Recent events have caused me to think deeply on how I am called to be a woman of integrity in such a broken world. I find myself weeping over the hatred and violence in our daily news. What am I to say or do in the midst of such overwhelming pain? How can I make a difference? The political discourse has become so nasty that I often keep my thoughts to myself to avoid simply becoming another talking head, or worse, part of the problem. It occurs to me, however, that my voice is my power, and it may be more important than ever that I fearlessly use my authentic voice.
In her book “Faith and Feminism,” Helen LaKelly Hunt uses the story of Sojourner Truth to illustrate the search for voice, as one of the five stages of women’s ‘Journey Toward Wholeness.’ Sojourner Truth was a shy nineteenth century black female ex-slave who changed her name and courageously and effectively spoke out for the abolitionist and early feminist movements. Helen writes that Sojourner Truth’s life teaches us “when we are able to speak our truth we gain a new ‘name,’ a new voice – that is, a new empowered self-concept and identify.” “A search for voice is the search for self.”
Based on my own experience, and countless discussions with other women, I find that we too often experience a reluctance or inability to express ourselves boldly. We compromise to avoid hurting others feelings, or making waves, or appearing too aggressive. We find it easier to bypass the large or troublesome people in our lives rather than engage or confront them. We may have a trusted group of confidantes with whom we share our authentic selves, while putting forth a more guarded, or accommodating, public self with others. Although it is clearly not prudent to share everything with everyone, there are times when it is important to assertively express our true needs, beliefs and opinions.
This has been a lifelong growth area for me. Growing up the shy, youngest child with two older brothers, I had to work hard, in a military family that valued high intelligence and achievement, to be taken seriously. In school, I pushed myself relentlessly to overcome my own self-perception of insignificance, and vividly remember being pleasantly surprised to discover how talented and intelligent I was relative to my peers. I found that I had highly developed interpersonal skills, no doubt attributable to navigating my male-dominated family dynamics. On the other hand, I still carried that small internal voice which caused self-doubt and suppression of expression.
Over time, I grew very comfortable with the sharp verbal sparring favored in my male-dominated workplace and developed a thick skin. I could be a tough negotiator when it came to work-related issues and learned to stand up for my positions. But, to this day I know I often avoid expressing personal opinions contrary to others. I know I gravitate towards people with whom I share similar views, and avoid those who don’t. It’s just easier to share my beliefs with people who agree with me.
However, my inability or unwillingness to speak up only contributes to unbridged chasms (political, religious, etc.) in society, robs me of the opportunity to have healthy robust discussion, and diminishes my moderate, Christian, feminine point of view in society. I risk not being truly known by others, losing self-respect and not asking for what I need or want. I suspect there are countless other temperate voices who are silent for similar reasons.
Even within the church, if I am reluctant to question authority for fear of appearing sacrilegious or disrespectful, I may actually do a disservice to the church. As Helen LaKelly Hunt writes in Faith and Feminism, “if a religious institution does not support an issue that is based upon Christ’s teaching, it’s imperative to challenge the institution, not the teaching.” The early feminists understood this distinction and were instrumental in bringing change to church policies that suppressed, divided and excluded.
In short, my personal search for voice is a journey not only toward my own wholeness but the world’s. I was reminded of this recently when I stayed up until 1:30 AM (way past my bedtime) with two of my book club friends over a glass of wine. We were bemoaning the state of current politics, with two of us feeling it is rather pointless to publicly state our views on social media. My other friend passionately admonished us to speak up. She challenged us to think about chapters in world history where courageous voices made a difference, and conversely where silence allowed hatred, violence or intolerance to triumph.
“God’s wisdom is not a pathway of escape but a road of faithful engagement,” writes Mark Labberton in his book “Called.” “God’s wisdom breaks passivity and leads to action. If we don’t take action, our house is built on sand, even if we profess that it’s built on rock.” Speaking up is action, with consequences, and we have responsibility to ourselves and to the world to speak our truth in love, respectfully, but with conviction. I may not change entrenched minds with my words, but I should strive to be a seeker and speaker of wisdom, and may then, through example, influence those looking for alternatives to the noisy mainstream talking heads.
Of courage, John O’Donahue writes in “To Bless the Space Between Us”:
“Close your eyes,
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.”
Oh Lord, in this time of great strife, give me eyes to see, ears to hear, and give me wisdom and courage in thought, word and deed.