A few months ago, my doctor told me that it’s not that I’m flexible, as I’d always considered myself—it’s that I have a genetic syndrome that renders all of my ligaments and tendons too lax and stretchy to hold my joints in their proper places. I had always known that my knees bend backwards and sideways, my shoulders pop in and out of alignment, and my elbows and fingers extend way past the normal bounds, but the doctor, with an awfully serious face, told me that this was more than just being double-jointed.
As far as genetic syndromes go, mine is pretty mild, but it does come with a fairly high risk of serious sprains and fractures, a propensity toward arthritis, and difficulty with healing from injuries. The doctor prescribed physical therapy, to strengthen the ligaments and tendons of every joint in my body, and I had just started going when the pandemic hit. So now I do the exercises at home, hoping that I’m doing them right.
The exercises aren’t really hard. What is hard, though, is unlearning some of the ways that I’ve habitually held my body for my whole life. I never realized, until all this started, that I often stand with one or both knees bent back, that I sometimes lean on the back of my hand, with my wrist bent in toward my arm, that the ways I typically stretch my body involve twisting the elbows, shoulders, and wrists in a manner that looks pretty extreme.
It doesn’t hurt me to do any of these things. That is, I don’t feel any pain when I do it. But every time I do things like that, it stretches out my already weak, floppy tendons and makes me more prone to serious injury. And I don’t even realize I’m doing it, the vast majority of the time. To me, all of these motions are unconscious, habitual, normal.
Luckily, I live in community. There’s a group of sisters here who are very good at catching me doing these things. “Stop it,” they’ll whisper to me. “You’re hurting yourself.”
I find that extremely annoying. Being told that the way I’m standing or leaning or stretching or sitting is damaging makes me self-conscious in a way that’s much more uncomfortable than just being left to my contortions. But, I do need the reminders. They help prevent future suffering.
Why am I telling you this?
My point is that I can do things that cause harm without meaning to, without being aware of it, because that’s just the way things are and have always been. And I need people to help me notice and change, even when I don’t want to, even when it’s uncomfortable. The same goes for white people who want to confront the problem of racism today. We may not be actively racist, but are we committed to really working and listening and learning about how to upend systems of oppression that benefit us and hurt Black people and people of color?
The thing is, the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd shouldn’t have come to us, to me, as a surprise or a wake-up call. Didn’t we know already that Black people’s lives aren’t valued in this country? Haven’t we known that for over 400 years?
But these latest murders have ignited something, shifted something, energized people in a new way. The prevalence of racism, the strength of its crushing grip all around this country, seems to now be completely undeniable. This is a moment that is ripe with potential for progress.
I wish it didn’t take so many deaths, so many thousands of deaths, to wake us up. I wish it didn’t take having those deaths videotaped to move us to protest. We non-Black people should have believed without needing to see.
Most of us here in this Monasteries of the Heart community are probably people like me––not Black, and also not intending to be racist, not wanting to hurt anyone.
But there’s a challenge in front of us now: what do we do, or allow, without even realizing or thinking consciously, that hurts and damages our Black siblings? What have we taken for granted, as a normal part of our lives and our way of being, that is harmful?
To be against racism, I’m realizing, isn’t just about being kind to everyone, going to some demonstrations, decrying racial slurs when we hear them. It’s more subtle––it’s going to demand unlearning our habitual stances. The assumptions that underpin our lives, usually unconsciously, empower violence and oppression and blind us to reality.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sang, “We are many parts, we are all one body.” But just as, because of my genetic disorder, I’ve become accustomed to standing and sitting in ways that damage my body without any awareness of it, because of my Whiteness, I’ve been raised to be complicit in damaging parts of the body of Christ without meaning to.
We have to start noticing the small-scale ways that we diminish Black people and other people of color. It’s good to speak up against the obvious examples of brutality, but there is so much more that happens below the level of white awareness. We have the opportunity to change, to make things better, to financially, emotionally, and spiritually support oppressed communities.
This process of becoming aware is not a good, fun, feel-good time. It requires other people to hold us accountable, to point out to us when we’re lapsing into patterns of behavior that diminish our Black siblings. It requires us to speak up, out of love and out of a desire to end racism, when we see or hear things that are wrong. And it requires us to know when to be quiet and let someone else, someone from a marginalized community, do the talking and the planning.
We have to do this. We can do it. And we have to do it now. Let’s be grateful to have other people and resources that can help us, that can prevent even more suffering in the future.
Here are some things that you can read or listen to that may be of use, depending on where you are in this process of unlearning.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.