Thursday, May 21, 2009

Personal Accountability in a Blameless Society

I’m not sure how it happened, but over time the term “victim” has become some kind of badge of honor. “Victim” is not an empowering word. Think about it. Becoming the victim of something automatically makes me feel like I’ve taken a step down in life, like I’m somehow less now than before.
There are incidents in my past that I don’t often discuss. An extended member of a family I once babysat for grabbed and kissed me inappropriately. (To be clear, there is no appropriate way to grab and/or kiss the family babysitter) He never got near enough to touch me again, but I never told the family. I became convinced, due to things they said, that I would not be believed. As the only person who knew of the incident, I told myself I had to stay to protect the children. That wasn’t my job. I should have spoken up and let the chips fall where they may, not matter how embarrassed or ashamed I felt.
Thirteen years ago, while working at the movie theater near my home, I was robbed at gunpoint. Note that I don’t say I was the victim of a robbery. I truly hate that term. But as this person walked up to my window I had no idea the encounter would alter my life. When he pulled out the gun and the niceties ended, I switched into “automatic” mode. I somehow detached myself and simply did as he instructed. Only after it was all over did I allow myself to fall apart.
It’s amazing how, in a crisis, your mind seems able to scale Everest or go around the world. By this I mean that my brain leapt from one thought to another in the few seconds it took to register the gun. Newly married, I’d had some interesting symptoms that conflicted with the negative pregnancy tests and my first thought was what if I actually was pregnant? His gun pointed directly at my abdomen. What if I survived but my baby died? What if he shot me anyway? What would my husband do?
As it happened, I didn’t get pregnant until a couple months later and the man didn’t shoot me. But he did take something from me, personally—and I’m not talking about the corporately insured money out of the till. I registered the loss immediately; though identifying what I’d lost took a little more time. In that single act, a stranger took my sense of security. Suddenly nowhere was safe. And though I’ve worked through this for the most part, I still fall asleep every night going over exit strategies in my mind. Where are the kids in relation to me? What are the best escape routes in case of intruder or fire?
In all fairness, I had a pretty loose hold on my sense of security anyway. I grew up in a somewhat unstable environment. I knew what a person’s eyes looked like when they meant what they said, as the gunman’s did that day. And I knew that getting carried way with love for your family was no excuse for mauling the babysitter.
But here’s where society and I part ways. It has been pointed out to me that, given my background, no one would have thought it amiss if I’d taken the “victim” route and lived my life as though I had no responsibility for my actions because I’d been hurt growing up. People do this. Defense attorneys build cases with this concept—that somehow a person is not responsible for their actions because they had a rough life.
News flash: a person is not the sum of what happened to them, but instead a person is defined by how they reacted to what happened in their life. No one can always choose what happens to them, but everyone has the ability to determine how they will let it affect them. I don’t often talk about being robbed at gunpoint because, aside from it being difficult to work into a conversation, it feels ridiculous. It happened almost thirteen years ago—get over it already!
I’m not saying it’s easy. There’s a lot of work and pain that goes along with working through the tragedies that can happen in our lives. But this is how we grow. Picture a baby. A baby does not hang out on his back all his life. He has an inner drive to roll over, to kick, to wave his arms—to move. And once he masters rolling over, he scoots, then crawls, then pulls up to things and then walks. So I ask the world: Where is your drive to pull up? Where is your drive to walk?
There’s living, and there’s surviving. A person going through the motions every day, letting life bat them around—that’s a survivor. They’re barely getting by until they die. A person who takes the wheel, makes mistakes, changes course, moves forward—that person is living. Their life will be what they make of it.
Recently I submitted a book manuscript to a professional editor. One complaint she made that stuck in my mind was that my main character seemed passive; she just let things come to her or happen around or to her without making things happen. And I realized two things: one, that she was right. And two: that I’d written the character that way because I was living that way.
It’s easy to fall back into the survivor, or victim, mentalities. Life’s hard and sometimes you just want a break. The problem there is that if you aren’t moving forward you aren’t standing still either. You start to slide backward the second you stop taking those forward steps. We revert to what is familiar, comfortable, even if it’s wrong or bad for us.
So I stopped sliding. I rewrote my character and myself. Now my character takes action, and sometimes it gets her into even more trouble. I probably will too, but at least I’m doing something. Next week I’m going to New York and I’m going to own it. This is my time. I’m going to (figuratively) spray paint my name across Times Square and let everyone look at it. Honestly, I don’t know when the excitement to fear ratio shifted. I’m probably going to say or do something stupid, or foolish, but that’s not going to stop me. I know who I am: I am not the mere sum of my parts. I am who I have chosen to be.
So, who are you?


Mel Chesley said...

Society, sadly, doesn't realize the neccessity to move forward, to evolve as a person. It is easier to be the victim than it is to do the hard work of moving on and learning from the experience. You and I are rare human beings, we choose to keep moving forward and evolve even when those around us begin to turn stagnant. Apparently, the smell doesn't offend us so much. ;)
Seriously though, people have decided somewhere along the way that they would rather be lazy and pampered because they deserve it. They'll sue people for the most ridiculous things (and win, no less) only so they can feel justified in sitting around doing nothing. I cannot begin to tell you the opportunities I have let pass me over where I could have sued someone for an injury but decided it wasn't worth it. Not for me, at least.
For those few, amazing people (like us) who do move forward, well, we'll just continue to shake our heads at those who use the word "victim" as a way to feel better about themselves. We know the truth. We know that they would rather seclude themselves, remain stagnant and gather in the attention that it brings their way without a second thought of working to move on.

Cheri Chesley said...

See? This is why we get along so well :)