Confessions of a Jailer

For days now, we’ve looked in horror at the images of children being torn from their parents at the U.S. border. We can’t imagine what these innocents are experiencing as they sit on concrete floors in chain-link pens, surrounded by strangers, untouched and inconsolable, suffering trauma that may change the course of their lives.

By comparison, I had every privilege, every freedom, every kind of abundance and care. And while there’s still a young part of me that feels the pain of that childhood, even mentioning that while babies go unheld in government detention centers seems incredibly selfish and thoughtless.

And right there, in that moment, I throw that child into solitary confinement.

I tell the people who love and support me – even over their objections –  that my childhood was easy compared to people who experienced “real” trauma and abuse. I gloss over everything that happened to her, minimizing the times she was bullied, isolated, criticized, called geek or dog or dyke. I tell her now, as she was told by adults then, to stop complaining, to tough it out, to grow up.

Seeing those children, I realize and confess: I have become a jailer. My old defense mechanisms – the way I tend to keep myself slightly apart from other people, to brush aside compliments, to make jokes at my own expense – have become a kind of cage. They keep polite society blissfully ignorant. They keep a despairing child hidden and alone.

I have internalized the language of bullying and neglect to keep her small, to tell her she’ll never grow up to be what the other children have become. That she will never earn so much as the table stakes to adulthood, never have children of her own, never accomplish anything real.

What judgments and beliefs are these detained children absorbing now? When their cage doors open, what wounds will they carry out with them?

I can’t unlock those doors today. But I can realize that jailing myself doesn’t help free them. I can fling open the doors in my own heart, where one child sits believing she is alone. I can wrap her up in adult arms and tell her that she will never be in solitary confinement again. I can teach her kind new names for herself – names like artist, writer, healer.

I can honor her pain and fury and despair and tell her that the suffering of any child matters to the human family. That the child who was raised to bully and hate deserves love. That even the child who grew up to jail her deserves compassion as well as justice.

I can carry her on my shoulders until she feels safe and curious enough to stand in her own power, remembers how to laugh, express her creativity, use her fierce intelligence, act from the boundless love in her heart.

Then we can find the next child.