I Was a Female Incel

I Was a Female Incel

Hayley Morrison
Hayley Morrison
23 min read

Author’s Note: I have chosen to publish this essay under a pseudonym to preserve my anonymity and the anonymity of others mentioned in my story. I respectfully ask anyone who believes they can identify me from what follows to respect my request for privacy.

The terror revealed itself to me in smatterings; bits and pieces of fragmented information communicated in broken English by immigrant factory workers: Van ran over a curb on Yonge Street. Many dead. As I sat amongst the ubiquitous iPhone screens on the TTC, a sea of constantly-refreshing social media feeds and angry red breaking news headlines screaming out from anodyne weekday newscasts, I grasped the reality of the psychological trauma inflicted by terrorist attacks. These were the same images we had seen dozens of times over, in sports stadiums, in concert halls, in city squares: a sea of carnage, a pile of mutilated bodies lying with their clothes torn and their limbs akimbo; a smashed vehicle, an angry sore thumb of burnt rubber and twisted metal; hysterical citizens, legions of police and EMS workers, wandering survivors; a parade of gaudy nihilism splayed out against the obdurate shine of metropolitan architecture.

It was all the same, except it wasn’t—this wasn’t Paris, or London, or New York. It wasn’t some faraway perpetual elsewhere we had come to recognize as the place where such terrible things happen. It was right here, at the corner of Yonge and Sheppard, less than ten minutes away from my childhood home. This is where my dad took me to see the Rugrats movie when I was six; it’s where I went out for dinner for my grade 8 graduation; it’s where, a couple months ago, I attended a college information session. Now someone had turned it into a nightmare.

As the hours wore on and more information emerged about the killer and his motivations, it became apparent that this was the work of a so-called ‘incel,’ or involuntary celibate, who carried out this violent attack as a way of expressing his outrage at female rejection. Early reports suggested that the attacker targeted women. If I had booked a dentist appointment that day, I could have been in his path. If I had been walking down Yonge Street and he’d seen my ponytail, I could have been targeted. It could have been me. I could have been run over. Or I could have been the driver.

I was a female incel. Not simply a woman who struggled with sexual and romantic success, but a proponent of the violent, misogynistic, and hateful ideology with which our society has now been forced to grapple in the wake of the Toronto van attack. I appear to be the only one of my kind, at least according to a number of incel experts I spoke to. Now I am a supporter of the #MeToo movement. My experiences have given me a unique perspective on the gender dimension of the culture wars being waged in the West right now. By telling my story, I am hoping that I can expose both sides to the other’s pain and open up a path for much-needed discussion and reconciliation.

The idea of a female incel probably conjures notions of internalized misogyny. But the truth is more complicated. Unlike race or religion, sex creates a fundamental biological distinction between two groups, each of which are doomed to interact with one another, not just at a societal level but at a deeply personal individual level. This makes mutual understanding a necessity. We have to make sense of our differences and to conduct our interpersonal relationships in a way that is considerate and democratic instead of ignorant and tyrannical. If we turn our backs on our universal human duty of attempting to discern the truth of who we are as men and women, we doom both sides to a nihilistic power game, a Hobbesian nightmare of perpetual inter-gender warfare, replete with righteously indignant groupthink, spiteful denigration of the other side, and a grim fight for dominance characterized by constant victimization one-upmanship. I have experienced the suffering of both sides of this bitter war. Now I’d like to do my part, small though it may be, to bring about some peace through truth.

Some brief caveats before I begin. I am also not trying to justify my past actions or beliefs. The things I believed, said, and did when I was an incel were hateful, ignorant, and wrong. I make no attempt to suggest that my inceldom was okay. It wasn’t. It was a wicked manifestation of pain, self-pity, and lack of self-responsibility, as well as serious, debilitating mental illness. But I will try to make sense of it, in the hope that it might help others to understand what makes an incel and what unmakes an incel.

Nor am I attempting to draw an equivalence between modern feminism and incel subculture. I have no shortage of qualms about modern feminism, which is a sad bastardization of genuine female empowerment and, at its worst, outright misandry. The #MeToo movement is flawed, but it has exposed the crimes of some evil men, the victims of whom have mostly been female, as well as the people who facilitated their reprehensible conduct. In addition, it has forced us to have a critically important and long overdue discussion about sexual boundaries and inter-gender interaction in the workplace and beyond. The incel movement, on the other hand, started out as a way for romantically and sexually frustrated people to commiserate, and some may argue that this is largely what it continues to be. But, looking at incel hangouts like SlutHate and Incel.me, it quickly becomes apparent that misogyny and hatred are features not bugs. Modern feminists and incels are not equally justified in their response to suffering; but I maintain that the pain that lies behind incel subculture and #MeToo are equally deserving of acknowledgement and discussion.

