Finding Our Voice, Transforming Helplessness
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
My parents tell me I was a gregarious child. “E-A-T-O-R-E-N,” they would spell aloud at the dinner table, trying to redirect the stream of questions that bubbled from my small body. While I remember having a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity as a kid, I also clearly recall having a very hard time getting a word in edgewise during the fast-paced dialogue of our Jewish family dinners. In fact, I have a visceral, felt-memory of sitting at that Formica kitchen table with a heavy, sinking sensation in my chest and pent-up tears of frustration burning beneath the surface as the rest of my family plowed through the conversation, leaving little space for my voice.
When we don’t have a voice, it’s hard to trust that we matter.
And when we don’t trust that we matter, the human spirit (the energy that animates our life) can become contorted. We become consumed by despair, enflamed with rage, or — what is perhaps most common — simply numb, sleepwalking through life. At best, our unique contribution to the world is greatly attenuated; at worst, we tragically act out the pain of our isolation with violence.
For many here in the United States, it’s been a hard couple of months. Charlottesville, Harvey, Irma, Maria, Vegas, wildfires, sexual violation… It’s easy to sink into a kind of nihilistic hopelessness.
I believe that one of the most pervasive challenges we face today as a species is overcoming the feeling of helplessness. It’s a learned sensation, which means it can be unlearned. It is inculcated through our social and educational institutions that train us to suppress our feelings and ignore our needs. A numb person is a more reliable worker in an economic system that treats human beings and their labor as expendable commodities.
At its root, a big part of this helplessness comes from losing our voice and by extension, not knowing that we matter. I would like to speak here about my personal journey of finding my voice, and my parallel struggle in the social domain.
A Personal Path
Listening has always come easily for me. In spite of the privileges I have as a straight, white male (or perhaps because of them), I’ve faced distinct challenges in being able to express myself when I’m in pain. Fear created the perception of an immense abyss between myself and the other person. For years, if I felt hurt or upset I would freeze inside, unable to say what was happening.
When I started meditating, this pattern actually worsened. As contemplative practice drew my attention inwards and heightened my sensory and emotional awareness, the isolation grew. I began to feel trapped not only when something difficult happened, but simply in my desire to connect and be seen. I would long for others to inquire after how I felt, yet when they did few were able to offer the kind attunement I needed to feel safe enough to share.
And of course, every failure to connect reinforced the sense of isolation and heightened my desperation to be seen and to connect. I felt like that little boy all over again, invisible at the kitchen table. Being caught in this vicious cycle was paralyzing.
The first step to inching my way out was to recognize the pattern, to acknowledge the pain and set a clear intention to understand what was happening. It was only when I stopped blaming others and took responsibility for my well-being that things started to shift. The strength of my intention to get free propelled me to seek support.
I began to make small strides forward. Finding one or two people who had the capacity to see me in a way that I could let in was tremendously helpful. Singing and chanting helped to open some of the verbal and emotional channels. And eventually, taking risks to share and inviting others to listen (instead of waiting for them to inquire) created more experiences of being received.
One of the most transformative moments came during the BayNVC Leadership Program, when the trainers challenged me to discuss with the entire group my desire to leave a retreat early. I stood before 50 others, listening to the impact my departure would have on them personally and the things they appreciated about me. Tears streamed down my face as I took in the reality that my presence mattered. My belief in the illusion of our separateness crumbled.
It took time to find my voice and to bridge that gaping chasm between myself and another. But what I have seen is that such patterns can change, and a great freedom and clarity of self-expression is possible.
A Shift to the Collective
Today, I notice how my response to current events can fall into a similar pattern of feeling invisible and helpless, and how my privilege can perpetuate and compound that process. For the last few years I’ve been seeking the most authentic and effective way to translate my ethical commitments on the personal level into advocacy and action on the social level; in other words, I’m trying to find my voice again.
I have more questions than answers, but there is something vital about engaging directly with the questions. How can I see beyond my own social location? How do I shift my perspective from the personal to the systemic and structural? How can I make wiser choices about my life, in full awareness of our present reality? And how do I use the privilege, resources and power I have for the collective good?
For me, the first and most critical step to untangle the knot of helplessness is to fully acknowledge its existence. That tension and inner friction is the fuel that feeds its transformation. When I sit in the fire of my discomfort, time and time again I discover the courage and energy to speak and move in ways that are more aligned with my values and more consonant with this historical moment.
To find my voice I must also continually challenge any assumptions that what I have to offer doesn’t count. As NVC trainer Roxy Manning notes in a recent article, “One key lesson from the Civil Rights Movement is to trust in what we as individuals have to contribute, and to give our talents in the form that is the best fit for us.”
When I trust that I matter and see our radical interconnectedness, I wake up to the necessity of using my voice in service of those who have been pushed to the margins of our society or who historically have had less power. As a man, how do I continue to heal the wounds of sexism I carry in my own body and use my voice to support women’s rights? As a white person, how do I heal the wounds of racism in my heart, stand in solidarity with and heed the leadership of people of color? As a human, how do I continue to widen my perspective and protect the nonhuman life on this planet? The list goes on.
To quote Dr. King again: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” His words burn inside of me.
I believe that we are each called at this moment to trust that our voices matter and to use them to protect what we hold most dear. It can be hard to find our way into the conversation — as it has been for me, so many times in my life. Yet the way forward is here, in each of our hearts. May all of us, individually and collectively, find our voices.
Oren J. Sofer is a Collaborative Trainer here at BayNVC, and teaches mindfulness and communication locally and nationally. He is founder of Next Step Dharma and author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication.