Bearing Witness to Stories of Sexual Abuse and Racial Trauma

Linda Royster and Sue Cunningham join Dan Allender for this episode to discuss the transformative impact of Recovery Weeks

Recovery Week is a holistic experience designed to create a relational, healing space for survivors to explore and engage the impact of their stories of sexual abuse. The Allender Center offers a Men’s Recovery Week, a Women’s Recovery Week, and a Women’s Recovery Week with a Focus on Racial Trauma & Healing for Women of Color.

With extensive involvement in Women’s Recovery Weeks for many years, Linda and Sue, along with Vanessa Sadler, are leading this year’s inaugural Women’s Recovery Week with a Focus on Racial Trauma and Healing.

Reflecting on her initial experience as the sole Woman of Color in attendance, Linda shares how profoundly impactful the healing experience was, sparking her desire to create a dedicated space addressing the intersectionality of sexual abuse and racial trauma for Women of Color.

An important aspect of this Recovery Week is the acknowledgment of how women of color may carry the shame of trauma differently. Linda emphasizes understanding the reality of identity and how it informs the response to the harm suffered within both the community and the larger context. This unique identity informs questions about whether care will be available and whether spaces will be made accessible for women who hold certain identities. This aspect of the work during the Recovery Week aims to recognize and honor these differences, ensuring that care is accessible and tailored to the needs of Women of Color.

For those curious about the essence of a Recovery Week, this episode offers a glimpse into the healing processes and profound connections forged during these events.

You’ll hear firsthand about how participants engage in intimate conversations exploring their healing journey, confronting the challenges of shame and betrayal, and celebrating the beauty of finding belonging and mutual support through bearing witness to each other’s stories.

Please note that this episode contains discussions of sexual abuse and sexual activity, and is intended for adult audiences only. Listener discretion is advised.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: It’s my opinion that people who are deeply committed to the kingdom of God are fascinating. Now, we can say that all people, truly, all people are fascinating. But the people who have a deep, deep sense of passion to serve a kingdom of God, I think are some of the most peculiar, unusual, if not outright odd. And today I have the great privilege of being with two dear friends, colleagues who I have been with like hundreds of years together in the context of doing Recovery Weeks. And so Linda Royster and Sue Cunningham. Linda is a therapist located in North Carolina. Sue is a therapist and spiritual director who’s profoundly peripatetic, I don’t know if I would give her a locale other than she does live in California, which we have forgiven her for, but operate literally often around the whole country. And so Linda, Sue, welcome and thank you for being uniquely peculiar.

Linda: Well, thank you. It’s a privilege to join this conversation. And those words, peculiar, strange, odd, I would say, Dan, it takes one to know one, right? So it’s been a privilege to be in this work with you and Sue and we’ve done this work together over decades. Over decades.

Dan: Well, and normal Allender Center years, we go by dog years. So that would be 70. But I think when you enter into Recovery Weeks, we’ll talk a little bit about what that is. It’s a whole new timeframe that extends way beyond dog years. But again, Sue, welcome.

Sue: Thank you. It’s so good to be here. And I feel like if this is what it means to be peculiar and odd, I would rather be with no other group. It’s such an honor and to be part of Recovery Weeks. I mean, when you say time, I feel like we lose time when we’re in Recovery Week because it’s like it goes so slow and then it goes so fast and the work happens in light years and maybe feel us like dog ears. I don’t know. It’s great.

Dan: Well, Recovery Week is oriented to addressing the issues of sexual abuse in the lives of men separately and women separately, meaning we have a group of men coming in to address sexual abuse, a group of women. And you two have been so central for what, again, feels like almost my lifetime, to engage the complexities that come with regard to some of the most foul and heartbreaking harm that evil brings to the human condition. And that is the violation of one’s gender, one’s sexuality, one’s sense of identity in the context of that violation. And so I really want to just sort of begin by saying I could never be involved in doing this kind of work without you. The quality of your hearts, the quality of your competence, the ability to enter dark domains, but with the presence of the light of the hope of the gospel, it is holding death and resurrection together in ways that very few people have the experience of. And we’ve had that multiple times. But just to begin by asking, given that we began doing this work in 1988, we’ve been consistent every year except for one in the context of COVID, dammit. But nonetheless, for, I don’t do math well, but three decades and a half or something in that range. How did you get into this? How did you each get into this work?

