OAASIS was honored to participate in a Day of Compassion at Angola prison in Louisiana. Our very own Mel Phillips was the keynote speaker. We’re pleased to share with you Mel’s powerful words about engaging compassion. Please pass them along.
Introduction by Klarissa Oh
My name is Klarissa Oh, and I’m delighted by the opportunity to introduce our keynote speaker, Mel Phillips, today. In order to do so, I want to give a short context of the organization he represents. Mel and I—along with two other staff members—are here from Oregon where we work for a survivor-led child sexual abuse advocacy organization named OAASIS.
We are here today because we believe that compassion is fundamental—and strategic—to our goal of enabling child sexual abuse survivors and children to live full and healthy lives. To be honest, we did not always consider compassion as core to our work. A wise friend once explained to us: it is not uncommon for organizations to take on the characteristics of the issue they work to address. OAASIS proved her statement true. In our work, we found ourselves feeding the same dynamics that marks abuse: shame, disregarding another person’s humanity, assuming un-nuanced binaries, silencing voices of threat, acting as though the ends justify the means. Ultimately, we found our strategy failing. With equal part trepidation and desperation, we set out to relinquish our organizational tools of shame and binary thinking for something else. What might that be? For us, it has been compassion. It has been non-violent communication. It has been resolving to see people as human beings first and foremost, recognizing that no action done to or by a person capsizes their humanity.
Mel Phillips is one of the people who has helped usher in a compassionate and enlivened change to OAASIS. Mel is OAASIS’ artist in residence, and as you will likely witness today, he is fundamentally an artist. He is also a survivor of child sexual abuse, a fierce and loving advocate, a dear friend, and a person whose very presence in the world builds my hope that a different world is possible. All these are tremendous attributes, however, the gift in Mel that I am most struck with today is that he is a human who sees. He sees at an angle, from an artistic bend. When I hear Mel speak, his sight expands my sight, inviting me to become more honest, more alive, more loving. Today we have the gift of listening to Mel, and I hope that you might open your heart and allow his sight to impact yours.
The Compassion Imperative
From Hurt To Healing: A New North, by Mel Anthony Phillips, 12/7/17 Angola Prison, Louisiana
As a victims’ advocate and as one who stands for the rights of the disenfranchised, I am The Guy you would want at your side in a crisis, and I am not boasting. In fact I’m quite proud of it. I can say this because I go about my work carrying the personal experience of someone who has been harmed, violated and trespassed upon in ways unthinkable by people who went largely unaccountable for their crimes, leaving a stain inside me like shit on a bright silk sheet. Yes, I am intimate with shame; I was once its most loyal concubine, holding it tight like a bleeding wound while slowly over time becoming numb to its cold, grimy hand constantly stroking the soft tissue beneath my skin.
I know shame, deep and crystal clear as any ocean on this Earth. I have felt red-hot embarrassment scald my face and neck like a grease fire. I know that self-hatred feels like a sharp icicle stuck in the middle of your chest, through your heart, coming out your back, and it takes a long time to thaw out. I know some things up close and personal.
No, man! Don’t try and tell me what the weather is. I know a certain degree of suffering. I have been a blizzard of furious contempt and distrust for people I judged; I have erupted in volcanic rage at matters beyond my control, and have quaked in fear of someone knowing my secret. I understand better than some the conflicting and shifting emotional patterns produced by trauma, as well as the unbalanced climate of criminal justice and the cumulus stigma of our society and culture where violence—particularly sexual violence—is concerned. No, man! Don’t try and tell me what the weather is. I’ve been through it. Mr. Hurt and me, we go back a long way.
Presently, all these years later, most of those old hurts have faded and I am humbled to walk in witness with many individuals, each of them at a different point in their healing and each with their own set of needs, but the first one is always the toughest. My first one was me. We will circle back to that.
I try to do in my advocacy what I wish had been done for me. I have committed a solid chunk of my life in the Good Cause realm of anti-violence, trying to help people reach the other side of their pain. I ask them, just tell me what you want: is it anonymity, justice, peace-of-mind, safety or silence? Okay, I can do that… I ask, who do you want to call, where do you want to go: to the hospital, the police, to church, the library; a safe house, Momma’s? Okay, let’s go now; I will take you there. Trust me. I see you; I feel you. I got you. I’m your one.
It’s hard, but the great thing about doing Good Cause work is it that you find yourself surrounded by really good people, for the most part. And when you are able to watch really good people, doing really good things in really good new ways and in real time, if you pay attention and ask a few questions, you can learn a few things. I have gathered a lot of useful social justice tools along the way and I am grateful for each one, for each asset I possess. Friends, colleagues and others doing their own things to benefit the planet have gifted me most of what I know. Throughout my time on this path I endeavored with full intention to personify—in some way to become—this collection of worthy tools, my assets and my gifts.
