Faith

Embodiment: Life In This Body by Robyn Rapske

It’s been a fair amount of time since I added a blog post to this website. The reason for this is actually really great. I’ve been quite distracted with improvements to my health.

As I’ve written about before, for over a year, I’ve struggled through two health diagnoses that have made me super, insanely tired. I’m always ready for a nap after the few part-time hours I’m able to get through at work.

However, over a month ago, I was arriving home after work, mentally exhausted and ready to collapse on my couch, when something strange happened. Somehow my body spoke to me. Not audibly, obviously, but in a way that I knew it was saying to me: “I’ve got to run right now. Please, put on some running shoes and let me run.” I felt a rush of energy that had to be expressed in a run.

 A hike that many local Vancouverites would recognize, Quarry Rock, is now possible for me to enjoy again!

A hike that many local Vancouverites would recognize, Quarry Rock, is now possible for me to enjoy again!

Despite barely being able to do any exercise other than long walks for over a year, I let my heart rate soar as I pushed through sweat and throat-searing breathe while running through my neighbourhood.

It’s a good thing I listened, because the next day my Post-Concussion-Syndrome-head felt clearer than I could remember in a long time. Since that day, I’ve either run or (more recently) hiked at least twice a week.

IT FEELS FANTASTIC.

My soul lights up knowing that I’ve built up enough cardiovascular strength, that this week I graduated to trying two short hikes!

With a Saturday opening up with no plans, it felt like time for me to process out another blog post. With this recent exercise, the improved health of my body, and contemplating what I’ve learned while experiencing life so vividly in my weakened body, I thought it might appropriate to share about the topic of Embodiment, as I understand it and have been thinking about it. I’ll explain more about what that term means later.


I’ll start by saying that I used to think a lot about “Body Image”.

I had a terrible 'Body Image' after puberty hit and I began evaluating how my body measured up against standards I’d been blissfully unaware of as a child. I remembering scratching my fingernails along my stomach at 13, hating that it wasn’t flat like my skinnier friends. It was a really unpleasant feeling, hating my body, but I was stuck in it until my body started to lose fat.

Whenever I lost weight in future years, I would be given elated moments of really ‘great’ body image. If I slimmed down, fixed my hair well, or wore something I felt flattered me, I felt like I measured up to the standard of beauty, and counted it as having ‘good’ Body Image day.

I’ve experienced what I’d call a ‘Yo-Yo Body Image’. When I was matching societal standards of beauty, I felt happy, I felt proud of my body, and I felt satisfied with my life. When I didn’t feel I matched these standards of beauty, I felt less satisfied with my life, I felt my mood plumet for the rest of the day, and I wanted to hide under baggy clothing.

Then when I discovered things I was passionate about, like social work and justice for the marginalized, I found I could step out of the Yo-Yo for a brief time while I was distracted by the other things I cared deeply about. In this time I didn’t think about my body at all because I was so ‘other-focused’.

But it was never long-lived. I’d step right back into the Yo-Yo again when a photo of me surfaced that I didn’t like. Or likewise, I’d feel a rush of joy over my Body Image when I looked in a mirror and I felt like I looked fantastic.

Essentially, I had the options of judging my body as “Good” or “Bad”, or simply being “Disconnected”.

I’m a white, Christian woman from a middle class family in Canada. I have never suffered from something like anorexia, bulimia, or diagnosed body dysmorphia, so I know my particular experience of Body Image is unique to my life. But I’m sure we have all heard and talked a lot about “Body Image”. Body Positivity, Good Body Image, Bad Body Image issues--there’s so much conversation about it.

I thought this was the only conversation I could have about my body.

What I’m grateful to God for, is that this is not my only option. There is another conversation I can have. I’ve only recently heard it termed “Embodiment” on a Liturgists podcast of the same name (listen here).

What is Embodiment?

I don’t know that I can define it well, but for me, this is how it’s mattered to me as a term:

Embodiment is experiencing life through my body. Experiencing society through my body. Experiencing who I am through my body. Experiencing my everyday life through my body.

Instead of thinking about and judging my body, I can spend my energy in living life through my body.

It sounds a bit weird, and I don’t know how else to explain it, so I’ll try to ‘flesh’ it out with stories.

 Now that's a completely happy and elated little Robyn

Now that's a completely happy and elated little Robyn

When I was a kid, I lived an almost fully ‘embodied’ life. I didn’t judge my body, or think ‘about’ it, I didn’t even really ‘listen’ to my body; I simply lived out my life through my body. I wept when my body said that I should. I laughed hysterically when something was funny. I ran in circles when it felt a rush of energy. I sang when I wanted to (at the grocery store, out my window, at the dinner table). I followed around my big brother, copying whatever he did because I admired him. I screamed when something scared me. When my stomach hurt, or my head hurt, or my throat hurt, I stopped doing the things that would hurt it until it felt better. When I wanted comfort I’d find my mom to hug me.

