What does it mean to take a stand against sexism when doing so could get me hurt or killed?
I’d made eye contact with the two women sitting just down the metro from me. My seat was at the end of the car, facing down the car, so I could see everyone’s face from where I sat.
They were chatting together about I don’t even know what. I wasn’t tuned into the conversation.
I only noticed the man sitting just in front of them (facing away from them) when he started saying “fuckin’ ginger” sort of under his breath, but still loud enough that I could hear him 5 seats down.
He had a camo top and had his face tucked into the shirt he wore underneath.
I could only assume that what he was saying was directed to the ginger haired woman behind him, he wasn’t looking at her.
But after he’d said it 3 or 4 more times—the women not giving him any attention—I instinctually spoke up. I said “That’s not OK.”
His attention turned 100 percent toward me and he said “What?”
“That’s not OK. Calling people a fuckin’ ginger”
At this point he was looking me right in the eyes, and I held his gaze, calmly.
His face contorted as anger welled up in his voice. “ARE YOU TRYING TO FUCK WITH ME??”
He held my gaze still and I saw not so much the anger – looking so thin and brittle on him – but a last ditch effort to keep himself from being consumed by the deep, hollow sadness and pain stricken across his eyes and face.
“ARE YOU TRYING TO FUCK WITH ME??!”
The whole car must have been able to hear him. The two women got up and moved a seat back.
Still calmly, and truly genuinely, “No, I’m not.”
“WELL THEN DON’T FUCK WITH ME!!!”
He looked down and I looked away. I still felt present but there was also a lot of fear in my system. My heart was racing and I could feel the adrenaline in my body.
I was vigilant for any change in his body, any sign of aggression toward me.
I had my bike and knew that I could use it for defense if he came at me.
Unless he had a gun on him. People do that. They carry guns on them, and sometimes they use them on other people. My bike wouldn’t help me a single bit if he had a gun.
But he stayed motionless in his seat. Motionless in the internal hell he was clearly experiencing. He kept that hell to himself this time.
I got off two stops later, still vigilant for any movement he might make as I exited, he was sitting close to the door I had to use. Still nothing.
I checked behind me as I walked down the platform to make sure he hadn’t followed me off.
The train departed and he passed by me a moment later, still in the train car. One of the women glanced at me again as they passed by.
I wondered what might have happened if he’d have stood up and come toward me. I wondered if there might have been any chance I could stay with him, stay so impeccably present with him in his pain that I could have actually connected with him through it. It seemed possible to me.
I didn’t wonder so much what might have happened if things had gone the opposite direction.
I thought about the next time I might be presented with an opportunity to speak up for someone on the street or the metro or the beach.
Because I could get really hurt. That’s real. This is the fourth instance of facing men’s pain, anger, and rage in the real world (not a safe workshop) over the past two weeks: A guy got robbed riding his bike in front of my house. I saw them drive away and I let the guy on the bike use my phone to call the police. He was OK overall, he got a black eye and lost his iPhone 6.
Two guys almost getting into a fight 50 yards away on the beach just as I’d arrived.
Another guy nearly leaped out of his Mercedes to attack me after he slammed on the brakes pulling (very quickly) out of a gas station, me on the sidewalk in the path of his vehicle and I made eye contact with him (to make sure he wasn’t going to hit me!).
My rational mind doesn’t know what to do with the experiences, exactly.
And on a deeper level it seems there’s nothing to figure out. My job is simply to process the fear that got released into my body. I’m grateful that I have access to my body’s innate intelligence – the ability to access and release its fear responses. I’m also grateful I have people to me hold lovingly and with exquisite presence during that process.
But still, after tonight, I couldn’t help but ask myself the question: Next time something happens will I speak up or will I not?
People talk about picking and choosing your battles. But the people I know who say that usually say it in the context of their marriage or a relationship with someone or something like that. Not because their lives are actually at risk.
It’s strange to think that one wrong word or one wrong look could get me killed.
I guess there’s just something so immediate and real about looking honestly at death. It’s a truth, a law, that we all live beneath. No exceptions. Death is always right there, just next to our shoulder, if we turn to look at it.
As a leader in men’s work – the work of healing men – the moments I usually get to deeply look into men’s hearts are the safe moments in workshops where the self aware guys are there with intention.
Lately I guess I get a look into the real world pain that so many men are carrying around – pain they are deeply consumed and controlled by.
And while it’s painful to see and feel, I’m so grateful that I know my place on this planet. That my place is to heal men’s hearts.
I want more of it too… the healing. I want ALL the men. I want to crack their hearts open and hold them until they’ve felt and processed all the pain and realized that they were still truly safe on the other side of feeling it ALL.
I know in my deepest heart that healed men means a safer world for everyone. Women, children, and other men too (because in fact, 77% of homicide victims are men, overwhelmingly killed by other men).
And really, I want more than just safety for us all. I want wholeness, aliveness, connection, and openness.
I feel it so deeply that it brings me to tears right now. I spent most of a 75 minute therapy session crying deeply about it just last month. Crying so deeply simply about how much I care about my work.
I know the tears and the pain and the fear aren’t so scary. I want more men to know that. It’s what I’m on this earth to do.
This is just the start and yet already I want it all.
Photo: Getty Images