With this arsenal I am your armor, shield and helmet.
I am the 140-pound battering ram.
I am the Eveready flashlight of hope.
I am the hammer of truth and the nails of purpose, and the measure of sense and reason.
I am the iron shoulder; lean your heaviest weight on it and you will know its solid comfort.
I am your rock; either a steady grounded presence or a cool smooth stone like King David used to bash Goliath. In a moment of trouble, YOU decide which rock I need to be.
When the time comes, I am the small peaceful watch or the very large squeaky wheel. You need it… I got it for real.
For fighting the good fight, I have at my disposal all that and more if I dig deep enough. But the dullest tool in my shed was the most unused and least appreciated, yet most important of all the stuff I have and hold: real, simple compassion. And I want to talk about that with you today, this Compassion Imperative. It is necessary for me, for you, for all of us and I say it is the remedy for the pandemic inhumanity infecting our world today.
As I speak I am reminded of a true story I read several years ago about a young woman on vacation who was abducted by a man who planned to kill her after his brutal assault. Ultimately it was the woman’s quick wits and genuine compassion that saved her life and maybe even that man’s soul. The account was so incredible that its raw truth and emotional power were branded on my mind. I realized then that I could not have done what she did. I didn’t have that kind of miracle in me. And I thought about her—that young lady—a lot after that. I could never be as good as she, ever.
Although family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances would say I am a decent, free-spirited, open-minded, pure-of-heart sort of guy and they would be right –to a point. I wasn’t anything like that young lady, not by a long shot. Truth was that in many ways my spirit was anchored to a hard place in my consciousness, allowed to roam only a few lengths from that spot. That wide door of perceived mindfulness opened only for some and only so far. I was a good person trapped in a mental lockup of my own design.
It wasn’t until I decided to engage compassion that I learned to put this underused inner guidance system to direct use.
Without knowing, I had been slightly misdirected in my social justice aim, a bit off course on my mission and sometimes totally missed the point of my calling. Presently, as I set my essential being on a more compassionate course, this slender needle of awareness is guiding the vessel of my values. Compassion fuels me, directs me, buoys and steadies me when crises arise. My hope is lifted by the life raft compassion provides for others and me in need.
When I talk about setting my soul on a new life course and about life rafts and folks in need, I like that analogy of a ship on open seas because the words “compass” and “compassion” have everything in common and derive from the same root meaning.
“Com” is a prefix meaning “with,” or “as one” or “together.” It also implies that this with-ness, this oneness, this togetherness has intensity and force. And the word “pass” means to go beyond what has been done. In essence, compassion means for us to come together and, with intensity and force, to go beyond or rise above whatever boundaries to our highest callings.
A compass in our hands gives us longitude and latitude as well as the four directions: North, East, South and West and all the space in between, in order to go to those difficult and challenging places. Compassion in our hands gives us fortitude and an attitude of gratitude and all the space in between , in order to go to those difficult and challenging places. Like the compass and its four directions, compassion in our hearts has four directives: to See, Feel, to Act and to Heal. I call it the “three-action reaction.” And because the first three—see, feel, do—are in fact a domino effect that, when rightly aligned and combined, culminate automatically into this manifest reaction we call healing.
I know the mighty power of self-compassion. As a victim of violent crime, I can attest personally to its healing property. Still in all honesty it was a long time coming. In the 1970s & 80s we didn’t have words for what happened to me, not words I knew at 6, 8 or 11. People didn’t talk about such things, so I grew up and it came with me, like a shadow that never touched the ground. For years it was fistfights and foul language. I excelled at running and combat sports.
I did six years active duty military service, and for two of those years I tried my damnedest to knock the block off any dude who thought he might want to step into the ring with me. No pussy willow here, Jack. Mess with me and the only thing blowing in the breeze will be your ass. Bet that. First round bell, school bell, dinner bell or church bell, if it’s ringing I’m swinging, and with a fat bag of homemade whoop-ass!
But let’s be honest; most great warriors do have their setbacks. Napoleon had Waterloo, Rocky Balboa had Apollo Creed, and Ali had Frazier. Me? I had Scotty Wills, a very underestimated Texas lefty. He was one of the only guys who’d actually knocked me down; and not only did he knock me on my butt, he pretty much just cleaned my clock. If I’d had a little less pride I’d have probably jumped out of the ring to get away from that man. Instead, I stood there and took my punishment.