I experienced my life fully through my body, and didn’t think much about it.

If this sounds weird, or you’ve been taught by religious leaders 'not to trust the flesh’--I understand, as I have also had these thoughts. However, I’ve also had other thoughts that say my body and my life are so intimately entwined that it makes no sense to sever the two.

I’ll expand on how it looks for me now, trying to live this kind of embodied life as an adult. After all, as adults, we learn that following all of our body’s instincts isn't always helpful, because we live in a very imperfect world that teaches our bodies some bad lessons.


I started thinking about this ‘embodied living’ when I suffered some consequences of disconnecting with my body.

A major consequence I experienced was heartburn. I suffered searing and debilitating bouts of it. Doctors couldn’t figure it out. My diet didn’t aggravate it that much. They wrote it off as a possible weak muscle between esophagus and stomach. After many years of heartburn, I started to realize it was more connected to my experiences of insecurity, than to what I ate.

When I was around people I felt might judge me, I would get very anxious, and my stomach pain would begin to build. Sometimes it was while keeping up with smart people in a conversation, and I would ignore the uncomfortable position I was in for hours. My body couldn’t digest properly or relax into comfortable positions because I was ignoring it. Sometimes it would be aggravated while being near boys I liked, or girls I feared the judgement of, and I would unconsciously suck in my gut to appear thinner, due to the unspoken belief that being thinner would make me more loveable. Doing this for hours also prevented proper stomach functions.

With confidence building and insecurities lessening over the years, as well as learning to take care of my physical needs moment-to-moment, I started to notice less problems with heartburn. I’m so grateful for friends and family who consistently helped me build up that confidence, and was astonished to see how much it affected my physical well being.

This experience helped me see that I live my experiences through my body--not just with a mental perception of my daily activities. My body experiences my insecurities just as much, if not more, than my mind.


During this time, I also struggled with growing bouts of insomnia.

You know that feeling, when you’re anxious about not being able to sleep, and you count the hours passing by, wondering if you’ll be able to do work the next day? And how it just makes you more anxious and less likely to sleep? That would happen to me so frequently that my brain was was being trained to get more anxious as bedtime loomed nearer.

Out of desperation, I succumbed to my psychologists suggestion to try ‘Mindfulness Meditation’, despite feeling a very haughty judgement of things such as Mindfulness practices.

I did an 8-week program she prescribed--a daily regime focused on learning how to reconnect with my experience of the world through my body. The book was titled "The Mindful Way Workbook".

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I had deep scepticism, especially when I read the instructions for the first exercise titled “Raisin Exercise”. I was supposed to spend 10 minutes slowly observing my body’s experience of eating a raisin. Touching it, looking at it, smelling it, letting it sit in my mouth, chewing it one chew at a time, swallowing it, then finally sitting with the flavour in my mouth.

What was phenomenal… is that when I was forced to stop and slowly experience something as silly as eating a raisin, I realized there was so much to my body’s experience of the world that I was unaware of. I noticed my body was really good at subconsciously operating multiple muscles in order to chew, and that there were muscles throughout my throat that operated without my knowledge to get food to my stomach. I didn’t realize raisins were so juicy in my mouth because normally I ate them in handfuls, like people eat popcorn during a movie--so mindlessly.

It made me wonder how much my body was experiencing and doing in life that I wasn’t noticing because I was so darned ‘cognitive’ about everything.

After 8 weeks straight practising a variety of exercises to train my brain, learning to notice my body’s experience more, I no longer struggled with debilitating anxiety over sleepless nights. I also noticed a lovely calm building stronger in my mind. I didn’t get as panicky over things. I enjoyed simple things more than ever before.

All from taking intentional time to understand my body’s experience of the world.


Developing a Thyroid disorder in April 2017, and then being dealt Post Concussion Syndrome January of this year, I’ve also been learning what it means to listen to a body that struggles with daily tasks.

In the past year and a half, this body of mine has been so loud about it’s needs, weaknesses, and struggles, I’ve been learning even more how my experience of the world is rooted within it.

I can’t push through daily fatigue anymore, as I used to. When my thyroid hormones were too low for a few months, I was near fainting if I ignored my tiredness. After Post-Concussion Syndrome settled in, if I pushed through full-time hours, ignoring fatigue, I’d have to cancel on work. Instead, I had to acknowledge that all my body could do was part-time.

