Of all the questions that I’ve been asked in my 4.5 years as a professor, the one asked of me by a former student coping with what I perceived as signs of depression still floats around in my head. We spoke briefly about her dissertation progress, and I noticed that she seemed anxious and in need of a discussion that was not limited to revisions of Chapters Four and Five. She accepted my critique of her dissertation with a smile, but tears filled the corners of her eyes. Because my feedback focused more on celebrating her commitment to her work, I assumed the tears were expressions of joy. However, I prayed, “Dear Lord, please don’t let those tears fall. I’m not much of a hugger and I wouldn’t know what else to do.” Using the tips of her pinky finder, she pressed hard against those corners as if to tell the tears: You will not fall in this office today. Then she looked at me and asked, “How do you do it? How do you stay empowered?” Initially, I was silenced by her question, but she reminded me that I signed one of my emails to her with that response – Stay empowered! Her curiosity about my alleged empowerment process forced me to consider exactly what I meant by the statement. I mean, really, how do I stay empowered? After a few minutes of dumbfounded reflection, I gave her a response that was (to me) minimally satisfactory.
Oh…I always engage in self-care.
I dance a lot.
I love myself.
I get plenty of rest.
I love myself.
I live life to the fullest.
I don’t let anyone make me feel less than…
because I love myself.
The more I spoke, the more I was convinced that my generic responses to maintaining my empowerment were just that – generic, bound so tightly in saving face and preventing those tears from being defiant and falling all over my office floor. I kept speaking, trying to gauge her facial expressions and body language to determine whether I was putting her at ease. Yet, as I listened to my words, I questioned my authenticity. I questioned my empowerment.
A few days later, I observed an assessment class in the Counseling Department. I participated in a class activity where all students completed the Beck Depression Inventory®–II (BDI®–II). As I read each statement, I kept thinking, What in the world? Of course I don’t feel like this. We scored the final assessment and the professor informed the class that clients with extremely low scores (below 10) could be faking good. In other words, those clients could have responded positively to the items on the BDI®–II in an effort to be viewed in a positive light. Instead of being authentic in their experiences, those clients were faking good. My score was a 3.
The professor’s words remained with me to the extent that I had to discuss this with my partner. I asked her if she thought I was ever faking good. Her response: “Well, Qiana, you do act like nothing ever bothers you.” And then it hit me. Was I being dismissive of my experiences? Was my Keep It Moving mantra really a demonstration of being empowered or was I just faking good in order to be viewed in a positive light? Oh. Shxt. The student’s question and the professor’s proclamation had me all [insert explicative here] up. I had to figure out why these statements were sitting on my mind like protestors, refusing to move until I gave in to their exploration. So I did what I always do when I’m bamboozled about a topic – research it, read about it, and wrote about it.
First, I sought to define empowerment and found it seemed more difficult to contextualize empowerment because of the diverse ways in which the term is used. Instead, I chose to define resilience since it seems to be used synonymously, at times, with empowerment. Luthar, Cicchett, and Becker (2000) defined resilience in the following way: “Resilience refers to a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity” (p. 543, emphasis in the original). With this definition in mind, I reviewed the works of authors that encouraged me to be empowered or resilient.
Several authors (bell hooks, Jill Scott, Nikki Giovanni, Patricia Hill Collins, Baba Asa, Audre Lorde, Anna Julia Cooper [A Voice from the South by a Black Woman from the South is on my “to-read ASAP” list], etc.) came to mind as I continued this exploration. I pulled lines and sections of text from their work as I reflected. However, the works of one author spoke to me to the extent that I could no longer write because my tears were more aggressive than my students. They fell and would not stop falling. Dr. D (the name she has so graciously allowed me to use to refer to her) or Dr. Cynthia B. Dillard has written extensively on wisdom, spirituality and an endarkened feminist epistemology. Her words spoke to me. No, ya’ll don’t get it…her words SPOKE to me. They reminded me that my empowerment, my resilience was only as strong as my healing. For example, she noted (2011):
Speak words in ways that have love at the center, especially love of yourself. And speak them because (and Maya Angelou comes to mind here) we have the responsibility, once we have learned something or have healed something, to go and teach, to heal someone else. We “fight the fight” by showing up healthy, strong, whole, with a great sense of what OUR part of the work is, our purpose for being here at this moment on this Earth in these bodies. (p. 69, emphasis in the original)
That was it! Dr. D reminded me that in order to be empowered, in order to be resilient…I had to be healed. In order to teach and heal someone else, I had to first be healed. I did not have the words of authenticity my student deserved because I have not yet healed. I merely was faking good. My empowerment, my resilience is, indeed, a fraud. Admission is the first step.
The next step, for me, was and is to continue to explore empowerment and resilience. In doing so, I immediately thought back to my dissertation research and the resulting product. Writing my dissertation was an emotional, empowering experience. When I was at a place of “[insert explicative here] that dissertation!” I stumbled across an article by Dalia Rodriguez (2006) that reminded me that healing was indeed an important process. In “Un/masking Identity: Healing Our Wounded Souls”, she maintained that “Oftentimes, masking ourselves allows us to survive” (p. 1069). Paul Laurence Dunbar (1869) also communicated this sense of survival in his poem, “We Wear the Masks”. He wrote:
WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
I have survived many experiences in my life (yet, I sometimes feel selfish in describing my survival because so many others have had experiences that are – in my perspective – more pressing), but masking them or faking good instead of engaging in genuine healing has stifled my empowerment. I can no longer just survive. I have to live, and in order to live I have to heal. Only after that healing will I be able to answer the question, “How do you do it? How do you stay empowered?” with a sense of affirmation and clarity.
I’m not there yet…but I’m on my way.
Luthar, S. S., Cicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child Development, 71(3), 543-562.
Okpalaoka, C. L., & Dillard, C. B. (2011). Our healing is next to the wound: Endarkened feminisms, spirituality, and wisdom for teaching, learning, and research. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 131, 65-74. Doi: 10.1002/ace.422
Rodriguez, D. (2006). Un/masking identity: Healing our wounded souls. Qualitative Inquiry, 23(6), 1067-1090.