On Not Standing

I just got in from would normally have been a fairly easily run for me. 3 miles, relaxed pace, no worries. What I had forgotten, though, is that I’m one mile above sea level and everything gets harder at that altitude, especially when you’re not used to it. A mile in and I already feel like I’m done. 2 miles and I have a stitch, a headache, and I feel like I need to breathe all of the air that ever existed.

What frustrated me, though, is that to the casual observer I would look like someone who’s never run before. I wanted to be able to have some way of saying, “I can usually run a 6 minute mile!” or “it’s just the altitude, I’m much better than this!”. I wanted to communicate that if it weren’t for the altitude I wouldn’t look like I’m about to drop dead.

It got me thinking that unless I somehow was able to gather everyone in the neighbourhood around me, tell them all about me and my life journey, they would all come to the conclusion that I’d never run before. As these thoughts crossed my mind I began to think of people who go through this every day and on a much, much deeper level; about the person who suffers from a ‘hidden’ disease, about the person who carries with them generations of trauma, about the person who can’t communicate in a language we deem to be the only one fit to speak.

There’s a distinct lack of empathy and compassion that our society breeds, and the lack of these two basic virtues is leading to deepening divisions. Think, for a moment, about the recent incidents involving NFL players deciding to sit or kneel during the US national anthem. Almost immediately people drew sides — those who saw it as an insult to the country and those who have fought for it, and those who understood (or seek to understand) the history of African Americans in the US and what this means. For those who felt insulted by Colin Kaepernick’s decision I would ask you to take a few minutes to try and understand his reasons for doing so. It is so easy to criticise blindly — it takes little to no effort — and we look at the person on the outside, saying “how can he be oppressed when he’s a highly paid athlete?”, “how dare he disrespect our servicemen and women?”, or “racism ended with the civil rights movements in the 1960s, he’s just playing the race card!”.

An estimated 11 million people were forcibly torn from their homes in West Africa and sold into slavery over a period of roughly 300 years. At some points upwards of 20,000 people a year (60 a day) were being transported from Nigeria, a figure that defies imagination when you actually consider the human cost. The journey that they faced would easily be described as hellish and the lives they were to lead were lives we wouldn’t deem worth living. For generations they were bought, sold, tortured, raped, and forced to do any task that was deemed too low for their owners to do themselves.

When trauma is experienced on this scale it doesn’t just vanish or go away. If you have an argument with a friend or family member you may brush it off with an apology and move on, but the effects can be felt for a day, a week, or longer. Trauma on the level of mass slavery or genocide isn’t just passed down through stories and behaviours, but has been proven to affect DNA so that future generations who may never have experienced the initial events will still suffer.

The plight of minorities doesn’t just end when a law is passed or a resolution made, but it continues to run deep as an undercurrent does. Patterns of behaviour and thoughts instilled by the oppressor affect future generations on both sides, affecting how the oppressed and how those born of the oppressors view themselves and each other.

It is easy to criticise, but harder to listen. We must strive to learn, to understand, to feel the pain of the oppressed, and speak without judgement. It is not courageous to deny the expression of pain or anger, nor is it patriotic to judge the plight of others through rigid lenses. To be truly courageous and patriotic is to be open to learning that our limited experiences on this earth are not the only ones that are valid. We are all worthy of being heard.