As well for a while, if I didn’t go for an intentional walk outdoors at least twice a week, I would get so depressed and anxious that I would cry copiously and lose hope about my future. If I maintained even the smallest amount of exercise, I got just enough of a shot of endorphins and perspective to get through to the next day. My body’s experience is connected with my soul’s experience.

I was told dietary modifications would help both diagnoses. After adjusting my diet, I found that if I didn’t listen to my body’s experience of food, I paid for it in a larger ways than I ever had before. While my thyroid was problematic, if I had too much sugar or processed foods, my heart rate would pound higher, and my head would feel horrible. Currently, if I drink more than one alcoholic beverage in a span of 4 hours, I will be disoriented in a way that is more than ‘tipsy’, and it will make my next day absolute crap. Also, if I don’t eat 3 full meals rife with nutrients each day, my brain fades to mental fog much worse than I ever felt before this illness.

As much as I’d rather not have gone through these diagnoses, my old insomnia, or my heartburn, it’s the way it is. I experience the world through this body. It is intertwined with my life--it feels everything I do in life, it pays for whatever mistakes I make, it can teach me things about being well, it can help me understand the world around me better too.


I’m paying attention more in other ways as well:

I love that I cry when I pray for someone. Usually only a few tears escape, which I can hide away quickly before people see--but it is a way my body shows the beauty of prayer and the intensity of reaching out to the God of the universe.

When I go for walks, I love to pay attention to the wind on my skin, smelling the cooking of my neighbours, inhaling scents of the soft, wet ground after a rain, or noticing that sounds are muffled by snow. My body is the only way I can experience these things that bring my soul joy or fullness.

My body has also collected experience about the world and protects my being. It shows me that I am not yet safe in this world as a body with female qualities. Despite all of my efforts to protect my sexuality from society in modest running shorts and a super-contained sports bra--men still whistle, stare unabashedly, and comment. Because this still happens to my body, if I run past a man (or worse a group of men) my body tenses up completely, my arms close in towards my chest, and sometimes I feel a rush of protective adrenaline that causes me to act out. I will cross the street, or I will run faster or glare at the offender, and in some circumstances I’ve even snapped and flipped men my middle finger.

Thomas thought I should add a note here:
When I first expressed to him the intense protectiveness I have of my body around unknown men, he felt it wasn’t fair to men, or a necessary response.
Of course I know that there are many men out there who are not threatening to my body.
HOWEVER after hearing my many stories of 'everyday' sexual harassment, and the countless stories of my female friends and acquaintances being harassed, assaulted, and even in the past, raped, Thomas realized there are some pretty good reasons that I’m so protective and now understands why I am this way.
Even if it’s not all men, it’s enough men to warrant this daily protective response. 

 

The above is a protective response that is okay in my opinion, BUT I do acknowledge that sometimes have to retrain my body’s learned experience, too. It’s learned some bad lessons from being in this society. For example, when I’m sad, my body wants to feel better, so it will reach out to unhealthy options--overeating, zoning out to unhealthy amounts of TV, and (years ago) seeking affirmation for my physical attractiveness--and this all will take energy to unlearn.


The body experiences the same trauma and joys that our minds experience. If we ignore this, I think we’re in danger of being stunted in our growth to be fully alive--and stunted in our healing from the ways the world has injured us. I’ve been particularly bad at this, I think, so I have to consciously relearn it.

Perhaps body-disconnection is a Western kind of problem introduced by certain dominant cultures. I’ve heard other cultures don’t struggle to live an embodied life as much. Regardless of reason, I’m here now, relearning my body’s connection to who I am and the world I interact with, and it’s a much fuller experience than Yo-Yoing between condemnation, pride, and disconnection. I still get bouts of this frustrating Yo-Yo, but less so as the years go on.

My body is not bad. It’s just had bad influences. It’s actually very good. It’s a part of the whole thing that is Robyn Grace Rapske. Jesus came to earth within a human body. I think it’s worth reconnecting to our bodies which were, after all, created in God's image.


I have a tendency to forget what God teaches me, like these lessons above. But sometimes writing about it helps solidify the learning.

And I’m sure that, if I do forget this lesson, this body of mine, which God created so intimately, will remind me.


A shortened version of this article was published online Libero Magazine here


 This was a particularly embodied moment. I still remember the chill of the morning, the awe for this incredible sight, the joy of feeling on top of the world. Maui's mountain was full of other people, but I barely noticed them while this was before my eyes and the sun began to wash over my face.

This was a particularly embodied moment. I still remember the chill of the morning, the awe for this incredible sight, the joy of feeling on top of the world. Maui's mountain was full of other people, but I barely noticed them while this was before my eyes and the sun began to wash over my face.

