Staring into the abyss without becoming the monster
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
Until we have met the monsters in ourselves, we keep trying to slay them in the outer world. And we find that we cannot. For all darkness in the world stems from darkness in the heart. And it is there that we must do our work.
— Marianne Williamson
I hadn’t been volunteering at the healthcare clinic very long. Maybe once a week for just over a month. Because the clinic offers abortion services (along side a wide range of other services) it brings out a regular cast of anti-choice protesters. And these aren’t your garden-variety anti-choicers. I know plenty of people who are anti-choice, but they aren’t so rabid and fringe in their beliefs that they are out every week employing methods of harassment and intimidation on strangers seeking healthcare.
On the other side of the equation are healthcare clinic escorts. These are folks who volunteer time at clinics to welcome and escort patients amidst the chaos. The escort group I had joined* has a non-engagement policy. We are there solely to support the patients and we do not engage the protestors in futile debate or conversation.
As a new clinic escort, I was still trying to wrap my head around the chaos: the screaming protestors, their five-foot-tall posters of bloody fetuses, the baby dolls coated in red paint, the amplifier aimed at the front door carrying the words of their scientifically impossible messages, sounds of babies laughing and off-key, live renditions of “Mother Let Me Live.” Everything inside me wanted to scream back at the protestors about how monstrous they were being. But I didn’t. The non-engagement policy kept me in check.
This particular morning started as usual at the clinic with the regular cast of characters. My fellow escorts and I were prepping for the shift when our shift leader noticed a car creep along in front of the clinic. I followed her gaze as she watched it slowly pull into the public parking lot next door. It turned out to be a patient and her ride who had been confused by the protestors. Frightened from the clinic’s driveway, they pulled into the wrong parking lot. This happens frequently and so we offer to walk with them through the gauntlet of protestors exercising their First Amendment rights.
As a newbie I hadn’t yet gone off property to welcome and escort a patient to the clinic. But this morning was destined to be my first. KT was our experienced shift leader who had been a clinic escort for nearly a decade. She is a soft-spoken, slight woman with the observation skills of a hawk. In the short time I had gotten to know her, her ability to stay cool amidst the heat of the angry protestors left me in awe. To the casual observer she may appear rather delicate, but her fierce coolness is something I aspire to.
I glanced nervously at KT, over to the patient’s car and back to KT. The look of steel glinted in her eye and she asked, “Will you come with me to escort that patient?”
((( Gulp )))
That meant leaving the safety of the clinic property, through the throngs of protestors swarming the patient. Then walking back to the clinic through the mob with their hot, hateful breath on our necks as they pressed close, ignoring social norms about personal space.
“Of course,” I answered and followed her lead into the fray.
I don’t remember the walk from the clinic or back with the patient. But I do remember the wave of relief as we successfully made it back on the clinic property. As we neared the front door I encouraged the woman telling her we’d be inside in just a few moments.
We got to the door.
It was still a few minutes before opening time and the door hadn’t yet been unlocked.
I cursed and cringed on the inside. On the outside I offered a warm smile, “I’m sorry. The doors will open in just a second and I’ll wait with you here until you’re inside.”
The woman had barely spoken since she gratefully accepted our escort from her car. She was in her mid-20’s, haired pulled loosely into a pony tail and casual, baggy sweats tossed over her tall, thin frame. Despite her height, her body was slumped forward putting her at about eye level with my own 5’4” frame. Her eyes remained downcast as she folded her arms across her belly.
“MURDERER!!! MURDERER!!! IF YOU GO IN THERE THAT IS MURDER!!!”
The protestors howled just fifteen feet behind us.
Impulsively, I began mindlessly chattering in an attempt to distract her from their shrieks. Feeling lost I glanced over at KT. My eyes searched her for guidance, but she was there for the patient, not me. KT looked stoic and her resolute presence calmed and inspired me as I realized I was going to have to make decisions on my own.
As I continued my mindless chatter, the patient spoke softly, “I had a miscarriage last night. I went to the ER and they told me to come here.” She wrapped her arms tighter around her frail body.
I looked at KT. I saw a chink in her armor — she was as heartbroken by this woman as I was.
I wanted desperately to comfort her. “Would I be breaking some kind of unspoken rule if I put my arm around her?” I wondered. But before I could overthink it, my hand went instinctively to the small of her back and I uttered the useless phrase, “I am so sorry.”
“They’re going to take good care of you here. The doors will open very soon, and you’ll be in good hands. I’ll wait with you here until the doors open,” I promised her.
As I prattled on she pulled out a stack of papers that had been in her purse. “The hospital told me to give you these when I got here.” I avoided looking at them — I’m not a healthcare professional so the documents were none of my business. The only thing that was my business was being her best friend in the whole world until those damn doors opened.
“When you get inside, the desk is on the left and they’ll take those from you. They’ll know exactly what to do and how to take care of you,” I assured her.
“I don’t feel good. I feel hot. I feel like I’m burning,” she mumbled as she clutched at her stomach and continued to shrink in height.
“MURDERER!!!! MURDERER!!!! MURDERER!!!!”
The chorus of rage continued behind us.
