This is What Empowerment Sounds Like
My daughter was in the sixth or seventh grade when she came home from school, upset, because a boy had been snapping her bra. Unbeknownst to me, it wasn’t the first time. It had been happening for weeks. I felt a burn in the bottom of my gut as I listened to her swallow back tears. Not out of fear, but frustration and anger. Her eyes still leak when in a fury.
I asked her calmly, my words measured, “What did you say to him, Bre? Did you tell him “No”?
She sputtered, a little off-kilter, “Well, he KNOWS I don’t like it!”
I’m sure he does,” and I was sure but there was a life lesson here and I didn’t want her to miss it, so I continued, “But did you turn and look him in the eye and say, “NO. STOP. Don’t do that to me”?
She got quiet for a minute and then replied, “No Mommy. I haven’t done that.”
I instructed her to do so the very next time he came up behind her and yanked her bra strap.
Say it firm. Say it loud. Say it into his eyes. You can do this. You must do this. This is middle school but you will need this same voice in high school, in the Coast Guard, and for the
It’s easy to write about voice when the word “empowerment” is spoken. They are synonymous to each other, a committed duet.
But as I began to write, and thought of my own struggle to be empowered, and how I’ve taught my kids to grasp voice and empowerment, I felt like I was only toe-dipping, playing it safe in the shallow end.
I needed to go beyond the obvious.
Teaching my daughter the power of her words was the first step. Teaching her how to use her words – when to speak and when to remain silent, when to yell and when to relent, when to direct and when to encourage… it points to something so much greater than voice alone.
It sends an arrow straight into the soul-center of our self-control.
Voice is first. Voice is necessary. Voice lets people know, “Hey – I am here. Do you see me? I am HERE.” It is showing up for an injustice, speaking out for a wrong, establishing a boundary where before the land had been prodded and staked claim of, without permission.
But voice unchecked is often loud, brash, and screaming.
No one can hear you if you are always standing in the middle with your mouth wide open. They are too intent on covering their ears and backing away. It took me a long time to settle into this truth. I resisted because once I found my voice, I did not want to tame it. I come from a history of abuse and secrets and lots of rugs with filthy things heaped underneath. Once I became empowered enough to tell, empowered enough to rip the tape off my lips; I shook those rugs as hard as I could for all to see.
Let the filthy things come into the light.
This is not a bad thing, but it is not a forever thing.
It is self-control that stops the rug shaking. It is self-control that saves us from our exhaustion.
When voice and self-control are on the same side of the tongue; it is speech rooted in love.
We are loving ourselves enough to explain what we will allow and what we keep away.
Like boys who snap bras. Or grandpa’s with twitchy fingers.
We are not letting the negative take space in our yard, our body and heart, and root there. Out of the heart, our words overflow, and when we have lost our voice, or had our lips shushed shut; seeds of frustration and pain grow into weeds of anger, bitterness, and rage. We must guard our heart, with our gate keeper being our voice, and our defense being self-control. When wordy anger runs amuck, we have handed our empowerment over to the ones trying to circumvent our gate.
We, in trying to find our power, have become powerless.
So then what?
I am a self-controlled voice? Is there any feeling? Where is the grace?
What is missing?
Love and Freedom. Freedom and Love.
Love always unties knots and lets people loose.
Growing up, I did not live at home with my mother very much. I ran away, crashed on friends’ couches, resided in juvenile hall and group homes. All of this was better than living with my mom. I held her tightly to a splintered cross, bearing the burden of her father’s sins. I would not let her down. I couldn’t. Someone had to suffer and for far too long that someone had been me.
What took me years to realize, is that in holding my mother there, I tied myself alongside her. We were bound, by the past, by abuse, by secrets, by unforgiveness, by a lack of understanding, by wounds, by fear, by abandonment, by loss, by an anger so fierce and wild it had sustained me for years.
I thought this was empowerment. A public flogging. A daily lashing. An insatiable need for apologies that sometimes never came.
Love and freedom. Freedom and love.
I remember one time my Pastor asking me if I had forgiven my mother, if I loved her. I was a couple years into my Jesus-walk and maybe for some, that’s enough time to get the whole “new creation” thing down. I had not. My heart was stone and it did not return to flesh in any type of hurry.
I answered him dead in the eye with ice on my tongue, “I hate my mother and I will never forgive her for what she did to me.”
He stared straight back and said, “You will know that you really, truly love Jesus, when you’ve forgiven your mother.”
My fingers shook. I felt fire light up inside me. I wanted to punch him.
I look back now and yes, yes, there was so much anger intertwined with hurt, but there was also shame.
Because I knew he was right and I didn’t think I had it in me to ever let it go.
I prayed to Jesus to forgive me in all the dark, silent places I could not.
It’s been a little more than twenty years since then. I saw this same pastor a few months ago and as we caught up and talked about our lives, he asked me a question out of the blue.
“I have to know something.”
“Sure”, as I smiled at his wife and grabbed my chap stick from my purse.
“How are things with your mother?”
I didn’t hesitate as I looked over at him in his chair, same button down shirt, same crooked smile, same compassionate eyes, and I began to speak about her, “Oh you know, things aren’t perfect but there’s been so much … I’m so proud of her, proud of us. We’ve come a long way.”
“But do you love her?”
“Do I love her? Yes. Yes I love her.”
His head cocked to the side just a fraction, “And did you forgive her?”
I shook my head up and down slowly as I thought about the silent years in our lives. “Yes. I forgave her. I decided I can’t keep holding her to a standard of ME. She did the best she could with what she knew. I’m doing the same.”
And then he started to cry. As tears rolled down his face, he reminded me of the conversation we had had so many years ago and just like that, a lump stretched wide in my throat, my eyes began to drip, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude at the goodness of God and the grace in His love.
I’ve never felt more powerful than when I am loving without a thing expected in return.
It starts with a voice and ends in love. This is empowerment.
Every. Single. Time.