I read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison in high school. The story of a wide-eyed and idealistic young black man heading to New York to make his way in the world and the disillusionments he met along the way scared me, broke my heart, and shook me in numerous other ways.
On a recent trip to New England, I went to go see the Huntington Theatre production of Invisible Man in Boston. The performance was riveting, and the story again stirred me on a very deep level. I’d spent the train ride from D.C. to NYC working on the curriculum for my upcoming class using the Baba Yaga folk tale of Vasilissa. The unreasonable expectations put on Vasilissa by her step-family resonated with the inner adolescent and young adult in me. They weren’t giving her tasks and chores to encourage her development or even help the family: they were doing it to get her killed. To destroy her.
This is a betrayal that claws at the soul. Those that are charged with building up and fostering development instead tear down and sabotage, even seek to annihilate. It can push us into an identity crisis, questioning our value and place in the world. The tale of Vasilissa triggered this in me, so I wove inner adolescent work and its occupation with identity into the course. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes uses the tale of “Wasilissa the Wise” in her book Women Who Run with the Wolves as a means to reconnect with our intuition. That intuition will be deeply damaged if we’re cut off from ourselves because we haven’t forgiven ourselves for being betrayed in the first place.
And that’s often what happens. We think we ought to have known better. We replay the scenario over and over again in our minds, highlighting the details that hindsight spots so easily. We beat ourselves up. We blame others. We swear never to let it happen again.
Riding home on the green-line, the performance of Invisible Man and my work with Vasilissa danced in my head while I pondered betrayal. How do we recover from these soul wounds? How do we emerge with a heart that is stronger–expansive and supple–instead of thickening the walls and pulling away from the connections we long for and need like water?
The next day, we traveled to Salem. Being the site of the infamous Salem Witch Trials, my musings on betrayal–and how to move on afterwards–continued. When we returned to Boston in the evening, I sent my partner on to the symphony without me so that I could meditate and journal on the subject. He willingly went solo once he realized that me not attending meant no appeasing my Southern sensibilities about appropriate attire for cultural events and he could just go on in his jeans and sneakers.
I returned to the flat we’d rented for the week, and settled in, ready, as Rumi would say, to welcome whatever knocked. Betrayal drudges up all manner of emotions: anger, resentment, hurt, acute vulnerability, blame, shame, fear, suspicion, and more. I let the feelings rush through me, observing the images and memories they brought to mind, and the stories that had been attached to what it all meant. I noticed how my impulse was protective. How the narrative that strung the memories together urged security, called for an oath of “never again” and sought to make good via extra fortification, heightened cynicism and lessening trust of others.
So natural, so human, when faced with betrayal to heighten security. Yet I thought about what that means in the outside world when we choose to foster security over community. When we embolden defenses instead of connection. It leads very quickly to loss of freedom, oppression, and even tyranny. If I don’t want those things dictating the society around me, I need to make sure they don’t reign within me.
How do we move past betrayal and not allow it to close us up? To add thickness to the walls around our hearts? I asked these questions as I embraced the parts of me that longed for revenge. The parts that were bruised and bled. The parts that howled in pain.
What did you learn from this betrayal that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?
“That people suck” a part of me answered, adding, “Don’t trust anyone!”. I almost had to laugh. That couldn’t be the answer: I know where that narrative leads, and its not a place I enjoy visiting, let alone living. It is a place where Fear rules instead of Love.
So natural, so human, when faced with betrayal to heighten security, to close off, to quit trusting (myself as well as others). Yet I thought about what that means in the outside world when we choose to foster security over community, when we embolden defenses instead of connection. It leads very quickly to loss of freedom, oppression, and even tyranny. If I don’t want those things dictating the society around me, I need to make sure they don’t reign within me.
Again, the question surfaced: What did you learn from this betrayal that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise?
I stuck my foot in my heart’s door and wedged it open. Listening now with open heart:
How did it make you more aware? What did it teach you about yourself that’s brought you further? How did it help you recognize and appreciate the good people in your life? What did it teach you about operating in illusion?
Finally, I pulled out my journal and began to answer the question. A good question it is, for it holds many keys…