Life: Gentle or Painful Teacher?

Recently, during a morning meditation, I read something that said that life is a “painful teacher”. On the other hand – and on many occasions – I have heard people say that life is a “gentle teacher”. As I reflected on these two competing assertions, I thought to myself: which one is it? And, is life really a teacher?

In pondering this question, I also remembered what happened just the night before, as I was lying in the bed about to go sleep and thinking over my day. That night, as I lie there, I heard the sound of a bad car accident on the road below and outside my window. After it happened, I also heard the faint cry of a woman. As I got up to look out the window, there were soon many police cars swarming the area. I imagined, for those persons involved in that accident (on both sides of the equation), that in that moment they were experiencing life as very painful. And, perhaps, each one was asking herself or himself, “Why me?”

On other occasions, life can be sweet and gentle, especially if you have no fear of running out of money. Money can make life much more pleasant for all of us; so when a person is born into a family with money or prestige or power, he might feel good about life, and most of the time. Or, if somehow you hit the lottery; if you come upon some kind of good fortune and you are in a position where you do not lack money to pay for what you want and need, life can be sweet. Perhaps these monied persons, or the rich, believe that they deserve such things.

Yet, there are many with money, prestige, power, and all the material things they could ever need or want, and still they are very unhappy with life, and they feel very lonely. For example, the well-known comedian Robin Williams seemed to have it all, and he was in the business of making many others laugh and smile. But, deep down, he was a very sad man, and to the extent that he eventually decided to end his life by suicide. And, there are many that seem to “have it all”, but they slowly but surely destroy their otherwise comfortable lives, bodies, and relationships with others with the irresponsible use of drugs, alcohol, and all other kinds of compulsive abuses.

By contrast, what happens when things seem to be going well, but then life changes abruptly, and you get some bad news, like your newborn is soon to die, or you are diagnosed with cancer, or you lose your primary source of income? Last year, in 2018, I was involved in an unexpected hit-and-run accident. The person who caused this accident was able to get away and leave three totaled cars behind, including my car and a car belonging to one of my loved ones (who was there merely there to help me). Getting through that life experience was very difficult. Similarly, I imagine that those who are enduring the General Motors-UAW strike are questioning life right about now. Going weeks with little to no pay is something that most of us would not want to volunteer for, at least not willingly (by the way, it makes me sad to see that the national media sites are spending so little time reporting on such an important strike), and definitely not without other concessions in place.

Life is constantly changing and causing us to reassess what we feel about ourselves, about others, about the places where we live and work, and about life in general. Because of life’s constant changing (e.g., evolution), are we to think that life is purposefully being “a teacher”? As much as we try to deny it, life is very unpredictable and uncontrollable (and truth be told, we do not have control over the people in our lives). Sometimes things work out, even when it did not seem like they would in the beginning. And, it doesn’t happen all the time, but what seems like a bad experience can turn into something very positive, and even very good. Personally, I have known some people who have endured some very difficult life circumstances, and I stand in awe of them and their ability to go on without much resentment and bitterness. Their courage always gives me strength and hope, and they have helped me to believe in the goodness of life, and in the goodness of human beings.

Thus far, I don’t think life is either a gentle or a painful teacher. I believe that life is very random, and sometimes things happen with no plausible rhyme or reason. Often, we find out what we’re made of and what we think of ourselves when we are forced to go through difficult times it in life. Years ago, I decided to stop imagining life as a teacher or as a being with any human-like attributes. Once I stopped believing in gods and supernatural beings, I also stopped anthropomorphicizing things that I could not explain. I stopped giving false meaning to stuff or events that have happened just so that I could feel better about my own reality. My philosophy is that life just is, and, most of the time we have no choice but to accept life on life’s terms. We do NOT control life or its many circumstances, and frankly I do not believe that anything does, and that includes me. Life happens. It is a power bigger and greater than we humans, and the sooner that we accept that, I believe, the better off we will be. As much as we might want to say that life is “all good”, the truth is that we do not know what will happen from one minute to the next, or even from one second to the next. Life can be good, but there are times when it can be or it actually feels bad, and very bad at that. Unfortunately, we are often at the mercy of life, and thus powerless over our circumstances and those of the people around us, including the ones that we know intimately. The choices that we make in life, in response to life, and all that we experience ( the good, bad, and the ugly), will, consequently, have some kind of affect upon the quality of our lives, but that is another blog topic in and of itself.

