing intentions. My most profound experience with Trauma Containers has been in using them to acknowledge, process, and (usually) release specific relationships… with myself, with other people, with communities, and with places. These relational Trauma Containers eventually leave me. (Maybe you’ve had a glimpse of one at a public park or found one alongside the road.)

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

Last year I turned thirty six and decided it was time to uproot and leave the City of Gray. This was a decision I might have made sooner, which, in retrospect, I probably should have realized sooner, but I was comfortable (enough) in my solitary space, distracted by a self-imposed excessive workload of VERY IMPORTANT and PURPOSEFUL anti-racist lifework, and affixed by something I’ve now come to understand as depression. (Seasonal Affective Disorder is real, folks.) In fact, I only came to clarity and commitment around leaving due to some major disruptions and upheaval in my home, work, and social life.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

But even after I knew I was ready to leave, knew I wanted to leave (for my mental health, I may have even needed to leave), I still spent most of the last year holding on, weighing myself down by obligation, a sense of responsibility, and a fear that the deepest desires of Amanda Katherine’s heart would reveal themselves to be racist, individualized actions driven by access to privilege and not-at-all in alignment with collective liberation. Most of all, I feared repeating a multi-generational trauma pattern of fleeing, which both historically reinforced my ancestors contributions to white settler colonialism and, in return, enabled them to repeat it.

Instead, I chose another family-iar pattern (so many patterns to choose from!). From the dropdown virtual menu of inherited multigenerational coping mechanisms, I went with the classic martyr-freeze response. I chose in my daily routines and in my relationships mostly not to fight for myself. I chose mostly to endure. I chose mostly to follow the lead of a handful of Black women and repress/suppress/ignore the discomfort in my gut and tightness in my right rhomboid.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

This time around, the depth of my perfectionism has surprised me. There are layers there that I didn’t notice before: a whole driving-force layer of perfectionism, which has been steering a lot of my work with Mistress Syndrome over the past six years. I have preached that there is no one right way, but I have been practicing a few hard-and-fast rules. For example, I have been so committed to the idea that the right way to do anti-racism work for a white person is to have accountability to and follow the lead of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color that I have created an unhealthy (and unsustainable) power dynamic in some of my closest relationships. I have nurtured distrust of my ability to see, know, and understand my own whiteness — especially to know which is my Self and which is my very sneaky false white self. I have been at times very confused about which parts of me are ME and not just white violence in disguise to the point of shutting myself down and limiting a full range of self-expression.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

I feel angry at the way these anti-racist rules for white people were taught to me and at how I chose to learn them. I feel hurt by how I feel harmed within these relationships. I struggle to direct my hurt and rage at the abstracted systems and cultures which led to the interconnected playing out of our harmful coping mechanisms and not attribute my pain exclusively to the individuals with whom I have shared such intimate spaces. But mostly, I feel angry at myself for not fighting harder for me in those moments when I invoked self-sacrifice instead.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

Leaving town, as I have come to accept, is, of course, like my ancestors, facilitated by my privilege. Not staying to fight the local fight alongside my Pittsburgh community is, in many ways, a manifestation of individualism. And, also I am increasingly okay with that.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

Leaving, is the most compassionate act I have done for myself in a long long while. I am finding joy and agency and energy and excitement in this liberating practice of self-compassion. It does not necessarily surprise me that in selling my home, scaling down my work responsibilities, and letting go of relationships, I feel freer. What is currently a most delightful surprise, is that through accepting it all, I am experiencing a deep and buoyant joy.

I am also experiencing a paradigm shift. Some of the rules I attached to are getting transformed in surprising ways; where once there were pedestals (for myself and others) now there are only bubbly, hot tubs.* A healing container of a different sort.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

In the month leading up to my departure, I began an outdoor installation of Trauma Containers, to honor the joys, triumphs, challenges, failures, and growth which have marked my time here and also as a parting gift to the land, creatures, and people.

Maybe you’ll notice them when you’re out for a walk some day.

Trauma Container Public Art Installation by Amanda K Gross

*Thanks to a dear friend for the suggestion to replace pedestals with a visualization of everyone in jacuzzis!

MJ was Killed Building Peace in Other People’s Business

Today I opened Facebook and read that they found MJ’s body in a grave in the Congo along with his Congolese and Swedish comrades. When I first heard he was missing, I feared for his life. I also held out hope because maybe as a white American he would be more valuable alive than dead, but at the end of the day white privilege and American citizenship didn’t save him.

We know that in a global context of international violence white lives matter more. Given our history of white supremacy, colonization, and European-centricity, we can easily trace the threads through time that explain how this has come to be. What we examine less is what would drive a young white Mennonite from Kansas – who could have lived a life of material comfort and physical safety- to risk all of that and place himself in the middle of some of the most dangerous conflicts in the world – to go directly to places where the locals are trying to leave.

