Years ago in the small city where I lived, a woman out walking with her dog in the bright sunlight of mid-morning was brutally attacked, her neck slashed with a broken bottle, and she left bleeding while her attacker ran up a little hill, did what appeared to be a jumping kind of dance, and disappeared. It all happened in moments, witnessed only by an office worker who happened to glance out the window and called for help.
When we gathered for a vigil the night of the attack and began to talk with each other, it became clear to me that although I didn’t know the woman, she was very dear to people I did know. They described her as a powerhouse worker for justice, a beacon of kindness and good humor, generous in friendship, not only well-loved but also deeply treasured. Like me, her friends were frightened and freshly aware of our collective vulnerability to random violence at the hands of men. And they were raw with rage.
In the next several days, we learned that this woman would survive, and her friends shifted their attention to supporting her recovery. We also learned that her attacker was a sixteen-year-old boy who was born in our town, had grown up there. When I learned that, I thought, what happened to him that brought him to that day? Where was I, where were we he was right there in our community becoming someone who could do this thing?
When I voiced these questions aloud, my friends who loved the woman who had been attacked shook their heads against my questions. They said, essentially, who cares? His attack on their dear friend had violated them too. When he broke that bottle, slashed her neck and danced away, he stepped into a place their compassion would not go.
I learned something then; there are concentric circles around violence. Those who find themselves in the most inner circle, the one in which the violence is most deeply felt, cannot be expected to offer compassion or empathy, not soon, sometimes not ever. Sometimes, miraculously, they do. But those of us in the circles beyond have no right to demand it.
Several people wrote to me after the first blog posting here, saying, essentially, really? Make peace with Trump supporters? I just can’t. They cited, among other things, the violence in Trump’s rhetoric, the permission to hate and act on hate that seemed to have come out of his candidacy and then his apparent victory. They reacted angrily to the idea that some Trump supporters were motivated by wholly other things — fear for their ability to make a living, long term frustration with systems seemingly unable to change things for the better, honest conservative views about how to create more equitable society.
I have not pushed that perspective on my friends and colleagues who feel the violence most deeply. They are survivors of sexual assault and abuse, painfully reminded of that ordeal. They are people of color tired to sickness of asserting the plain truth of their humanity in the face of bigotry. They’re trans people fighting for the astonishingly contested right to use a restroom. They are long-time social justice activists, already exhausted.
I used to hold out both hands to my stepdaughter, when life got confusing, and say, two hands, two truths. Life is generous this way, I’d tell her, it can hold two truths at once.
Here is one truth: Violence has been done. Someone’s dear friend is lying in the dirt, bleeding. Here is the other truth. There is a boy dancing away from the scene.
Some of us by dint of faith or privilege stand in a circle once removed. We can keep one hand on the shoulder of our friends in the center, honoring their rage, and still turn our attention the story of that dancing boy. In fact, I think, we must.