Sue: Well, I was around, I was a student the very first Recovery Week. I was a graduate student. And I remember praying for Recovery Week. We had just heard the material, Dan, you had taught it to us over a weekend, and we knew that people were coming into town to participate in this never before done weekend or actually no week. And I just remember praying and wondering what this could be and what this could mean for the future of healing and helping people. And so from then on, but I didn’t begin sort of staffing and doing the work of Recovery Weeks until later. And I would just say that it was, I mean, I spent most of the first part of my work with Recovery Weeks wondering if I should be there. And that is such a common thing that people feel, oh, is my story bad enough? Do I deserve to be there? I’m sure there’s other people that should be here more than me. And it took me several years. That’s the beautiful thing about working this kind of work is it works on our own hearts. So I have grown so much, and not only, I thought back just recently because my story is a story of genocide. And as Linda has helped so much learn that, and Dan as well, genocide is sexual abuse, but I had never thought of it that way. And so I have learned so much about my own story, and now I kind of look back and think, oh my gosh, how would I not be here? It’s so much apart of what it’s meant to understand the sexual harm and the spiritual harm and all the harm in my life.

Dan: And just to underscore that, your maiden name, what a strange phrase, but people know hat that means was Haroutunian, and as you speak about your people’s Holocaust, you’re talking about

Sue: Yeah, the Armenian genocide. Yeah, the Armenian genocide.

Dan: That’s just an important category that, again, I find many, many people still do not know about the Armenian Holocaust, but an important category that we’ll come back to in a moment. I think Linda will open the door to that. Sexual abuse is a deeply individual and personal experience, but there are cultural and in one sense, racial realities to this. So Linda as well, how did you find your way into this odd world?

Linda: Yeah, I got exposed to Recovery Weeks as a participant. So I had the benefit of sitting on the other side of where we sit at this point. And maybe Recovery Weeks had been going on for nearly 15, 16, 17, 18 years. It was in the early 2000s that I attended Recovery Week as a participant. And it was transformative. And it led to my journey through The Seattle School as a student to earn a Master’s degree in Counseling and Psychology. But it was at Recovery Week where I knew because of the transformation that was happening in me in six days, the transformation was real. And there was a measure of freedom that I had not experienced before that week regarding my stories of abuse. And so what happened in small measure, sort of like the woman at the well who went back to her community, I went back to my community and I started to talk about my story. And then as I talked more about my story, my circle of friends started to come out with their stories of abuse. My pastor started to talk about sexual abuse from the pulpit, and I just had this growing understanding that there was more freedom and more liberty rather available to us and for us if we were able to tell our stories in a kind or kinder, safe, safer holding environment. And part of the heartache of a week of a Recovery Week was that I was the only Black woman in that space. And so while it was transformative in lots of ways, it was meaningful and beautiful, there was also this agony, agony that’s ongoing reality, that I was the only one there who had my face, only one there who looked like me. And there are some parts of my story that weren’t addressed because we weren’t talking particularly about culture, about race, about racism. We weren’t talking about racial trauma, which is very much a part of sexual abuse. It’s been some of my theory and teaching that they are indeed one and the same as Sue mentioned earlier, that racism, racial trauma is a form of sexual abuse. And so I didn’t have the opportunity to engage at that level at that time. But it began the process of this burgeoning desire, which was if there were more people who knew about an offering like this, more women of color, particularly more Black women who knew about an offering like this, what a radical shift it could mean for us. But then as the years went on, I also came to understand, yes, this offering is transformative, but also we need to lean into the particularity of what it means to be women of color. And that adds another layer of heartache and work that has to be brought into the story engagement, which is why then we have come to offer our first ever Recovery Week with an emphasis on Racial Trauma and Healing, which will be happening on June 27th and Pine Knoll Shores in North Carolina this year. So Sue will be one of the primary facilitators there along with Vanessa Sadler. We will launch our first ever Recovery Week for Women of Color, which is extraordinary and is extraordinarily exciting.

Dan: Well, first ever and one of many ahead. I would actually personally pray that it’s the first and last because Jesus returns. But if he tarries, other than that, may it be one of many, but as we step into both worlds, the world that you both entered, the world that’s ahead, how would you capture what significant things need to be addressed that you find either through having been a participant or as you have been as a significant facilitator, leader, teacher in this process? What do you find people saying or needing to be addressed for the kind of transformation that you both have put words to?

