Heather Caliri is a recent find, one I was delighted to make. This girl has the gift of asking questions. Her series, called “One Woman’s Yes”, is both inspiring and hopeful to me. So many of us find ourselves in crazy and wonderful lives just because we said “yes” to one little thing a long, long time ago. And then we said yes to the next thing, and the next, and the next. Heather interviewed me for the series and I felt like I could have talked to her all day. I’m so glad she wanted to write for this series, and as always I appreciate her ability to ask great questions and see the world with great compassion and nuance.
Who Are My Brothers and Sisters? Guest post by Heather Caliri
In family therapy with my parents once when I was thirteen, the psychologist asked me what emotion each of our family members felt most easily. I remember pausing for a moment, and then naming the others’ emotions without much hesitation. My parents laughed, nervously. I took that to mean they agreed.
“And you?” the therapist asked.
I didn’t have to think. “Guilt,” I said.
I remember feeling a little triumphant that I knew us all so well.
I also felt trapped. Because honestly, I was sick of feeling guilty.
Let me give you a bit of a family history. I’m the youngest of three kids. Both my brother and sister are adopted, both when they were about six weeks old. I was the ‘natural’ surprise about three years after my sister was born.
Whether adoption goes poorly or well, it’s hard on the adopted kids. From a very young age, I realized that strangers commenting that my brother and sister do not look like my parents meant something. I have the odd belly laugh of my cousin, uncle and father, my mom’s penchant for organization, and my baby pictures are little facsimiles of my aunt’s. Those are ties that my brother and sister don’t have. Even these small differences are privileges I didn’t earn.
I grew up with guilt about that. Guilt about my birthright. Guilt about my life being easier from the very beginning.
Recently, it occurred to me that many of us in the US are living my story. We are the privileged children; our brothers and sisters around the world live stories that are much harder.
So right below the surface of our picket fences and cable TV is that ache I felt the last time I was on the beach with my sister, and a woman said to us, “That’s funny—you don’t look related.”
I have wondered for a long time: is that ache helpful? Or not?
I know from experience that it gives me more empathy for others. I know it keeps my conscience honed. And at the same time, it paralyzes me. It silences me. It makes it hard to look in the mirror.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown discusses the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt she defines as believing we’ve done something bad. But shame means we believe we are bad. Shame is about self-loathing.
In other words, guilt and shame are close sisters. If I do nothing about my guilt, if I refuse to speak it out loud, it starts to decay.
And the guilt I feel about who I am—the privileges I was born with—well, those turn into shame almost immediately. Because I can’t change my passport or my skin color. I can’t change being the biological kid. I can do something about my socioeconomic status—giving away the considerable excess—but as Shane Claiborne points out, even the option to do so is a privilege. (Believe me, I’m praying about that one.)
So whatever I do, privilege is sticky, and so is guilt. And oh, Lord, so is shame.
Given that I can’t shed those privileges like old skin, I have to decide, then, how I shall live. I keep coming back to this: trying to stop looking at those privileges for a moment and look to others instead.
Because the guilt I feel is helpful only when it leads me into empathy, honesty, listening and togetherness.
I’ve started trying to overcome my shame, that greedy silencer, when it tells me to keep my distance, close my mouth, hide or pretend.
I’m incredibly grateful for the relationships I have with my brother and sister. And what I’ve seen is that to really be siblings, we must be able to speak out loud the reality of our family, and the reality of who we are. Because the truth is, we can’t change many of the facts, however unfair it might seem.
What can change is relationship. And I’ve learned it’s best for me to take the first step. I can seek out my brothers. I can invite them to break bread together. I can make it a burning priority when they are inviting me.
For me, downward mobility means building relationships with my brothers and sisters—whoever they are. Especially when “relationship” means going down into the unfairness and guilt and shame. Even when it’s scary, and risky. Even when I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong.
That means I have to get used to being in the minority at a gathering. It means I confront my wrong assumptions about my brothers, and how I’ve gone along with ignoring them. It means praying awkwardly in a language that feels uncomfortable. It means pushing past the ease of staying with my “own kind” . It means dreaming that as my privilege and guilt and shame are said out loud, the person speaking will grab hold of my hand and whisper love.
Heather Caliri is a writer based out of San Diego. She started saying little yeses in faith, creativity, and parenting–and was shocked by the results. You can join the adventure on her blog (http://heathercaliri.com), or by subscribing here (http://eepurl.com/tgdfD).
For all posts in the Downward Mobility series, please click here.