Beyond Self-Care: How Hiking Invites Self-Work

Time outdoors and along hiking trails is especially important time to me. As I’ve written previously, it’s time to consider the steps involved in making change, including learning to tread alternative paths. It’s time to slow down, notice beauty, and appreciate life, even in the roughest of conditions. It’s also time to do important intrapersonal work toward disrupting biases and internalized inferiority + superiority.

It’s possible to consider activities like hiking purely as self-care. And refueling is important.

More than self-care, however, hiking—and perhaps any meaningful time outdoors, with the self—invites contemplation, which is so greatly needed for more mindful communication, for more emotional resilience, and for more equitable relations. Slowing down to reflect on ourselves, our responsibilities, and our response-abilities is needed regularly.

Photo taken near Sedona, Arizona, showing a green prickly pear cactus in the foreground, red soil and rock, a shrub in dark shadow, and mountain peaks and blue sky in the background.

As recent hiking experiences have reminded me, time outdoors invites contemplation and communion with the self, with other humans, with non-human animals, and with the natural world. It strengthens, for me, the commitment to ecofeminism and the need to intervene into brutally enacted hierarchies (represented as a pyramid pointing upward) that place god over men, men over women, women over children, children over animals, and animals over the earth.

Though not typically articulated in explicit terms, hierarchical belief systems provide justification for so much oppression: not only sexism, ageism, and speciesism, but also racism and other -isms. Such hierarchies justify dehumanization and devaluation of the earth, as the lives and voices of powerful men (those ranked as closest to god) are expected to take priority. Hence, the “mythical norm” is reinforced in multiplying subtle, socialized, and systematized ways.

Triangular visualization of the hierarchy of oppression (motivation for ecofeminism) showing god over men, men over women, women over children, children over animals, and animals over the earth.

Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to learn from the natural world (along hiking trails) how all life is related, of value, and part of the whole. Though I’m small within the desert landscape, I still take up space, neither shrinking nor puffing up.

Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to see the historical-cultural-social construction of this and other oppressive hierarchies (e.g., hierarchies that rank people according to race, nationality, and other constructed identities). While I understand how I’m (expected to) function within such hierarchies, I can push back and create other understandings, much as I choose to walk differently.

Rather than seeing this hierarchy as natural, I’m able to see myself as deeply embodied: not only experiencing life in my body but also having a body that carries historical meaning and present privileges. As an embodied woman (white, middle/upper-class, cisgender, adult, able-bodied, U.S.-born woman), I feel the anger flush through my body at sexism I experience and perpetuate. And at the related racism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, nationalism, and other sorts of -isms I’m conditioned into, take into my body, inevitably perpetuate, and yet want so desperately to undo.

To put this more simply, hiking helps me dive deeply into systems of oppression that I’m striving to understand and intervene into. It helps me see myself not only as I self-identify, but also as I’m identified and constructed within the collective (within social hierarchies that do injustice to people, animals, and the earth). And it helps me linger over everyday interactions and actions, with time along trails to think and talk and turn over possibilities.

Coming off the trail, I am renewed in commitments to racial justice, social justice, and environmental justice. Contemplation and communion lead me back to these aspirations:

  • Unlearning what’s wrong, no matter how deeply socialized and internalized.
  • Affirming, holding up, sharing out, and amplifying work that helps with envisioning more just futures.
  • Studying and teaching histories that are largely suppressed, yet hanging over us as specters shaping life (e.g., histories of enslavement, genocide, colonization, and forced/blocked immigration in the United States).
  • Learning about, leveraging, and working to deconstruct my socially constructed whiteness (part of white supremacy) toward truer ways of showing up in the world.
  • Bringing joy in the midst of struggle (pure delight in the midst of physical pain) off the trail and into everyday living/striving for justice—holding onto and creating more intense love and possibility.
  • Making more explicit the connections between everyday actions—like eating, moving, and speaking—and structural hierarchies (systems of oppression and injustice) that limit that love and possibility.

As an everyday action, hiking invites intrapersonal self-work that’s so needed alongside interpersonal work-with-others and institutional work-within-institutions. To engage in intrapersonal work is not to turn away from other responsibilities and interventions needed in pursuing justice. It is to do this work more mindfully with attention to one’s own positionality and to what learning and unlearning are needed.

