By Steve Pavey
Return to the most human, nothing less
Will nourish the torn spirit, the bewildered heart,
The angry mind: and from the ultimate duress,
Pierced with the breath of anguish, speak for love.
— May Sarton, “Santos: New Mexico” (excerpt in conclusion)
Whether it’s the pain we cause ourselves or the pain others inflict upon us, our primal human response is to avoid pain at all cost - either by ignoring it, running away from it or fighting against it – giving in too often to fear and hate. What if we got honest with our pain and embraced it as part of the human experience – not so much as to hang on to it, but to let go of it? How is the pain I cause myself connected to the pain others cause me? These thoughts and questions were just a small part of the conversation I had recently with 92-year old Hector Black and my friend Miguel Carpizo-Ituarte.
Miguel extended an invitation to me months ago to join him on a visit to his mentor, Hector. I met Miguel in 2010 not long after he came out publically as a gay man. The secret he kept buried had been causing so much pain. He was a United Methodist pastor and the church he served judged his hidden identity as a sin. So as he sought liberation and reconciliation within himself, the church he loved exacerbated that pain by firing him and removing his pastoral credentials. Miguel is now a community organizer and in many ways, I see him working outside the institutional church, continuing the pastoral work of nurturing and loving his community.
I asked Miguel why he wanted me to meet Hector, his mentor. Miguel said, “Hector is teaching me how to love, the level of love I can have for others, and the level of love I can have for myself. It is hard to love the ones that hurt us. But it is also so hard to love ourselves.” Months after coming out and still dealing with the repercussions within the church and within his marriage, he received an invitation from Hector to come visit him. Hector was known throughout the community for his witness of forgiving the man who killed his daughter and his ongoing prison visits to men on death row. Miguel wondered what this had to do with him. When they were finally able to meet, Hector said to him, Miguel, I want you to know something that not to many people know - when I was 70 years old and married to Susie, I also finally embraced myself and shared my secret that I was a gay man. And he told Miguel, I know about that pain I caused myself and the pain that others have caused me, and I would like to walk alongside you through this journey? Is this not what compassion means in practice – to suffer with and alongside?
You can learn more about Hector’s journey of coming out as a gay man at the age of 70, by listening to this conversation he had with Ari Shapiro two years ago. Our conversation continued to move back and forth between questions of our struggle to love ourselves and our struggle to love others – especially those we considered our enemy. Were these connected? When asked about any regrets about not coming out as gay sooner, Hector said, “It's a weird thing to say, but I really think that suffering can be - it certainly isn't always by any means - but it certainly can be a way of understanding other people . . . I really am grateful that my heart has been broken a good many times because it does help me to love.” And when our conversation turned to the experience of his daughter Patricia’s murder (He was 75), Hector tells us both that he wanted revenge. But he says he began to wrestle with how that hate was doing something horrible within himself. He tells us, “I began to do the work of looking for what was “human” about the “monster” that had killed my daughter. And when I found that,” he says, “I could forgive him.”
Return to the most human, nothing less
Will teach the angry spirit, the bewildered heart,
The torn mind, to accept the whole world of its duress,
And pierced with anguish, at last act for love.
— May Sarton, “Santos: New Mexico” (excerpt from beginning)
What Hector and Miguel have to teach me about pain is that when we resist our pain – whether personal or social, it produces fear, hate and suffering, while if we instead choose to face our pain, which is the only way to let go of it, this leads us paradoxically to the possibilities of love, empathy and compassion. Whether its empire or ego, either tempt us with the illusion that wielding power over and against the “monsters” out there or within in our lives, is the only path to freedom. But the truth is, the path to freedom can only be found through love – by learning to see and embrace our shared humanity!
Before we were about to leave, Hector shared one last story that has meant so much to him over the years. He thinks he first heard it in the late 1940s while visiting a kibbutz in Israel. The story goes like this:
A rabbi asked his followers, “How do you know when the night is giving way and the morning is coming?”
One of the students said, “Won't you know that the dawn is coming when you can see an animal well enough in the dim light that you can tell if it is a camel or a donkey?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
Another student spoke. “Won't you know that the dawn is coming when you can see well enough to distinguish between a fig tree and an olive tree?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
The students pressed their teacher for the answer. Finally, the rabbi said, “You'll know that the night has passed and morning is coming when you can look at any man and any woman and know that you are looking at a brother or a sister. Until you can see that well, the night will always be with us.”
Steve is a documentary photographer, applied anthropologist and contemplative activist, all of which come together in the vocation of cultivating a way to see, in order to bear witness to the world both as it is, and as it could be. His creative process is deeply shaped by accompanying and being accompanied by humanity living on the margins of empire, documenting and creating images with those shrouded in “otherness” towards the goal of collective action and mutual liberation. Steve’s photography focuses on hope – hope found in the struggle and dignity of becoming more human. You can see more of Steve's work at www.stevepavey.com and to get in contact with Steve email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve works with Hope In Focus, which bears witness to the world as it is and as it could be through activist photography committed to walking alongside the world’s oppressed and marginalized, finding hope together in the collective struggle for human dignity and justice.