That being said, my philosophy is also that we have life inside of us, and therefore, we are a part of the power that life has to offer. Furthermore, I believe that we humans – as a species – have what it takes to endure many of life’s challenges, whether we realize that or not. We humans, and all species for that matter, are part of the same life that befalls us all and, if we are lucky, we will have something to do with how it all turns out. At times, we will tap that power and face life with a courage that we never knew that we had, and we will succeed; but, there are times that we will fail: utterly. There are also times that we may lose faith in ourselves and others, and we may choose to give up our power or to succumb to the power that life and others have over us, whether we realize that or not. This is often not good, and I have seen this have devastating consequences for the loved ones in my life. Indeed, those are difficult and sometimes hopeless-feeling times. If we get to that point, or if they get to that point, it is important to be honest with those we trust and to ask for the help if needed, and if help is wanted (because everyone has the right to reject help if they so desire). On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying I cannot do this alone or all by myself.

So, is life gentle or full of pain and suffering? Moreover, is life a teacher? Well, only you can be the judge and perhaps the jury of what you experience in life. What we each think about life has so very much to do with the social construction of our lives as we know them (indeed, I am a social scientist!). In other words, we are largely products of our environments and the people around us. Therefore, if from your social world you learned that you could survive just about anything you put your mind to, or if you learned that life and most of the people in it were out to get you, then that will have some bearing on how you face the inevitable and evolutionary changes of life. So far, my approach to life has been informed by many philosophies, people, and experiences (including the ones I rejected, or by the ones who rejected me). In my book, it is definitely okay to reject ideas and philosophies when they no longer hold true for me. It is also okay to learn important life lessons when I am forced to face the rejection or betrayal of others. In writing this blog, I am hopeful that you will find the philosophies that make your life worth living. Because, after all, what is the alternative?

© 2019 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

You Are Worth It!

You are worth every pause that someone takes on your behalf.

You are worth every “ooh” and “aah” from a loved one or someone who is enamored by you.

You are worth every happy moment that you feel in your own life.

You are worth celebrating when something goes right, or when you get a new job.

You are worth all the smiles and kisses that your partner can send your way.

You are worth it when he or she stops what they are doing to come and see about you when you are scared, afraid, or in pain.

You are worth patience, compassion, and empathy, from your lover and friends.

You are worth a good listen to the stories that are buried deep within.

You are worth it when it means it will lessen the anxiety that you feel inside.

You are worth being heard.

You are worth being seen.

You are worth being valued and being made a priority by those who say they care about you.

You are worth it.

Say it to yourself – “I AM WORTH IT” – until you believe it, and

Never let anyone tell you that you are not worth their time or their attention.

However, in the event that someone shows you with their actions and their words that you are not worth anything to them,

When they show you that they could care less about what happens to you, or how you feel,

If they intentionally hurt you with their words and actions,

Then, please know, on the contrary, that they are not worthy of you or the love that you have to give,

And, more than likely, they are far too emotionally immature and unprepared to handle the ups and the downs of life,

With you.

© 2019 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

“Reclaiming My Time: I Now Recognize MYSELF!” It’s Why I Write Today

On February 27th, 2019, I was watching the Michael Cohen congressional testimony. As the broadcast got underway, I watched as Congressman Elijah Cummings from Maryland managed a very chaotic start to the hearing. I say “managed” because there were others, namely, Congressman Mark Meadows from North Carolina and Jim Jordan from Ohio, who attempted to stop, postpone, or better yet, control the hearing. I was cooking breakfast on that day, so my attention was in and out, but when Mr. Jordan attempted to override the chair regarding a last-minute vote that was taken to table a motion to postpone the hearing per Mr. Meadows, Mr. Cummings, who was chair of the committee, took back the control of the hearing and prefaced his opening statement by saying this: “I am reclaiming my time; I now recognize myself.” Of course, we have heard those words before in other congressional hearings. In the last year or so, it has been a phrase that has been associated with Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who is another veteran congressional figure , and she is a woman who I have respected from afar for her political career.

I am writing this blog because those words – I AM RECLAIMING MY TIME; I NOW RECOGNIZE MYSELF – were like music to my ears. They resonated with me deeply on that day. In all honesty, my response had nothing to do with Michael Cohen, Elijah Cummings, Mark Meadows, or Jim Jordan. I heard them more subconsciously and in relationship to my own life’s journey.

Over the past several years, I have written about surviving emotional abuse and the breakdown of an important personal relationship. In my scholarly and professional endeavors, I have consistently written and presented on matters of racism, sexism, heterosexism and many of the injustices that we are living with today. That said, my affair with writing goes much further back than my current academic career in and with matters pertaining to urban planning. I was a United Methodist clergywoman before I ever thought about pursuing studies about the politics of planning. Although every part of my life has brought me where I am today, it was there, as a preacher, that I first learned to speak up and to advocate for myself and for others.

