I stood in front of the mirror looking intently into my own eyes. My hands shook as I read the words on the index card, “I am safe and trusting.” I had a stack of cards with words and phrases assuring my safety, success, and belonging. Affirmation cards are one more strategy to ease anxiety and spark courage. Rituals like saying affirmations are attempts to get me through the stories of doom and my own cowardice that I create in the wild untamed world of my mind. I’ve long believed courage was what other people had and what I had was a combination of luck and the keen ability to fake my way through life as I live with a bundle of fears so numerous they are in charge of me. I fear I will disappoint someone, anger my boss, get in trouble, lose something, fart at the wrong time, say something stupid, not say something, get lost, or the biggest fear that my life will end without me having made a difference.
Rather than grow in courage, I have grown in skill at covering up the tsunami of fear that greets me the moment I wake up. I masterfully wear a costume of a calm, peaceful woman who confidently moves through life speaking eloquently about self-awareness and ease. I truly should get an Oscar for best actress in the role of a woman who is peaceful and productive. Pretending to has served me well. I can smile and say yes with glee when on the inside I am screaming help me!
I have tried everything to strengthen my courage muscle. From therapy to coaching and reading volumes of psychology and self-help books. I even earned advanced educational degrees with a belief that the more initials after my name the more courageous I would become. Instead, I became a stressed out and anxious mess with lots of initials after my name.
I have pushed away the fears by becoming a workaholic and master people pleaser. I’m the one who attends to all the details rather than engage with people in the work. Working endless hours with a task list that is never ending has been the greatest distraction to my fear of inadequacy. If I could work harder, longer, do more, give more, then perhaps I would finally feel worthy. Rather than worthy, the only thing I felt was exhausted and desperate. I dreamed of catching up, of sitting still, of writing that New York Times best-selling book so I could prove my worth. Each day I would promise myself that this was the day I would slow down. Each day as I rushed to get to my endless meetings, I would envision coming home and sitting still without the wave of fear washing over me. I kept thinking that having accomplishment after accomplishment would grow my courage to a level where I could finally become a woman of authenticity and worthiness.
Days, months, and years have passed by and my workload increases alongside my detachment and longing to belong. Rather than more courageous and authentic, I was worn out, empty, and broken. My heart knew I needed to stop running, doing, and worrying.
I was sitting at my desk when an alert came to my phone saying Illinois is in a stay at home order. The novel coronavirus transported me to a new ocean of emotion. I saw people around me going into a fearful panic. I listened to colleagues and family grow upset at the thought of working from home. Not me. I felt a wave of joy and relief. The stay at home order was my dream come true. Finally, I could stop racing to be the people-pleasing "doer" of everything that everyone wanted. I was elated. Finally, I could be still and perhaps for the first time I could find the me I kept searching for.
The wave of happiness lasted all of a day. As daily briefings of deaths, job losses, and the unknown filled the media, I was filled with a heightened fear that now I could not prove my worthiness with work and production. Who am I without my fancy job title of professor and coach? Who am I without doing for my family or friends?
The stay at home order took away the distractions that kept me from knowing – really knowing me. The pandemic was becoming my awakening to me – the me who allowed fear and insecurity to consume her with busyness and detachment. I wondered if I had somehow visualized the pandemic into being as an instinctual coping mechanism to save my life. I had longed for connection and meaning in my life and now, without racing around, the universe and God was giving me one more chance.
I wish I could say I rose to the occasion, but rather I quickly pivoted to find a way to be at home and replicate the busy schedule that had consumed me. I became a Zoom master who filled each minute of the day with meetings, new ideas, and making lists to send to my boss to prove I was working. I couldn't sit alone in a room with myself, so I virtually filled the room.
It was during a webinar I created to help parents and teachers cope with the stress of remote teaching that the bottom fell out. As I was teaching my CALM method, of centering, awareness, learning, and movement, I fell apart. My voice cracked as I encouraged the participants to reflect in quiet and to disconnect from technology. Tears filled my eyes as I described how self-awareness and self-care must be a priority in order to show up for others.
I was exhausted, spent, and lost. Sorrow and hopelessness consumed me. I slammed down my laptop screen and screamed stop. I had to stop. My heart raced and I couldn’t catch my breath. I was panting and crying. My face felt hot and my chest heavy. I couldn’t breathe. My truth was dying.
I went back to that mirror, looked in my own eyes and shouted enough. No more. It is time to stop. My entire body pushed away from the wanting of praise from working hard. My heart ached to be connected to me.
I put away the affirmation index cards and started getting curious. What really brings me joy? What do I want to do with each day? How do I love me the best way I can? I began a new ritual of checking in with curiosity.
Then it happened. I watched a black man be murdered by a white police officer. My vulnerable heart worn down from the pandemic was now ripped apart by the murder of George Floyd. I feel ashamed that it took this death to shake me. He couldn’t breathe. I let my ego convince me I couldn’t breathe. How did I become so numb to the systemic racism that has been killing black people for as long as I remember? He couldn’t breathe because there was a knee on his neck. I had become someone I didn’t know.
