Losing Pride

When I was very young my parents attended a church where, during worship, women would praise dance with streamers in the back. I thought the women looked like princesses and I wanted to do it too. When asked my mom if I could, she said yes – but I needed to understand why I wanted to do it. Was it because I wanted to look pretty and have people like me? Or was it to worship God in selflessness and humility? She said if I wanted to do anything out of pride and selfishness, that I should not do it. After thinking about this, I chose not to dance.

Christians have a whole set of vocabulary and cultural ideas to deal with this idea of modesty, which is entirely foreign to a nonreligious mindset. An action is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on whether the pleasure you get out of it is filtered through “for God” or for “self gain.”

This underpins clothing (why would you want to dress flashy? how does that glorify the Lord?), charity (if you attach your name to gift giving, that glorifies yourself, you asshole) to spiritual success (don’t claim responsibility for walking the righteous path, you sinner, God did that). My particular denomination went so far as to say that claiming responsibility for ‘accepting Jesus into your heart’ was too much, that God did that too – that salvation had nothing to do with you, fuck you you incompetent adamspawn.

This has a lot of psychological effects, such as fusing together the feeling of ‘pride’ and ‘shame,’ or keeping you in a constant state of failure because self-motivated pleasure is so easy to feel, or destroying your ability to think any thoughts that place yourself in a position of authority.

(Incidentally, this is related to the Christian argument about morals – they say no matter what moral outrage we feel towards God’s actions in the Bible, we are unjustified, because God is the ultimate arbiter of morality. To claim that our judgement takes precedence is a prideful act, fuck you, inherently depraved scum.)

But this can also feel subjectively pretty good in a way that’s difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Surrendering is cathartic. I’ve seen many Christian people (myself included) sacrifice incredible amounts and live in holy pain, enduring it stoically because it is ‘God’s will.’ I used to view these people as victims, but I’ve come to realize that they have what I call ‘martyr syndrome’ – engaging in surrender because it (ironically) gives them a sense of achievement. Pride results in uncertainty of self worth, which can be very anxiety inducing. Christianity takes this stress of agency and redirects it into simple uniform submission – pain with a purpose. This is what some Christians mean when they talk about finding peace in the Lord.

It should be clear how negatively I feel about the Christian mindset in general, but there is legitimate benefit here. The effect of anxiety reduction and a sense of purpose is pretty huge, so they’re doing something right, and I recognize strong parallels in the psychedelic experience.

I think the Christian issue is not exactly their obsession with sacrificing pride, but that they do it in such a way that emphasizes taking on the responsibility of sin.

—-

I am increasingly finding the sensation of pride to be unpleasant – not by judging it to be terrible, but naturally. It’s just happening. I think I enjoy it less because I feel more aware of how fragile it is – that it only exists in contrast to my surroundings, and thus that I am wholly dependent on my environment, which I cannot control, in order to have this feeling.

For example: I draw a nice picture and people tell me I’m a great artist. I feel good and I want to show even more people the art because I love to feel that people are impressed with me, and like me, and want me.

Emboldened by the praise, I take my sketchbook and go to an art convention, where I am surrounded by serious artists. My doodles are nothing in comparison. I see how unskilled I am, and so does everyone else, even if they’re nice about it. Nobody values me here, and I feel embarrassed that I thought I was worthy enough to attend.

Where does ‘pride in my work’ lie, then? In myself and my work, or in the contrast of my work to my environment?

This is a pretty obvious example, but it occurs all the time in microscopic ways, every time we feel a desire for anything that furthers a pleasurable sense of our own identity – when we make a joke people laugh at, when we dance at a club, when we wear clothes we like. All of these things exist in contrast to our environment just as much as my sketchbook did, but we don’t notice it because our environment doesn’t change enough to show us the difference. If I’d never gone to the art convention, I would never have noticed that my pride for my art didn’t actually come from my art.

Really, everything we like about ourselves is formed by comparison to environment. If we dropped you into an alien planet with an entirely different value set, your sense of self-value would become completely different.

So when we feel pride, it’s not about us, not really – it’s about feeling better than our environment, which depends on what the environment is. Not on you.

