Friday, August 26, 2011

The Remembered Dance: Acts of Courage or Betrayal?

Was this a betrayal, or was it an act of courage? Perhaps both. Neither one involves forethought: such things take place in an instant, in an eyeblink. This can only be because they have been rehearsed by us already, over and over, in silence and darkness; in such silence, such darkness, that we are ignorant of them ourselves. Blind but sure-footed, we step forward as if into a remembered dance. The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood

This passage touched a tender spot. I didn’t want to admit that past acts of betrayal, however subtle or minor, had indeed been practiced or self-rehearsed. They seemed momentary decisions, like the courageous ones, that surprised even me as I found myself committing them. I sat with it, first digesting the easier one, that of spontaneous acts of courage.

In previous years, I often critiqued my ability to act fast when witnessing an accident or even a minor mishap with another: I wasn’t the first to grab the parcels dropped on the ground or the first to ask a stranger if they needed help when in distress. In reflection I put this down to a reluctance to put myself forward and, in effect, be seen. To be seen was not safe — it risked exposure, ridicule; humiliation. Safety involved being behind the scenes, going slow; avoiding visibility. The consequence to this supposed safety, however, was that my humanity suffered: I was no longer involved in life in a way that gave internal satisfaction or a feeling of being connected.

So, I started practicing, rehearsing in my mind, things I would do in case of mishap. It started quite innocently, just a desire to be a more compassionate person. I watched as elders got on the bus and imagined how I would help if they fell or dropped something. I observed others and, creating sometimes absurd stories, planned how I would assist. It worked. Through this rather active imagination, I am now quicker to move when adverse things happen. Not that I put myself in danger, but I am less concerned with what I look like and more with how I can show another, whoever they are, that they are important enough for a stranger to offer support.

This example is by no means the equivalent of saving children from burning houses but for those, like myself, who have not felt safe enough to risk being seen it is, however subtle, courageous. But what about betrayal? I thought about the times I betrayed another and, once again, I do not talk of betrayal on a grand scale. I speak of the little betrayals from thoughtless gossip, minimizing a friend’s hurts or assuming the worst about someone. Had I somehow rehearsed these actions?

The answer is, unfortunately, yes. Not that I planned how I would hurt someone but, in an indirect manner, have contributed to this way of being by falling into self pity or negative thinking. From melodramatic “nobody likes me” and “they hurt me” to “I’ll show them” is, in a way, rehearsal for larger actions. Is it not easier to withhold support for a friend, for example, when you feel nobody likes you? Is it not one short step to gossiping when you assume (but don’t ask) what the other really thinks? Dark thoughts and actions like these compulsively swirl inward and stop us from connecting to others and from manifesting our interdependence.

Blind but sure-footed, we step forward as if into a remembered dance. The remembered dance is the steps we take every moment of the day. Are these steps ones of courage? Or are they ones of betrayal that ultimately lead us to hurt ourselves and others?

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