May I continue to engage in self-work through hiking and other means.
May this self-work allow me to show up more fully and fiercely for myself and others.
May I show up ready to work within families, communities, workplaces, and other spaces.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Mantras to Stand TALL for Justice,” “Choosing to Tread Another Path,” and “Do It Scared.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

A New Spell for a New Space

These past few weeks I’ve been focused on moving and settling into a new home. The move has called attention to all sorts of stuff, habits, and emotional swings—things I’d like to keep and release, to shore up and tear down. This process has reminded me, too, of the contemplative practices that contribute to a sense of grounding: grounding needed to stand TALL for justice.

One of these practices is spell-casting, which I learned from activist-writer-healer adrienne maree brown. In Episode 10 of the Healing Justice podcast “New Years Practice: Cast a Spell with adrienne maree brown,” brown shares what I’ve similarly come to believe from my experiences writing, teaching writing, and researching writing. That is:
(1) Words have power.
(2) We can channel this power through writing.
(3) Writing mantras and other wishes-desires-intentions helps bring them into reality.
In other words, writing supports manifestation. To put these beliefs into action, I write what I want to manifest in life.

As I did back in January, when recovering from a concussion, I’ve written a spell of mantras to help ease the shifts (the letting go and calling in) that I’d like to experience in my new space. This spell now lives under my bed and again taped to my bathroom mirror.

Printed copy of the spell (words that appear in this blog post) taped to a bathroom mirror with a colorful shower curtain showing part of a tree reflected in the mirror. The photo has a pink tint.

I share this spell here as an accountability practice—holding its potential not only in physical space but also in digital/online space. I hope it might motivate others to write. I can already see that it’s inspiring me toward further writing to make commitments to justice actionable in everyday life.

A New Spell for a New Space

I detangle my self-worth from my productivity, release goals of perfection and positivity associated with white womanhood, and believe instead that “I am enough” (neither better-than nor lesser-than)—affirming my own and others’ humanity.

I release the pattern of “butt in seat” to get work done and instead allow myself to write-work-play-move wherever I am called, including curled on the couch and sitting alongside the bouldering wall.

I embrace play: swimming, hiking, climbing, and moving my body regularly toward shaking up/off what I’ve internalized and still hold within my body as trauma, as pain, as injustice.

I make decisions based on my “strong YES,” asking regularly which way brings me closer to my divine purpose, listening for what’s next, and engaging in discernment, even/especially when the answers don’t seem to make sense.

I look for direction in everyday life, slowing down to practice divination as a meaningful, woven-through-the-day contemplative practice.

I keep talking with my future self and my ancestors, working to heal backward and forward in time.

I get comfortable working on my own and enjoying my own company, while noticing who shows up as accomplices, companions, and guides in the work for social justice.

I read “for fun,” and I learn through reading-listening-witnessing how to amplify the voices of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), especially feminists and womanists of color.

I nourish my physical, emotional, and spiritual self: heart, head, and hands. In doing so, I invest in my relationship with food, building a relationship that’s full of integrity, consistency, forgiveness, appreciation, and love. I absorb nutrients and release inflammation. I show love to myself through the foods I take into my body.

I learn more about what it means to show up as my authentic self, getting to know Beth.

I treat myself gently, with tenderness and humility. I open my heart to forgiveness and peace. I allow myself to receive and give love.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Spell-Casting and Other Contemplative Practices for Reflection and Recovery,” “The Pain and Pleasure of Moving,” or “Mantras to Stand TALL for Justice.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

Against the Tyranny of Positivity

On this day of the lunar eclipse in Aquarius, may we allow ourselves to feel.

To feel whatever comes up.
To feel deeply, expansively, expressively.
To feel a fuller range of emotions than we’re typically taught is appropriate or agreeable or allowable to feel.

To grieve for Nia Wilson, for Markeis McGlockton, and for many people whose lives are deemed expendable.
To rage against white supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and oppression.
To push past easy, ready, and first emotions.
To resist “the tyranny of positivity” that limits the ability to name violence, wrongdoing, and injustice.

