Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift. 
A few months ago, I finally mustered up the courage to ask myself: Am I a bad person? Naturally, it sparked a feverish rummaging through my inner life; chests overflowing with things I was ashamed of having said or done upturned, the carpet peeled off the muck I’d stowed away under it. There it lay, glinting, evidence of my bad-ness.
A series of seemingly unrelated coincidences:
My oldest and best friend asking a stumping, sobering question, “Why can’t I believe I am loved?”
Two friends sitting across from each other at our dining table, high-fiving, “We’ll get married to our partners just so they can’t leave!”
A group of women huddled together at a party. One, blurry-drunk, saying, “After breaking up with my toxic ex, I finally understood what ‘We accept the love we think we deserve’ means.” 
Tied to my anxieties of being a ‘bad’ person is the array of behaviour encompassed in the category of toxic. Being in love, especially when I wasn’t offered either many good examples or a guide-book on how to love (which Alain de Botton so delightfully describes as “an act of charity and imagination to what might be broken in us”), initially became a tug-of-war between my desire to be seen head and heart, body and soul, and to remain fiercely, unyieldingly independent. These disparate (or so I thought at the time) parts of me squabbled and sparred, revealing sharp edges I didn’t know I have within me, edges that could hurt not only me but also those I love.
Surprisingly, even my close, intimate friendships have bristled with fear of judgment for the politics we strive to embody, and the wet floors and difficulty exercising caution when we’ve had on Love Goggles in our romantic relationships. Seeing through these rose-tinted glasses has at times fogged my vision, or maybe it isn’t that I couldn’t see but that I didn’t want to: being loved or even simply desired reinforced two paramount truths to me. One, that I was worthy of love, and two, that I was desirable. If this love or desire was taken away from me, no matter what the reasons behind this ‘taking away’ or the dynamics of this relationship, it would reinforce two terrifying beliefs I hold. One, that I was inherently ‘bad’, and two (which is still tough to navigate in real-life despite theoretically understanding feminism), that I would never be smart-pretty-funny-what-have-you, i.e., desirable enough. Sharing something I felt uneasy about, a boundary crossed, an uncomfortable sexual encounter, or even a particularly ‘ugly’ argument, meant I would first have to identify my own needs and desires, gauge if these were being met, and accept how I felt and what its implications on my current relationship would be before opening up to tell my friends I was struggling to live the way we all aspire to live, and was in many ways unable to sometimes even understand the complexities and contours of love. I have been on the other end myself as well, unable to show up with empathy and imagination for friends who wanted to talk about the disagreeable aspects of their romantic relationships.
In the last few years, the word toxic has acquired a life of its own, surpassing the narrow definition of ‘poisonous’ to include in its ambit relationships, workplaces, and broadly, any environment where our wellbeing is negatively affected. However, what does toxic really mean? Does it comprise a pre-decided set of characteristics? Sprouting horns? A check-list of unhealthy behaviour? More importantly, are we all capable of being toxic?
A few days passed. Assiduously, I thought about not thinking about the mess I had made, delaying disentangling memory from the meaning I had imputed to it; an outburst of anger now festered with guilt, an inability to assert my needs in certain relationships curdled with the fear of simultaneously being too much and not enough, a personal or professional setback a neon sign lit with shame. My worry grew bigger and bigger, dripped into long and sleepless nights, pressed itself against the glass and glared at me slyly, knowingly. I knew it was time to open my box full of darkness.
Transformative Justice, skeletally defined, is a way of responding to violence, harm, and abuse without creating more violence. At the heart of Transformative Justice is the belief that all human beings have value, and are capable of changing and evolving. Stepping away from a legal framework pivoted on punishment, i.e., divesting an individual of their liberty, as an appropriate response to any act of violence or harm, Transformative Justice leads us into a world coloured in shades of grey.
I have hesitated to embrace these grey areas because they require constant attention and effort. Sometimes, as jittery and circular conversations with myself: Did, and if so, how did my words or actions affect someone negatively? Sometimes, as reflection on our own wellbeing: Am I and if so, do I feel safe, respected, and loved? To walk this tightrope is to dwell in vulnerability, to acknowledge that we are human, after all.