Scotty hit me so hard; I had never been hit like that. BAM!! I saw the light bulbs pop and every voice sounded like Charlie Brown’s mama asking him about his day at school with the little red-haired girl. No joke: five years later I am in my own apartment, brushing my teeth at the sink—this is a full three years after my discharge—I’m brushing my teeth and Scotty’s glove comes through my mirror and bopped me right in the temple. I had a flashback to that night in the ring. I think I was considering a comeback. Remember all that boo-gee about church bells, dinner bells and school bells? Well it all came to pass in the ring that night. Later, I was still hearing bells chime and thinking (ding) I need to pray, (ding) I need to eat something and (ding) I think I need to go back to clown college, (ding) Why is my head ringing?
It was after the bout with Scotty, I had to ask myself why I was fighting and what’s it all for; who was I fighting for? I stayed with those questions until finally going all the way back to him; that little guy, that first tiny little one. I had almost forgotten about him. So let’s circle back.
For a long minute I was chained to an ideal, closely bound to certain notions of righteousness and masculinity that, in ways I did not notice, barred my mind from reaching outside that rigid construct of what I believed was Justice. Yet it was in this moment of recollection and reckoning with my little self that the light bulb in my head just seemed to instantly turn on like a switch.
It came to me that I was fighting my childhood secret, trying to box it in the corner and keep it off me. I had been jabbing at my loathing and guilt to hold them at bay. I was battling the shame of my past. I was fighting to prove something to myself, you, him and anyone else who saw me in that square that I was nobody’s little boy. In fact, all this time I had been fighting me—HIM—my little self. But what had he done to deserve his dismissal to a back closet in my mind? What’d he do? He wasn’t anything but a little boy, a little me. Why should I be embarrassed of him, ashamed, mad, neglectful and uncaring? Whatever happened all that time ago surely was not his doing. So why do I hate him so?
I remember being more than surprised when I felt the flutter in my stomach and chest as he slowly scratched his way out of my skin, breaking through the fabric of my shirt like a precious baby bird. And in that moment of truth, my spirit reawakened.
He was cute as a chick peep and his skin shone rosegold against my own. He was sweet, innocent, curious, golden and perfect. Perfect, that’s what he was with his little man shoes all nicely laced-up with a loose lopsided bow he tied all by himself, the way Momma taught him. Then he spoke; a tiny voice, a sad little chirp like a nestling fallen from its tree. He looked right up in my face and said, “I’m sorry.”
I said, “Man, what you got to be sorry for”? And I could barely look him in the eyes when he said what he did.
“I’m sorry I didn’t run fast enough,” he said as I looked at his tiny brown legs about the width of my wrists. “I’m sorry I didn’t hit him or to kick him. I should of bit him hard,” gritting his baby teeth and, with his soft hands and paper fingernails, he shaped two tiny claws and said, “I should have scratched their faces and real hard. And I should have talked to that police man that one time—remember? But what if I got took from Momma?” I could see he was scared now, but he continued.
I’m sorry I didn’t tell anybody. I’m sorry I disappointed you. I’m so sorry I was so scared; so, so, scared. I should’ve been bigger.”
I say to him, “Little man, that ain’t for you. You can’t hold that; this is too big for you. You were 8. You were 8, and you were perfect. It wasn’t your fault.” I apologized to him for being the way I was, for denying his existence, hiding him out of sight like a shameful object. And I’m just standing there, tears in my eyes trying to understand how I had left him alone for so long, all by himself in a lost nook of my memory; stashed away like a filthy magazine. I say to him, “I see you; I feel you. I love you. I got you. You are not alone.”
I pick him up and hold him close, sniffing the Dax Pomade in his curly hair that’s laid to the side, with the part on the right side looking like a little mini Malcolm X. Like a good little Bayou boy, he smells like sweet-grass and swamp mud.
Then I ate him. I put him into my mouth and I push him down my throat like a Twinkie; he’s sweet, soft, comforting. I swallow him down, take him back into myself, put him back into every pore of my being and every strand of my DNA, and then go about the task to find a new space for him; a room with a little more light and a lot more love. It’s what he deserves; it’s what he needs; it’s what I need, too.
Compassion, the thing I was denying myself and others was, in itself, the antidote for my very own hurts. It was a potent pill resting in the palm of my hand the whole time, a tiny caplet of humanity, unused and still secure in its original silver lining. Compassion for others and myself is what redirected my life, shifted my mindset, moved my restive heart and recalibrated my moral GPS. I am on a better course, following a new North, a brighter guide star called Compassion.