Trauma, Peace, Persistence, Grace, Integrity by Robyn Rapske

 Hillary McBride, Tenth Avenue Church, Vancouver, BC, June 25, 2018

Hillary McBride, Tenth Avenue Church, Vancouver, BC, June 25, 2018

This weekend I attended an event titled Spiritual Trauma, led by therapist, researcher, speaker and writer, Hillary McBride. Hillary is at the forefront of studying trauma, amongst other things, and I’ve heard her speak on the Liturgists podcast regarding Spiritual Trauma before. This blog post addresses mostly how Trauma impacts the work I do, but if you’d like more extensive information on Spiritual Trauma specifically, I’d recommend the podcast episode, if you can’t make it to one of her talks.

Talking about trauma can bring up difficult emotions for those who have experienced it, so if this post is making your body freak out, then I’d say not to bother reading it. I really don’t want to invoke a panic attack. Try these calming techniques if you're needing a moment of peace.


Due to working with women and families on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), I encounter a lot of people with some pretty intense responses to their past and current traumatic experiences. As a general outreach worker here, my job is to offer support during various crises that women and families go through. This means I step directly into moments where they might be coping with real-time trauma, being reminded of a traumatic time in their lives, or trying to manage a new crises when they’ve already got Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder going on.

 My coworkers walking down a back a DTES alley on International Women's Day 2016

My coworkers walking down a back a DTES alley on International Women's Day 2016

Because of this, despite having a basis of education in Social Work, I continue to find ways to expand on my understanding of it--hence attending this weekend seminar.

What is "trauma"? Well, that’s a huge topic on its own. I’m not an expert in the research and study of that topic. So instead, I will throw down a few points from my recent experience hearing Hillary teach on it.

Trauma, she pointed out, means “wound” in Greek. In our understanding of trauma, that “wound” can refer to something harming the body (eg. concussion), it can refer to something harming the mind (eg. emotional, verbal, financial abuse etc), or to the mingling of those two (eg. emotionally and physically abusive relationship leading to a concussion).

The brain is a leading factor in our response to trauma, and it’s a confusing but amazing thing.

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One of its many attributes is that it has an intense survival instinct, with a variety of tools to support that instinct.

When something within the body is harmed (from a broken bone, to abusive language tearing at your concept of self), one of those tools jumps into gear without our conscious effort.

This, as Hillary taught us, is a form of intense “Sensory Memory”. When a traumatic event happens, the brain’s sensory system will memorize what exactly is happening in that moment. In the future, if anything similar begins to happen, the brain has remembered that it’s time to activate fight/flight/freeze modes without consulting your conscious decision-making skills.

For instance, if you’re in a cycling accident with a car that ran a red light, next time you’re cycling and a car is coming up to another red light, regardless of whether it is properly stopping, your brain may send out signals to tense up and prepare to react quickly just in case it doesn’t. It wants to keep you alive and well, and regardless of your opinion on the matter, it will probably start an adrenaline rush in case it’s needed to keep you safe.

This is a great survival instinct, and it’s probably why we survive longer than age 6.

This is an unconscious action, and not something you can easily stop from happening. It is fantastic in this circumstance, as cycling can be dangerous if you’re not alert to dangers that are always quite real.

However, what if you were verbally abused by someone over time, and your brain imprints a survival instinct to tense up any time you’re around a person who resembles the one who verbally abused you? You can end up tense, anxious, and frightened whenever someone reminds you of that person, and it can be frustrating because those people may not actually be dangerous.

Just as the brain creates this imprint without consulting your conscious brain, likewise it won’t easily be changed by your conscious choices. Only with some intentional therapies, certain ongoing practices, and lots of time can we change our unconscious survival reactions.

It’s my experience that these are part of what we sometimes call “Triggers”. Being ‘triggered’ by an enclosed space, by the presence of a white male in power at a church, by hearing loud noises close by, by human touch, it’s all part of those learned survival tactics of the brain that may be frustrating, but they’re trying to keep you alive, and it’s hard to change them.


Pausing a moment for what may seem like an irrelevant story but I swear, it’s not:

Recently my supervisor asked our team to read the books of the bible Ezra and Nehemiah. She is also a Reverend so she likes to refocus on the Bible when we're doing our work, which is nice.

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I believe this is the relevant summary of what I got from those books (feel free to correct any historical inaccuracies):

In Ezra, God’s temple is being rebuilt in Jerusalem, but there are immense barriers to them completing it. People in power nearby created systemic pressures because they didn’t like how the Judeans’ God inspired people to be less subordinate to the kings. They stalled it and made everything harder in this pursuit given by God. Eventually, however, through persistence, the Judean people build the temple back up.