Finally, I harbor no illusions about the potential impact of this article. I do not believe I will spark a revolution in the way men and women perceive and interact with one another; that is already far too well-established to be undone by a single essay. The reaction to this article, if any, will most likely fall along the well-worn lines of partisan ignorance: Sam Bee will laugh at the idea that women can inflict pain on men, men’s rights activists will laugh at the idea that a woman could understand male suffering, and a legion of Facebook readers will drop a laugh react and keep scrolling, unshakeable in their belief that they could not possibly have anything to learn from someone who has seen both sides of the brutal battle of the sexes. But one person might read this and become aware of their own ignorance, contemplate their own responsibility in the perpetuation of this cruel paradigm, and resolve to do their part to unravel it. And that’s not nothing.

*     *     *

I grew up a relatively happy and healthy child, in a loving home with two happily married parents. I was academically successful, enjoyed a decent social life (though I was somewhat shy and awkward) and didn’t get bullied any more than any other kid. By grade 8, I had even managed to become one of the ‘popular kids’ at my relatively small elementary school. Then came high school.

I felt the change in the atmosphere from the moment I entered the building on the first day of grade 9. The social rules were different now; they were more sophisticated, more sexual, and the punishment for those unable to pick them up and play by them would be merciless and brutal. In elementary school, my girlfriends and I used to laugh at girls we called ‘sluts’—girls who wore tight pants, low-cut shirts, and heaps of makeup, and who talked incessantly about boys. We thought it laughable and contemptible that at the tender age of 13 a girl could decide that she had nothing better to do with her life than package herself as a marketable product for male consumption. Now we were 14. As I scanned the room on the beginning of that first day I did a mental count: slut, slut, slut. They were everywhere. While not all of these provocatively dressed girls were vapid and self-loathing, an utterly depressing number of them were. On the second day of school, when I mentioned to one of my classmates that I played hockey, she looked at me as if I had told her I like to bite the heads off rats. “What are you, a boy?” she spat derisively.

This was the sluts’ world now, where being loud, tough, smart, and funny no longer counted—in fact, they were points against you. They got you sneered at, laughed at, left out, kicked in the face, and called pathetic by your teachers. To win in the sluts’ world, you needed to be sexually and socially adept, and above all, normal. I had no clue how.

It should probably be noted that this bullying was perpetuated almost exclusively by women. For all the talk of a shadowy cis-hetero-patriarchal conspiracy whereby men get power by pitting innocent women against each other, men never bullied me or taunted me for being awkward or different. Mostly they either ignored me or appreciated my strength, intellect, and humor. It was girls who bullied me, and bullied me relentlessly, even though I clearly posed no threat whatsoever to their various sexual pursuits. They did it to tell me that they viewed me as inferior, even though the very men they pursued seemed to prefer the company of girls like me to girls like them, who they tended to view as unoriginal and desperate for attention. (I will admit that I harbored some resentment that the boys romantically pursued these other girls instead of me.) Ultimately, this appeared to me not to be an issue of boys pitting girls against each other, but rather of socially powerful girls using their social power—and their sex appeal, in particular—to oppress both women and men they deemed unworthy, knowing damn well that the other girls were too timid, and the boys not socially permitted, to fight back.

Still, in spite of my hatred for these so-called ‘sluts,’ I knew deep down that a significant part of my contempt came from a place of resentment and longing. There was a part of me that desperately wanted to be like them, to fit in, to be liked and lusted after. I tried everything. I dressed like them. I listened to the same music they did. I mimicked their mannerisms. But something was always missing, some undefinable and elusive magic in the swing of their hips, in the flip of their hair, in the effervescence of their laughter, that was always just out of my reach. When I was diagnosed with autism at 17, I would understand this phenomenon to be a product of a developmental disorder that could be treated with counselling and therapy. At 14, however, I was left to reason that I had atrophied in my preteen years and that I was a fundamentally flawed and defective human being, incapable of attaining that mystical, mysterious thing that made girls so attractive to boys.