Dwelling on this can create a pretty neutral feeling when ‘doing impressive things.’ It makes the thing feel not impressive at all; it’s just a thing, being done. The impressiveness is all about perspective.

I’m using all this as a very roundabout way of saying that this can be applied to shame as well. In exactly the ways we are prideful when we do better than our environment, we feel ashamed when we do worse, and more importantly, they are contingent. To invest in contrast is to invest both sides of the contrast – that’s what it means to invest in contrast! Any feeling of shame you have is what allows you to feel pride. It is the price you pay for that joy.

If you do have a desire to eliminate your sense of shame, of self-criticism, of failure, then know that you cannot do so without also eliminating your sense of pride. If you decide that enduring the presence of self-worth anxiety is worth it for the joy of the pride you feel, then congratulations – your shame is serving you by giving you purpose to your pain. This is an absolutely valid decision and I equally admire and love people who choose this as much as I love and admire those who don’t.

If you decide it’s not worth it, then trying to reduce a sense of failure by emphasizing your sense of pride is rather amusedly self defeating. It may feel like it works, sort of like we imagine driven businessmen may have done it all because they want to prove to themselves that they’re worth something – but they did not succeed by eliminating the anxiety of failure. Saying that being successful eliminates failure anxiety is sort of like saying running from a bear kills the bear. You may be going an impressive distance, but you wouldn’t be running if there weren’t a bear.

Anyway my main point is that if you have this idea in your mind that you want to ‘accept yourself’ and ‘forgive your failures’ and ‘don’t feel ashamed,’ then you have to equally lose the thing that makes you value yourself for your success.

The Christians got it half right – they somehow identified some peace in the loss of pride, but instead of going about it naturally they codified it into a law and tried to slam it into people. The tendency of religion (and culture, and people) to figure out something nice and, in trying to communicate it, turn it into a Serious Law, is really consistent and impressive. I need to write about it.

So in summary: It’s all the environment, man. Your genes, your upbringing. You had no influence in what sperm got into your mom’s egg. You are a biological process that got pooped out into an inevitable universe, a fatty tissuey boney body that’s typing some shit on a computer, thinking that ‘it’ is doing it all, that ‘it’ is making the importance, the impressiveness. What else could have happened, really?

Yes, And I Like It

Sometimes I come up with reasons about my behavior based on my childhood. “I must be overly compliant and afraid of authority/rulebreaking because my parents were authoritarian,” I think. This is a rationalization that gives my behavior meaning – there was a cause (authoritarian parents), a reaction (whatever emotional responses that had – fear, desire for love, etc.), and a lasting effect (compliance). It is a story about myself, not from a cold, distant perspective, but from the inside, from my own mind – what it feels like to make decisions.

This is a narrative that has been very useful and intuitive, and led me to things like dealing with my overcompliance by reminding myself that the world is not my parents, or forgiving myself for overcompliance by identifying the concrete cause of exposure to authority. Overall, the story of “authoritarian parents caused my compliance” is one that has helped me gain control over my actions. Because it makes sense and has worked so well, I think it is true. How could something work so well and not be true?

Imagine my surprise when my Mom read to me notes she had taken about me as a toddler, prior to any age I remember. “Very compliant,” she had written. “very concerned about pleasing those around her.”

The fact that I was displaying these traits before any serious parenting happened was a huge blow to my idea that my parents caused my compliance. Gone was my image of a plucky three-year-old getting the fire snuffed out of her. (Now, of course my story of authoritarian-compliance could still be true. My parents did do things like “hit her as a baby if her cries sound defiant”, so it’s possible that my personality traits mostly emerged as a response to that training. It’s also possible my traits were mostly genetic. I have no idea.)

This instance, among many others, really divorced me from the idea that I was tapping into some sort of ‘actual truth’ when I made up explanations for why I was the way I was, particularly when the causes in question were unclear, complicated, or a long time ago.