The question

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what psychologist Susan David calls “the tyranny of positivity,” or the over-valuing of positive emotions to the point of blocking the ability to feel sadness, anger, fear, regret, guilt, and other “negative” emotions. These emotions are needed to reckon with—to remember, resist, redress, reconcile—harms done in the world. Harms done to and also by us.

I’ve felt this “tyranny of positivity” when a colleague expressed concern about me writing on the trauma of graduate education, cautioning me against being “too negative” and suggesting that “writing needs to stay positive to attract readers.”

I’ve felt this “tyranny of positivity,” too, when responses to my writing on trauma included statements like these:

  • “Career counselors are some of the most positive people you’ll meet.”
  • “If you look for the good in graduate education, then you won’t feel the bad so much.”
  • “It’s better to invest in building one’s career than to linger over the challenges.”
  • “You did a great job with that piece: you kept it positive.”

Certainly I understand the power of “positive thinking” for leveraging potential, and I believe that a focus entirely on the wrong (the critique against) interrupts our ability to envision more just futures (the critique for). I even wrote “When Everything Is Horrible, Try Slowing Down and Noticing”—a piece about noticing beauty in rough conditions—in the same week as writing about trauma. So, truly, I’m trying to learn and live out a both/and approach that invites attention to pain and pleasure.

Yet, what I see happening here and through broader social expectations for positive emotion is a sort of spiritual bypassing tied to white supremacy. White supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and other interlocking forms of oppression need denial to operate. White supremacy, patriarchy, colonization, and oppression rely on the policing of emotion, the forgetting of and failure to address deep harms that nevertheless live in the body.

Moreover, policing and blocking of emotions limit healing, creative response, and humanity.

Policing and blocking of emotions contribute to the epistemic injustice of being told you don’t even know what you know, and you don’t even feel what you feel, and you don’t even have the right to know and feel what you truly know and feel. And it’s epistemic injustice that undergirds trauma in graduate education and in so many facets of life.

In contrast, it takes the strength of working with trauma, sitting with vulnerability, and feeling what comes up to counter the tyranny of positivity. It takes love, and it takes anger. It takes a much fuller spectrum of emotions that those deemed “respectable” or “civil.”

So, today, when the astrology is inviting us to break down and break through (as eclipses invite “shadow work”), may we allow ourselves to feel.

  • What emotional work is waiting to be done?
  • When and how are denial functioning?
  • What emotions are asking to be acknowledged and named?
  • How can being truer about our emotions allow us to be truer about harms—those done to us and by us?
  • What emotional realness is needed for the long haul toward justice?
  • How do we break from the tyranny of positivity?


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Triangulating the Heart, Head, and Hands for Justice,” “5 TED Talks for Developing Emotional Literacies for Racial Justice,” and “Naming Trauma as Trauma.” Please also consider liking this blog on FB and following the blog via email. Thanks!

A Barrage of Microaggressions

Some years ago I began recording everyday microaggressions toward learning to recognize racism, which is so often coded and which whiteness has taught me not to see. This recording project aimed at building a repository of common microaggressions to teach with and practice interventions using Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed.

The project emerged from conversations with colleagues of color, who shared how often white colleagues failed to believe their experiences. Across a number of institutions, colleagues and I began writing what we observed—disguising the primary players, but keeping the details true to life. We hoped this project would help to counter epistemic injustice, or the problem of prejudice resulting in marginalized peoples not being believed about their own experiences.

Word Art

From my vantage point as a white woman, there’s been MUCH systemic racism I haven’t recognized in everyday life, but the more I actively choose to listen and learn, the more I witness. This process of witnessing means that some days are beyond tough. Recently, I had a day that felt like a constant barrage of microaggressions making themselves visible in individual and intimate ways.

To help me process my emotions, to sort through my response-abilities, and to figure out when/where to take action, I returned to the practice of documenting microaggressions—making a list of what I could recognize from the tough day. I’m sharing this list in the spirit of showing how microaggressions are anything but micro. They stack up, cumulate into vast inequities, and feel like a constant barrage or ongoing assault.

Though these scenes are tied to higher education, such scenes happen daily in and out of workplaces, family gatherings, church settings—throughout all of our everyday lives. May sharing them bring attention to the work that’s needed when we talk about standing TALL for justice.