During this time I also struggled to make friends. In elementary school, I’d had a relatively large friend group but most of them went off to different high schools, leaving me with only my best friend. But she was more socially adept than I was, and I guess she decided that with all her new friends she didn’t need me anymore. Too shy and socially stunted to make new friends of my own, I spent the better part of my grade 9 year following her around like a puppy, tagging along at the back of the gang of whatever new friends she made that day, eagerly soaking up every little morsel of attention she gave me. Why am I degrading myself like this? I would think to myself. But I didn’t have the confidence to confront her or leave, so I just followed her around, growing more bitter and resentful by the day.

I began to stop caring for myself. I went for days without showering. My hair grew matted and greasy. My eyebrows grew bushy and I developed severe cystic acne on my face. I wore the same clothes for several days in a row. This lack of self-care only worsened my social isolation, which in turn made me more depressed, perpetuating a never-ending cycle of self-loathing. Although I was exhibiting many of the classic symptoms of clinical depression, I refused to accept that I could be depressed. My mother had depression, and I viewed her as weak and selfish for the way she handled it. I didn’t want to become like her. So I neglected my symptoms, sinking deeper and deeper into a black hole of my own self-pity and despair.

I had my first homicidal fantasy when I was 14. I fantasized about breaking into my best friend’s house, cornering her, and strangling her to death. This sudden violent fantasy shocked me, but only momentarily. I was too depressed to care if my violent desires were a sign of something dangerous. Murderous thoughts, both suicidal and homicidal, began to fill my mind. When the song “Pumped Up Kicks” came out, I remember saying it was the perfect song to shoot up my school to. As we learned about world wars in history class, I gleefully imagined myself killing people in trench warfare, slaughtering innocents in concentration camps, and annihilating civilizations with atomic bombs. I listened obsessively to violent rap music, especially songs that were violent towards women. One of my favorite lines was from a song called “The Reunion” by Bad Meets Evil: “Put on your slut powder you slut/and shut the fuck up.” Not less than once a week, the question passed through my mind: Why don’t you kill yourself? The answer was always the same: Because I’m afraid of death.

By the time I was 15, I had isolated myself from the outside world almost completely, spending most of my days holed up in my room on my computer. As I interacted less and less with women in real life, the female gender disintegrated in my mind from a diverse group of individual human beings to a malevolent homogeneous mass that existed to taunt and threaten me. Femininity, in all its beauty and cruelty, existed outside of me. Was I transgender? No, that was not the case. I had transgender friends, and I couldn’t relate to their situation at all. I wasn’t a boy, nor was I genderqueer or anything else. I was a woman—an unbearably inadequate one.

During my time on the internet I was introduced to radical feminism. As I scrolled through blog after blog of ignorant, hateful misandrist drivel, I felt a righteous anger stirring inside me. Here were the same pretty, popular girls that used their social power to degrade me talking about how oppressed they were. They spoke proudly about degrading their bodies through cheap, meaningless sex. They bragged about destroying the sexual and social confidence of men and then called it ’empowerment.’ They saw the entire world as a perpetual struggle between the female collective and an oppressive patriarchal system, and their purpose in life was smashing that system. They laughed off the idea that they, too, might be oppressive. I could have sought out the opinions of more moderate, rational feminists who believe in equality and denounced misandry and perpetual victimhood. Instead, I sought out the most extreme, hateful strands of feminism to feed my pathological view of women as oppressors and of feminism as their cruel doctrine of superiority. By religiously quoting Norman Mailer and styling myself as a strident ally of the Men’s Rights Movement, I was able to rationalize my hatred as a tool in a noble struggle against an oppressive regime, rather than what it was—a manifestation of personal anguish over my own inability to cultivate my femininity. My Dylan Klebold-esque nihilistic scattershot angst had transmuted into a full-blown Eric Harris-like messiah complex. My pain no longer tormented me. Now it gave me power.

With every voyeuristic POV porn gif and schizoid hipster tumblr blog, my perception of the feminine dissolved further into a Ballardian nightmare. There were no women, there was only Woman. And Woman was a dismembered, disembodied pastiche of swollen breasts and smooth legs, with red, hot, gaping mouths and ache-inducing curvature, a mysterious and malevolent scheme of tantalizing geometry. And running through it was a current of vicious deception and dark desire, seeping in the marrow of my bones like poison, haunting me with its pristine elusiveness. I raged against it, writing a story where I shot up my school, replete with violent sexual imagery like “slut after slut can’t wait for me to blow [my gun] in her mouth.” I had recurring rape fantasies, celebrating the unceremonious destruction of my own femininity. I wrote violent poetry that tore at the fabric of being itself:

I don’t write poems, I write death threats
In crippled syntax, in anger and blood and brittle words
Hydrogen bombs of emotional shit
Melt the smoking hot girls
She likes poetry, oh yes she does
She likes plastic poetry shoved down her little gaping throat

When I was 16 I fell in love for the first time, with a girl I met online. I wasn’t particularly distressed to discover that I was gay, but the concept of falling in love terrified me. Being vulnerable to someone, especially a pretty girl, made me feel utterly powerless. It happened all at once. I was browsing her profile when I saw a picture of her, eyes closed, smiling contently, middle fingers raised defiantly in the air. She was gorgeous. She was brilliant. She was witty. She was kind. She was virginal. And she had demons, just like me. I was smitten.