In Nehemiah, the Judeans begin to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and this time they have the power of a wealthy king on their side giving them construction materials. However, they are still being discouraged from this task by others. The enemies of Judah plan violent surprise attacks. The people rebuilding the walls had to hold a sword in their hands to fight, as well as continue their efforts to build.

Our supervisor asked us to think about what we are 'building up' in our lives, and what our 'swords' are, which we use to fight off those things trying to prevent us from building.


I’ve decided that what I’m trying to “Build” is Peace.

Peace in someone’s painful, chaotic moments
Peace between myself and others
Peace in everything and anything I have any influence over

I think of Peace as the opposite of trauma. If we have experienced trauma, aren't we always trying to find our way back to Peace?

As for what I have to “Battle” back at, I think that involves anything that threatens Peace.

In order to pursue Peace, and at the same time battle back against what discourages Peace, I use these three “swords”:

Persistence, Grace, Integrity

Persistence

It takes time, energy, supports, and commitment in order to heal from trauma. Studies in “Neuroplasticity” (the brain's ability to heal itself) show that it is possible to heal from trauma, but it can take a long time, and it involves dedicated supportive systems and significant helpful contributions to that healing. Hillary pointed out how, if we say the phrase ”Just get over it!” that we don’t understand how the brain works. It’s a long process and it has less to do with conscious decisions of ‘being over it’ and more to do with ongoing support, practice, and time to rewire the brain.

In my work--this means that I can show love, support, and care for someone over and over for the next 5 years, and might only see gradual changes, but I shouldn’t get discouraged, because it’s normal to take a long time to build back peace. The building of the temple in Jerusalem was interrupted for 15 years, and they must have been so tempted to be discouraged and give up--but they didn’t. So I shouldn’t.

Intergenerational Trauma is also a real thing which extends the time it takes to heal on a larger scale.

Intergenerational Trauma can be a result of environmental re-traumatizing--if the environment doesn’t change much, obviously the traumas just keep going. For example: Residential Schools happened in Canada beginning in the 1870’s, and then governments altered their policies, but continued the trend of separating kids from their families and cultures via the 60’s Scoop. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s, massive amounts of Indigenous children were moved from their families into foster care or adoption. As of 2016, 52% of kids in the foster care system in Canada were Indigenous, but across Canada, Indigenous children only represented 7.7% of the population. There’s not much chance to get out of the trauma of family separation, if it keeps continuing.

Scientifically they’re also discovering that, even if the environment changes, the brain and body can pass along genetic markers helping their offspring avoid certain traumatic experiences.

There is an experiment ongoing, which Hillary described, (if you’re an animal rights activist I’m sorry, you’ll hate this experiment), where mice are being given the scent of cherry blossoms right before receiving an electric shock in the foot. These mice developed a fear of the scent of cherry blossoms. When they inseminated female mice with the sperm of these fearful mice and baby mice were born--despite the mother and baby never being exposed to electric shocks or to the 'father' mouse, the baby hated the scent of cherry blossom scents! They’re still continuing the study--they’ve already confirmed that the genetic marker that creates a fear of cherry blossoms has been passed at least 2 generations.

This study is new, so we’ll learn much more about the reasons for this as science progresses, but it is beginning to create a scientific defence for what so many people have already known--that the learned responses to traumatic events can be passed along generations.

So for example, integrating this information into my own life; I work with a lot of Residential School survivors, 60’s Scoop Survivors, and the children and grandchildren of these survivors. Indigenous people and Settler people in Canada will have to keep working for many generations before things will be fully peaceful. It will take a long time for people to “get over” the fear of white people separating their families, and the distrust of government and churches.

This leads to my next important weapon:

Grace.

Just as God had Grace and sent Jesus to redeem us, save us, and make us whole, despite our inability to be ‘deserving’ of these gifts--I see Grace as an important part of loving, supporting, understanding, and being kind to people who may be acting out their responses to trauma in unhelpful ways in relationship with me.

If “Sensory Memories” can be created by trauma, and those memories can become “triggers” for people, this can mean that someone may have a horrible reaction to me without realizing that's why they are upset. It could be because of how I look, the way I speak, where I work, the religion I hold to, the way I pray, the power I am unaware I have--simply because one or some of these things resemble someone who has traumatized them or their family. The past trauma may not be my fault, but their reaction to who I am is overwhelming for them, and it is their brain’s learned response to protect themselves from someone like me.

Their biology is protecting them without them even realizing it.

Due to the nature of the community that I work within, I have been yelled at, screamed at, sworn at, I have been called a F***ing C***, I have been threatened, I have been called racist, I have been told I’m a bad Christian, I have had women throw very clever guilt-trips my way.

I don’t like being treated this way, but when I understand trauma, I am less concerned with feeling offended and indignant, and more concerned with what led them to need this survival tactic.