Morning

  1. Even before arriving to campus, I recognize that my university is reeling from white supremacist hate speech (photos circulating as clear threats against students of color) that’s drawn campus-wide and beyond-campus attention.
  2. While hearing from students of color how little the university is responding, I see that my participation in the YWCA’s annual #StandAgainstRacism campaign has been used to give the optics that the university is responding.
  3. A white campus leader goes completely colorblind on a situation disproportionately impacting faculty of color.
  4. Another white leader says that a faculty member of color will be fine, professionally, because they’re “well liked,” making clear that white folks LIKING a person of color is what determines career viability.

Afternoon

  1. A panel on the school-to-prison pipeline names numerous problems rooted in racism, including that the majority of K-12 teachers in Milwaukee are white women who play into the savior archetype and expect students of color, therefore, to play the victim. Students’ behaviors that show strength and independence (not victimhood or gratitude for being “saved”) are considered behavioral problems.
  2. Following this panel, a white professor posts to social media how proud she is of white students (pre-service teachers) for buying school supplies for “underserved communities,” playing into this savior script and celebrating altruistic charity instead of teaching ways to re-route power.
  3. Another white pre-service teacher tells a white student colleague that she’s doing an act of Othering by designing a teaching unit with literature by authors of color. The student receiving the feedback takes it seriously, expressing concern that she might be marginalizing white authors. (Short answer: that’s not possible.)

Evening

  1. In a Facebook group, white feminists say they don’t appreciate me citing/amplifying Alice Walker in a recent blog post because she’s not vegan. When I take time to engage in discussion and calling-in, I have to ask: “Do you take seriously only the ideas and experiences of vegans?” before they get just how shitty their dismissals are of a womanist of color (in fact, of the feminist leader who coined the term womanist).
  2. A colleague of color is asked to bear emotional labor that goes uncompensated, while financial compensation is offered to white faculty/facilitators doing similar work.
  3. And all of this is happening against ongoing anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate speech, while the Supreme Court “weighs” the Muslim ban, Chikesia Clemons is assaulted in Waffle House, and Starbucks plans a day of anti-bias training.

Such a day calls attention to why a commitment to racial justice needs to be actionable in everyday life, why it asks us to be in it for the long haul (not quick fixes), and why self-care and community care are so important for bolstering ourselves against the constant barrage of microaggressions.

May we—especially those of who are white, who hold power and privilege within this white supremacist world—do more to name and speak out against injustice.
May we do more to find humanity in the midst of dehumanization.
May we do more to recognize and counter ongoing, everyday microaggressions.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Microaggressions Matter,” Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric,’” or “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Crocheting Granny Squares, Connecting to Grandmothers, and Crafting a More Just Future

Recently, I felt inspired to pick up crocheting again, after many seasons without touching a needle, hook, or yarn. Feeling the call for creative self-care, I ordered vegan yarn in the colors of the 7 chakras and laid them out, planning a small afghan of granny squares.

Thread yarn onto hook. Chain five, and connect stitches, making a circle.

Days after purchasing the yarn and only a few stitches into my first granny square, my mom shared some news. Betty, the woman who’d taught me to crochet from the back of her bait and tackle shop in rural East Tennessee, had died of cancer. She’d died as I was casting yarn onto my hook, beginning this new project with red for the root chakra and grounding.

Red yarn cast onto crochet hook and chained into a circle.

Chain three (to count as one double-crochet, or dc), and then add two dc stitches.

The summer before fifth grade (at age 10), I learned to crochet in the bait shop with fish lures, rods, and night crawlers as backdrop. I spent Wednesday afternoons sitting at a counter with Betty—watching her create elaborate projects, as she taught me stitch after stitch. That summer I made several potholders for my mom, a football for my brother, and an afghan for my grandmother. All projects were gifts, just as Betty gifted the blankets she made.

Chain two, and then add another three dc into the circle’s center.

I’d become interested in crocheting after watching my great-grandmother. She crocheted until her 90s and made gifts that decorated the homes of family and friends, near and far. The trouble was we were never in each other’s company long enough for her to teach me, so my mom inquired at work and learned that Betty was willing to become my teacher.

Continue with the pattern: chain two, and add three dc. Chain two, and add three dc.