Most women will never understand just how terrifying girls—especially pretty girls—are to men (or, in this case, gay women). To see a pretty girl is to see an angel, a paragon of beauty and virtue. You want to bow down before her, praise her, summon the very best of yourself and lay it at her feet in the hopes that she will deem you worthy and let you into heaven. Sweating and shaking with anxiety, I typed out a series of messages telling her how I felt, trying my damnedest to match her in eloquence and elegance (I’m sure I didn’t come close). I explained to her that she made me feel like I could be a good person and that she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I gave her the best of myself that I could possibly summon, then stared, sick with fear, into the vacant algorithm of the Facebook messenger app, awaiting my fate.

She rejected me. Hard. “You need to stop,” she told me. “These feelings you’re having for me are not okay.” She wasn’t being homophobic. It was me that was not okay. There was something fundamentally wrong with my love. I fell in love for the first time, and my love hurt someone. What good is a person whose love is malignant? How can they possibly hope to achieve good? Looking back at it now, I still maintain she could have handled the situation better, but I can appreciate how creepy and desperate I probably sounded. At the time, though, my warped mind saw it as a strident rejection of my peace offering to the human race. Your love hurts people. You are not welcome here. It felt like I had just been kicked out of heaven and had the door slammed in my face. For some, being rejected by a pretty girl can feel like offering yourself to an angel and having the angel say, “Ew.” My angel said, “Ow.”

What happened in the weeks that followed can probably best be described as demonic. In an attempt to dissociate from my pain, I tried to induce a psychotic state by locking myself in my room, depriving myself of sleep, food, and medication, and inflicting physical and psychological trauma on myself. My unrequited love interest stopped talking to me, deleting all her social media accounts and ghosting me without warning. I was shattered. Not long after I had a fantasy about her so violent and evil I refused to believe it came from my own mind. I started hearing voices and having panic attacks. My days and nights blurred together. I became a prisoner of my own mind, tormented by violent thoughts and vengeful urges. Unable to repress these urges and afraid I might act on them, I attempted suicide. My parents had me hospitalized, pulled me out of school, and put me on a waitlist for a treatment program. I came home from the hospital debilitatingly depressed, spending my days lying in bed brooding and plotting revenge on everyone who had wronged me.

When Elliot Rodger shot up a sorority in Isla Vista in 2014, I was enthralled. I told people that he was my soulmate and that it was such a shame he killed himself because I would have married him and we could have “killed so many sluts together.” Reading his manifesto and watching his videos, I found a kindred spirit. Here was someone who, like me, was bullied and socially rejected, especially by girls, and was done with being pushed around. He was, to me, a martyr for the awkward and the autistic, the lonely and the downtrodden. I was disgusted and enraged by the #YesAllWomen campaign carried out by feminists in the wake of the attack. How dare they use their sexual advantage to push an innocent, troubled boy over the edge and then have the nerve to turn around and play the victim? Rodger was the product of a society that teaches men to feel entitled to women’s bodies? Women felt entitled to use their bodies as weapons to tease and torment men without consequence! Rodger’s manifesto brought me to PUAHate (now SlutHate), where I was introduced to incel culture for the first time. I learned that I had been ‘black-pilled’—that is, I had come to believe that I would never find love or get better and that women and feminism were to blame. I finally had a festering ground for the violent, nihilistic ideology I had nurtured. However, before I could become too involved in the incel community, my social workers confiscated my phone and cut off my internet access.

Living without internet forced me to interact with other people and, moreover, myself. Stripped of diversions, I was forced to look in the mirror, and I hated what I saw. I decided to make a change. I began showering and washing my face regularly. I cut my hair, did my eyebrows, and started wearing age-appropriate clothes. I started engaging in therapy, learning basic life and social skills. Slowly, I felt my confidence grow. When I revisited PUAHate after getting my internet back a couple months later, I still related to the angst and sexual frustration, but found the suicidal fatalism pathetic and weak.

