Contributed by Billie MIzell
I don’t know who needs to hear this today, but you are SO DAMN LOVEABLE!
Wednesday of last week, on my way to San Quentin, as the heavens opened, dumping a deluge that left the highway in front of me almost invisible, I found myself wishing I had called off our class for the holiday week. A torrential downpour in the Bay Area, on what is known as National Travel Day, certainly ensured I’d be crawling through traffic for hours in my effort to get in-and-out of prison on the day before Thanksgiving.
I finally made it to the penitentiary’s parking lot and then made my way across the prison yard to our classroom. We began the group with a quick check-in. Folks were asked to name one thing for which they’re thankful. In that moment, my first reflection was gratitude for my privilege to be allowed into the prison and the freedom I have to leave it. As we went around the circle with our check-in, several people in the group named their one gratitude-inducing thing to be the class we were sitting in, and they named specific examples, small and large, of how it had impacted their lives and relationships. The rain and the traffic suddenly seemed like a ridiculously small price to pay to be in the room where it happens — the “it” here being the magical, powerful, transformative work that the men and women of Acting with Compassion & Truth make possible.
Our exercise for the day began with a handout, a simple mask outline on a sheet of paper. We were to do three things with this handout: First, use the white space around the mask to write words or labels put on us by society, names we’d been called, slurs slung at us, expectations or stereotypes that we have felt burdened by. Secondly, on the mask itself, we were to write characteristics developed as protection to these outside forces, the coping mechanisms that forge the masks we wear to go into our daily battle with the patriarchy, the strait-riarchy, the heteronormative, the white-washed, the structural and institutional racism, the classism, all the isms. Finally, on the back of the paper, we were to write words to describe how we really feel, who we really are on the inside, all the things that people miss when they judge you by only what they can see, and what they’ve heard, and what they *think* they know about you and what’s going on in your life.
This is always a particularly powerful exercise (which was originally inspired by Ashanti Branch and the film “The Mask You Live In” by Jennifer Siebel Newsom) and I am moved each time someone reads their finished piece. But this time I was absolutely gutted. One group member, when reading his collection of words and terms that had been put on him by others, finished by saying, “…the worst of all these has been: ‘I Love You’.”
I sat there for a moment confused, thinking this young man (one of the youngest in our group) must have misunderstood the exercise, because “I love you” is not usually considered a label or a slur or a stereotype. No variation of the word “LOVE” had ever shown up before in that area of this handout. He continued by explaining, “By far, the most harmful words anyone has ever said to me were ‘I love you’ when they didn’t mean it, when they didn’t SHOW it. The words I wrote on my mask, they are mostly to protect me, NOT from people who wanted to harm me, but from people who said they loved me, yet they wouldn’t see me. And the words I wrote here on the back of the paper to describe how I *really* feel, they are words like “stupid” and “lonely.” I feel stupid because I keep believing someone will love me for just who I am, but I should know by now that I am not loveable.”
I realized this young man had not misunderstood the exercise. Quite the opposite. He *really* got it. Accordingly, he opened a dialogue that showed us all, once again, that we have far more in common than we have differences. There was not a person in the room—regardless of race, religion, age, sexuality, or gender—who could not relate. When we drilled down, most of us could name our greatest harm and our worst reactions to feelings of being unloved, uncared for, and unseen by people we believed in, rather than a feeling of being attacked by a foreign nemesis.
I was so impressed by how the group demonstrated intersectional empathy for this young man who had just been so vulnerable and cracked us all wide open. I was more impressed, and deeply humbled, by how folks in the group made a choice to use their own scars only to relate, not to overshadow his pain.
As the clock ticked away the final minutes of our group, it was time to do our check-out. Rather than go with our planned prompt, we changed things up at the last minute. “For the checkout, when it’s your turn, look to the person on your left and give them one word that they can add to the back of their handout, one word to describe how you *really* see them, one word that tells them what you see when you take the time to look past the mask.
I got choked up with each thoughtful word and with each face I saw LIGHT UP upon being the recipient of JUST. ONE. WORD. One word that made the recipient feel truly seen, truly worthy, truly valued. How many times in our lives are we just one word away from lifting someone up, from unbreaking a heart, from changing the world?
And then came the check-out turn of the man seated to the right of the young gentleman who had just shared how stupid he felt for believing he could be loved. That man took a breath, turned to his left and looked his young neighbor directly in his eyes, which still had tears streaming from them and down his cheeks, and he said to him, “You ARE… loveable.”
Everyone in the room was changed in that moment. I have said before that human life is a miracle—human transformation might be even more miraculous. I’ve never believed that more strongly than when witnessing a young person transform from feeling unworthy of love to KNOWING he is loveable.
Yesterday our group reconvened for our weekly class. This young man walked in, looking like a different person. I can’t explain it… I guess love just looks damn good on everybody. We reflected for a minute back on the previous week and several group members shared how they had been impacted. What so many took away was that they—we—can all do better at demonstrating love. There was a deep-level understanding that our own unhealed wounds often blind us to the pain of others and also sometimes cause us to react in ways to make someone near us feel unseen, unloveable. Those masks we wear for protection, sometimes when we are not paying attention, they morph into invisible swords capable of deftly inflicting new wounds—often upon the people we love the most.
So, whether you need to hear today that YOU are loveable, or you need just a bit of inspiration to turn to your neighbor to tell them that THEY are loveable, I’m here for that. And there’s a young man at San Quentin State Prison—who’ll be going into his birthday next week and his parole hearing only a few months from now feeling the transformative and unparalleled power of love—who’s here for that. There’s a whole slew of men and women at San Quentin—working hard to heal their own wounds and those of their neighbors, and working hard to achieve the tools to be the fiercest of good allies—who are here for that. I sometimes forget how contagious healing is and how important it is to share it, but I just got a call from someone looking to support our work who asked for a story about what we do. I shared the above. Turns out, it was a story of healing that someone else really needed to hear.
This time of the year, from Thanksgiving to Black Friday to Cyber Monday to Giving Tuesday to all of the December holidays and into the New Year’s celebrations, as the world seemingly turns on gifting and celebratory joy, there are also feelings of overwhelming loneliness springing up all around us and maybe within us. Please take time for self-care and self-love. Know that you ARE loveable. Fill yourself so full of self-love that it starts spilling out all over everyone around you. Love yourself and you change the world. Maybe with just one word.
And know that, if you find yourself needing just one word, or maybe a whole bunch of them this holiday season, you can give me a shout. I know for a fact, if you’ve read this far, you are loving… and you are loved.