My protective instincts heightened as I inched closer and repeated my assurances. As the front of my body leaned gently toward her I felt calm and gentle. But at the same time the opposite happened in my back in response to the pandemonium behind us. I could feel my spine bristle and harden. My shoulders broadened. In that moment, I felt my back and shoulders become steel. I pictured the arrows of their rage bouncing off of me as I attempted to block her from their verbal line of fire.
The doors to the clinic opened.
As she went in, I gave her one final assurance that they could help her. And then she disappeared from my life forever.
As the door closed behind her, I turned slowly to face the protestors crowding the clinic’s property line. The bristling that filled my back, now filled my whole body as I turned. My shoulders went back. My eyes narrowed. I was suddenly filled with anger of my own.
I wanted to scream at them for their hatefulness.
I wanted to scream that they had no idea what was going on.
I wanted to scream that if anyone was a murderer it was their version of a god that would have her miscarry then intimidate her as she sought healthcare.
I wanted to rage as I stared at them with my own hatred.
Instead I took a deep breath.
The policy of non-engagement is a good policy. It keeps things as calm as can be. So instead of venting my own rage, I turned to KT and told her, “I need a minute.” She nodded. I walked around to the back of the building out of sight.
And then I cried.
As the adrenaline drained from my body I found myself crying over their cruelty…
But mostly I cried for the woman.
I cried for her loss…
Then I pulled myself together and went back out front to do it all over again.
In case you’re wondering, what this woman faced was not a random one-off. Violence and harassment are an everyday occurrence at clinics across the US.
50% stated that the protesters made them feel scared, nervous or unsafe
41% stated that protesters upset them a great deal
37% stated that protesters said abusive or hurtful things to them
21% reported that they were afraid the protesters would do something harmful to them
Only 11% of patients stated that protesters did not bother them
It has been well over a year since this occurred. Since that time, I and my fellow escorts have been targets of harassment ourselves. But that’s kind of the easy part. You just grow a thick skin and let their cruelty roll off your back. But witnessing the heart-breaking harassment of patients can still get to me.
As I clearly observed in myself from that first incident, the natural human reaction is to meet fire with fire. I wanted to scream at the protestors for their cruelty. But if I had, it would make me just like them. If I was going to continue as a clinic escort and face the dark abyss on a regular basis, I was going to have to do some serious soul searching.
One thing that has kept the cloud of darkness from my own heart is the practice of metta mediation. As I understand it, metta is a Buddhist tradition to cultivate loving-kindness. They way I was taught goes like this:
Sit quietly, take a few deep breaths and let go of thinkingSend loving kindness to myselfSend loving kindness to someone I loveSend loving kindness to someone I am neutral aboutSend loving kindness to someone with whom I “have difficulty”.
I now start my day with this practice. For each category, I spend a minute or so on a person picturing a warm light of loving kindness gently sweeping over them. Then before moving on I say, “May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.”
The first four steps are awesome and I’ve noticed positive effects on several of my relationships.
But then there is that last category of people… you know, the ones with whom I “have difficulty”.
As you might guess many of my subjects for this category are the protestors. And let me tell you, it’s hard.
During a recent meditation, one protestor popped into my head to meditate on. We’ll call him MH. MH shows up at the clinic and will drone on for hours about the hellfire we are doomed to face. Part of his repertoire is to share with everyone his own struggles in life and how God has helped him. “God can help you too! Just leave this place!”
And then he starts to get more specific about his life struggles, namely his sex addiction. OK, gross. Just gross. I get it, it’s a real problem for some people and I hope they get all the help they need.
But MH… actually, let’s call him Creeper MH, because even without his stories he still gives off that whole creeper vibe. “Beverly. Leave this place. Beverly. Just leave this place. Beverly. That’s right, I know your name. Beverly,” he once breathed into my face as I stood on the property line.
So when Creeper MH popped into my head for the meditation I was viscerally repulsed. With the lump still in my throat, I started my attempts at sending him that light of loving kindness.
Out of the gate I got stumped on the word “loving”. But I gave it a few more tries.
“OK, let’s put the word loving aside for a minute and focus on the word kindness.”
Still, I was blocked.
After a few more tries of my usual visualization, I thought, “OK, lets try this… imagine Creeper MH just dropped his keys and I reach down and pick them up for him.”
It worked. So, for the next few minutes I had Creeper MH on a tight loop dropping his keys over, and over, and over again. Each time I scooped them up and gave them back to him. We didn’t exchange pleasantries, I just handed him back his keys over and over and over.
OK, that was all I could muster for Creeper MH that day. I’m no Dalai Lama for fucks sake. If I could wave a wand and make them all disappear I would in a heartbeat. But since that wand is broken, I have to play the hand I’m dealt without absorbing and reflecting back the anger.
I hope this isn’t necessary, but I feel the need to clarify that my work at inner peace with these jerks (see, its constant work) isn’t about giving them a pass for their behavior. Its still hateful, vile and intimidating harassment of women who need basic healthcare.
But by doing my own inner work, metta has helped me put into practice the code espoused in the book, The Ethical Warrior Values: Morals, and Ethics for Life, Work and Service. To paraphrase the author, Jack Hoban, “We don’t treat the opposition like ladies and gentlemen because they are ladies and gentlemen. We treat them like ladies and gentlemen because we are ladies and gentlemen.”
* no names of organizations, cities or real people are used in order to protect the privacy of those involved.