It also sort of reminds me of a sensation I had after a long and strange dream. When I tried to communicate the dream, I found that much of it was too ethereal to capture in words – so I described it as best I could, an abridged version, forcing tiny bits of narrative to cover up the gaps I couldn’t explain adequately. As I recounted the dream, I could feel the memory fading and being wholly replaced by the story I was telling – deeply, in the way I believed it. It was an odd sensation, to sense something untruthful become truth to me, but I realized that was the only way my brain could hold on. This tale was now the only access I had. I would have felt uncomfortable, except I realized I had probably done this countless times in the past without knowing it.

In fact, I probably was doing this constantly – not just with dreams or childhood tales, but with every story I told myself about why I did the things I did. In the translation of my life to words in my memory I was inevitably engaging in a lie, because words cannot possibly accurately convey experience. I was a fabric woven out of tales spun from experience.

Everything I thought about myself and my own identity was subject to this. I had the feeling that my ideas about myself were “true” because they proved to be both useful and elegant – but then my idea about authoritarian-caused-compliance was both useful and elegant, and it probably-possibly wasn’t “true” at all! I could not know, and if something is impossible to know then it is just as good as not existing at all.

Ultimately, “who I was” felt like a story I had created in my own mind to make sense of my surroundings. A useful story, an elegant one, but still a story.

This concept of self-as-a-story, as specifically different from self-as-definitely-real, places identity in the realm of self-creation as opposed to world-creation. Doing this grants us agency and is a core for a lot of theories of healing and emotional growth.

Once you buy into the idea of self-as-a-story, once you integrate it as a deep belief, it becomes easier to accept new stories you employ to give direction to your life and identity. A lot of people have a strong negative reaction to this idea with the sense that they are lying to themselves – but the sense of “lying to yourself” arises only when you are consciously saying one thing and your subconscious is saying another. If you truly believe deeply, your subconscious will be aligned, and it will feel like truth. If you feel the sense of lying-to-yourself when trying to accept new stories, then that means you haven’t believed deeply enough yet. Beliefs are malleable, and we can learn to use them like clothes, switching them out as is appropriate for the occasion.

Here I want to talk specifically about engaging a story, much like the ones we employ every day, that is not grounded in reality, but is rather both useful and elegant. (It’s almost certain I’m not the first one to try to verbalize this, and I have a horrifying lack of education in basically everything, so I am under constant fear that my thoughts are already common knowledge, so if this is common knowledge pls ignore.)

The story is called: “Yes, And I Like It.”

It meant to address self-disgust or variations on it. The first step is to identify the thing you’re doing that you dislike, such as:

Getting jealous when your partner meets up with an old fling
Talking about yourself too much in social situations
Procrastinating housework

The second step is to identify, as primally and as honestly as possible, the source or reason for the unpleasantness. For some things this can be very difficult to do and take a long time. Phrasing them as self-referencing is usually the best:

I am afraid I’m not good enough for my partner.
I crave approval of my peers.
I lack willpower for simple tasks.

The third step is to respond “yes, and I like it.”

I am afraid I’m not good enough for my partner.
Yes, and I like the fear.
I crave approval of my peers.
Yes, and I like the insecurity.
I lack willpower for simple tasks.
Yes, and I like the helplessness.

The idea here is that to change yourself you must first accept yourself, and to accept yourself you must first accept your flaws, and to accept your flaws you must view them as intentional. Not in name, not in word, but deeply, truly. You must believe the story of Yes, And I Like It.

(Another objection might be that this leads to passivity and helplessness, but I disagree.)

The concept of liking negative emotions might seem pretty silly, but the idea that we must not like things that hurt is in itself a belief we can step out of, with a little practice.

In fact, we practice it anyway without realizing it. We immerse ourselves in movies with threats and tragedies that feel real, if only for a few hours. Some of us get a little excited when bad world events happen – not because they wanted it to happen, but because badness is exciting the same way it is in movies. And I’m sure most of us as teenagers discovered we had recently developed capacity for complex emotional pain and promptly spent a lot of time feeling all the pain we could at once. Experiences of intense emotional pain while on psychedelics can lead to this sensation as well, usually much more vividly.

We already hold within our minds stories of I like this thing that hurts, even if we don’t realize it. Pain can be exciting, cathartic, or meaningful.

