Recently, I had an experience that literally stunned me. I was at a meeting with a new group of people. It was the beginning of the get together and small groups of us were talking casually. I ended up in conversation with a man, about fifteen years older than me, who I later found out, was running the meeting. We ended up chatting about a friend we had in common, and he asked if I knew the man’s wife. I said I did, and he responded with a short soliloquy about how “hot” the man’s wife was. How she had been hot in college and was still “totally hot.”
For a second I was disoriented. It was like I had cotton in my ear and the room was frozen. It was as if my eyes had been replaced by fisheye lenses and all I could see was what was right in front of me. I was the proverbial deer in headlights, wide eyed and stunned. The feeling was not exactly surprised, it was more primitive, as if the turn in conversation kicked me into an alternative mental state. The thought that accompanied the feeling was, “Wow, was that weird or was it just me?” I felt uneasy and excused myself from the conversation by explaining that I was thirsty and needed to go get something to drink.
Two hours later I was jolted by a stab of anger, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. On the one hand, I was upset that a man in a position of power would be talking about how “hot” someone else’s wife was, a string of comments that made it seem like he wasn’t even aware that sexism existed. On the other hand, I was mad at myself for just walking away. I wished I had said something, but I was doubly agitated because all that came to mind were sharp one liners that A) I was unlikely to say in public and B) were likely to add fire to a conflict, not improve the overall outcome.
A couple of days afterward I relayed my experience to my neighbor. She’s the grandmother figure in this grandmother power blog post. She’s older than me. She keeps herself simply, wears her hair very short, and her children are grown. Often, when I cross paths with her in the neighborhood she is quiet and self contained. She listens and doesn’t talk much. But every once in awhile she will tell me something important like, “I wish when my children were young I spent less time being angry with my husband. I had no idea he would be such an incredible father of teenagers.” Or, “That post partum time is intense. I remember. I had post-partum psychosis. It was bad.”
When she says these things to me on the corner, she is usually with her dog, a Newfoundland. He is large and black and I sometimes think it is like having a bear living next door. Having the two of them as my neighbors makes me feel safe.
After I told her about the wierdly sexist remarks the man at the meeting made she asked me, “Well what did you do?” I told her how I didn’t know what to do and walked away. At that moment, she looked at me directly. Right into my eyes. And I tell you, when someone does that, you realize that people don’t do that very often, maybe not ever, because that look goes right through your eyes into the core of you, and not everyone is bold enough to make that contact.
But grandmothers are.
And she said to me, “Cristina that is YOUR job, YOUR job to tell that guy he is wrong. YOU have to protect women.”
In that very instant, her words shot right into me, a pure injection of Grandmother Power. And I realized that it is within my power to speak up. That, when the moment calls for it, I think I could respond. But somehow, until my neighbor looked right in my eyes, shining light way down into my interior, the parts of me that I would need to call on in order to respond in the moment, were buried, covered up by years of being “nice”, of craving other people’s approval, and of genuine naivete about how people impact each other.
To me, shining light into dark corners, using power to empower others, this is Grandmother Power. Paola Gianturco, in her book Grandmother Power, says grandmothers, “love their grandchildren in many ways. Their wisdom is expressed through vision, energy, creativity and passion. Determined to improve the present and the future, their lives have purpose and meaning.” Grandmothers, because they are physically connected, not only to the generation adjacent to them, but to a generation that is one leap away, feel the present and the future in a way that the rest of us don’t. Every time a grandmother hugs her grandchild, she touches a distant future, knowing that the impact of that one hug will in all likelihood outlive her.
In this way, the lived experience of Grandmothers puts them face to face with awareness of their own impact beyond their physical presence. Their love is a kind of time travel that forges steadily ahead at the pace of baby steps, then teenage steps, then adult steps, then grandmother steps, over the span of multiple generations. Their power to change the future, in many cases, will be through they way the influence others who live beyond them. Awareness of the vastness of the scope of their own influence and and understanding of how that influence will be carried forward are important differences between grandmothers and the rest of us.