Sue: One of the things I think is so unique is there’s a threefold component of the week. There’s large group teaching, which is so important just to give the women a base of what are the categories that we’re thinking of. And Dan, you have created such excellent material about what it means to be sexually abused and what are the common struggles that show up as themes. And then there is small group interaction, which for many of the women, for many of us, we might have individual therapy, but we’ve not been in a group. And so many times the women will come and they’ll say, I didn’t want to meet anyone. I wanted to do the week by myself, but I had to be with the women. But that’s my favorite thing is they’ve now met other women who they can’t believe because so often what we do is in silence and in secret, and we don’t share. And so we think we’re alone. And then when the women have the opportunity to be in a small group with other women, it’s all confidential and held with utmost honor. They can share what they feel comfortable and only what they feel comfortable sharing and having other women be their witness and feel like, oh my gosh, I’m not alone. And then there’s one-on-one time to unpack any things that you want to unpack one-on-one. But then the other thing is then they have the whole group, which was amazing because what Dan set up many years ago, which is there won’t be subgroups. Like this group will be one big group, and if you do something, you’ll do it together. And again, there’s always this sort of pushback internally, women have told me like, oh, I hated, I didn’t want to do that. But that becomes again, their most favorite part, that they get to be in community and fellowship with other women.

Linda: Yeah, I love that you’re highlighting all the components that make a Recovery Week so unique. I think we’ve not witnessed, but we’ve heard about the connections that happen outside of group time, outside of one-to-one, and the connections that happen where the women become profound advocates for each other and develop friendships and connections. And some have even gone through multiple Recovery Weeks together. And so I found that incredibly fascinating is the kind of bonding that happens when they’re not in the group, when they’re walking the parameters of the facility or when they’re sitting on a porch together or doing an activity together, that there’s a bonding and the beginning of trust, a trusting safe relationship that happens. I’m also aware that in the uniqueness of a kind of Recovery Week that focuses on racial trauma and healing, is that we will emphasize the impact of collective trauma and the layered reality of how that affects us in our personal lives, how that affects our experience of trauma, and even how that trauma is mitigated or not, how we metabolize that trauma or not, or whether we get care for that trauma or not. So we will emphasize the collective reality and impact of trauma. And then what will also be an important aspect of the work that we’ll do together is to think about how women of color may carry the shame of trauma differently. And so we’ll understand some of the reality about our identity and how our unique identity informs how our community and the larger context might or might not give credence to the harm that we’ve suffered. In other words, recognize it, honor it, will we get care, will care be made available space be made available for women who hold a certain identity? And so that to me sounds like at least two of the primary categories that will feel unique to Women of Color in this identity work that we’ll do in the midst of a Recovery Week.

Dan: No matter, male, female, no matter sexual orientation, no matter racial reality, the reality for everyone, as you put it, both of you put it, there’s such a war with shame. And that war will be experienced differently in different cultures, let alone different families, let alone different persons. But there is a fundamental war against the human heart. Ultimately, we believe that the kingdom of evil is working to create isolation through shame. And that’s the notion, as you put it, Sue, of people wanting to come, getting the benefit, but they don’t want to mess with any of the people there. And you begin to realize, as simplistic as this sounds, the harm was done in relationship and healing is done in relationship. And the more, shall we say, layers of reality that we can bring into that, including in terms of racial trauma, the more you can bring reality of what people have suffered, where they have suffered in the context they’ve suffered that, the more opportunity for there to be shame, exposed, shame in one sense, the power of shame beginning to dissipate. So what has your experience both been in terms of dealing with your own and other people’s shame, particularly in the context of addressing the war related to sexual abuse?

Sue: Well, one thing that I wanted to say that I wasn’t even aware of was how much work I was doing internally by myself, how much translating I was doing when, for example, when you were teaching, I was translating in my own way, but not ever thinking, I would say that out loud. Some of the cultural things are so much how shame is just such a part of my culture and my experience. I was always translating inside. And one of the things, Linda, I get so excited when I hear you saying is we’re going to do that work already and present it so that you don’t have to translate alone, that the community of cultures and races is already on the table, rather than having to on your own in private figure out how does this apply to me in my unique way? And that’s been life-changing for me actually to feel not alone and to feel like my shame is not the most powerful thing in the room, which it often has felt like.