Compassion is power you can hold. To understand the raw gravity of it you want to start with self-compassion. If you will indulge me please, let’s try it now. First lets close our eyes. Breathe in for a moment to center yourself and find that place of inner solitude; that peaceful place where all your memories and dreams are stored. Some of us might need to blow off the cobwebs and shake off the dust in that space, if you haven’t been there in a while. Breathe and remember. Let yourself conjure-up you—the BEST you that maybe ever was. Call out the little you. And let us be solemn here; let us be intentional here. With intensity and force let us come together—be together—in this place in this moment, to revisit ourselves at that particular point in time when we were angels.
For some folks it maybe has been a while since you actually laid eyes on that little one, your perfect You-ness. You might have to go all the way back before colors even had names, back to when words were for grown-ups, and giggles and farts was the language of the times. Can you see him yet? Do you see her? Do you see your little man, your baby girl—your best little self? Look at him. He is a cute little shit, shining like the sun in his little-man clothes, looking up at you and smiling so big as if he was just told that his birthday would last for TWO years. Uh-huh…
Make eye contact with them and keep it there. SEE him. As he beams up at you now, see him, as you knew them when—back when we were beautiful, innocent and perfect. Hold them close.
Lay and feel their cheeks, hair, their heartbeat and say this to your one,…
“I see you.” “I feel you.” “I love you.” “I got you.”
“You are not alone.”
Now, keeping our eyes closed and full of that vision of our best selves, turn your little man to the little man to the left of you and let them see each other. Look at them; they can’t help but smile. Now turn your little man to the other little man on his right. Oh yeah, they are going to get along just fine. Let us hold onto this vision just for a another minute; this is nice.
Hold on to you—that best little you—for the rest of the day or more. Take some time to reacquaint and catch-up. Then take them back into your flesh. Stuff him into your mouth and swallow him if you have to, and give them some space, some light and some love.
What a wonderful thing to be able to say to someone you love.
I See You. I Feel You. I Love You. I Got You.
You Are Not Alone.
And to be able to hear those same words, lifelong gifts wrapped in the voices of the someones who love you most.
These words have substance; these words hold weight, these are words you can stand on even if they come from a complete and total stranger. Do you see me now? Do you feel me? We are halfway there.
So maybe some of you are here because you abused, misused or lost control of your power. Now your power is modified, limited, restricted, repealed and suspended. But does this make you so powerless that you are unable to relieve your own suffering? Not if you turn to each other with compassion. The truth is: all you have is yourself and each other, that’s all. And it’s enough.
Experience the healing power of compassion, starting with you. The healing ointment you need rests just beneath the palms of your hands, just beneath your feet, at the tips of our toes, at the tips of our fingers and on the tips of our very own tongues. Compassion is an intense forceful act of resistance against inhumanity. It is an act of courage and grace and it’s only this far away from us. Our sun is 93 million miles away, but with the right perspective, I can hold it between my finger and thumb. Sometimes we feel like we are 93 million miles away from any kind of salvation, honor or redemption, atonement or comfort or forgiveness. But with compassion, the space between hurting and healing is reduced exponentially. Instead of being light years from grace, the possibility is only this far away. Step out. Reach out. Speak out. Compassion is a cure for the suffering human condition, and it is almost always within our grasp.
I stand before you right now as a person in change, Not so much a changed man but, rather, a changed mind; not so much resurrected but more like re-directed. Today the glowing quasar of compassion is what guides my personal path and lifework. Today I perceive my worldview through a different, much more compassionate lens. Remember the young lady I read about, the one abducted by the guy? Well, I met her recently, and she is as cool as you can imagine. She is bright, smart, caring and wonderful and I am honored to call her my friend. Maybe I’ll never be that good, but I will endeavor to give it my all.
Lack of compassion is a cell of its own. And I can’t live there anymore. I need to make space for this thing. There is space for a new reality, and in this space there is room for us all.
So let me close by saying that, in the spirit of advocacy and compassion, and the fighting spirit of this day and that boxing ring tonight, I am going to dig deep into my social justice arsenal to offer you this for the good fight, together let us be:
The tape and the salve to fortify and soothe;
The water and the bucket;
The mouthpiece of our convictions;
Let us be the gloves of safety and protection;
The needle, the thread and the stitch in the nick of time;
We are the sound of the bell!
I will champion for you and with you and together, with compassion and grace, we will triumph over the forces of violence, injustice and oppression wherever they may be. So right now I am stepping out, into the bright light of this new day to say to every glowing one of you, “I see you.”
I reach out right now to every pulsating one to say, “I feel you.” I speak out today in this harsh and humble place, to say to all incarcerated persons here today, I see you, I feel you, I hear you and I thank you; I got you. You are not invisible, you are not disposable, you are not unredeemable, you do have value, your life has worth, you are not without power, you are not debris, your life is significant, you can make a difference, you are enough and you are not alone.