Contextualizing Victories: Seeing the Whole Person
by Vikash Ravi, LMSW
A couple of weeks ago, one of my clients got their drivers’ license. When I got the memo, I was ecstatic – I immediately told some of my colleagues, sent an email out, and whooped and hollered to myself for the 10 minutes straight. Hell, I started tearing up (happy tears of course) and didn’t get back to my computer to continue working for at least another 20 minutes after that.
I was overwhelmingly joyful.
Over someone getting their driver’s license.
Because here are some facts – for 15+ years, this person knew no English and was physically, sexually, verbally, psychologically, emotionally, and financially dominated by the person she had called her husband. Multiple emergency room visits, nursed bruises, and terror of what would happen to her and her kids if she tried to leave. This man could’ve killed her, probably would have killed her, if she did not do the seemingly impossible and manage to escape.
She barely made it out alive.
When she first got in contact with Daya, I talked to her almost every day for 2 months, until slowly things started to piece together about how the systems here work. A village came together to help with housing, to help with the resources, to help with the trauma – to help keep her safe.
And two weeks ago, she got her license.
Why wouldn’t I get tears in my eyes?
American society is entrenched in this idea of objective accomplishments as a measuring of the utility of a person. It’s a simplification that tends to serve as an easy rubric for trying to gauge whether a person is worth investing in, worth trusting. When we see that someone has a PhD, we’re more likely to think that they’re probably a smart, good person. When we see that someone is making six figures at whatever work they’re doing, we tend to think that they’re a highly accomplished, decent person.
It’s an unfortunate facet of human nature to be obsessed with rankings and comparisons. We care too much about the “how did I do compared to this person”. South Asian culture is especially notorious of trying to do this – case in point, model minority.
But this thing that we do impedes on our ability as humans to perceive – it neglects the gray area, the context. What are the circumstances that has allowed a person to manifest the way they present? What are the interactions and experiences that have occurred that have permitted a person to access an ‘accomplishment’? What are those things that color why one person’s achievement of something is unique and will only ever be unique?
To me, it feels that America doesn’t understand the value of ‘achievement’ when it comes to something like a driver’s license. We tend to take it for granted as something most people get when they’re a certain age and in Houston we make it a requirement to have both a license and car in order to achieve a baseline quality of life. But buried within the confines of the stereotypical license achievement, there are stories like my client’s.
Without her context, her achievement becomes forgettable when it deserves to be celebrated.
The most wonderful thing for my perception from my experience as a domestic violence therapist has been the ability to understand this – that every person’s journey is unique and every person’s victories are just as unique. There is no objective measure that will ever capture the rigors, hardships, and comforts of the journey a person takes to get to something. For some, that journey to is thoughtless, secondary, and requires no expenditure of emotional (or physical) energy. For others, it can be a multi-year odyssey rife with trauma, oppression, and near-impossible to surmount obstacles.
Understanding victory, without context, is understanding nothing. It’s a bland (and false) understanding of human nature. So…. Add the context. And once you do, the ability to understand, empathize, and perceive the uniqueness of every individual person will become accessible to you in ways you probably couldn’t have imagined.