Many parts of our country and world are responding to the violent and inhumane treatment of African-American men with riots and protests. It is my hope that the violent outrage will end and change will come. It took a camels-back incident to garner support for victims of sexual harassment. I hope the current outrage will do the same for violence against African-Americans…and all people.
As a therapist, I find myself exploring how violence happens and how it changes. In my experience, people have to change in order to resolve conflict. They have to change their thinking, learn why they think the way they do, and be open to understanding the experience of other people. With understanding comes compassion. When people are open to changing, reconciliation is possible. But what does it take to change?
Who am I? Who did it? Who cares?
A lot of sentences start with the word “who.” At times, a call for accountability, help, blame, clarity, or self-exploration. But any sentence starting with the word “who,” points to someone.
From an early age, my parents demonstrated the degree to which they valued education. My school-teacher mother spent summers guiding us through extra workbooks to strengthen our spelling and math. My parents took turns staying up past midnight to review book reports and Social Studies projects.
I did well in school, often making the honor roll. There were some things about school that I loved. I read anything I could get my hands on, and I devoured math books. I loved puzzles, books and science. But, for the life of me, I could not properly spell “who.” My teachers circled it on my papers. My father erased it and had me correct it on my homework. My mother had me spell it out loud. And the next day, I wrote “hew.”
It’s phonetically accurate and it made sense to me, but each time the adults tried to teach me the correct spelling, I quickly forgot and resumed my autopilot phonetic spelling. When I wrote the word “hew,” I didn’t give it a second thought. I scrawled the word on the page with the same ease that I breathed. Never doubting: H-E-W.
In the last quarter of kindergarten, my father turned to drastic measures and insisted that I write the word, “who” five hundred times. Though I couldn’t even count that high, my tiny hand clutching my Husky yellow pencil, I began.
WHO WHO WHO
At the end of the week, I’d filled an entire sheet of wide-ruled paper. I proudly showed my father. Together, we counted 162, 338 more to go.
“Keep going,” said Dad.
That Friday, my father and I counted. 500! He smiled and explained how important it was for me to learn to spell correctly. It took 500 practices, but I finally got it. From that day forward, without even consciously thinking, I spelled the word correctly. When I look at H-E-W now, it looks wrong.
Learning to spell correctly was hard work. I had to be open to accepting that what I assumed to be true was not. I had to be open to viewing something as important to someone else that was not important to me. I had to be willing to do the work to practice a new behavior and be open to guidance and feedback from someone with more experience in that area.
I had to try.
I’m horrified that I can scroll down my Facebook feed and watch people die. This week, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis while in police custody. The perpetrator appears to be an officer who chose to place his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck while two other officers held down his body. Despite pleas from Mr. Floyd and those watching, the officer refused to remove his knee from his neck. The officers restrained him for several minutes, long after Mr. Floyd stopped moving. I felt hollow inside when I heard Mr. Floyd’s words.
“I can’t breathe.”
Those were the same words uttered eleven times by Eric Garner while in a chokehold as Staten Island, N.Y. police officers ended his life. Most of the country had heard those words and knew the outcome, but it didn’t change the reactions the day Mr. Floyd yelled the same words.
With social distancing in place, I’m home now with more time to think and be aware of how I feel about things. This introspection is pivotal to me growing and becoming a better person. Over the years, I’m better at responding rather than reacting. But my sweet husband will tell you, I have a long way to go. Change takes time.
I don’t want to be someone who reacts, causing harm. But I am not always aware of it. My reactions seem justified to me. I feel threatened. I fear I won’t get what I want. Someone is trying to take advantage of me…the list goes on. It’s as if H-E-W suddenly sounds correct all over again. Often, my reactions come from my past experiences. Things I’ve learned. The problem is that the only way I can grow and change is if I examine my own beliefs and experiences. I have to examine my “who?”
That self-exploration is hard work. It is a journey to honestly examine what I think about myself, other people, and the world, and the things I value and devalue. Then comes the task of deciding if I am okay with that or if I want to change.
It took me writing “who” 500 times in order to permanently relearn the spelling. Prior to that, everything I’d learned taught me that H-E-W was true. I had no reason to challenge the spelling of the word. It sounded right to me. It looked right to me. The problem is, it was wrong. I practiced the correct spelling for weeks, and now it is automatic.
Unfortunately, in my experience as a therapist, people often have to be in a lot of pain before they are ready to change; I was. We are each responsible for identifying our own challenges and seeking help in the areas we have been hurt so that we don’t react and hurt others or ourselves.
COVID-19 has changed the world forever. It is my hope that we each choose to grow and equip ourselves to better members of the worldwide community.
The work of change begins with self-examination.
Who am I?
Pam C. Dudley, MSW, LCSW, is a writer, stage director, social worker, and CBT certified therapist pursuing the creative life in Corsicana, Texas. She is most passionate about sharing the love of Christ, helping people heal from hurts, and writing musicals!
Pam is the owner of My Write Mind, PLLC Counseling, now offering virtual therapy sessions. Inquire at PamCDudley@gmail.com.