When I was 18, I received sexual attention for the first time. I was sitting alone in the stands at a hockey rink watching a practice when I heard a banging noise. I looked over and saw a couple of teenage boys pointing at me, thrusting their hips against the glass and making vulgar gestures. My heart swelled. Sexual attention! Just like a normal girl! I gushed to my social worker and anyone who would listen. I couldn’t understand why my mother told me I shouldn’t be happy about guys crudely propositioning themselves to me. All I knew was after four years of being ignored and put down, people were finally looking at me with sexual interest, and that made me feel human. It made me feel powerful.

My mental and physical heath continued to improve. I started going to the gym, which not only helped me get in shape but gave me a sense of accomplishment, which gave me confidence. My senior prom was coming up, and my social worker wanted me to go. I furiously resisted—nothing could be worse than paying an exorbitant amount of money to get all dressed up and sit next to a bunch of people I hated. But she was insistent. So I figured, if I had to go, I wasn’t going to go alone. There was a girl in one of my classes who I thought might have a crush on me. I decided to try and solicit a prom date from her. After several weeks of awkward, reticent flirting (such is the case when two shy aspies like each other) we admitted that we did in fact like each other and that, yes, she would go to prom with me. That’s the story of how I met the girlfriend I have been with ever since.

Having a girlfriend changed my life. I lost my virginity. I went on dates to the beach and to the movies. I had someone to talk to about my thoughts and feelings instead of sitting around my house alone brooding all the time. I had someone to hold hands with, someone to say “I love you” to, someone to squeeze and have squeeze you back (which still feels like a little miracle to me every time it happens). I got a group of friends for the first time in years and we did things together like go to the mall and stay up until 4am laughing at dumb memes. For the first time in years, I felt like I belonged. I told my therapist I felt like Pinocchio when he becomes a real boy. Finally, I was a real girl, a normal teenager, a fully formed human being.

Being a real girl means many things. It means chivalrous men hold the door open for you and let you cut in front of them in line. It means boys come up to you in the subway and at the mall and tell you that you look cute. It means men look at you like you’re an angel, offering to buy you drinks in exchange for a ticket to heaven. But it also means having elderly drunken homeless men hit on you and being called a frigid bitch for rebuffing them. It means lying on the porcelain tile floor of the bathroom at a house party, trembling and confused, trying to make sense of what just happened to you through a haze of weed and alcohol. It means walking home at night with your key rings around your knuckles. It means listening to your male friends say that if girls don’t want to get raped, they shouldn’t dress a certain way. It means finding out, with a sinking heart, the demeaning things your male role models think and say about women. It means reading the junior hockey bible and realizing that while the incel in you would have found this funny, the real girl is disgusted by the degradation and sexual cruelty. It means realizing that when incels on SlutHate say they hate sluts, they aren’t just talking about pretty mean girls or girls who rejected you, they’re talking about all girls. They’re talking about you.

*     *     *

Women suffer at the hands of men. Men suffer at the hands of women. Both sides are certain that the game is hopelessly rigged in the other side’s favor. Both are certain that if we could just overthrow the patriarchy, or if we could just destroy the radical feminist agenda, everything would be okay. But why should we believe that? There are people who are so hurt and broken that they feel the need to tear down the whole system. It is not only cold comfort but incredibly dangerous to hand over the reins of control to those who are either unwilling or unable to take control of themselves.

We live in an era of great fear and uncertainty. Women have acquired unprecedented sexual, economic, and political freedom in the span of a few short generations. A man who bragged about getting away with sexual assault was elected to the most powerful office in the world, and now women fear that freedom is at risk. Globalization and automation have robbed millions of men of the dignity of work, particularly physical labor, leaving them struggling to find a purpose. Marriages break up at the same rate as they stay together; church attendance has plummeted; headlines are rife with scandal; new cultures, lifestyles, and opinions are introduced into the public square every day.

The world is moving at a pace we are struggling to reckon with. When the great machine of history lurches forward, shifting its mighty, indifferent apparatus, gears are bound to get moved around and crushed. But human beings are not gears in a machine. We are fragile individual souls with weak, frail bodies. And when the machine crushes us, we bleed. We break down and suffer and slip through the cracks of history into the depths below. When factories close and eviction notices go out, when female bodies crawl bleeding and broken out of college dorm rooms and corner offices, when love unravels and lonely broken souls are crushed under the weight of existence, when we lose our purpose and exist in perpetual suffering and the universe forgets about us, looking in the mirror and seeking the truth can seem like a pointless exercise. It can even feel like submission to injustice. Fear, and the desire to alleviate that fear, can seem like the only natural response. But if we want to put an end to gender-based violence and suffering, then we have to face our fear, and overcome it. Because violence is pain ignored, and ignorance feeds off fear.