And so learning to believe the story of Yes, And I Like It can take that little dark pleasure and channel it into your life now. It can apply even to things outside of your own control (My mother died; I miss her terribly, and I like it).

Ultimately the goal is to divorce yourself from the narrative that pain is bad. That is an elegant and useful story, but elegant and useful does not mean true.

Choosing Insecurity

I think monogamous people are monogamous because they are insecure.

This is an upsetting thing to hear and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a monogamous person agree with me – but before you start typing out an angry comment, I promise I can salvage myself. Probably.

I have a fear of authority and rulebreaking. The fear is so strong that it sometimes interferes with my life – I have anxiety about being in the wrong cabin in a train, trying to jump turnstiles makes my body physically seize up, and I meekly accept unfair Comcast bills.

I know myself pretty well, so I know the amount of effort it would take to fix this particular fear would be pretty huge. It might take therapy, both the sit-down-in-a-chair and the exposure kind. It would take extraordinary mental effort and discomfort on my part. Would my life be better if I fixed this fear? Yeah, probably – but a better question is, would it be worth it?

My rulebreaking-anxiety doesn’t give me trouble that often. I’m pretty happy being a rule-follower, most of the time. So – should I fix it?

I think there’s a common idea that personal growth is always the correct option, and in a way this makes a bit of sense. If there’s a problem inside of you that limits your ability to enjoy life, then fixing that problem would be better, right? We frequently heighten this idea to a nearly moral imperative – if you’re dating a shitty person who you think you deserve, then you need to break up with them and upgrade your self worth. If you are doing drugs to feel better, you need to quit and get fulfillment out of exercise and good eating or whatever it is normal people do these days.

This imperative applies even if the problem isn’t actually much of a problem. If someone isn’t a drug addict, but rather gets horribly drunk a few times a year whenever they encounter a severe emotional problem, we see that they’re not dealing with things in a healthy way. And even if their alcohol-for-emotions habit is rare enough that it isn’t causing serious damage, we know that this might not last. Emotions can always get worse, and there’s a good chance that in the future, the mild habit now might lead to serious problems down the road.

In this situation, the fact that our occasional drunkard is okay right now seems just a matter of chance – that his life isn’t okay because of his internal strength, but rather because his life isn’t bad enough to turn him into a drunkard… yet.

We could say the same thing about my rulebreaking anxiety. The fact that my life is okay right now might be just a matter of chance – that it’s not because of any strength, but rather because I have the leisure of keeping away from authority figures most of the time.

But of course we can take this idea to extreme conclusions – everything good in our lives right now is just a matter of chance. The fact we are happy and functional might not be because we have the internal strength to tolerate being insulted, but rather because nobody is insulting us. We have a thousand weaknesses hidden by everyday convenience.
And so if we really wanted to become someone who would be okay with everything, we ought to go endure torture and loss in order to reveal and deal with those thousand weaknesses.

But we don’t, because it’s not worth it. Every day we make judgments about what is or is not worth it, and every day we forego personal growth because doing so would be too hard. When I make the choice not to “go to therapy so that I can hop on trains”, I’m deciding that the pain of expanding myself is not worth the benefit I would get from occasional rule breaking.

Most common is lack of empathy when we overlook the great cost of self improvement in others. Years ago, I thought my friend should break up with her boyfriend and improve herself so she could get a better boyfriend – but in recommending this to her, I wasn’t taking into account the pain of loneliness she would endure by being single. When I recommended my friend to quit drinking in response to pain, I didn’t understand that he was making a value judgement in much the same way I was when I meekly paid Comcast an extra 33$ instead of protesting the unfair charge. In drinking, he was making the judgement that working to fix himself without alcohol cost too much pain for the benefit of decreased alcoholism risk.

And obviously risk assessments go wrong all the time. Sometimes people do become alcoholics, or get into abusive relationships, – but that’s what is meant by risk. If they understand the risk they’re taking, then we must conclude that the benefit they gain is worth it, for them – much as people who drive cars understand very well that they might get into an accident, but decide that the benefit they get of transportation is worth it.

