Sunday, December 4, 2011

Not Alone

I just watched a video I came across on Facebook and I found myself doing a lot of reflecting. First, give it a watch:

In elementary school I was teased a lot. I was beaten. Even as a school patrol, on the main school corner with the police crossing guard, I was put in a headlock and pounded on the head repeatedly which left bruising. I had sand flicked in my eyes. I was chased down neighborhood streets fearing for my safety. I was dragged along the blacktop at recess. I was called albino for my fair complexion and hair. A speech impediment made me even more of a target. I was a student who adhered to the rules and these actions pushed me to fulfill the role of a tattle-tale which resulted in even more abuse.

I was anxious and worried, questioning even the most sincere acts of kindness in deep suspicion. I withdrew in fear of being judged, of having something else be fodder against me. At one point during a summer in middle school I was so anxious I no longer could pick up a phone or look out a window. Paired with the strong and confusing hormones at that time of life, --at hindsight--I made silly mistakes (what middle schooler doesn't?) that then felt like being cut down to nothing and even less. I was a bitter hole that sucks in others, friends, who were so generous and would eventually see no benefit in staying in that hole with me. I didn't want to pull them in and I felt terribly guilty about it. So guilty the rational of suicide came to mind. However irrational I knew I was, the emotion was there: I was exhausted of the cycle, of that toll I put on others, of always being beaten down. Ending my life in many ways made sense.

But I wanted to live.

I remember walking home one day from elementary school, passing the blacktop and looking over at some high schoolers playing basketball. A group of four or five guys carefree in shooting hoops. I found myself in envy of them when, suddenly, something clicked. I wanted to be like them, I wanted to get on that path and the only way for me to do that is to challenge myself. I needed to get out of this darkness, which I knew I could only do one step at a time.

It's now been over a decade since then and I'm still working on it. In fact, it wasn't until last year when I faced an election campaign in my organizing work that required full-time phone banking did I finally fully get over my anxiety of phones.

Ten years ago I pulled back that curtain at the window. I started to explore who I was and not let myself be written off by others. I started to enjoy life more, take a hold of opportunities head-on. In late middle school I went with People to People Student Ambassadors to Australia and New Zealand. In high school I worked two summer jobs with Hensel Phelps Construction Company on wedges 2-5 of the Pentagon Renovation Project. I was told at one point I was the youngest person to have clearance with the project. I was invited to speak to an educational conference with hundreds in attendance regarding my internships with the construction industry.

I grew my hair long for kicks my senior year, golden curls bounced around. I would find out years later it made me a bit of a legend. I became more passionate about my studies, particularly in the environment. I embraced some of my creativity and worked with animations and computer design. For my passion my teacher nominated me for a class art award at graduation which I received. Then I graduated high school and went to college at Virginia Tech.

I wound up at a statewide environmental youth conference and was amazed to find not only can I learn about environmental issues, but act on them. From planning a small tabling event on campus to a full day of action, my organizing skills grew over the years in college. Together with our community I was also faced with larger challenges, such as that of the shooting at Virginia Tech and having my previous blog become world-famous and quoted in numerous publications which I had to deal with (I just found a book on blogging that has a piece on me). From that experience I developed an appreciation of how the media works (and doesn't work with gross ethical violations) and just how important the support of a broad community is. The seed of sustainability-- a balance of community, environment and economy-- blossomed in my soul. By the next year I helped plan a large state-wide student conference at Virginia Tech with several hundred attendees. The year after that I ran for town council.

I found out about a program that develops the skills of environmental organizers, Green Corps. I applied and got in and soon found myself working on campaigns from protecting one of the strongest climate laws in the world to supporting family ranchers and stopping oil pipelines. I knocked on hundreds upon hundreds of doors over last summer, talking to people about protecting streams and health. Now I'm with the Sierra Club in Denver, Colorado, a place I always dreamed of being with an organization I always wished to work for. I may not be playing basketball on my elementary school's blacktop, but things have worked out great.

Sometimes I get too focused in what I am doing I forget the journey of where I've come from. The challenges I've overcome and still am dealing with-- my Dad passing earlier this year, for instance, or finding out I have Graves' Disease and deciding to have my thyroid surgically removed in 2009. When I begin to imagine where I might be in the next ten years, I realize anything can happen and the potential is limitless. But I know everything I've listed here, everything I've done, every step has been a challenge to overcome for me.

It is videos like what Jonah made that remind me of the path I've found myself on, and where I came from. This is a path that is not uncommon. There are a lot of Bryces and Jonahs out there, lost in the darkness and oppressed by people and shadows. Some of us don't make it out. Stepping out from under the oppression we find ourselves in is never easy. But you can learn more about it, why it happens and how you can personally manage it and then extend a hand to others because we are all on this journey together.

My boss for a Buddhist environmental non-profit I worked for once told me that we all must cross the same river but we get to choose the vessel we go in to get to the other shore. The waters can be turbulent, but we ride the same waves together.

Life is still far from perfect for me, but that's how life is. While I've made strides, I'm still not where I want to be in fully appreciating the day-to-day beauty of existence that is out there. But I'm working on it. One step at a time. And I have amazing friends across the country and beyond who are there for me.

Good luck on your journey, Jonah. You're going to do great and are already strides ahead of the game.