We want to believe that we are all innocent victims, mowed down by some psychopath in a van, sanctioned by a society that dehumanized us. We want to believe that the cruel world forced us to drive that van into the crowd and exact revenge on our tormentors. But that’s not the case. We’re all guilty, and none of us has the right to dole out punishment. We need to seek to understand and not simply conquer one another. We need to accept the fundamental unfairness of life and realize that the only way to meaningfully tackle mutable injustices in society is to start by examining our own behavior and recognizing the impact of our own choices.

I am haunted by the fact that, in spite of being in a unique position to talk to Alek Minassian and try to convince him to rethink his choices, I never would have had a chance to say anything because I would have been just another target to him. I’ll never get a chance to try and talk him out of it, to do my part to try to prevent those senseless deaths. But to the would-be future van attackers, the angry incels stewing in their rooms contemplating going ER, I say this: I will never know what it’s like to be you. As a woman, I will never know what it’s like to suffer as a man. But I do know what it’s like to be ignored, bullied, and rejected, especially by women. I know how much it hurts to give everything to a girl only to have her reject you for some Chad who doesn’t even treat her right while she complains that all she wants is someone nice. I know that there are women who use their sexual power to hurt men and that society lets us get away with it, and that’s not right. I don’t know if all women do it, but many do. I have done it. It was wrong and I am sorry.

But murder is an unjustifiable response. Not only is it egomaniacal and ignorant to assume moral authority over who lives and dies, but it is also futile because no amount of violence will ever assuage your pain. No matter how many people you target with your wrath, you will continue to be empty and dead inside until you can find enough self-respect to stand up for yourself and confront your pain. No system or movement or ideology can do that for you. Only you can. And you need to, because you matter, irrespective of what anyone tells you. And important responsibilities await you once you overcome your demons. Individual women may hurt you, but women do not exist to hurt you. We are not just sluts or Stacys. We are your mothers, your sisters, your future wives and daughters. And we are counting on men like you to accept responsibility for your life and to help us become better women.

I have also been thinking a lot about my fellow women, who live in fear that one day an unfortunate happenstance of a ponytail and a dentist appointment will reduce them to the target of an angry man’s rampage. To them I say: I will never know what it’s like to be you. But I do know what it’s like to suffer as a woman, to be reduced to a body part, to be told that your rights are subject to what you wear or how much you’ve had to drink. I know how dehumanizing it feels to be demeaned and degraded and told to take it as a compliment. I know what it’s like to be reduced to a number and to have sex weaponized against you. I know there are bitter women who join in on the sexual dehumanization. I was one of those women. I was wrong, and I am sorry. But we are not victims of some vast patriarchal conspiracy. Individual men may hurt us, but men do not exist to oppress us. They are our fathers, our brothers, our future husbands and sons. And they need us—even if they aren’t willing to admit it—to help them become better men.

Destructive defiance is easy. In the agony of our injustices it can even feel righteous. Rage makes momentary gods of us all. But the hard, eternal truth is that the only appropriate way to respond to pain is not to lash out but to turn inward, sort ourselves out, and set out together to overcome suffering and exact constructive change.

In the wake of the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s murder, I have been reflecting on his response to the assassination of Martin Luther King. Kennedy was on a plane en route to a campaign stop in Indianapolis when he heard the news that King had been fatally shot. Fearing for his safety, Kennedy’s aides urged him to cancel his event and return home. But Kennedy was adamant. He arrived in Indianapolis and, brushing off the protestations of worried police, stood on the back of a flatbed truck and informed the crowd of King’s death. Speaking extemporaneously, he urged them not to give in to their understandable anger. “What we need in the United States is not division,” he said. “What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.” Quoting Aeschylus, he told the crowd, “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” The cities of America burned that night with righteous outrage at the senseless hatred of King’s assassination. Indianapolis did not.

Coming to terms with our pain is the most difficult thing we can do. Ultimately it is the only thing we do. It is nothing less than the final sanction of our existence as human beings. I have felt the pain of the boy in the van and the girl on the street. I have tried to confront that pain, glean from it what wisdom I can, and divulge that wisdom to you. I hope you consider it.

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Hayley Morrison

The author is a factory worker who lives in Toronto. ‘Hayley Morrison’ is a pseudonym.