My fears of being unworthy or of not meeting the needs of others seem so completely ridiculously insignificant. How dare I waste so much effort and time on petty anxieties of my self-absorbed ego while black people are being silenced and disregarded? How had I missed the evidence of racism that not only surrounds me but that to which I contributed?
Shame and sorrow fill every ounce of my being. Hearing George Floyd call to his mama before taking his last breath was that loud call to truth. How could this happen? How could I be a part of a culture that had made no progress in equity and dignity of all humans? The questions filled my soul alongside the pain. I wanted to learn. I want to listen. I did not want to speak. Each time I heard a white person speak or a white colleague tell their story of inclusion, I became angry. I wanted to scream, "just shut up and listen."
During the weeks that followed the atrocious murder of George Floyd, I found myself consumed with anger when I would hear or read white people saying to black people, "you know I love and accept you and this is not me." I didn't understand my anger at white people saying, "this is not me.". Why did I want them to stop talking? Why did I find every story, every social media post, every darn email to be disgusting and useless untrue vitriol? Why did I just want to be quiet and to listen?
No longer was I consumed with my self-absorbed worries. Now, I want to face the truth. I want to face the truth of my journey within the dark valley of racism as a white woman. I want to completely shed the image I have of myself as a liberal, accepting, vigilant civic activist because obviously, that hasn't been good enough. I wanted to know who I was and how did I get here.
My experience of racism began in 1968 when I was nine years old. In the fall of 1968, I was standing with my Girl Scout troop friends in downtown Springfield, Illinois, the state’s capital. Our field trip from Chicago was an exciting time to see the historical landmarks that were once the home of Abraham Lincoln. As a nine-year-old Girl Scout, I was happy to be with friends and earn another badge for my uniform sash.
I stood looking at the capitol building and the sea of black, brown, and white faces. I was a very quiet and introverted child. This day was no different. I stood quietly next to my best friend Carol who towered over me. I would watch people and listen. Other kids would often say, “stop starring” as I studied their outgoing talk in amazement.
This day, like most days, I was watching the people around me. As the young black girl quickly walked toward me, I remember thinking she must need something from our Girl Scout leader. The sting of the slap of her hand across my face left me stunned and in pain. I could feel my face turning red with both embarrassment and throbbing pain. I wanted to cry yet didn’t want the attention. My heart was pounding out of my chest. Shame filled my body.
For whatever reason, perhaps a history of shame and feelings of unworthiness, I felt I deserved the slap. I had been staring at the group of black children. The fear, the confusion, and all my feelings were silenced. I was convinced that the anger of the young black woman that motivated her random slap of my face was due to my inadequacy. Somehow, I deserved this.
As a teenager in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I quietly opposed the Vietnam War. I professed myself as a feminist. As a student in a liberal all-girl Catholic high school, I convinced myself that being friendly to the one black girl in my classes made me an anti-racist. I attended a university in the city of Chicago that was diverse and again convinced myself because I would be kind to my black fellow students that I was open-minded and inclusive.
In the 1990s as a high school counselor and administrator, when the school encountered a heinous act of racism, I led efforts to support students in a walkout. I listened to black parents passionately share their hurt and wounding over the racism of our teachers. I convinced myself that what they were describing was not me. I was anti-racist. I knew the pain. I was different. I was wrong. None of those stories of my youth matter. None of those experiences make me an antiracist. None of those experiences do anything but show my white privilege.
In May of 2020, the murder of George Floyd broke open this country and it broke me open. After 400 years, we saw the truth and I wanted my own truth. As a high school principal, I worked with black and brown students to make sure they graduated and had the same opportunities as white students. I believed I fought racism in my school. I even had connected my daughter with one of our black students to be her friend in college. I believed the racism and systemic violence against black individuals and the white supremacy that was finally being talked about were about them – not me. I was wrong. Again, I confused my cowardice and wanting to keep the peace with being an antiracist.
Regardless of my work, my values, and my desire to be inclusive, to understand, to fight for equity and access; racism was also mine. How could it not be me? I am white. I cannot be color blind. I do not want to be color blind. I want to love and accept others but it is impossible until I love and accept myself. Courage is not about the bravery of facing fear. Courage is curiosity and truth. Courage is asking the questions that lead to the truth of who we are and then finding the way to love that person.
The emotional and physical pain I felt that day in 1968 in Springfield was not my badge of honor as I had made myself believe. I cannot know the depth of pain experienced by those who are black in a country that has dismissed black lives in favor of the economic gain and power of white people. Because I won the DNA lottery and was born white, I was also born with white privilege. I need to learn how that privilege has deeply hurt black people. I need to learn more and talk less. I need to feel the shame of making mistakes on the journey of equity and face the truth of the wonderfully messy and imperfectly perfect person I am. If I am to be a solution for equity and to truly be an ally, I must know and love who I am now and who I can become.
The most courageous thing I have ever done in my life happened after being worn down by a pandemic and broken open by heinous acts of racism. The most courageous thing I have ever done is to look deeply at myself and find what I do not know about me and my own identity as a white woman. Now, I am committed to showing up and speaking up. I now say the uncomfortable truth when with white people – and it is hard. I listen rather than speak with black men and women - and it is hard. I get curious about me and the truth shows up - and it is hard. Becoming part of the solution means shedding our protective story and stepping courageously into the truth.