Linda: Absolutely. As I think of how shame has shown up in my story, I can speak from the perspective of being a southern-born African-American woman. And the trope that’s often active or activated toward Black women is that they’re a strong, strong Black woman who’s resilient. And part of the shame that would manifest in my life over seasons is I can’t show vulnerability or weakness or need because I am supposed to be this strong Black woman. I am meant to be impervious to harm. Whatever you do, whatever you say, it’s not going to break me. But when I feel broken, when I felt harmed, when I felt vulnerable to things done or word said, then it in a strange way activated a sense of shame. That I’m not even strong enough as a Black woman to buffer or guard myself from assaults. And so working with my shame has been allowing myself to feel well with being vulnerable, to own that, oh, this hurts, and that I’m not superwoman, I’m actually human, and it is profoundly, holy to be human. So those are parts of some of the ways that I’ve learned to engage.

Dan: And I’m stating as a fact, but asking you to both respond, it feels like one of the primary goals of evil, to make sure that you’re robbed of an identity that bears beauty and that you are robbed of desire because evil has worked something of the grooming, something of the care that the abuser often offers and does so in a way in which there’s a sense of being alive, cared for, pursued, and in that bond of the abuser moving toward me, while arousing within me, the desire to be seen, to be cared for. But when that’s bound to then being touched and violated in some way, there’s this sense of complicity like, I am bad. I am dangerous. There are dark, wicked, whatever words you would wish, things within me that have to be hidden, have to be hidden. And so much of the shame for anyone who’s been abused is what to do with the arousal from being groomed what to do with the arousal at some level, again, it doesn’t have to be much to feel our body alive, even in the midst of being well, the trauma being violated, the fear, the agony, the despair, the disgust, all that. Our bodies feel like an enemy. But if you’re also a person who has been judged because of the color of their skin or because of their ethnicity, it just adds, again, another layer of identity being stripped, but something being wrong within. So the combination again, of that personal and collective, should we just say, it’s a shit storm of complexity that most people at one level just want to go, oh, just forget about it. Just move on. And I find that in a lot of communities, a lot of churches, a lot of people. So in your own worlds and in your own own Armenian world, in your own African-American world, how do you address the, should we say, the upheaval that comes by being invited to name all of what’s happening inside, but also outside?

Linda: I’ll begin to address that by saying how powerful it was. It may have been at a Recovery Week or reading The Wounded Heart, where I began to understand because of the way you were framing the conversation, Dan, that our bodies responded a particular way to touch. So if your clitoris is rubbed, there will be arousal or excitement. And so beginning to normalize that our bodies, our young bodies responded because that’s how it was designed. It was designed to respond to touch. It was designed to respond to stimulation. And so for me, what was transformative is beginning to understand, oh, there was nothing foul or unholy about the way my body responded that it was normal and actually doing what it was designed to do. So just that one category alone began to open up doors of freedom for me to begin to take some of the onus off my shoulders regarding my own story. Oh my gosh, my body was doing exactly what God designed it to do. So then not turning against myself, but also to take it out of the personal into the collective reality, that when I was doing things to move closer to, I’ll use this phrase when I was trying to gain proximity to whiteness because I was conditioned in a particular context that didn’t say explicitly, but what I intuited and what I observed is that in order to have goodness that in some way I need to be proximate to whiteness, whether it is going to a particular school or having a particular job, I needed to have proximity to whiteness in order to be okay. And so beginning to understand my own internalized racism, but also understanding that I was making decisions for survival. I was doing what I thought I needed to do in order to survive my world and be okay. When I understand that kind of sense of, of course, of course, you would’ve thought that of course you would have done that. And without people being in their journey with me over the years to help me again normalize or understand, of course, of course, you would’ve made those decisions when you didn’t have anyone to counter that in any meaningful way. And to understand that I was operating in a way that would guarantee my survival because the opposite of that meant destruction and annihilation.