What followed were weekly tutorials in Betty’s shop, which involved my mom having to rearrange her schedule and transport me to and from daycare during her work day. I was aware of the sacrifice this involved: my mom working longer hours and paying Betty for the lessons. I was aware, too, of her love for me and desire not only to foster my interest in arts and crafts but also to free me from required afternoon naps at daycare, which I despised. To this day, my mom’s efforts feel important as symbolic and literal work to connect me with my great-grandmother and other women crafters in my family. My mom didn’t crochet, but she found a way for me to learn and to see myself as part of this lineage.

Red yarn crocheted into the center round for a granny square to emerge.

Chain two, and use a slip stitch into the top of the first chain of three to finish the round.

In the past few months, especially since spell-casting to heal my concussion, I’ve been thinking about ancestral healing: how to be connected to a lineage of white women, while working to heal the harms associated with white womanhood.

At the same time, I’ve been hearing others share stories and raise questions about ancestral healing—thanks especially to the How to Survive the End of the World and Healing Justice podcasts. And I’m re-reading essays by Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks (among other feminists and womanists of color), who carefully trace ancestry lines and speak of elders with truthful grit, gratitude, and generosity.

I find in these sources language that feels ground-shifting. I see myself recognizing lineage, while highlighting how whiteness has falsely constructed and eroded connections, including with the people who raised me, my mother, and my grandmother.

As I pull on ancestral threads, I’m considering when and how to call on grandmothers for support, while recognizing this lineage as both the perpetuation and denial of white supremacy. What are my responsibilities (response-abilities) as a white woman wanting to heal the harms of whiteness backward and forward in time?

Begin the next round by chaining three in the first “corner” of the granny square. Add two dc.

Through Reiki, I’ve learned to see myself as part of a lineage and to ask for assistance from ancestors and other spirit guides. When opening Reiki, I visualize my teaching lineage, naming teachers in order. I then ask for support in channeling energy, imagining especially two great-grandmothers: Daisy, who crocheted, and Selma, who prioritized daily contemplative practices.

I know too little about these great-grandmothers. What I know is that they both endured and got free from abusive, alcoholic marriages. I don’t doubt that they have their own #metoo stories and stories of enduring and surviving violence. I can see that internalized oppression (inferiority and superiority) were passed through them and the family, reinforcing sexist, racist, and other sorts of bullshit. So, through Reiki, I talk with these white women, women who made my birth possible, asking us to face collectively not only the hurts done to us but also the hurts done by us.

Single granny square with red center and orange outward layers (7 rows in total).

Continue the pattern, using dc and chains to construct granny squares.

Granny square. There—in the name of this craft pattern—is the connection to lineage: to grandmothers, those by blood and those by human kinship.

Betty, who taught me to crochet, became an elder (now ancestor) connecting me to granny squares and grandmothers. Her death from cancer occurred as I was reading Alice Walker’s “Longing to Die of Old Age”—making intimately real for me the connections among environmental destruction, detached food systems, and dehumanizing structures that Walker correlates historically with cancer becoming commonplace. I see before me lifespans limited by the loss of right relationship with the earth, each other, and ourselves. I grieve, and I pray, and I commit again to righting wrongs.

I’m understanding more and more that repairing relationships involves the both/and of looking backward (reckoning with the past) and looking forward (imaginatively creating the future). This both/and of repairing relationships involves honoring those who have taught and raised me and honoring a commitment to justice by naming, truth-telling, and healing wrongs associated with my upbringing and ancestral lineage.

Multiple stacked granny squares, balls of colorful yarn, and crocheting in process.

Repeat process to create multiple granny squares, sew in the loose ends, and then stitch-and-sew squares together to assemble an afghan.

Stitch by stitch, I talk with grandmothers through the movement of my hands, through embodied-soul-connection that speaks beyond words.

I’m far away from understanding ancestral healing, but I’m committed to healing with my whole body: heart, head, and hands. I’m hopeful that crocheting will allow me to keeping pulling on threads of the past (memories held in my body, if not yet in my head)—toward building, assembling, and crafting a more just present and future.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Reclaiming Childhood Power with Coloring Books” and “Revisiting Fear Through Walker’s Essay ‘Everything Is a Human Being.’Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

What Is Justice?

