Jenny is a mother of three kids, wife of one mathematician, and author of two manuscripts (and counting). She’s a cancer survivor and a triathlete. If you ask her kids what she wants do to most of all, they’ll say: “Go to panama and learn Spanish.” She blogs about writing at thewriteshelf.com and (less frequently) about birth and mental wellness at jennyballif.com.
It all started over a disclaimer, or lack of one.
My writer’s group was a part of my identity and community. I attended every weekly meeting, wrote a weekly newsletter, and served on the board.
When a new president was elected he deleted the disclaimer on the weekly agenda. Instead of reading: “Be considerate. Give other members notice if you plan to read anything they might consider offensive in language or sexual content.” it now said: “Be considerate. Silence your cell phone during the meeting.”
Over a period of weeks, there was a subtle shift as more people read material with sexual content, without giving any warning or disclaimer beforehand. I suggested the original disclaimer be put back on the agenda. The president disagreed. The idea of someone labeling another’s work as offensive was offensive to him. An expected disclaimer was a potential repression of freedom of speech, because members writing graphic content would feel less welcome to read. I maintained that anyone could read anything they liked, but to read with no consideration for the reader was not really reading at all. We were a critique group. An environment of consideration was essential.
After a particularly energetic discussion of the matter at a board meeting, I couldn’t sleep. I came to realize that I really didn’t care if there was a disclaimer on the agenda or not. What I cared about was whether the members who knew of my personal feelings would warn me before reading sexual material. To me, sex was sacred. The greatest physical and emotional power I had ever known, and one that I guarded carefully. My physical arousal was only for my husband, and I felt wronged to have it pulled forth by a movie, book, or a reading at my writer’s group.
If the president were reading a sex scene that was designed to invoke that feeling of longing and pleasure, would he tell me beforehand or not? The question was vital. If he would not warn me beforehand, then the group was not a safe place for me.
So I emailed him and asked.
He replied that I should be more accepting of diversity, because the best learning and growth comes in this way.
And our conversation deteriorated from there.
The rapid polarization was astonishing. As the email messages went back and forth, I could feel myself being swept up into battle, a battle that I was losing. And I could feel my emotions and opinions being pushed to an extreme that did not reflect the truth of me, but my defensiveness and hurt. I wanted to stay in the group, but over a few weeks I was pushed, squeezed, and pressed out of it. I had several dreams where I stood to read at our critique meeting, and the new president beat me over the head with the music stand while the rest of the group watched, impassive and uncaring. When I resigning from the group, I wept.
So much drama and such intense emotions, all over a disclaimer, or lack thereof.
And yet, it wasn’t about the disclaimer at all. Every few weeks, I see or read things that remind me so strongly of this conversation turned sour that ended my association with a wonderful and vibrant writing group. And in each situation I find myself wondering, how is it that basically decent and kind people are able to alienate and offend each other so quickly and thoroughly?
I think it stems from failing to recognize the sacred, and fear of losing it. The sacred is different for each person. For the president of my writer’s group it was freedom of expression and diversity. For me it was consideration and compassion. When they came into conflict over the disclaimer, there could have been increased understanding and respect. We could have agreed to disagree while remaining associates, each with greater empathy for another point of view. We could have glimpsed each other’s sacred ground and nodded in respect, finding a compromise satisfactory to both sides.
Unfortunately, it’s easier to attack, and polarization tends to sweep people and cultures up in its path.
I haven’t gone back to that writers group. By the time my feelings cooled enough to allow me to participate again, other groups and interests had taken the available time.
But the experience has stayed with me, and each time I’m reminded of it I make a silent commitment to remember and learn. The next time I find myself in a conversation where my sacred ground feels vulnerable, I’m determined to build a bridge of empathy rather than erect a fortress.