And so how can we blame anybody for avoiding “fixing themselves,” even if it goes wrong? The most we can do is make sure they understand the risk they’re taking, and if they do understand, then they are making an educated decision about their own values, and “you should quit drinking” is a recommendation that comes from a position of ignorance.

And so when I say people who are monogamous are monogamous because they are insecure, I in no way mean this as a judgement. They have made the decision that going to the effort of getting rid of jealousy – of dealing with the pain of their partner spending the night somewhere else – is not worth the benefits they might gain from nonmonogamy. This is an absolutely valid decision.

(edit: i should clarify that my definition of monogamy is “when you place a restriction or expectation on your partner’s engagement in sexual activity.” In a situation where two people are totally okay with their partner fucking/loving other people, but just happen not to due to lack of desire or interest in other people, I consider this just passive polyamory.)

But I think it is also useful to be honest with ourselves when we are making these value judgments. Monogamy is due to insecurity, at its heart – that your partner will leave you, and cloaking it under the guise of romantic notions of commitment is disingenuous. My anxiety about rulebreaking is about fear, not about anything noble, or about respecting people in authority, or supporting society. It’s just me being scared. People in mediocre relationships just don’t want to be alone, people who drink during hard times aren’t doing it for fun.

We all are succumbing to weakness, and that’s okay. We should look our flaws in the face, and if we have full understanding of the value decisions we’re making, then there is no reason to be ashamed.

How To Listen

Sometimes listening to people talk reminds me who I am. They talk about their parents, and I think about my parents and how they encouraged me to eat sandwiches crust-first. They talk about that one orgy they had, and that reminds me of that one ten-girl orgy I had in a Las Vegas hot tub. I come out of these conversation with a stronger sense of identity, with a refreshed sense of the stories that have built who I am – a drunken lesbianish, stoic sandwich-eater.

Sometimes watching movies makes me completely forget who I am. For two and a half hours surrounded by booming audio, I’m no longer Aella – I’m the academy award winning actor-character fending for himself in a brutal world with uneasy race relations. I leave the movie a bit dazed, coming back into my life like I’m returning from a dream.

Of course conversations can sometimes make us feel dazed, like movies, and movies can make us feel more strongly in touch with ourselves, but I wanted to highlight that a difference exists at all, and to identify this as a listening spectrum.

On one side is Loud Listening. This is listening we do where we involve ourselves. This is most commonly used when engaged in things like:

Banter and casual conversation: A friend at the dinner table tells their story of nearly hitting a deer on the way over, while listening you are scanning your experiences for deer-hitting stories. When your friend finishes, you start telling your story about the deer.

Emotional advice. You attend a lecture about the warning signs of abusive relationships. With each sign they list, you scan your feelings about your own relationship to see if there is a match.

Similar, personal conversation. You grew up with a crazy hoarder mother and the experience was traumatic and deeply personal to you. On a bus you overhear someone talking about their crazy hoarder mother. You instantly compare what they are saying to your own experience and get off the bus immersed in memories of your childhood.

Silent listening, by contrast, occurs when we ‘lose ourselves’ in what we are listening to; when we assume the identity of someone else. This mainly occurs in things like:

Movie watching. You forget your real life worries while caught up in the dramas of other characters.

Dissimilar, personal conversation. You meet someone who escaped from North Korea. They tell you about the censorship, terrible food, and the concentration camps. There is so much novel information you don’t think about yourself at all.

Learning to model. Your friend comes to you asking for advice with a complicated family issue. Before saying anything you ask questions to try to imagine how they feel and what their goals are, so that you can give them personalized advice that would make them happy.

Loud Listening is a function that identifies how the speaker’s ideas and experiences are different from the listener’s. This gives the listener the ability to evaluate their social status, how well society understands the listener, and how strange/normal the listener is, and so that the listener can take action to bridge that gap.

In banter, it’s identifying shared experiences and speaking them aloud. In emotional advice, it’s identifying society’s ideas about health and modifying our behavior to fit. In personal sharing, it’s a heightened sensitivity to how much people actually understand the vulnerable things we’ve gone through, in the hopes that one day we can figure out how to communicate it. Sometimes Loud Listening can be defensive, where thinking about ourselves screams out empathy we don’t want to feel, or insists we are someone who understands something we actually don’t.

