Heartland: Turning Pain into Power

For two days in April the Superdome in New Orleans became Superlove, a womb to hold 30,000 women, plus more than a few vagina-friendly men. We assembled to commemorate V to the 10th, the decennial anniversary of the V-Day movement spawned by Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues. What began as a celebration of vaginas has become a phenomenon of women’s empowerment. Many thousands of performances and events–3,700 this year alone–in 120 countries have raised more than $50 million for initiatives addressing violence against women all over the world. 

The first morning, we passed through a massive magenta-lit vagina, beckoned by women in goddess garb into the place that had been a repository of misery during and after Hurricane Katrina. Among us were 1,200 New Orleans women, brought home for the occasion but, like so many others, still refugees in temporary quarters far away. In her welcome, Ensler exhorted us to do what didn’t happen during the flood: “Make each person in this room matter.”

As we looked into the eyes of those beside us, we began acknowledging and bearing witness to each other’s experiences. Then the singing and the dancing and the storytelling began.

There was joy and laughter woven with tears as we heard the unspeakable spoken: In the Congo, more than 200,000 women and girls brutally raped, bodies deliberately destroyed. Their devastated faces and the quiet dedication of the doctor who treats them. Bosnia and Kenya, the Philippines, Mexico. Female genital mutilation, the child sex trade, disappeared women. The tyranny of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

And then, juxtaposed against this overwhelming cascade of horror: the power, passion, and grace of the extraordinary women devoting themselves to healing trauma and eradicating the roots of violence. 

How does one forge power and purpose out of such shattering pain? And how do those of us who are so much more fortunate use the challenges of our lives to deepen our commitment to service?

I found hints of an answer upstairs from the main stage. The halls felt empty; the concession stands were shrouded like ghosts along the periphery. But at one end of the Dome there were crowds. Here the 1,200 displaced women were offered a medical clinic, hair and makeup sessions, massages and healing treatments, restorative yoga, and group sessions facilitated by mental health professionals, staffed by hundreds of volunteers from all over the country who came to recognize the suffering and celebrate the spirit of the women of New Orleans.

A little further along was the activist lounge, filled with tables of information on projects in New Orleans and around the world. Smart, creative, passionate initiatives that turned pain into power through safe houses and schools, policy advocacy and economic entrepreneurship. There were group art projects and book signings and lots of conversation. Wandering among us were the speakers, performers, and star-studded casts from the evening performances of The Vagina Monologues and a new play, Swimming Upstream, created by and based on the experiences of New Orleans women.

On the plane home, I read Ensler’s book Insecure at Last: A Political Memoir. In it I found the unifying theme I had been sensing at the gathering but hadn’t been able to articulate to myself. It is our quest for security, on every level, that perpetuates cruelty and violence–from the judgment and hate women hurl upon their bodies to the pathological need for control that fuels greed, rape, and war.

Ensler says of herself, “I sometimes have anxiety. I have bouts of terrible low self-esteem. I feel lonely on occasion, but mainly I feel alive, free. I feel myself.” She proposes “that we consider what would happen if security were not the point of our existence. . . . Freedom can come only from contemplating death, not from pretending it doesn’t exist. Not from running from loss, but from entering grief, surrendering to sorrow.”

For those of us who have never experienced anything remotely akin to the suffering of those who courageously shared their stories in the Superdome, our dark nights of the soul feel petty, useless, and self-absorbed. But they too are the by-products of the insecurity that propels the horrors of this world. We only come to peace with insecurity by acknowledging and shining the light of awareness on the darkness within each of us, by making ourselves matter, too. That’s where we begin to turn pain into power and, at peace with being insecure, can begin to make peace in an insecure world.

Nina Rothschild Utne is Utne Reader‘s editor at large.

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