Every ten years the United States conducts a census of population and housing. The year I graduated high school, 1970, my first job was as a census coder – filling the small dots on census forms, boxes and boxes of them, at a warehouse frigid in winter and sticky in summer.
In 2010 I worked as a census Enumerator – walking door to door, attempting to learn the number of people, if any, who lived at particular addresses. These were addresses from which no census form had been received, so finding people presented difficulty, meant going again and again to the same houses, to neighboring houses if necessary. Often, when someone finally answered the door, I was told, “We’re not participating.”
Enumerators were instructed to tell everyone that complying with the census is the law. With those who refused to participate I saw no point in bringing up law, in attempting to coerce their participation. My reasons were mostly those of respect – as Americans we are raised on our right to refuse – as adults we have a right to refuse attempts at intrusion into our business, into our lives. I figured that, if there was to be a punishment or penalty for non-participation, I was not empowered or authorized to threaten people with it. I was simply to count those who cooperated.
Most did cooperate, but of those who didn’t I began - after weeks of ‘walking the streets,’ as my sister called it – to understand something of their reasons. These people, it seemed to me, didn’t want to be counted because they didn’t believe THAT they counted.
Perhaps I saw in those people something that wasn’t there. After all this is a time of Tea Party emergence, of town hall meetings where rage erupts at what is seen as too much government, when people seem more angry and fearful than empowered. Yet I kept returning to a sense, each time I encountered refusals, that people didn’t want to be included because they didn’t think it mattered if they were. A short-sighted view, but, to me, this seeing oneself as if they do not matter was all too comprehensible, and way too familiar.
You may think I took this all too personally. In one sense you would be correct. But, as the early feminist movement reminded us, “the personal is political.” We see the world from inside a psycho-spiritual, an imaginal, structure we have each built, based on our personal experiences of safety, of individual importance, of our right to exist in that world. From the inside of our structures we look out at the world as we imagine it to be – based on our experiences – and act or react according to what we imagine will keep us safe, help us feel important, show us there is a place for us.
Those who were loved and valued as children, who knew home as a safe place from which to go out in the world, as a place where, when the world hurt or confused them, they could get answers and their hurts would be comforted – those people have a flexible structure. They can go with the flow of events, learn from later experiences, and all the while hold to a belief in the pursuits of the life, liberty and happiness they understand as their right. They embody the song, “I get knocked down, but I get up again. Nobody’s gonna keep me down.” They have learned to use their experience, to understand that life can, and will, ask them to do things they don’t like or want to do, but they don’t have to cower in fear inside a rigid defensive structure against it.
Not all of us learned that. I sometimes think that damn few people got that sort of start in life. I know better than to believe that anyone’s life has been perfect, though I’ve met people who’ve told me their childhood was just that. Well, they get the perfect childhood medal.
For those of us who lived in the chaos of alcohol or substance addiction as children, who were taught early on that our needs and desires took a back seat to those of the adults who were supposed to be in charge, the lesson was that we didn’t count. We constructed our imaginal structure of rigid defensive material that varies from person to person. Some look out and say, “it’s dangerous out there, so I will just stay where I am.” Some see the world as a battleground, where the biggest and strongest win. We must be the strongest, even though we don’t, really, know how. Some maintain an arsenal of weapons, horded against the certainty that we’ll have to protect ourselves.
For almost all of us the overpowering belief is that we don’t matter. We don’t count – we didn’t count then and that’s not gonna change now.
We of the fortress-like structures are no more correct in our assessment of reality than are those who insist that their childhood was perfect. Everybody perceives their experience through filters in our minds, bodies, and psyches – most of which never even, it seems, become conscious.
If it sounds like I’ve got this all figured out, as if I see the world from within the safety of my imaginal structure as composed of those who had it good and those who didn’t – well, to be honest, sometimes I do. But more often, as I add to my wealth of experience, as I ‘walk the streets’ of what comprises my life, and take time to consider what I can learn from what I see, who I interact with, I find that I see myself in others, even others who don’t seem, at first glance, to be like me at all.
This helps me step outside of my own imaginal structure, to let down the walls just a bit so that I show up in the world with all my fears and foibles and strengths. It lets others in as well. I don’t know, but I’ve been told, by people I trust, that taking the risk of showing who you are allows you to see yourself more clearly. Like I said in the first posting, we all need to be seen, to have our lives and our experiences validated by witnesses. We all need to know that we count – especially to ourselves.