My freshman year of high school, I came up against the first class where I couldn’t break a C average. I was used to sailing through school on a cloud of As and Bs (well, except for that one F in Algebra in 8th grade, but that was clearly the teacher’s fault). But when I confronted my history teacher with his obvious mistake, he just replied “I just don’t think you’re doing more than C work.”
That’s because history was, to me, largely a matter of things men did. Things men built, countries men sailed to, wars men fought, gods men prayed to. In my relatively short life, I’d had yet to meet a man who was worth that much time and effort. Men were mostly things to be avoided or tolerated, so I wasn’t really all that interested.
Years later in my 20s, I discovered the work of feminist historians and archaeologists like Marija Gimbutas who would challenge this very male-centric approach to history. But it wasn’t what they taught at my high school — and certainly not what my mustachioed, L-7 professor had on offer.
I can still remember one class in the autumn of that year, after the leaves had begun to fall but before they’d left nothing but the bare grey skeletons of the trees. I sat in the far-right row, three desks back from the front. We were probably still studying the ancient tribes of mesopotamia and the Middle East — a subject that fascinates me today. But back in 1987, the official textbooks didn’t mention Inaana’s Descent into the Underworld, domain of her dark sister Ereshkigal. They talked about tribes and territories. They showed pictures of bones and relics in dry, brown places.
That morning, I made the conscious decision to check out of class all together. It probably wasn’t the first time I’d zoned out during, but it was the first time I remember making the conscious decision to do so. I flipped my notebook to a new page and started writing a poem about a story and a conflict much closer to my heart: whether I should go ahead and have sex with my bad-boy boyfriend, or whether I should be a good little Catholic girl and keep my hymen intact.
My story was far more interesting than history. My story was pounding in my throat, grabbing me and shaking me and shaking me. My story was mythic and juicy and all brand new. Like all teenagers, I thought I’d invented sex. Like all teenagers, I was intensely self-involved and utterly convinced that no one had ever felt this way before. I had a jungle between my ears and between my legs. I had no time for dry bones and relics.
There were moments, though, when the wild and juicy realities of the people who had lived so long ago glimmered through their dry bones. Most of those moments happened in English class: the child run down by the indifferent Marquis in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities; mad Hamlet and his tragic girlfriend; Romeo and Juliet’s star-crossed love.
Perhaps it was because those stories were so much more personal, or perhaps it was because of the language. Ever since my mother first read me the Madeline books, I’ve responded to the language of a story as much as its content. Perhaps one of the reasons I hated history is because so many history textbooks are written in a dry, prosaic style that squeezes all the life out of its subjects. The official version of the story might be written in such a way as to not offend anyone, but it’s also boring as dry white toast.
As a young girl, I was more interested in form: in the well-written word, in the well-turned phrase. Sure, they told me that any good writer needed to have life experiences in order to live, but the point, the purpose, and the whole of the journey wasn’t really about the story. It was about how you told the story: form over content.
As I’ve lived longer and suffered more, what I’ve come to realize about history (and herstory) is that it is ALL about the lives of people just like me. I mean, circumstances may be different, but there is some common thread that runs through the lives of all the different people on the planet. It’s hard to name that common thread without sounding preachy or clichéd, but that common thread exists. The Buddhists have a very succinct way of summing it up, but it’s not one that I’d really care to repeat right now, in part because I’m feeling the exact opposite of a paragon of spiritual fulfillment right now — Buddhist or otherwise. The one cliche I will acquiesce to, though, is that the unexpected gift of suffering is compassion. In the depths of suffering — whether it’s due to grief or trauma or loss or addiction or not getting that toy you really really wanted when you were five — we cry out “why?” But after many years of suffering and recovery from same, I really have come face to face with that unexpected gift. It’s the ability to connect to another person when they are in the depths of their suffering, and to bring them hope.
Of course, in order to bring that hope, the connection has to be a real one. The roots of the word compassion (com – with; pati — suffering, bearing, being acted upon) denote that sense of strong (passionated) emotion. It’s a heart connection, not a head connection. And perhaps this is why so many people feel failed by social workers, preachers, therapists, and other people in the helping professions. Because no matter how much training you have — perhaps no matter how much real-world experience you have, either — you won’t always be able to call forth a sympathetic emotional state. Sure, there are things you can do to increase the chances. But institutions concerned with objective standards like numbers and outcomes aren’t always great at creating the best circumstances for compassionate interactions. And in general, our society knows how to pay attention to numbers and outcomes more than it does airy-fairy things like feelings.
Even the whole notion of form versus content comes from that rational mindset. I excelled in institutions that leaned on the rational mindset, until my own inability to recognize and take care of my own emotions put my health and my life in jeopardy. And through the suffering that resulted — that still results from time to time — I was given that unexpected gift of compassion. Which enables me to connect with the stories and tragedies of people whose lives look far different than my own. I do it imperfectly, and the form of the story still impacts how I connect to its content, but I can see how emotional realities transcend prosaic details. And if I choose to — if I practice at it — I can connect to the juicy, personal, emotional story that underlies the prosaic details.