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I still put in boundaries, such as saying “I believe your situation, and I want to hear more, but I’m feeling unsafe, so go take a break and cool off”. Or it can look like a physical barrier, when a man is unable to handle his emotions and starts smashing his fist against our door so we keep it closed.

It’s less about me, and more about their past, so I don’t take it as personally anymore. I have grace for their situation. I want to see them heal, rather than scold and judge them for their behaviours which are uncomfortable for me.

Integrity

Integrity can be meant in many ways, but I understand that integrity means that one's words match one's actions.

If I know how trauma is a huge part of everyone’s lived experiences, and I say I care about fostering Peace for others, then it only makes sense that I take action to create that Peace.

One example of how I’m trying to match my beliefs to my actions, is through my use of words.

I try not to use words that others identify as ‘triggers’ when I know what they are. Not only for individual traumas, but for collective traumas.

After understanding our body’s response to trauma, I don’t see avoiding “taboo” words as being “Politically Correct”, I see it as understanding the instinctive reaction that someone’s brain is going through, and doing my best to help avoid triggering it. Hillary didn’t relate her teaching on trauma to this concept, but I think it can be applied.

Ijeoma Oluo says in her book "So You Want To Talk About Race?":

“The history of a word matters as long as the effects of that history are still felt”.

I would say that this history of trauma associated with a word will probably be felt until the environment changes and the generational trauma is given a chance to heal.

Indigenous people still feel racism, so the word “Indian” matters. It was used in ideologies such as “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” to justify cultural genocide (Richard Pratt, as cited in Cheryl Bear-Barnetson’s book). It was used in racial slurs and still is. So I won’t use it outside of explaining why it’s inappropriate. I don’t want to trigger the trauma that is associated with that word.

Maybe Indigenous people themselves will use that word, but I’m part of the group of people that wielded it in terrible ways, so my use of it can be very triggering.

If I say I care about not triggering the historical and ongoing trauma in people, this is one example of how my behaviour matters in order to create that.


I know it sounds like a lot of work, and sometimes it can be.

But honestly, it’s quite helpful.

Not only can I personally cope a lot better with the trauma I see in the world if I find something to do about it, but it also really impacts people around me for the better.

I have heard and seen miraculous things when women and families are given the safety of a place that makes efforts not to re-traumatize them. They may not be able to express it all the time, but I see it in their trust of me, in how they know that we will always be there for them.

Change flourishes in those places. I’ve seen women grow so much stronger than they thought they could, because they were given opportunities to be safe, and to rewire their brains slowly towards more Peace. They did hard work of healing, but the context is a huge help.

People sometimes talk about my job like I’m willingly doing the most painful work in the world.

But actually, this job gives me more hope than I thought I could have in a world full of trauma and pain. Women have a much better chance to heal in a place full of safety, peace, love, and non-judgemental care, so if we can help create more of that, there is hope.

Peace

Perseverance

Grace

Integrity

Some of What I Got Wrong, Some of What I’m Trying to Get Right (or The Clumsy Efforts of Reconciliation in One White Life. Part 2) by Robyn Rapske

I care about the well being of other people. I think many people say they care about others’ well being, too. For sure every church I’ve been in claims that as a value and a goal.

Since my early 20’s I’ve tried to expand my care for others by widening my perspective on how to do this well. This has meant trying to learn a lot. Who others are, why they are struggling with life, how they would like to be treated by me, what structures are in place that are harming them, etc

It’s not easy to get better at caring for others, and I struggle to do it, especially when I’m tired, when I’m commuting, when I harbour resentment towards someone, when I just feel like I can’t read or learn more about the pains that people suffer, etc. And of course there are limits--I do not have to put myself into situations with someone who is speaking or acting abusively towards me. I also can’t care for everyone all the time, (due to being tired and stuff!) so I have to figure out what setting those ‘healthy boundaries’ means. But still, I keep trying.

One of those things that I’ve been trying to learn more about and widen my perspective on is:

Racism

That big, confusing, dark, painful thing

Historically, currently, and most likely into the future, racism hurts the well being of people all over the world. It’s hurting my closest friends, my coworkers, my fellow church congregants. Many of the people on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside whom I meet are suffering from it, the authors of many books I’m reading are harmed by it. It touches unbelievably large amounts of people I will never meet.

I've made this post also Part 2 of The Clumsy Efforts of Reconciliation in One White Life series because in my home country of Canada, racism also harms Indigenous people in very painful ways, and this post ended up talking a lot about how this can contribute to my clumsy efforts of reconciliation.