In this vibrantly grey world, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cease to be absolutes and instead, interact and coexist, throwing into a tizzy our socio-culturally shaped ideas of who might be capable of inflicting harm and who experiencing it. We can be angry and compassionate, be hurt and cause hurt, understand and yet not justify. This is not to say that historically marginalised communities aren’t more vulnerable to systemic violence or dismiss the impact of such harm, but simply to upend tied-in-a-bow notions. We grow up learning to direct anger and hatred towards perpetrators, and compassion towards victims/survivors.
Acts of violence, especially in intimate relationships, are mired in fear and shame of not only having experienced harm at the hands of someone we love but also of having caused harm to someone we love. Our legal system and of late, call-out culture, far too simplistically label and publicly shame individuals, hinged on the dichotomy of guilty and innocent to ease retributive decision-making and ultimately fail to foster meaningful healing for either the perpetrator or the survivor/victim. And, because the lines between good and bad are taut and tense, we balk at the thought of having been violent ourselves.
In a socio-cultural and political milieu pervaded with violence, small and everyday as well as grotesque and brutal, Transformative Justice attempts to interrupt the self-defeating cycle of crime and punishment by focusing its energy on acknowledging violence at an individual as well as a systemic level, examining why it occurs, and emphasises individual as well as community accountability to put in the work required for remedy. It is by recognising the humanness of violence that Transformative Justice reinforces our worthiness, telling us we are not inherently bad even if we have done something bad, supplanting shame and ostracisation with empathy and shared responsibility.
Accountability, a central tenet of Transformative Justice, is our ability to look within, understand, and assume responsibility for the impact our actions have on others. It is predicated on as well as followed by vulnerability: our courage to shine light on the parts of ourselves we hide and let perish in dark, dingy corners for fear of shame, embarrassment, insecurity, and, hardest to shake off, parts of ourselves that make us feel like a Bad Person. Deliberate and ongoing, vulnerability begins with admitting to ourselves that we are flawed and capable of making mistakes, and when shared with another, reassures us that despite our missteps and blunders, we are works in progress and worthy of love at every step of our individual and collective journeys.
Working within the framework of Transformative Justice equips us to build and nurture robust safe spaces of vulnerability and accountability. These spaces encourage us to bravely self-reflect and work towards changing our behaviour if we have been hurtful, with the support of our loved ones and larger community in atoning for the harm we may have caused, unpacking why we may have done so, and ensuring that we do not repeat the same behaviour. Vulnerability empowers us to reach out and ask for help, and accountability moves beyond blame to affirm our sense of self and connect more lovingly with ourselves, and others.
Once I sat down with my box full of darkness, rifling through bundles of Why did I do that? and Why did I say that? I went closer to myself. In asking myself Why with curiosity and intent to be more thoughtful, more calm, more loving instead of using Why as a stick to poke myself with and burrow into hiding, I have begun discovering and coming to terms and examining, relationally, my feelings and desires and how I express them. Herein lies the transformative potential of vulnerability: in looking at ourselves as a blend of our unique individual characteristics and larger socio-cultural, political, and economic influences.
Author, researcher and professor, Brené Brown promotes vulnerability as the “birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change”. Vulnerability allows us to go into the world with open arms, and honour and embrace shadow and light gently and empathetically. When we are in tune with our authentic thoughts and feelings, vulnerability can be a guide-post in traversing through life, allowing us to forge deep and meaningful connections where we can hold space to mess up and get back on our feet again.
Thank you, Prabha Nagaraja for your insight, patience, and inspiringly seeming lack of frustration in having to navigate grey areas.
- Community Accountability for Survivors of Sexual Violence Toolkit
- To Stop Gender Violence, Start Changing the Tune
- How Being Held Accountable Is an Experience of Vulnerability
 Oliver, Mary. ‘The Uses of Sorrow’, from Thirst, Boston: Beacon Press, 2006
 Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books, 1999
Cover Image: Pixabay