Oppression. (American Heritage dictionary of the English language)
1. The act of oppressing; arbitrary and cruel exercise of power: "There can be no really pervasive system of oppression... without the consent of the oppressed" (Florynce R. Kennedy).
2. The state of being oppressed.
3. Something that oppresses.
4. A feeling of being heavily weighed down in mind or body
We have most recently been talking about women, and I want to expand on this concept in that context. I've got to admit I am not sure where I am going with this one even as I write it. I want to say that I've seen more oppression than I have suffered. And I also want to say that the worst oppression I've experienced did not come in a package you would expect.
I grew up in NY, Queens Village to be exact, until the twilight of my 7th year. In the middle of second grade we moved to Long Island where I enjoyed a charmed suburban life. I have scattered memories of picket lines (I started kindergarten in 1968), although I'm not sure what they were about (I think bussing...). I had a black 1st grade teacher in 1969 (I remember her beautiful face to this day). Knowing what I know now I wish I could find her and hear about her life until that point in time. Was it hard to get to where she was? I never knew.... I was the oldest child and a star student (eventually). Quiet and agreeable. Malleable. I didn't realize how politically energized the times were. Our society was in the pains of birthing something new. My teachers were coming straight out of college and war protests to the classrooms. They had big plans for me. The times they were a-changin'....
I learned to protest in my earliest days. I remember being accosted by 2 hall monitors every day at PS 34, Queens. We had a dress code: girls wore dresses. That was the code. The hall monitors (bold 6th graders) were forcing a change in policy. The policy was that girls in pants were to be sent home. They felt that if all the girls would wear pants, the administration couldn't possibly send them all home. I was terrified of those girls. (after all, I was only 6.) My mom called the school regarding the bully girls, but in the mean time the policy changed. Those little 6th grade girls made a difference. I'd wear pants. Every day. Even if I wanted to wear a skirt.
In High School I was groomed for success. I would go on to high achievement. "You can be anything you want to be" they'd say. Think big. I'd say, "I'd like to be a teacher". "Ach! Silly girl! With your brains you can be so much more than a teacher!" the teachers would tell me this...(I figured if the teachers were hell bent on preventing me from teaching, it must really suck...) The only message louder than "don't ever be a teacher" was "Stay away from boys -- only foolish girls will go the way of the boy. Foolish girls want nothing more than to marry and make babies. You are so much better than that." And I was. I believed it. I was all that. I worked hard and got straight 'A's. I was the great white female hope. I was going to go on to great unimaginable success. I was woman. Hear me roar.
My parents weren't really big on all of this. It's not that they didn't want to see me succeed. They had a more rounded concept of what that word meant. They didn't go to college, yet were very successful in life. They had a great marriage, but against all odds were married at 18 (!!). They were church going, fun loving, awesome parents. (All the kids wanted to be me.) They didn't really care about all the peripheral stuff. They just wanted me to be happy. To be everything God created me to be. (I think they still are waiting on that...) They wanted college for me -- but they wanted the other stuff, too. Marriage, grandkids, "sweet happy life" stuff. The normal progression. But I was on the fast track to somewhere else.
I went on to the academic success that was expected of me. But what a dark place that became for me. I arrived at a destination of others choosing, pursuing the goals of other lives not lived. People who knew a brand of oppression I would never really understand saw the door of opportunity open, and they pushed me through it. I somehow had the ability to arrive somewhere they could only dream of. A Brave New World. But I had my dreams of my own, and sadly my dreams didn't fit in this World. Marriage and Family were certainly not encouraged here. I once expressed delight in a group of children playing in a field during a small group session held outside on a rare warm day (seeing children was rare as well). My professor said (with both horror and disgust) "How gross --why don't you just spread (2 syllables Ga-ross, and spa-read) your legs and become a mother!" I was clearly not understanding what was at stake here. Generations of women forced into indentured servitude with no other options. I was given by God the talent and by fate the timing to have everything they weren't able to have and I was gravitating toward my maternal instincts. What a waste. How disappointing I was to them.
And now look where I am. The view from here is much clearer than it was then. Although they would never call it this in a hundred years, I can see the oppression -- even though meted out with the best of intentions. It took me a long time to say that I even like being a girl. Let alone a being a wife or mother. (I'm still not sure about the wife thing...(my poor husband...). But I also see the other side of this coin quite clearly. I understand more than ever the very real place those people who were pushing me were pushing me away from. My own husband was raised in a brand of oppression that astounds me. Shocks me. I can't believe it exists. It seems impossible. Beth Keck has described it in her recent blog. It embodies all that stuff I heard about Christians but couldn't believe was possible. All that stuff my teachers were pushing me away from. Protecting me.
The bottom line on this is simple. It doesn't matter what side of the pendulum you find yourself -- oppression is that thing that drives you somewhere other than where you wanted to go. Where you knew you should go. Oppression is someone imposing their will and influence over your life in a compulsory manner. Oppression is that thing that pushed me from my path. It prevented me from being everything that God intended me to be. What's frightening to me is that no one could really push me without some degree of my permission. Your Pastor, the Christian Community, the Religious Right, the Pharasees -- all pushing you into an arbitrary box. It wasn't terrible for teachers to have high hopes for me. What was terrible was how far I ventured from the path of my dreams to please them. Until finally God retrieved me. Saved me. For I was lost from myself. Too bad it took so long. So glad it eventually happened. He picked me up and put me back on the path of my destiny. Are you on the path of yours?
I tell my children every day that they can be ANYTHING they want to be. EVERYTHING God created them to be. And I always tell them that of all the things I am and do and will do one day, being a Mom is "the bestest one of all". And I mean it.