What does it mean to strive for justice in everyday life? This question is front and center for me most days, but especially now, as I’m teaching two undergraduate courses focused on justice and as I’m offering a 40-day practice for a local church on “Building Resilience for Racial Justice.” These teaching spaces—the university and the church—are predominantly white and marked by whiteness that obscures understandings of race, racism, white supremacy, and systemic oppression. To uncover what’s hidden, there’s a need to slow down and examine every assumption, including what we’ve learned (or haven’t learned) about justice.

I start my course, “Writing for Social Justice,” by asking students to define “social justice”—a term we’ve heard and often use without really understanding or unpacking. Together, we cover the board with words and concepts, asking questions like:

  • What’s fair?
  • What’s equitable?
  • What’s impactful for local and global communities?
  • Who do we imagine as community members?
  • Who’s centered/normalized, and who’s marginalized? And why?
  • Who’s considered human, and whose humanity is undermined?

These questions become more than intellectual inquiry. They help us with processing interactions, course readings, and other texts. They help us with re-telling stories and guiding actions and everyday living.

From asking these questions and sharing our felt-sense understandings of social justice, we read Lee Anne Bell’s “Theoretical Foundations”—one of the framing articles from the excellent collection, Readings for Diversity and Social Justice.

readings
Book cover for Readings for Diversity and Social Justice: An Anthology on Racism, Antisemitism, Sexism, Heterosexism, Ableism, and Classism.

Bell defines “social justice” as a process and a goal: both the means and the ends of achieving equitable relations. Justice includes the right to self-determination for all people and the ability for individuals to direct their lives as agents and actors. It also includes social responsibilities and interconnectedness, underscoring the importance of an equitable distribution of resources and shared participation in decision-making. Social justice, therefore, must ensure the rights of individuals, while also positioning individuals to act within larger social networks and communities. Social justice invites thinking about how we—as humans—relate with each other, with non-human animals, and with the earth, as all are interconnected and impactful.

To envision living for justice (equity, liberation, peace, full humanity), we need to understand and spend time tracking the contours of injustice (inequity, oppression, violence, dehumanization). As I’ve learned through research with co-authors (thanks especially to Rasha Diab), we must engage in BOTH the critique against injustice (problem-posing) and the critique for justice (vision-setting). Engaging in either without the other can leave us feeling frustrated or at a loss for how to respond, what to do next.

This spring I’m reminded again that it’s important to move beyond purely conceptual understandings of justice (head) and into emotional and embodied understandings (heart and hands). Using the heart-head-hands reflection prompt, I’ve been thinking with students, colleagues, and community members about how we experience systemic oppression, white supremacy, and other injustices in our everyday lives. To enact justice, we must feel into its definition, considering what opens space in our bodies and, alternatively, when our bodies intuitively constrict or send signals through pain.

There’s always more to learn, and so pursuing justice involves humility, resilience, and other emotional literacies needed for learning and un-learning. With the recognitions of (1) knowing only a little and (2) always needing to learn more, here are three of my guiding principles for pursuing justice in everyday life:

  1. Since justice is not only the goal but also the process, small and sustained actions matter. In the words of organizer Myles Horton: “We make the road by walking.”
  2. A commitment to justice needs to be “actionable” across everyday spheres of interaction: with ourselves, with others, and within institutions.
  3. Justice requires working against dehumanization, on the one hand, and super-humanization, on the other. To pursue justice, we must work with internalized inferiority and superiority and recognize our own and others’ humanity (and related rights to existence, self-determination, and much more).

So, what is justice? And what does it mean to strive for justice in everyday life?

Like the passing of days, answers to these questions accumulate and deepen over time. Still, it helps me to remember these guiding principles—and the teaching conversations, conceptual knowledge, and emotions that underlie them.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice,” “Reading Martin Luther King, Jr. as a White Woman in the Work for Racial Justice,” and “Going Public as an Educator.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist

During the holidays, I visited family in Tennessee and Florida, where we encountered multiple spiders. They were doing what spiders do in houses: walking along baseboards, in and out of shadows, with seemingly little or no interest in human co-habitants.

