One Saturday in my twenties I found myself on a team of women gathering silk scarves, synthetic hair pieces and other weird props from all over New York for a short skit we would write and perform that evening.
Among my conspirators was Elise, a 28-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jew, divorcée and mother of five and Cynthia, a forty-something woman of color who struggled to come up with rent money and was soliciting others and saving up to buy herself a real bed.
Saturday is Shabbat, which prohibited Elise’s use of any motorized vehicle or mechanical implement.
It was a messy, crazy, remarkable scramble that lasted through the night and into the early morning, when each of us was lifted horizontally toward the ceiling by an army of classmates as “When You Believe,” sung by the great divas Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, blasted through speakers.
This really happened. While I am prone to exaggeration, there is none here.
I had stumbled into Momentum Education, one of hundreds of spin-offs of Werner Erhard’s 70s-era often cult-like “consciousness seminars” of the human potential movement.
Several days earlier, I had called to chat with an OA friend and she asked, abruptly, if I would join her that evening at Momentum.
She promised it would change my life.
I asked no questions.
I showed up.
By that time, I had learned to be open and teachable.
As they say in Twelve Step Groups, I had resigned from the debating society and I was willing to consider the suggestion of a well-meaning friend who, it appeared, was doing better than I at managing her life and her weight.
Momentum Education was run, at the time, but the formidable Robin Lynn, a life coach and activist who taught all over the world, including in the former Soviet Union and post-apartheid South Africa.
The object of the game was radical honestly, tough love, challenging participants to their breaking point.
Indeed I was challenged. I genuinely learned. Lots of tears. Lots of laughing.
Later in the course we were asked to stand at the front of the room silently and open ourselves up to candid feedback shouted spontaneously from our classmates.
I took my place before the crowd.
I lost sight of the individual words. But I became unmoored in a barrage of vitriol I had not anticipated and did not understand.
While I was no stranger to self loathing, these were not the words, even in my darkest moments, I would have used to describe myself. That tracks of that tape, at the time, were more about being “fat,” “ugly” and “unlovable.”
I retreated into stunned silence. I wrapped my coat around me and cried quietly to myself as I rode the subway home to my lonely fourth-floor walkup.
I was comforted by a kind boyfriend, who jumped on a train from Westchester and held me all night as I cried. He kissed away my tears. He lay next to me without words.
I was shaky but I garnered enough strength to return to Momentum to tell my cohort I would not be completing the course.
I made the decision, which I believe was the right one, that continuing was not for me.
But I had befriended during the course a man my age, Jonathan— black, a musician, an artist.
Jonathan came to me.
“I heard everything they said,” he offered. “I knew that wasn’t you. But I didn’t intervene because I wanted you to feel what it was like to be judged only by the color of your skin.”
For whatever reason, I was among only a handful of Caucasians in the group.
I was far outnumbered by classmates whose skin was darker than mine.
Jonathan’s words still chill me.
I’ll never know exactly why my classmates said the things they did. I don’t know what was in the minds and the hearts of those that were delivering their radically honest thoughts.
And I do accept that I, like all humans, have moments of insincerity, close-mindedness and and selfishness.
But I also believe, as Jonathan did, that my classmates’ words had more to do with their judgment about the way I looked rather than who I actually was inside.
This experience changed my life.
I discovered the despair of being misunderstood or misjudged because of the way I looked.
Even on my most challenging, sweatiest, ugly-hair days I still “pass” for “educated white woman.”
I ask myself often, how my life might have unfolded differently if my skin were darker, if I looked less like a benign cultural norm.
I continue to have deep despair for Jonathan and for the millions of other men like him who, in some (but not all) neighborhoods watch others cross the street to get away as he approaches. And despair for Stephon Clark, unarmed and shot by Sacramento police officers in his grandmother’s backyard.
The feedback exercise also left me much less likely to believe any person’s story as inherently true. I could have rolled over and accepted their judgment that I was, indeed, phony or spoiled.
Of course, we all have moments of selfishness or insincerity — myself included. I try earnestly to avoid hurting others, to apologize, to act with integrity and clean up my messes. I ask myself “Where have I misjudged? or “Where have I hurt another by making assumptions?”
But any judgment, including my own, is a subjective and momentary snapshot not only of the outer world but also the inner world of the observer.
Anais Nin wrote, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
No one’s story about me is objective truth.
Even . . . or especially . . . my own.
The story I tell about myself is more about my internal psychological landscape than about any objective “truth” that I am unlovable, less than or trapped by my circumstances.
What judgements do you hurl at yourself?
Where can you challenge these judgments?
Where can you refuse to believe the vitriol?