And this is why I decided to go in search of Grandmother Power, to help me come up with a plan for practicing how I could respond to an offensive comment in the future. My hope has been to lean into wisdom that would see beyond a piquant one liner and that was aligned with creating a better future for all of us, not just evening out a tit for tat in the moment. I called upon and researched the work of wise women, not all of them grandmothers, but all of whom use their own power to empower others.
One of the most important things I’ve learned so far (and you’ll be hearing more from me on this--I’m not sure why, but this topic seems to be calling to me) is that handling these kinds of comments is very, very hard. According to reporting done by Heidi Halvorston, we are very likely to think that we are able to respond to those offensive humdingers that get dropped on occasion at meetings and parties, but usually we don’t. In her summary of one study Halvorston explains, “68% of women said that they would refuse to answer sexually harassing questions in a job interview, and 28% said they would openly confront the interviewer. But when the interview actually happened, all of the women answered the offensive questions, and not one confronted the interviewer.”
Even Musimbi Kanyoro, President and CEO of The Global Fund for Women validates that these situations are challenging, even for her. When I asked her what she does when confronted with a sexually harassing remark, she responded, “Although I often speak out, there are times when I miss an opportunity and regret it afterwards. In my opinion there is no hard rule. One has to constantly make choices when to pass some things and when to intervene. If you err once I promise you there will be other opportunities because the end to bad behavior on women is far from an achievement.”
So, just as a starting point, there is a need to acknowledge how difficult and complicated it will be to actually speak up. That it will require both awareness (one of my personal challenges is that I tend to get stunned in the moment when these things happen), as well as courage. And as Kanyoro relates, there will also be the need to practice good judgement, to develop an inner compass for understanding when to choose to intervene and when to observe.
For advice on developing wise judgement, I turned to Karen Maezen Miller, Zen priest, blogger and author. She started out by unpacking the context in which these comments tend to be made, “We have to understand the world in which we live. We live in an ignorant world, a world that is ignorant of the truth of our interconnectedness and interdependence. This world sees everything and everyone as separate from the other: me against you, us versus them. Ignorance gives rise to greed and anger. It creates enemies and perpetuates war. It produces arrogance and self-righteousness. Our society is ignorant, our organizations are ignorant, and most people are ignorant: totally blind to the truth. Ignorance sees ignorance as truth, but truth sees ignorance as pain.
Ignorant people make ignorant remarks, while being totally ignorant of their ignorance. Their point of view may be so inculcated, reinforced and institutionalized that they, literally, have no idea what they are saying. When pressed, they might profess to having no malice or intent to harm.”
To me, setting the context this way is a balm of grandmother love. Being willing to see others in very broadly, in the context of the conditions in which they have lived and learned, points in the way toward an effective, productive response.
Miller went on to explain:
“Likewise, we have to see what underlies our own anger and righteousness; we have to recognize the genuine feeling that occurs before the impulse to fight back. Isn't it pain? Aren't we hurt by insensitive remarks? Why can't we respond honestly and immediately from the place of hurt rather than fashion it into something more clever, witty, or biting? Why can't we be real? Human? Unelaborated? Undefended?
‘Ouch!’ This is the response that opens eyes, minds and hearts, delivering the most truth, and enabling kindness to awaken. Children know instinctually when to say it, and grandmothers know how to respond.”
Human, I am that. Unelaborated, sometimes that’s all I’ve got. Undefended, now that is hard. That one will take practice. But I do believe, this is the most practical advice I’ve received so far.
That the best way to respond, in the moment to an offensive comment, is simply by relating my honest experience as I am living it.
The good news is, for those of us out there who aren’t able to come up with those witty one liners, those in the moment jabs are not nearly as powerful as honesty. Grandmother Power tells us that the truth, delivered with the hope that each of us can outgrow our patterns and assumptions, is the light that that will enable us, even in a very tricky moment, to use our power to empower others. The goal is not to demean someone who offended us, but to make way for their natural kindness to come alive.