On Being Aware of the Space We Occupy

A few weeks ago we traveled to Bristol, a tiny Appalachian Town in Tennessee where the winding country roads extend for miles in all directions and children playing in the yard stare at you in awe as you run past, what with you being the first person to appear on foot in quite some time and all. I labored up the highest hill I could find to send a quick text. I might have caught a single bar of 3G on the wind, but my heart was already taken by sunset dripping down the mountains.

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Ok, admittedly this photo is from the summer… but it captures the feeling of being outside, which is what this retreat was all about!

As Daylight savings allowed us to “fall back” (ahem) the next morning, I woke up full of energy, ready to welcome the sun on its return trip to the sky. As I made my way up the small mountain, I giddily encountered the forgotten phenomenon of frost. There were wild turkeys ambling about, completely undisturbed by my presence. There was also a single cat that was, in contrast to the turkeys, quite suspicious of me.

On the retreat I filled my lungs with fresh air and remembered the wide open spaces that raised me. I love the open road, and I miss the unobstructed sky.

But I realized, too, that the romance and comfort that I feel in this space might not be shared by everyone. The confederate flags and Trump yard signs made me acutely aware of the protection that my white skin affords me.  That’s still true in the city, but I feel more vulnerable when I’m so deeply alone in the country. How does it feel to have to wonder whether someone will oblige if you came knocking on their door for help?

We speak about “being aware of how much space we are taking up” when we are exploring ways to empower those who have less privilege, but I feel that the implications of this idea can be dangerous. It feel as though we are asked to take up less space: to step down and let others step up. This is, indeed, important, if one’s looming presence and voice is indeed overshadowing the worth and light of someone else.

But we ALL deserve, at the very least, the space we occupy. Our bodies belong to us and we cannot be ashamed by the space that they take up. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with a heart or soul or mind that shines brightly enough to reach out and touch another. Women, especially, are too often called into a submissive silence that someone somewhere decided to call humility. If you feel called, speak. Exist. Shine. Be aware of the space you take up, and own it. Celebrate it. And, in doing so, empower others to do the same.

Just don’t let your words or actions drown out your uniquely human self-awareness.

Jesus tells us, “you are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5).

We will never conquer the racial and political divides in this country until each of us is able to see the ultimate value of the human spark (/soul), regardless of skin color, nationality, citizenship, or gender.

The impulse to reject privilege is, I believe, misguided. The goal should be recognize and honor the intrinsic value of our neighbor and bestow the same privilege on them.

It doesn’t make sense to feel ashamed of the privilege that ensures the respect and trust of a stranger as we knock on their door. It makes sense to feel appalled at the systems and culture that have allowed this stranger NOT to feel called to extend respect and trust to each person on the simple grounds of his or her humanity.

Privilege, in this sense, is a human right. We each deserve the space we occupy, without apologizing. We each deserve the platform to speak what is on our hearts, without fear. We each deserve trust and respect, even before earning it. How can we actively work to extend this privilege to all?

Step one: identify as citizens of the world, not this country. Erase the rhetoric that allows us to refer to refugees or immigrants (documented or otherwise) as “them”. They are human. We are human. They are we. We are they.

Step two: love yourself. Believe in your beauty and your voice. Identify (don’t deny) differences in others and recognize how they are beautiful. Take time to hear their voice. Encourage others to do the same.

Step three: trust strangers. Don’t operate under the fear of being called naïve. In fact, don’t let fear dictate any of your decisions. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Step four: ____? Tell me yours!

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Bristol, TN: November 2016

2 thoughts on “On Being Aware of the Space We Occupy

  1. My instinct to fill in your blank for step four is: seek to understand each individual’s history and recognize that we are all the product of a lifetime of experience and influence.

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