I have kept a secret from everyone for most of my life. During childhood, my secret allowed me to survive, but I now understand this resilience to pain is both a strength and a weakness. As a strength, I can bury emotional pain deep inside me and function despite it. As a weakness, I have hurt my capacity to have empathy for others; if I cannot feel my own emotions, I cannot truly empathize with others.
Regardless, I finally realize that keeping this secret has caused me to feel disconnected from others, different in a negative sense, ultimately less worthy. I have been afraid of judgment, of being seen for who I really am. Even now as I write this I can feel a part of my brain saying “what’s the point, what’s the point, what’s the point.”
The point is to share parts of myself that I’ve been afraid to look at. To make decisions based on love rather than fear. I am the son of a father who was physically abusive to his family. For most of my life I have been ashamed of this, of him, and of myself. But I will not let his past actions cause me to doubt my character anymore.
One of my earliest memories was when I was around 5. We were living in the apartments by a freeway overpass in north Davis.
I don’t remember how it starts, but I do remember that my dad was angry at me about Legos. Maybe I didn’t put them away or something; I can’t remember exactly. He tries to hit me and my mom tries to stop him. My dad hits her instead, throwing her to the ground. I remember seeing her fall and thinking he had killed her. I also remember both the complete terror and the overwhelming relief when I scream her name and she says she’s ok.
I remember her picking me up and running away in the house, and my dad is telling me that he will stop if I eat some of the Legos. And I just remember being on my mom’s shoulders while she’s carrying me away from him and I’m trying to put Legos in my mouth so that he will stop hurting us.
My mom was around 36 at the time, I can’t even imagine the terror she was going through. Until I was 18 and left for college, there were several episodes like that, some more minor, some more grave.
This is who I am. These are the stories I’ve been ashamed to tell. Pain I’ve hidden deep in the recesses of my mind. Emotion I’ve been unwilling to feel.
Today, I realize that by not sharing them, I kept the shame like a hump on my back that only I could see. I continue to feel different in a negative way. Haunted by my past. By denying these feelings I have denied myself compassion. Compassion for myself and for the child who did nothing seriously wrong. You cannot love someone else if you don’t love yourself first. You can not empathize with others feelings that you don’t allow yourself to feel.
I write this now not to share a story of pain, but to share a story of gratitude.
My lifeline has, and perhaps always will be, my friends and family outside my home. Outside, I had beautiful relationships. I experienced safety and security in my friends and within their homes that wasn’t possible in mine. I saw fathers and husbands that I did want to emulate. Homes where I could feel safe through the night. Friends who created a positive space where I could be happy. I am so incredibly grateful to those friends and those families. I don’t know where I would be mentally without them. You know who you are. Thank you.
There’s a research study done of about 500 men and women born in Hawaii who were tracked from childhood to adults. The focus of the study is on a particular cohort of individuals who experienced abuse, divorce, trauma. Within this high-risk cohort there were a group of kids who grew up to be “competent, confident, and caring adults despite their hardships,” according to Emmy Werner, the lead researcher She found that what accounted for their success was the social support they had outside their home. Werner described them as “vulnerable but invincible”. I cannot be vulnerable but invincible without these relationships around me.
I am also grateful because one of the beautiful things that has come from my childhood pain is my passion for my work. I intimately know the fear of walking away from an abuser. As a child, I was incapable of freeing myself from abuse. What may seem simple and logical is actually one of the most confusing and terrifying things in the world. I see this same fear and confusion in all candidates and particularly minorities when walking away from the power of a corporation.
There are also similar dynamics of shame with negotiating a job. The shame that I felt for the first third of my life only exacerbated the power dynamic between my dad and me. In the same way, the shame in negotiating and lack of transparency exacerbates the pay gap and information asymmetry.
My father did not intend to inflict the damage he did. In some respects he was a good father:, He supported me financially and he made sure I was properly educated. The reality is that he was struggling with his own toxic upbringing and day-to-day stresses of his career. When it was too much, he would take it out on me.
Like my father, corporations don’t intend to hurt the very people who make them exist. The prioritization of profits over people is simply dogma, it is not how capitalism has to function. Currently, we all see how the labor market does not function effectively with such a large information asymmetry between workers and corporations.
As a kid who got bullied, I know all these things deeply. I know workers cannot empower themselves; their self-limiting beliefs and fears are too great. I know the incentive structures for companies are too great for companies to change themselves.
I forgive my father for his actions, but I can also never forget the injustice of using power to take advantage of those less powerful, whether intentional or not. I believe with all my heart and see daily in my work, how an advocate for workers can help restore fairness within our work relationships today.
Rora is a manifestation of my desire to protect those who don’t have the power to protect themselves. This letter is one step in my journey of reclaiming vulnerability that I couldn’t have as a kid. I’m sharing this so I can be the compassionate husband and father I have faith I will become. It begins within. Vulnerable but invincible. This will be my life’s work.