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Damsel in Distress

Friday, 20 December 2019  | Joel McKerrow

It was in a marketplace in Papua New Guinea where I first saw a woman smashed hard across the face. Assaulted. I was 15. She was older. A Papuan lady. I had sat down, an inquisitive teenager who loved talking with people and hearing their stories. But not today.

Her partner walked over and, ignoring me in mid-sentence, grabbed her ear and smashed her face with his fist. I still remember the blood. I still remember her being dragged away by the other women in the market. I still remember staring at the man who was double my size – me, a lanky, red-headed, freckly white boy who could do nothing. I froze. The man laughed. He turned and walked away. I shook for days.

What I remember most: the utter helplessness.

It was in a hotel in Papua New Guinea, the same trip, still 15. There was a girl, a pretty girl, the same age. Every night we talked, looking out at the world and the ocean, and part of me wanted to kiss her. I remember moonlight white on brown skin. Her face always slightly hidden.

On the final night I saw her, I sat listening to a CD on my Discman. She was crying, standing out by the water, looking out to sea. Next to her was a man fishing. I watched for a while until he left, then went to her. Slowly. She would not look up at me. Tears streaked her face. I hoped it was because I was leaving the next day, but it was not. The tears were because she had to stay. The tears were because every night she would go from our innocent conversations back to the reason she was at the hotel. The fisherman. A Frenchman. The hotel chef. She was his play thing. An object for him to rape every night. She could not leave, she told me. I wanted to tell someone, but she would not let me. It was her only way to survive.

Her story spilled out with the tears. They stained my skin. I tried to rub them away. They would not leave.

My brain also tried to rub her away. And literally, I did not remember this experience. It was blocked from my conscious memory – until a few months ago. Twenty years later, I was walking on the sand by the sea with a warm breeze and a familiar smell and a song that played through my headphones. It was a song I had played her that night, a CD in a Discman back then, Spotify now.

I let her listen hoping it would help, as the song had helped me. The fractured attempt of a teenage kid to do something in the midst of such atrocity.

Now, 20 years later, and the song and the ocean and the smell, and it all opened, and through the shadowed doorway of memory I could see her. The pretty girl. She came tumbling through the years, and I fell on my knees weeping for her. I could see it all. I could feel it all. I remembered the rage, how I wanted to kill that man. And I remembered crying myself to sleep that night.

But what I remember most: the utter helplessness.

Just a boy. Just a lanky, red-headed, freckly, white Australian boy who could do nothing. I froze, helpless. It is a feeling I have run from ever since.

And so I became a rescuer. A knight in shining armour.

A white knight in shining armour.

A white, male knight in shining armour bright for that poor damsel in distress.

But really, I just didn’t want to feel helpless again. Incapable again. Powerless again.

To this day, I am still making up for the boy who liked a girl he had just met and had to leave her as a sex slave. I help the powerless so I do not have to feel powerless again. I need to name this in myself – this saviour complex. In all I do to help the world, I am just trying to help myself. To not have to feel so small. To stand tall.

We ‘white, male knights in shining armour bright’ all seem to talk too loudly. Walk too proudly. Set our posture too large. We take up too much space. We demand that the world build a shrine to its great white saviours. Look at us helping all these poor wretched souls, these damsels in distress! Look at how we bought these savages into civility!

Look at me, I am a super-hero-justice-warrior.

But really, we name them as helpless so that we don’t have to feel so helpless. This is my prejudice. This is me. The water of the fishbowl I swim in still. I cannot escape from it. I am too big for my boots.

It is time to take off the shoes. It is time to take a knee. It is time to stop trying to rescue the world when I am really just trying to rescue me.

It is time to sit in the dust with those who sit in the dust and just listen. To learn. To hear their voice. To trust in the dignity of strong women, and of a strong people who have weathered more storms than I have even smelled. Let them teach these ignorant eyes what determination really means.

Please hear me. I will not stop doing what I can. This is not a call to apathy. But I have hurt too many people trying not to feel helpless, and I don’t know if I can rid myself of such false motivation. It is a thorn in the flesh that will plague me all my days. The stains of her tears cannot be wiped away.

But may I choose today to lessen the grip such motivation has on me.

Starting with remembering her. Starting with forgiving myself. Starting with lowering myself to the ground and not believing I have all the answers and all the solutions for all the world’s problems. Starting with allowing myself to feel incapable again.

I cannot save the world. There, I said it.

I am unable to bring about the change I desire to see.

You cannot save the world. Can you say it?

All you helpers. All you competent. All you rescuers. All you achievers.

You cannot save the world. And it is not your place to do so.

It is a white colonialist arrogance that believes we have the answers to what the Indigenous community in Australia, or the black community in the United States, or the masses fleeing persecution in Syria truly need.

These days I am trying to stop being a voice for the voiceless. I’ve come to see that too often the voiceless are ignored as they are spoken for, as we stand in front of them proudly claiming that we are ‘saving the world’ while stroking our own egos.

So I take a step back. I take a step down. I seek only to stand alongside, never in front of. I seek not to speak for but to do what I can to amplify the voice they themselves have. I need to hear it as much as anyone else.

They are not voiceless. We just need to listen.

We need to listen especially to those we do not understand. Those whose voice is muffled by the waters of the fishbowl we swim in.

Let us block out the white-noise, rich-noise, male-noise and do what we can to amplify her voice rather than our own. Every person has something to teach us. Every voice.

Let us name our own prejudice.

Let us speak only for ourselves and our reality, and create space for others to tell their story.

Let us embrace all we lack and find a grace within it.

Joel McKerrow is a writer, speaker, educator and performance poet from Melbourne Australia. He is the artist ambassador for TEAR Australia and is passionate about the intersection of Creativity, Social Justice and Identity/spiritual formation.

This is an excerpt from Joel’s book, Woven: A Faith For the Dissatisfied (Sydney: Acorn Press, 2019). The book is available here. Here’s a description from the back cover of the book:

This book is about Jesus. It is about my journey toward Jesus. Which may sound strange to some of you, but it is true. It is a journey of losing a Jesus that was too small and looked way too much like me, to a Jesus that began to mesmerise me. A Jesus calling me to something much grander and more holistic and more inclusive than I had thought possible. A Jesus who was drawing me into the true and into the beautiful.

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