In some circumstances we prefer situations where everyone is loud listening. Improv, dinner parties, teasing in first dates – we expect to be loud listened to, and we loud listen in turn, because we both actively want people to hear our involvement and we actively want to hear others’ involvement.

But the more vulnerable we become, the less useful it is to have someone else involved. When we want to be deeply understood, we want it to be through our lens, not someone else’s.

When someone tells us something deeply personal and vulnerable, the function in our mind that says how does this relate to me? shuts down our ability to empathize. When we’re loud listening to the person on the bus talk about their hoarder mother, we are imagining the situation from our perspective, with our set of emotions, and thinking things like “their experience wasn’t as bad as mine. I would have been grateful to have a mother who only saved her poop jars once a week instead of every day!”

I particularly struggle with this when listening to people talk about religious, homeschooled, or oppressive childhoods. If someone tells me about how they were homeschooled (but only up until high school!) and their church tried to guilt them (they weren’t devout enough to guilt themselves!), my brain screams at me how much worse I had it, and how I would have loved to have their childhood.

But this isn’t fair to their view at all, and when I Loud Listen I’m not empathizing with the actual experience of being a child who only knows that things could be better and now they’re worse. That experience is real and formative to them, my own life be damned. All they wanted was for me to feel what they felt.

This is where Silent Listening becomes a loving thing to practice. My feelings about their childhood come out of Loud Listening. To immerse myself in their feelings about their childhood is Silent Listening, and I think ultimately it’s all anybody ever wants in response to vulnerability.

Silent Listening is easy sometimes, when our own identities don’t spring up in the way. It’s easy for a population of suburban families to Silent Listen to a movie about aliens, because it’s not a common experience – but it’s harder for this population of suburban families to Silent Listen to each other, because everyone’s daily dramas is common and close.

Feeling common and close to someone means that probably many people feel similarly, and thus few people Silent Listen to that person. Thus the more isolated that person will feel in their vulnerability, and the more isolated they feel, the more valuable it will be to them for you to hear them. Generally speaking, the more difficult it is to Silent Listen, the more important it is for you to do so. (It’s very easy to Silent Listen to the defector from North Korea, which means they’re probably used to everybody doing it, and thus it’s less valuable to them.)

So if someone is being vulnerable, Silent Listen to them. Let’s be honest with ourselves about what sort of listening we’re doing, because slipping into Loud Listening when we think we’re Silent Listening dupes us into a false sense of understanding. Let’s not view either type of Listening as negative, but rather conduct them intentionally, so that we’re not lying to ourselves about how well we understand someone.

Let’s find the joy in trying to understand, instead of trying to be understood.

Moving Peaces

In zen, (or the thing that I’m thinking of that seems to mostly overlap with zen, I don’t want to be presumptuous), the trick to peace is to stop perceiving what ought to be as different from what is. As in – to stop wanting by realizing that you already have what you want, or something similar.

And of course as soon as we hold this as a verbalizeable concept in our mind, we fall into the trap of placing this whole thing – being zen – as a goal. Zen is “I have what I want” – and so to say “I want zen” is hilariously self-defeating.

This means that any sort of discussion about zen as a goal becomes self contradictory – in speaking about zen in any sense separate from “a current experience”, we have lost it. The concept behind this is the same sort of concept people are pointing at when they talk about unspeakability or undefinability, or ‘unasking’ in the meta sense, again usually in reference to zen.

Here specifically I wanted to explore a question which I’ve heard as a steady rebuttal in various forms in response to this idea. The question is this: “If zen cannot be a goal, and is rather about not-goal, how then do you achieve any sort of change? How does this not result in stagnation?”

In response to this I think we can look at things that aren’t conscious, or are barely conscious, or anything which doesn’t possess the sensation of goal setting. They still undergo change. Energy is in motion and reactions happen. It’s impossible for stagnation to occur.

When we usually talk about the sense of changing and goals, we mean something that carries a sense of willpower and direction. We choose a route or an end point, determine it as superior to other points, and call things that help us achieve it as ‘good’ and everything else as ‘bad.’ It is an action we impose upon our own reality.