I am just one person talking about my one experience as a white person. If you would like to learn a lot more than what I can offer, and from the lips of people who are my teachers in all of this, I think highly of these books from my recent readings:

“So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
“I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” by Austin Channing Brown
“Introduction to First Nations Ministry” by Cheryl Bear-Barnetson

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The hardest thing about trying to battle back the racism for my loved ones, is that it is so multifaceted in my life;

I’m white (very, very white).
I grew up without consciously realizing I was embodying racist beliefs.
I didn’t realize for a long time that systems of my country and other western countries were supporting racism and sustaining structures to keep racism in place.
When I realized that racism was bigger and closer to my life than previously thought, I tried to improve, and ended up being slow and sluggish at improving.
I’m currently doing my best, and I am still so, so behind.

But,

I care about the well being of others.

So even if I can’t perfect these efforts, they're worth working at.


Sometimes, it’s nice to learn from other people’s mistakes. If you can watch someone else’s mistake before you make it, there’s that freeing possibility of not having to make the mistake yourself.

In a vulnerable moment, I’m going to air out some of my mistakes as I’ve begun to realize them.

At a recent event I attended, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Hillary McBride, pointed out that shame, which keeps us from loving ourselves, doesn’t actually change us, and in fact it drives us into even more dysfunctional behaviour. So I share these things with as little shame as I can manage for myself. 

Oh, also, if you’re not white, you’ve probably heard/experienced enough racism, so feel free to skip these confessions if you don’t want to have to deal with some of this racist history of mine.

 

Mistake #1

From high school into my early 20’s, I genuinely used to think that I was better, and elevated, and 'above' racism because I had a Congolese friend, a Persian friend, a Nigerian friend, a few Chinese friends, and a Phillipino friend.

What I've Learned:

Just because I have valued, and became friends with people who are part of a group that has historically suffered oppression due to their skin colour, did not make me immune to racism. It’s not like a vaccine, I was not protected from the many unrealized misdeeds I probably did, unaware of how racist they were. I cringe at wondering what I've said and done without realizing the racism that inspired me to act that way.

This belief also had the even more troubling effect of preventing me from making further efforts to see what racist behaviours I had. Like a false-negative test for cancer, I couldn’t treat the thing that existed because I thought I didn’t have it (except in this case the cancer would harm someone else other than me). I'm very grateful for the teaching of professors, authors, film directors, etc that led me to realize I had deeper problems going on.

 

Mistake #2

I didn’t see Indigenous people until my early 20's.

I grew up in Canada, so I obviously must have seen Indigenous people around, but what I mean is that I did not really see them. If an Indigenous person walked past me, my brain categorized them as Filipino, or Hawaiian, or some other ethnicity that I didn’t fully recognize and didn’t bother finding out about.

What I've Learned:

This blindness is probably because I learned about Indigenous people in the context of the incomplete history given to me by my schools. In textbooks and stories, Indigenous people were wearing regalia, associated with longhouses or teepees, occupying themselves with tanning hides, etc. This is obviously part of many Indigenous cultures, but that’s where it stopped for me. I didn’t see Indigenous people as someone shopping at the mall with me, participating in choir competitions like me, owning cell phones, eating next to me at the McDonald's. They were firmly stationed in my brain as a historical people no longer rooted in current Canada.

I knew nothing of the complex and painful history leading up to where Indigenous people are now, and also could not see that we were living in the same culture, with all that our society entails. It wasn’t until my I attended UVic’s Social Work program where I learned about the history more in-depth and learned from Indigenous teachers themselves, that I began to finally see. Thank God for the learning I received there.

 

Mistake #3

Even as I began to see Indigenous people, I still feared their traditional cultural practices. I thought they were dangerous, full of idolatry. It was entrenched within me, this fear, and who knows how it came out in my words and actions and general lack of support for Indigenous people's cultural practices.

What I've Learned:

Well, I’ve learned a lot about Christianity and Indigenous beliefs. First of all, I did not grow up understanding that I lived in a particular, man-made culture. And I did not see that this culture was just one unique way of expressing one’s life. I didn’t know that my western style of worshipping God, honouring God, and communing with God was not the only way to do so. Second of all, I was either fed misinformation about Indigenous cultural practices, or not taught about them at all.

To illustrate with a few examples; Smudging freaked me out. I didn't understand it, and it felt like a spooky, strange, 'savage' practice. What I found, once properly taught, is that it's quite multifaceted and wonderful. Smudging can just be another practice to use in connection with God (Creator). It can be used as a physical act of preparation for praying with God. It can also be used to dedicate a new home or an important room to God, just as I've seen oil used to anoint a new home while Christians pray over it. Another example: I thought that Indigenous people worshipped animals and nature and ‘mother earth’ in idolatry. I didn’t remember that Christian scriptures are absolutely full of talk that animals and nature are innately tied to God. When traditional Indigenous practices respect and honour creation with a variety of ceremonies or prayers, the ultimate goal is to respect and honour God. How beautiful!

