Atlantic Ocean - March 5 to March 21, 2008
05.03.2008 - 21.03.2008
In the days that intervened between Cape Town and Barcelona, I decided to take a workshop being offered aboard ship. I can’t give away all the secrets we learned about the “Theater of the Oppressor,” but I can say that it was an interesting series. Co-facilitated by C., A., B., and N. – all from Onboard Life - they did a great job of walking 25 of us through a series of exercises designed to stimulate thoughts and feelings about what it is to be human within the constructs that we place upon ourselves and one another. Some of the exercises were taken from the pages of actors’ improv and others wouldn’t seem out of place in a therapist’s office. However, PPP was neither about acting nor about therapy. It was a chance to get real with ourselves and each other, and I think for many of us, myself included, it struck at the core of our identities and being.
The first night we did a lot of “ice breakers,” an activity that I usually loathe, but I really wanted to divest myself of some of the baggage that I brought with me to the overall TSS experience so I went along with it. We did some role plays about the concept of power, allowing us to physically flesh out a sense of what it means, who has it, who doesn’t, ways of getting it, etc. At the end of the night we broke into small sessions where we were permitted to reveal personal things about ourselves – the kinds of things usually kept secret from others for reasons ranging from shame and guilt to various forms of fear. For some it was truly an emotional experience. The things I revealed – like the fact that I have fibroid tumors – weren’t necessarily shameful or things to which I feel emotionally attached, but they did qualify as things I wouldn’t normally say to anyone other than close friends. For that reason, I almost felt like I had “cheated,” because some of the things said were really intense. However, that night I laid awake for a long time as an ancient memory came to me … something that had happened in my childhood that I hadn’t thought about in years. I was surprised that this little nugget had been unearthed, though I hadn’t consciously buried it. The more I thought about it, the more I became aware of how much of an impact it’s had on me and how much of my behavior and reactions stem from that event from so long ago.
During the next session, which came some days later, we went from examining power to talking about privilege. Again, we did a series of activities designed to get us thinking about the role that privilege plays in our lives – the moments that we have it and the moments that we don’t and how that impacts us. The outcome, again, was very powerful. Unlike the first night, I easily fell asleep but I had very intense dreams. I had also noticed that the dynamic between the participants had shifted between our first meeting and the second. I think we all realized that each of us has been through a lot in this life time – that you can’t live life and escape all the hurts and anger and pain, no matter your age, race, gender, religion, financial status, etc. But the workshop isn’t about feeling sorry for yourself or dwelling in the past. It’s about making conscious choices and making connections by letting down one’s guard.
Before PPP I fancied myself well aware of the walls I’ve built up in order to survive this trip, but I wasn’t aware of how high I had made them nor how thick. Nor had I thought about how the foundation of that wall had really been built during that long siege in San Francisco and my return to the D.
After each PPP session I felt refreshed, as if by punching a few holes in those walls I’d given myself more room to breathe and made more space for people to enter my world. I also felt more freedom to visit the others in their worlds, and as hokey as it sounds, I felt like maybe it is all one world – neither mine nor yours. I began to feel an empathy for some of the students with whom I had had a difficult time prior to the workshop. (I will admit that in a couple of instances, the result was the opposite – I had less empathy for some people). But I really appreciated being able to interact with everyone on a new, level playing field, and writing this some weeks later, it’s stuck.
During the third and final PPP session, we put it all together, exploring all of the concepts by looking at real world examples taken from our own personal experiences. I told them about an incident in San Francisco where I had been riding a crowded bus when I saw two youths blatantly harassing a third one. It was clear that they were threatening him, both physically and emotionally, but not one of us passengers did anything. We all sat there mute, blind and deaf as this kid was punched, kicked and forced to give up his watch. I remember feeling hot all over as it happened, yet frozen stiff in my seat. At one point, I made eye contact with the victim and his expression clearly begged for help but in the same moment one of the attackers leered at me so I turned and faced the window. I remember the extreme guilt I felt the rest of that night, alone in my apartment in San Francisco, refusing to answer whenever I asked myself why I had done nothing. The fact that nobody else had helped only made it worse.
We heard all kinds of stories that night from the Middle Eastern student scarred from being taunted by schoolmates as a child to the story of an Australian woman who debated picking up a bleeding aboriginal from the streets only to encounter a racist medical professional who suggested, “You could pick these people up your whole life.” We spent a lot of time reconstructing that event to show how it could have played differently. It was an intense night. We ended by telling each other what we had come to admire about one another. And once more, my mind and heart were released from their cages.
PPP was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had on the ship and on the voyage. I wouldn’t say it changed my life, but it did have a meaningful impact on me. For the first time since I’ve been with this group of people, I felt connected. It’s a good feeling.