When I was in college, I commuted every day by bus. One day, I stood on a narrow island on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh as the bus approached. I moved backwards slightly and accidentally stepped on the foot of the man behind me. I turned and said, “I’m sorry,” boarded the bus and sat down. The man followed me, stood directly in front of me, and then shouted at me for the next 15 minutes. I said I was sorry again, but he was intent on venting his rage at me. I kept my head down reading my newspaper until he finally got off at his destination.
I got off a few stops later — grateful that he had gotten off first. The bus driver said to me, “Yeah, I know that guy. He’s always angry.” Needless to say, the incident shook me. I had no idea at any point during the trip whether he would lash out and grab me, punch me, or worse. For a long time, I relived that moment, trying to think of what I could have done to avoid the situation, but came up empty.
The reason I came up empty is that there was nothing I could have done to avoid the situation. I just happened to be the person at that time and that place when that man’s pain erupted. Partly out of fear, and partly out of my desire to not escalate the event, I managed to escape with only 15 minutes of verbal abuse. At least I was left only emotionally shaken, and with the knowledge that the likelihood that I would ever encounter that man again was very small.
Now, over 35 years later, I was reminded of that incident with the release of the video of Ray Rice beating his wife. Like many men who would never dream of hitting a woman, I have long wondered why women in abusive situations stay with their abusers. There is much research on this topic and I now know many of the reasons why a woman would stay with an abusive husband or boyfriend. For those interested in learning more about this, search Twitter for #whyistayed and read the hundreds of stories of women caught in this nightmare of pain.
And that is largely the answer. Pain. Pain is, of course, a part of life. Pain is something we all must learn to deal with. Perhaps we all have different thresholds of pain. Perhaps some of us are better able to endure pain because we value more highly our children, our marriage, and the hope that someone will live up to their promises to stop abusing us. I thought of the man on the bus again and imagined what kind of pain could allow anyone to think that venting such extreme anger at a stranger was acceptable.
And while I was finally able to forgive him and forgive myself for my inability to defuse the situation, what about his wife and children? Were they enduring such outbursts regularly? Did he express his fury with only words, or did his abuse go further into physical violence? I will never know, but I do know that the answer lies in our need as a society for a paradigm shift regarding pain.
1. We must stop tolerating racism, sexism, homophobia, and other hatreds and fears that victimize those unlike ourselves, and only increase our own pain.
2. We must increase our awareness of the pain being felt by others and reach out when we think the pain is becoming unbearable. Our religious communities can play a huge role in this work.
3. We must stop blaming the victims of abuse, rape, assault, and brutality for the anger of perpetrators. We must take responsibility for our anger and find constructive, or at least harmless, ways to release the frustration and hurt. This means building a much larger support system for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and much more support for counseling and therapy.
4. We must acknowledge the interconnection of oppression, mental illness, systemic poverty, addiction, unemployment, and abuse and build an adequate safety net for everyone victimized by pain.
5. When someone, in spite of all of the safeguards put into place, insists on venting their pain on others, then the criminal justice system must punish abusers harshly. That means that police must start believing victims and act on their behalf.
And perhaps most important, women and male allies MUST make it clear to everyone that abuse — whether emotional, verbal, coercive, or violent — is always wrong. Every girl should grow up knowing that being abused by a partner must not be tolerated. And every boy should grow up learning that violence against women is never acceptable.