Sue: Yeah, and one of the things I’ve appreciated so much about our work over the years is and how big the tent is for sexual harm and trauma and racial harm and trauma. And so my story is different, and yet there’s still so much overlap. Like when you say proximity to whiteness, I always think, oh my goodness, since in many circles I can be considered White passing, even though the most prominent question anyone ever asks me is, where are you from? What are you, they know I’m something, but in many circles, and I’ve had privilege in my life to where I didn’t even realize myself how much I was striving for that proximity to whiteness and how much it underscored so much of what I did. And it also emphasized a very cultural norm, which is kind of blood is thicker than water, and you don’t tell your cultural stories or issues outside of the culture. We can talk about it among ourselves, but you will never say it outside of an Armenian culture. And I’ve heard this also from you, Linda, and other cultures too, which is you keep your business to yourself. And I think that’s one of the healing things, as you were saying before and about shame and how even speaking breaks down the shame, it breaks down. And having people be able to say, oh, you make sense. I understand. I know what you mean. I’ve experienced something like that too.

Dan: Well, the reality that, especially when there has been violation at a young age, and I mean between birth and 15 is what I mean by young, when there’s been violation, survival is not a conscious act. It’s just an act. It’s not an intention like, how can I survive? I will do X, Y, and Z. Oh, that’s a good plan. I’ll implement it. It is what we know, trauma built, trauma-based, fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and all those structures and all that implies that we want access to what we believe will be the base for gaining what our creator God made us for. That’s delight and honor for goodness, for Shalom. And Linda, you’ve talked often and so brilliantly about the reality of Shalom, and yet the complexity here is that for many of us, we forsook any level of true movement to Shalom and just became satisfied with survival. What would get us through the day without having to deal with the horror and the ghosts of the past and with the absolute terror of what the future holds. And so whether we call that dissociation, whether we call that a structure of trauma built survival, there is a sense in which it works so well that one learns to adapt. And the question then of, well, for you both, but for those you have worked with in the context of a Recovery Week, what has to happen for a person to, in one sense, askew mere survival to take the risk to walk into the absolute uncertainty as to what will someone do with a story that I’m not even sure I can fully tell, let alone have heard by someone else?

Sue: Yes. I think that that’s such a privilege that we have as being facilitators and holders of stories, is that we can say, I believe you, because sometimes I think that’s our greatest job is to say, yes, I believe you. And sometimes we might even say, and it’s even worse, but there’s always an invitation. And I think because what the human heart longs for even more than survival is belonging. When I think of what it means to be able to belong and in my life, to be able to feel like I belong, to feel like as a woman I belong. That’s what I think is so beautiful that these are women with women. And that’s problematic in some ways because sometimes women have been betrayers and also women have been mothers and friends too. And so it does invite belonging and invites an acceptance of our bodies, of our faces of the color and the pigment of our skin and our hair and all the things. So that is what I think has been the most for my life. But also the biggest thing I can offer to someone else is I accept you, you belong. You are well and welcome here.

Linda: Yeah, I would agree, Sue, as soon as you said I belong and I believe you, what came to mind was, and I think Rachael Clinton Chen, I think I first heard her say this years ago regarding story work is the sense that we get to bear witness to each other’s story. So we get to bear witness. And in that bearing witness, we believe that there doesn’t have to be any convincing that what happened to them actually happened. We believe them. So we get to be witnesses of the horror and the impact of the horror, but we also get to be witnesses of the beauty that happens when people begin to lean into naming, putting words to you and doing so in a community, doing so in group. So it’s one thing to do that work siloed or by yourself or one-to-one, and it’s quite another for that work to happen in a small group setting where other people are bearing witness to your story and they’re hearing and seeing the impact, the debris, as you would say, Dan, the debris of story that we get the benefit of bearing witness. I want to circle back a little bit to a conversation that we had a moment ago. We get to work with our sense of betrayal. That’s what I think about in context of color. When we’re naming things about our story that we’ve been conditioned to say, you keep this in the house, you keep it in the family, in the community. We’re inviting people to name and to tell the truth or to tell more truth of their story, and it will be embodied, visceral experience will be that of betraying, betraying your parents, betray your family, your community, and we’re inviting people to take even a half step, a baby step outside of that commitment, that vow or agreement to protect the family, even in our own detriment. So we’re inviting people to step outside of that commitment, and it will feel like betrayal. It’s not betrayal, but it will feel like betrayal to tell the truth.

