TO BE FREE - Mike Riddell
[[Content Advisory: This beautiful piece of very personal writing refers to traumatic events in the author’s life, and doesn’t hide from pain, but is ultimately an invitation to more life.]
In my early life, I wasn’t aware of privilege. I entered a working class family in one of the poorest socio-economic settlements in New Zealand. My three siblings had been sexually abused by an uncle. My parents didn’t own a house, but lived in a shabby property provided by the Railways where my father worked.
It was not immediately apparent that by virtue of my birth, I was blessed with choices unavailable to others. I was a White Anglo-Saxon Heterosexual Protestant. I sometimes joke that I changed what was least painful to alter, and became a Catholic. The fact is that my heritage brought with it an endowment of cultural power, through no effort of my own.
Education increased my elite status. Through something of an historical accident, I attended a prestigious single-sex college. The teaching was good. I was alert, questioning, and able to navigate my way into a universe of ideas. But it was also an environment in which racism, homophobia, classism, and misogyny flourished – subtle accompaniments to the schooling of the ruling classes.
* * *
I become a chameleon. I can fight, swear, play rugby, and drink like a working class man. But I also get good grades, read widely, and learn to write well. I’m regarded as something as a freak by my family. Trouble follows me, but courtesy of a few good teachers I’m picking up tools that will allow me to shape my destiny.
Education is the biggest lever of them all. It allows its beneficiaries to navigate their way through the world. The fact that I receive it is a consequence of my privilege, which by now is obvious to me. Experience is the spring that irrigates my dawning self-understanding. I do drugs, join protest movements, raise a middle finger to society, spend time in a Moroccan prison.
None of which cripples my future as it would if I was black, gay, or poor. I listen to Dylan. I understand what the stakes are, and how fundamentally unjust is the society we live in. Oh, I eventually become “normal” – I marry, have children, become a clergyman. Fortunately the quiet rage within me is not extinguished by this lapse into convention.
* * *
I listen one day to the leader of our Baptist denomination claim in a small group that he may be male, but that he has no power. It’s one of the most ludicrous statements I’ve ever heard. The denial of cultural power most commonly comes from those who are exercising it to silence others.
I’m totally aware of my own advantages. Awareness is the foundation of liberation. I try to use my power alongside others. I help to establish a Housing Trust, primarily for people who have traversed the mental health system in my city. We design it not “for” others, but alongside them. These are not clients, but friends who we eat and drink with regularly. We name our movement The Community of Refuge Trust.
As it grows, I use my writing abilities to protest against a heartless health system which ostracizes the ‘mad’ and isolates them from participation in the community. My background allows me to front politicians and decision makers on their own level, and carve out a space for those who are sidelined to speak for themselves.
* * *
At eleven years old, my daughter is raped. As a consequence, by the time she’s fifteen, she is on the streets, and with a habit. Numerous overdoses and suicide attempts fail to end her misery. The suffering spreads out through our small family, threatening to drown us all. My privilege is of no use in providing healing. I am broken entirely.
I discover that it is not useful to speak of such things in the presence of successful people. They routinely want to change the subject, and ascribe some sort of failing to us as parents for causing the problem. Where I do find help is among others who are themselves broken through the circumstances of life. With these friends I find love, grim humor, and healing.
As New Zealand poet James K. Baxter put it: “Women who think they have ceased to be Christian shack up with dying alcoholics and wash their piles with warm water. Men who think the same extricate the head of their neighbor's wife from the gas oven and find they have a new woman to look after and another mark on their crime sheet.”
This experience is my unsought wound. Now I am in a position where I learn about stigma from the inside rather than as an intellectual concept. For the first time in my life I am emotionally hobbled in a way that no amount of power will cure. It is both a curse and a new freedom. I have joined the ranks of those who have nothing to lose. Those who sustain me are indwellers of pain.
* * *
I coin my agony into words, becoming a writer. Always I am reaching for some sort of understanding, but it never comes. While I consider myself a liberated male, I still find it difficult to ask for help. Instead I pour my sorrow into the bowl of a paragraph, and lose myself in the mystery of meditation. Who can heal what can’t be healed?
To bastardize those resplendent words of Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack, a crack in everything: that’s how the truth gets out”. I seek humility and humanity in my swamp of self-doubt. I prospect for kindness and mercy and tolerance. My armor is rusted, my helmet broken, my loins ungirded. No doubt I could still employ social power, but the ambition has gone.
The simple act of living is sufficient. I feel the sun on my face, the breath in my lungs, the wind in what’s left of my hair. I am content with these. There’s love at loose in the world, and I often experience it. I continue to dribble sentences into my soup, but no longer feel that I need to convince anyone with them. I recognize that my own need to write is more vital than finding readers for my scribblings.
* * *
I have a tendency to feel guilty for my own stupidly lucky life. It’s the equivalent of ‘survivor guilt’. None of us are responsible for the way we come into life; only how we leave it. I could spend my time cultivating shame on behalf of my privileged contemporaries, but I choose not to. To quote Cohen, faithfully this time, “I have tried, in my way, to be free”.
We are all called to be alchemists – to take the raw material that has been inherited, and make of it what we can. I admire deeply those who have managed to transform oppression into leadership, but I don’t regret that I’m not among their number. I was and am deeply privileged by birth. It would seem pathetically tragic and hypocritical to envy the struggles of others. But I do admire them.
If at times I feel an outsider in my own society, it’s because of my own choices and mistakes rather than through prejudice. This is a hunger for belonging, and one that I suspect every person on the planet feels keenly. My true wealth lies in having people around me who love me for who I am. In that regard I am the most charmed of men.
Mike Riddell is a Kiwi who writes novels, plays, films, poetry, and apology notes. He cooks when he can, and breathes intentionally on a daily basis. https://www.holybucket.com/
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