I was fifteen when I first saw a woman struck hard across the face. She was in the marketplace in Port Moresby, PNG. I had sat down, an inquisitive teenager and how I loved talking with people and hearing their stories. This day, it was her husband or her partner, who walked over and, ignoring me in mid-sentence, he grabbed her ear and smashed her face with his fist. I still remember the blood. I still remember her being dragged away by the other women in the market. I still remember staring at the man who was double my size and double my age and I a tall, lanky red-headed, freckly white boy who could do nothing. I froze. A fly in a web. The man laughed. He turned and walked away. I shook for days.
What I remember most: The utter helplessness.
The very same trip I was in Madang. In the hotel there was a girl. A pretty girl. The same age as I. A national. We talked. Every night we talked. Looking out at the world and the ocean and part of me wanted to kiss her. I never once saw her during the day. So all I remember is moonlight white on brown skin. Her face always slightly hidden. She always slightly hidden.
On the final night of my stay I sat listening to a CD on my discman and I saw her out by the water looking out to the sea. Next to her was a man fishing. I watched for a while until he left. I came to her slowly. She would not look up at me. Not this night. Tears streaked down her face. I hoped it was because I was leaving the next day. It was not. Not really. The tears were there because she had to stay. The tears were there because every night she would go from our conversation back to the reason she was there at the hotel. The fisherman. A French man. The chef of the hotel. She was this mans play thing. A sexual object for him to rape every night. This was her story. She could not leave. It broke me.
I had not known this. Not until this final night as her story spilt out intermingled with the tears. Both stained my skin. I tried to rub them away. They would not leave. My brain tried to rub her away. Literally, I did not remember this experience. It was not part of my conscious memory bank. Not until a few months ago. Twenty years later. I walked on the sand by the sea, with a warm breeze and a familiar smell and a song that played through my headphones. It was the very same song that I had played her that night. I had given her my headphones and let her listen to the CD in my discman, to a song that I felt would help. The fractured attempt of a fifteen year old boy to comfort a girl going through something he could never understand. Now twenty years later and the song and the ocean and the smell it all opened the shadowed doorway of memory and this girl came tumbling out and I fell on my knees in the sand weeping for her. I could see it all once more. I could feel it all once more. I remembered the rage. How I wanted to destroy that man. I remembered crying myself to sleep that night.
What I remember most: The utter helplessness.
It is amazing how an event one cannot even recall can shape them so decidedly. I have no doubt that both these experiences of utter helplessness shaped my passion for doing what I can to help people. In both the good and the bad ways. My heart for justice and for walking alongside people in their woundedness. My rescuing, knight-in-shining-armour self who takes on his shoulders burdens too heavy. I have helped a lot of people in my life. But I must acknowledge that much of this help that I gave, that I still now give, is so that I do not have to feel such helplessness again. I am still making up for the boy who froze in the market place. For the boy who liked a girl he had just met and left her as a sex slave. I help so that I do not have to feel helpless again. It is amazing how an event one cannot even recall can shape them so decidedly.
And I wonder if this is not the case for all of us rescuers. All of us with our saviour-complexes. All of us who try to help the world. I wonder if this is not the same for all the men who try to save the damsel in distress. Are we not just trying to save ourselves from the helpless. Do we not fear it so much that we do anything to run from it. That we would name them as helpless so we don’t have to feel helpless. That we would not have to feel so small. So we stand tall. We talk too loudly. Walk too proudly. Set our posture as larger. The desire to stand out. Stand up. Stand proud. We take up too much space. Demand that the world look at our glorious monuments. Demand that they build us our monuments. Shrines to the white-saviour, to the Knight-in-shining armour, to the rescuer. Look at me helping all these poor wretched souls, look at how we bought these savages into civility, look at how men run the world. This is me. I am too big for my boots. Take up too much space. Stand out. Stand up. Stand proud. But perhaps it’s time to take a knee. Stop trying to rescue the world when I am just trying to rescue me. Time to not be seen. To sit in the dust with those who sit in the dust and just listen. Learn. Trust in the dignity of a strong people who have weathered more storms than I have smelt. Let them teach these ignorant eyes what determination really means.
Friends, I have hurt too many people trying not to feel so helpless. To each of them I say, I am sorry. I am not sure if I can ever be rid of this motivation. I wonder if it is a thorn in my flesh for the rest of my days. The stains of her tears cannot be wiped away. But even so, I shall do whatever I can to lessen the grip of such motivation upon me. Starting with remembering her. Starting with forgiving myself. Starting with lowering myself and not believing I have all the answers and all the solutions. Starting with allowing myself to feel incapable again. I am allowed to be incompetent at many things. I do not have to succeed. I do not have to change the world. You do not have to change the world. Let us embrace all that we lack and find a grace within it.
Please join me there, all you competent peoples. All you rescuers. All you achievers. Remember when you were helpless. Do not deny it. Do not run from it. Embrace it. There is much we may learn from it.
My name is Joel McKerrow.
I was fifteen when I first saw a woman struck hard across the face.
I was fifteen when I left behind a girl who was a sex-slave.
I am now thirty five.
These things do not leave us.
Photo by Candace Smith Photography.