Dan: The paradox that you’re putting words to is that no one who’s been abused feels anything other than they have been betrayed, yet they also feel complicit, therefore responsible. And that’s if there’s anything that’s going to make you crazy in life, it’s that you’ve been betrayed, set up, used and violated, yet somehow it’s your fault and you should have known better. You should have read the situation you should have avoided, et cetera. So that in one sense, deeply contradictory reality is a norm that people live in the presence of, so you’re talking about bearing witness. Another word for that is that in bearing, we’re part of a bearing that is a birthing of a reality. And I want to underscore that oftentimes when people come in with stories that are beyond comprehension, the debris of evils most evil work, even with those stories, there’s a deep radical tendency to not want to face how actually heartbreaking the story is. So there is a sense in which we witness what a person brings, but we’re asking them as well to bear a birthing of an even worse story. But in that the paradox of betraying their survival by opening the door to a level of new grief, a new anger that opens the possibility of birthing a very different story. I’d love for your thoughts on that.

Sue: Well, I was just going to say we do grieve, but not like ones without hope. One of the things that people will say about Recovery Weeks in particular is I can’t believe how much we laughed. I can’t believe how much fun we had because people think, well, I’d never go to that. That sounds miserable. All we’re going to do is sit around for a week and just talk about how awful life is. But it’s not that way at all. There’s so much honor in getting to know our humanity together and our brokenness together, our glory together. But then the laughter and the fun and the goodness that comes that we see God moving, we see the goodness of God in the land of the living, and it is glorious and it’s hopeful. And we see often, like Linda and I get to model what it means to be women who are not competitive with each other. And one of the things I love about working with Linda is she’s always lifting me up. And it’s my great hope to do the same because it’s such a rare thing to have women be together and not be competitive or working against each other or trying to one up, but to say, no, it’s a glorious, there’s room for everyone.

Linda: Yeah, amen. It’s not lost on me that we’re talking about a Recovery Week for women of color and this idea, the imagery of birthing. I believe that our God is a birthing God and allows us to give birth in all kinds of layers and ways, but birthing is bloody. It is messy, it’s painful, it’s exhausting, and it’s also incredibly beautiful. And to harken back to what Sue just named, the laughter, the goodness, the lightheartedness that happens in the midst of Recovery Week, it is miraculous. It feels miraculous, the way that women come to hold both in a Recovery Week. And it feels very much like, though I’ve not given birth biologically, there is something about the birthing process that is miraculous, that life that flourishing comes forth, but it comes forth at a cost. So I don’t think either one of us would want to give any kind of idea that this will be an easy process. It won’t be. It will be bloody, messy, exhausting, but incredibly beautiful and worthwhile. Worthwhile. We’re not only something new isn’t only coming forth from each woman, but they’re like doulas with each other, assisting each other in birthing and bringing forth something different and new about their own lives and beings and future.

Dan: That describes well, that distressing, beautiful, complex sentence in Hebrews 12, for the joy set before him, he endured the shame of the cross. So you’ve got the interplay of when you enter grief with honesty at a level that holds relationships together and community, there’s the possibility that that grief truly can open the door to laughter, not as an escape, not as a defense, not as a distraction, but as indeed the truest reflection of the resurrection. So I think if I name it for myself, my experience with the women’s weeks or the work that I do and privilege to do in the men’s weeks, there’s hardly any context where there’s more presence of death, but also more presence of the work of the resurrection. So indeed, two things as we end. One, if you are a person of color, may you consider if there is a history of abuse participating in the iterations to come. If you’re not a person of color, you have the great privilege of being involved in prayer and help funding, lots of ways, if your curiosity is peaked, may you go further than just having it peaked but actually engaged. And indeed to be able to say, you two are the kind of fascinating people that reveals something of the face of God and what a privilege for me to be considered to be friends and allies and colleagues of yours. So thank you. Thank you for joining.

Linda: Well, thank you. Thank you, Dan. I look forward to the work that we’ll do together in our general Recovery Week that’s coming up in a few months. But also, Dan, we’re in this work because you said yes to the calling years ago. So it opened up pathways for us to be in this work as colleagues and benefactors of the ways that you said yes to Jesus. So thank you and Sue, look forward to being in this work with you.

Sue: Oh, 100%. Recovery weeks are literally my favorite weeks of the year. So we really have a lot to look forward to.