From growing up in the Tennessee mountains, I’m familiar with spiders. I’ve studied which spiders’ venom is likely to impact humans. I’ve encountered black widows, watched for brown recluses, and investigated spider bites on my body. I’ve also realized that my fear of spiders—a fear that I’ve quieted over time—is not a rational fear of venom. Instead, it’s a fear of any and all spiders, simply because they are spiders. And I worry a lot about fearing something because it exists. Such fear literally kills people, as internalized fear of black men (fear of black and brown bodies, especially by white women) is well-documented. It’s essential to explore, spend time with, and really understand this fear.

*          *          *          *          *

When I think of fear (and spiders), I think of this wisdom from poet Nikki Giovanni (who also grew up in the Tennessee mountains):

I killed a spider Not a murderous brown recluse Nor even a black widow And if the truth were told this Was only a small Sort of papery spider Who should have run When I picked up the book But she didn't And she scared me And I smashed her I don't think I'm allowed To kill something Because I am Frightened

Giovanni’s “Allowables” reminds me that when fear is in the driver’s seat, it can do real harm. Fear is linked with violence, with the limits of coming to see or care about another being, another person. Fear is linked with dehumanization, with injustice, with denying life. Literally, such fear undermines another’s right to exist.

Though fear has a role in play in our lives, that role needs to be considered and measured. For author Elizabeth Gilbert, fear belongs in the backseat. Though it can offer suggestions and give information, we must determine how to act with that information.

More and more, I realize that whenever I’m tuning out fear, it grows louder in its insistence to be heard. And the louder fear is, the greater its potential for taking over and short-circuiting mindful, committed action.

*          *          *          *          *

It’s taken me years to shift my attitude toward spiders, but now when I see spiders in houses, my instinct is to observe them and, typically, leave them be. I’ve learned that their self-determined path is to disappear into nooks and crannies, and their presence won’t harm me. That’s why I was taken by surprise by my family’s reaction to spiders.

In one spider encounter (after some yelling and shoe-throwing), a family member challenged: “If you don’t move it, I’ll kill it.”

At that moment, I heard my fear speak loudly: “Beth, if you try to move it, it might bite you.”

I’ve learned from educator Margaret Wheatley that looking at what surprises and disturbs me is a good way to see my assumptions and beliefs. In this moment, I could see shame that my old fear of spiders was still driving (not backseat-riding). I could see how fear was preventing me from interacting with spiders, much less seeing myself as truly in relation with them. Even the language of “it” held the spider at a distance, making me question the depth of my relations with other humans and non-human animals.

Thanking fear for these lessons, I luckily found a glass and a holiday card to trap the spider and move it outdoors. After a few deep breaths—of feeling how fear was undercutting relations—I looked down to see that the card held a much-needed message:

2017-12-26 10.09.46

That line—“to every creature great and small”—is the sort of holiday greeting that communicates a desire for connectedness with all beings. It’s a sentiment offered to snow-people and birds, but what about to spiders? What about to humans deemed less-than-human? What about to those who are deemed expendable, whose right to exist is constantly called into question?

*          *          *          *          *

As a framework or orientation to the world, veganism helps me recognize and relate differently with fears. Through striving to relate with “every creature great and small,” veganism helps me notice when I’m afraid of others and to question—and not continually perpetuate—those fears. Veganism, too, helps me notice when fear is driving instead of backseat-riding. This noticing arises through a commitment to ecofeminism: a commitment to counter exploitation, oppression, and injustice and to affirm social, racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice.

It’s not by chance that Nikki Giovanni, a Black woman born “during the age of segregation,”  wrote “Allowables.” Lived experiences facing dehumanization and white supremacy provide insights into the experience of being feared, killed, and written off. Of being dis-allowable. And such dis-allowing is why veganism must be intersectional—working not only against speciesism but also against racism, sexism, classism, -isms.

When I think of what’s most urgent in the world at this moment, I think of what’s allowed and dis-allowed. I think of who’s allowed and dis-allowed. And I think of the urgent need for a white woman to leverage courage toward combating fear. For, truly, white women’s fears have historically bolstered white supremacy, and so working with fears is essential to countering dehumanization and super-humanization (inferiority and superiority).

My hope is that by relating more humanely with spiders, we learn to relate more humanely with humans. May valuing spiders’ self-determined paths allow us to value all humans’ rights to existence and to self-determination.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. Feel free to check out other answers to “why I’m vegan,” including environmental justice, ecofeminism, and doing something small and sustained. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!