My life as a black woman has not been easy. In the words of Langston Hughes, in his 1922 poem “Mother to Son,” “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” Indeed, it has had cracks in it and at times it has been very painful. I never would or could have imagined many of the things that have happened to me. Maybe there were some situations that I never wanted to contemplate for myself. But, it is what it is; life is what it is. The things that have happened to me have made me realize and admit to myself that I don’t control life. And, I do not believe that anyone does. No one controls life. It is unpredictable, random; and, at any given moment, things could change for the good, the bad, or the ugly.

On the other hand, I am responsible for how I manage the persons, places and events in my life. And that includes me: how I handle myself. I am responsible for how I react to the events and people that life may bring. I suspect this is why those words were so powerful to me:

I AM RECLAIMING MY TIME

I NOW RECOGNIZE MYSELF

I believe that one of the greatest things that a person can ever do is to recognize her or himself. And it is an even greater thing when you are in a situation where someone or something else is trying their best NOT to recognize you; to ignore or negate you. Reclaiming your time and your person is a power move; it is an action that says: I will see me even if you choose not to; even if you choose to ignore and negate me. Thus, reclaiming your time and recognizing your own presence lets others know that their attempts at not seeing you and not recognizing you are NOT WORKING. Despite their best efforts, you matter, and who you are and what you have to say matters. That said, recognizing yourself is a step towards personal freedom, which could not be more important to many of us today.

When I was a child and an adolescent, and when my parents were upset with me, they would put me on punishment. In response to something I had done or something that I had said, they sent me to my room where I would not be allowed to speak or to be heard. Consequently, I would write out my feelings on paper and post my notes on my bedroom door. I would do it so often that my mother would say, “Go to your room, and don’t you put up any damn notes on your door.” I can’t remember how I responded to her saying that, but, I do remember that it hurt me deeply to be simultaneously silenced and punished. To lose the ability to voice my thoughts and the expression of my feelings, was very, very painful. That pain is the reason why I resorted to posting protest notes on my bedroom door.

I still feel that pain today when someone that I know and love does not want to hear me out. I associate their refusal with the same power and control that my parents had over me as a child. And, back then, when I was a child/adolescent, there was very little that I could do about it. I was a dependent, at their mercy, and, I had to comply or risk being in even more trouble. At the time, I felt very helpless.

However, it is not like that today. I am not a child, and I can do something about it when I am not seen or heard by those with whom I am in relationship, and who claim to love me. I do not need to feel helpless any longer. I can and I will, like Elijah Cummings or Maxine Waters, find a way to speak: to give voice to my feelings and my thoughts. When someone who says they love me, yet they attempt to rob me of my time, my voice and of my very being, I can act. I can set limits and boundaries on their selfish, controlling, abusive behavior; and, I can reclaim the power they are trying to take from me. I can recognize myself. I don’t have to let their attempts to ignore and disregard me go forward. I can exercise my power with my voice and through my actions to stop their attempts to silence or control me. And, in the worst case scenarios, as an adult, I can now choose to disassociate myself from abusive and hateful people, if need be. I don’t have to be involved with such people.

I have realized that my childhood experiences with being punishment are central to why I write today in public spaces. But, there are many people who write and who put their voices out in the world. When I consider all the great African American thinkers and activists, I need not look far to see their written works and thus their legacies. They wrote about their lives when others tried to keep them quiet; and, because they resisted in print, it is much easier for people like me to write freely today. I am grateful for their dedication to themselves and to the written word.

In conclusion, I do not believe that those great writers wrote their poems, stories and books because others would read them. The more that I write and the more that I consider my own relationship with writing, I believe they wrote in resistance to being silenced and ignored. They wrote to express themselves in a world that wanted to silence and negate them. I believe that the Harlem Renaissance was grounded in this idea. They wrote because they knew their feelings were worthy of being felt and heard , and they knew that they had important things to say. They also wrote in protest, and in spite of the many attempts to stop them from being seen and heard. They wrote, as I write today, because they believed in themselves and the power they had with; and, most of all, they wrote because they knew what the creative use of that power was destined to do.

© 2019 annalise fonza, Ph.D.

A Cautionary Note to Self on Surviving Abuse

Careful, that you don’t become just like those who failed you with hate, anger, and abuse.

You deserve a life that is truly free from their madness and confusion.

Just getting away from them is not enough.

Letting them go and surviving the trauma is also refusing to carry your abuser’s self-destructive thoughts and ways around inside of you.

© 2018 annalise fonza, Ph.D.