Joy is not a crumb.
I am a fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry. She just speaks to me. This poem arrived at the perfect moment, as many things have a way of happening at the exact moment in time when you need them to happen, a prayer answered. About halfway through my mission in the desert of the Somalia border, I was allowed to start a program for sexual violence. It isn’t that we as MSF don’t treat survivors when they arrive, and they do arrive on every mission all over the world, but we didn’t have a program unto itself. So, I started one.
It could be anything but very likely you notice it in the instant love begins. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not a crumb.
We were already medically equipped to treat survivors—emergency contraception, STI treatment, HIV testing and emergency treatment for it’s prevention, pregnancy tests, blankets, food, test for infection, suturing for tears, dresses and headscarves to replace any torn ones, a place to sleep, basic counseling, medical certificates—but we weren’t seeing very many cases. There was no community sensitization or well spread knowledge that treatment and counseling could be provided.
There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind.
It isn’t easy treating survivors of sexual violence, no matter how old or young or where they come from, it’s always the most heartaching, heartwrenching work. The stories of neighbor, friend, husband, father, uncle, military, group, teenagers, warriors, known or unknown, with their weapons of body: hands, fingers, fists, feet, dicks—weapons of the mind—or weapons engineered: broom, bottles, stick, end of a gun, knife, rope, rocks—will always break my heart. There are actions that cannot be undone; much can never be redeemed.
Every mission I find myself contemplating both what sustains our humanity and what it is that pushes us to harm. Over and over and over the muscle of women astonishes me. Ever fiber, every cell filled up with strength, pluck, nerve, courage:
She stands back up, feeds her children, seeks medical care. Twice a day she swallows a white pill to fight the infection left inside. She keeps the pregnancy, cleans the blood from between her legs, swallows the emergency contraception, tells her story, tells her story to someone else. She encourages other women to come forward. She protects her daughter, her son. She fights outloud. Silently. Lifts her head up. Refuses to be broken. Cries. Screams. Rages. Allows herself to grow soft again. Puts on clean, bright colorful clothing, like bright, radiant yellow. Smiles.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back
She goes on to hold another woman’s hand. Cries with the brokenhearted mother who has brought her small child for treatment. She educates. Sits in silence. Listens. She reminds the woman who just came for care that she is brave for coming for care. She honors the women who are still too afraid to come. She encourages a community to start talking about the violence, goes door to door talking about what no one else wants to talk about, listens to peoples stories and fears. She goes door to door talking about the definition of rape, spreading the message that it can happen to anyone, that it does happen to anyone, and that it is never, never the fault of the survivor. Rape is never your fault.
Treating women, teenagers, small children for rape wears on you. It’s hard to remember that it is ok to still feel joy and absolutely it is found in the space of love and compassion. It’s underneath the medical care, it’s behind the song the community health workers use to teach about rape.
Fighting back for me means: education, holding a survivors hand, crying with the heartbroken mother who brings her young child for treatment, sitting in silence, reminding a survivor that they are strong and brave in coming for treatment, it means honoring the women who are too afraid to come, it means encouraging a community to start talking about the violence, it means listening, letting the no mean no and stopping when someone says stop, it is letting go of control, being present, it’s hanging on to the good things like they are a life line—the smile of a patient when she is healed, when she delivers a healthy baby, letter her know she is not alone. In this community it meant educating and empowering the community health worker to go door to door talking about the definition of rape, spreading the message that it can happen to anyone, that it does happen to anyone, and that it is never, never the fault of the survivor.
Rape is not your fault.
It’s a mixed bag, this anger and joy I feel--joy for the women coming in and broken hearted because of why they are coming. How do I explain the conflict of emotion I feel?
She is the woman raped in her fifth month of pregnancy who delivers a beautiful healthy child, despite all the scars, the many months of healing. She smiles when she holds the slippery, wide eyes infant for the first time. She is the eleven year old coming in for treatment who arrives skipping. She is the community speaking out. She is the woman who shares her story. She is the one who stays silent. She is the survivor reclaiming her joy.
Don’t hesitate if you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give into it.
Joy is not a crumb
"There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything but very likely you notice it in the instant love begins. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not a crumb. " --Mary Oliver