Wars Abroad Wars at Home; Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

My above words are slightly inaccurate. We do talk about it on some level. We glorify it. The Martyr. The Savior. The Hero who risks all to save others. MJ’s name will be written alongside of others who died in the name of peace – Dirk Willems, Gandhi, Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus. MJ’s name will be spoken in Mennonite pulpits on Sunday. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) Some who hear his name will grieve because they knew and loved him. Some will be proud because he was “one of ours”. Some will be proud because he has kept up our reputation. (Mennonites are known for our farming, peacemaking, and our righteous dying.) Some will revere his name and his work because his sacrifice means that others won’t have to, that their children won’t have to, that they won’t have to.

But I believe that there is more to why young white expats* Mennonite and Other-than-Mennonite risk their lives in the name of peace. There’s more to it than the white savior complex, martyrdom syndrome and promise of humble glory. There’s more to it than a deeply embedded spiritual socialization of serving others and erasing motives of self.** While I think MJ and others (myself included) have definitely been influenced by these messages, there are other driving factors that we don’t talk about. There are other things at play that a lens of glorification would not have us see. And this is not to take away from the intrinsic value and awesomeness of MJ’s life and work. It is to complexify and complicate our one note melodies and turn them into narratives of harmonious dissonance.

Martyr’s Mirror, Plough, Tractor, Adhesive Bandages, courtesy of the internets

When I told my sister that my college classmate had been kidnapped in the Congo she said (and I paraphrase), “Well what do you expect getting involved in other people’s wars. That white man had no business over there.” And she’s right. And she’s wrong.

She’s wrong because the wars in the Congo do not purely belong to the people of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those wars belong to us all. And I don’t mean in an esoteric kum-ba-ya “All wars are our wars. All people are our people.” kind of way. But in the way that white people in what is now the United States of America are intricately connected to the geopolitical how and why conflict in the Congo exists. This includes the history of colonization, the occupation of political rule by Europeans alongside the continued economic, cultural, and religious colonization by Europeans and North Americans (including Mennonites and other religious entities), and also the international corporate extraction and exploitation of the Congo and it’s natural resources and the militarized political influence of white westerners and their market capitalism driven by consumerism (also that of Mennonites as participants in North American consumerism) – to name a few.

She’s right though, because that is what one gets for interfering in other people’s wars. Her comment made me reflect on why I would ever deign otherwise. Why would I even expect someone who consciously and willingly planted himself in the middle of violent conflict to survive – to have a right to survive – to have the right to survive while at the same time expect all those born and raised in the context of war to most likely not survive? What part of me could exceptionalize MJ’s survival?

There is something deeper than “a call” that drives white expats into peacebuilding in war zones, that takes white missionaries to Kenya, that propels white college students into the industry of international development, that gives hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of white folks employment doing “good work” in the inner cities via the NonProfit Industrial Complex (myself included).

This Land is White Land; quilted adhesive bandages and fabric by Amanda K Gross

We rush head first into other people’s wars because we are escaping our own.

It is easier to helicopter into a foreign conflict zone where we know no-one than to face the conflict zones of our homes. It is more alluring to negotiate the violent disputes of the Congo than to navigate the personal trauma of rural Kansas. It is better to run and deal with other people’s messes, no matter how dangerous they may be, than to hold up a mirror and confront and sit with the ugliness of our own. There is more hope in convincing Congolese rebels to put down their guns than to convince our conservative Republican fathers to give up their allegiance to whiteness.

I say this not to blame MJ, but to identify with him. The root causes of Congolese violence are intimately close to home, and staying engaged in either risks our emotional, spiritual, mental, and even physical health. Rather than see MJ’s journey as exceptional, as out there, as something that could only happen in the dangerous jungles of Africa – what if MJ’s journey was in fact parallel to our own? What if we approached engaging in our own context, with American whiteness, with being in relationship to our families, and dealing with the roots of this interconnected mess with the same purpose and courage that we will ascribe to MJ’s life?

And to take it one step further, what if we did so leaving the Martyrdom and Savior Complexes behind? What would that mean for those of us who are still in the land of the living?

MJ Sharp, you will be missed.

 

Fly Away Home (in progress): Mixed Media by Amanda K Gross

*expats=North Americans and Europeans and Australians living/working in Asia, Africa, and Latin American

**Erasing motives of self is a dangerous egotistical illusion that sets us up for doing more harm to others and also to ourselves out of the myth that in totally suppressing our own wants and desires we are practicing a sort of holy selflessness, rather than recognizing our wants and desires and discerning what of it is in alignment with God’s justice, mercy, and love, and rather than learning and trusting our deepest truths to be in alignment with God’s Truth. I blame dualism.