I’m reading one of Maria Popova’s essays on Brain Pickings and listening to When Rivers Cry by Rwanda singer, Somi. In the essay, Popova quotes Nietzsche, who claimed that heroism is the ability “to face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.” I think about this. I think for a moment about my time in Yonago, Japan. While there two years ago, I fell several times from my bike—grief–stricken, motionless—onto the street.
I moved to Japan in mid–2014 to seek medical care for my decade–long illnesses. My first year there was the most terrifying period of my life. I was crippled by fear, shame, thoughts of death. Within weeks, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. One morning, as I rode my bike to work, I lost control of my limbs and fell. As I lay on my back, paralysed and cold, I had flashbacks: mother’s hand around my neck, uncle’s hand around my neck, rope around my neck. My heart thumped the tarmac, thumped hard. I closed my eyes and tried to die.
I wonder if Nietzsche would have dismissed me as a coward for reaching for death, for wanting to surrender during what was also the most auspicious period of my life. I think of how societies demand that victims—the abused, neglected, racialised—perform heroism. We are expected to suppress our grief, to perform wellness, to carry, often by ourselves, the weight of what fills us with rage and fear and shame and hate.
Recently, in one of my classes at the University of Bradford, I shared a story I’d never shared in public. A story about the dead man I discovered at age 10. Sometimes this memory haunts me—the strong scent that pulled me from the trail to his corpse in the bushes, the maggots spread like garb across his torso. No one thought of hugging the boy who’d discovered a dead man. People shrugged and resumed their day. I mentioned my friend who was raped several times, on separate occasions, by different men. Who performs wellness in public—in her many leadership roles—who, whenever she calls reminds me how, even now, ‘everything feels like rape.’ At nights memories keep us awake:
On many restless nights I stared at the ceiling,
watching my rage hammer dent into zinc,
catching the rust of weathered nails on my tongue.
Some nights I leaned a ladder against the dark,
climbed into the stratosphere of my rage.
I think of Nietzsche’s words and wonder what he meant by “one’s highest hope”. Whether, in the midst of one’s greatest suffering, one’s humble resistance, or the offering of one’s self to the daily rituals, survival, is not also, in some ways, heroic. “It is difficult to think ‘yes’ or ‘up’, writes Yuknavitch in The Misfit’s Manifesto—“when all you know is how to hold your breath and wait for horrors to pass.” Is this waiting for horror to pass, not heroic? There is a “different suffering story”, notes Yuknavitch, “that cannot be corralled by a culture that asks you to process your suffering in ways that make you a good citizen.”
A longer version of this post was submitted as part of a portfolio for a conflict resolution course at the University of Bradford—