As the author of “Introduction to First Nations Ministry”, Cheryl Bear-Barnetson of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation, said in her book:

“A question that burns in the mind of every non-Native Christian when thinking about Indians: ‘Is Indian religion evil?” That is a valid question for American or Canadian people to ask, however it is very offensive for a Native person to hear. Please do not think that indigenous people are overly sensitive, they are not. After five hundred years of being scrutinized, stereotyped, and misunderstood, indigenous people often feel overly exposed. Christians react in a similar fashion when radical Islamists state that Christianity is a false, polytheistic religion.” 

In her book, Cheryl provided much more information about Indigenous beliefs, which helped chip further and further away at that ignorant fear of mine. Again, if you're Christian and Canadian and not Indigenous, please consider reading it. It's not even very expensive on Amazon


These are just some examples of how I’ve accidentally done wrong, and some of what I’ve learned. I have spent a lot of mental energy trying not to say and do the wrong things, expanding my knowledge on how to be less racist.

However, what I’ve been learning through the wisdom of others, including in the books I’ve recently read, is that this still isn’t enough.

Racism exists in systems, in people, and in culture. With what efforts I can muster, I’ve been shown that, aside from talking about racism here, and changing the thoughts inside my own head, I should also be seeking ways to actively battle back at racism in larger society.

It’s not just about me keeping my ‘street cred’ as a ‘nice person’--coming off as someone not actively doing racist stuff. It’s about going out of my way to try changing the systems that people with my skin colour have been benefited from on the backs of people without my skin colour.

Ijeoma Oluo says in her book:

“We cannot understand race and racial oppression if we cannot talk about it….But understanding, on its own, will never equal action.”
“Talk. Please talk and talk and talk some more. But also act. Act now, because people are dying in this unjust system. How many lives have been ground up by racial prejudice and hate….We have to learn and fight at the same time. Because people have been waiting far too long for their chance to live as equals in this society”

But what to do? The anxiety of feeling overwhelmed with how many problems there are is real.

Well, Ijeoma provides some good examples in her book, which I encourage you to get ahold of. I won’t list all of her suggestions here, as that would make this post even longer than it already is!

My husband Thomas suggested to me that I pick one of Ijeoma's ideas, and commit to doing it, using the accountability of writing it here to get it done. It’s a fair point; my inner integrity won’t be satisfied if I don’t commit to doing what I said I would here.

One of Ijeoma’s suggestions is:

Vote for diverse government representatives. Help put people of color into the positions of power where they can self-advocate for the change that their communities need. Support candidates of color, and support platforms that make diversity, inclusion, and racial justice a priority.”

She also suggests:

Get in schools. Do you know what the racial achievement gap is in your school district?”

Well, we have an election coming up in Vancouver for mayor, city councillors, park board commissioners, and school board trustees. This seems like a great opportunity to use voting powers that I don’t use as much as I could. Although I’ve participated in local elections more in my adult years, I haven’t really put the energy I could into influencing it with my vote. And not just in researching the candidates to vote for the 'best' option, but rather making my voice heard in all of the candidates offices.

For example, I clearly like writing, so why am I not writing letters and emails to candidates in elections? I can make my desires quite clear, pointing out that if they want my vote, this is what I will care about and vote for. This can address those in power as well as the ones making significant decisions in Vancouver schools.

If I find someone I really support, then would I consider volunteering for them? Giving them donations? I suppose we’ll have to see.

Nominations are in September, but already there is a lot of talk around who is running, and that gives me plenty of time to get some letters ready.


Again, the imperfections of my attempts are going to continue being so real, but I shouldn’t get disheartened. The efforts are worth it. Some may even say that it's very 'Christian' to keep trying to provide relief in society from racism.

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.
Mark 12:30-31

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8

Article: "Poverty Has No Easy Answers" by Robyn Rapske

"“What is the root of poverty for women on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside?”

I was asked this question recently, because I am an outreach worker in this Vancouver neighbourhood. I have some pretty strong feelings about being asked this. It’s similar to how I feel when I am asked these other common questions:

Why do addicts keep using drugs when they know the risk of dying from fentanyl overdose?

Why don’t women leave their abusive partners?

Why don’t people just get a job?

Sometimes I’m glad people ask these questions—it’s an act of acknowledging they don’t have the answers and are seeking them out. However, whether it’s because I’m burning out, or because I am experiencing what everyone goes through when they work in social services, below are my honest feelings when I’m asked these types of questions...."

Read on here