In contrast, zen calls for the change that occurs through observation, sort of how becoming more aware of your own motivations for things can trigger self-acceptance, or how knowing a character’s backstory triggers greater feelings of empathy. In circumstances like these, observation creates change, but the change feels like it happens to us, like it’s inevitable and directionless. I do not feel like I enacted any acceptance upon myself, I feel like I just looked at myself more deeply. I don’t feel like I decided to make myself feel empathy, but rather that I just looked at the motivational parts behind a person I disliked.

I think a desire for goal-change over observation-change comes from distrusting observation-change. Perhaps we think it won’t make us the happiest, or give us what we want. Maybe it makes us feel a loss of control, and that is terrifying. Holding onto goal-change makes us feel like we have had a role in our lives, like we dictate our direction and our reality.

And from the perspective of zen, there is no judgement in that. Zen cannot be a goal, so not being zen does not mean you’ve failed.

So in summary I guess there is no point, do whatever you want. Have fun! Or don’t, whatever, zen doesn’t care.

Onwapathy

“Privilege” is a word that makes me feel a little icky, and every time someone brings it up in a conversation I get a bit defensive and skeptical. The concept feels too much like a scapegoat for responsibility, or a guilt inducer for the fortunate. And if you send me any mail after this telling me I’m a SJW who is shaming those with privilege, I will shoot you in the face.

But I want to try to understand it as sympathetically as possible, and I wasn’t able to until I noticed a specific feeling in myself in regards to my friend Josh.

Josh is extremely handsome (cis white male). He’s charismatic, friendly, confident, a world traveler, and gets laid. A lot. I feel happy for him. He’s got a great lot in life and is doing well.

But I noticed a funny response I had sometimes when he told me about his adventures, particularly when he said things like “You can just go talk to strangers, it’s easy!” or “And then I shook his hand and he offered me his basement to stay in for a week.” It was kind of a negative feeling, but I brushed it off.

I made friends with this (white cis) girl named Brittany. She had easily 9/10 looks – pouty red lips, huge blue eyes, blonde hair, button nose. People begged to photograph her. She worked for an agency and did product promotions. She exuded sexuality. Every time I was out in public with her it was like I was invisible – men swarmed to her and paid attention to me only to be polite.

And that funny response in my brain happened again when she said things like “Oh I’m sorry you hate your nose – I really hate my crooked tooth!” or “Haha I got invited up to his penthouse but I said no, you know how it is”.

In conversations with them I found myself trying to point out exactly how lucky they were. I said things like “You know, other people can’t just talk to strangers like that with the same results,” or “Nobody actually notices your crooked tooth, and my nose is super obvious.” I had the sensation that they weren’t fully aware of their extreme fortune, and over time I realized that this semi-frustrated feeling I was having towards Josh and Brittany was probably the same thing people felt when they talked about privilege. What I had been trying to do in conversations was get them to check their privilege.

And why did it feel so bad? What was the source of that discomfort and frustration when I sat there listening to Brittany talk flippantly about being hit on by a smalltime celebrity for the third time? Definitely some of it was jealousy (and I suspected for a time that people upset about privilege were just jealous), but that didn’t explain the entire picture. With time, empathy, and security my jealousy reduced, but that funny discomfort didn’t.

And I realized that my discomfort came from a specific phenomenon I wish we had a word for – “when someone feels as though they understand you but you feel as though they don’t understand you.”

I’m gonna call it One-Way Sympathy for now, and shorten it into this horrible conglomeration “onwapathy” and I’m going to use it and you’re going to deal with it.

My displeasure didn’t come from Josh having a great life, it came from Josh having a great life and assuming that I could too if I just did what he did. In his expression of this idea came a fundamental lack of understanding of what it was like to be me. In implying that he understood me, he was assuming that there was no further understanding to have, and by doing so he shut down the exploration of avenues I felt were unexplored – and that hurt. When I expressed insecurity with my physical body and Brittany tried to empathize by comparing her tiny flaw to my huge one, I felt bad. I felt unable to tell her that she didn’t understand. I felt onwapathy. And it’s not their fault – they were trying hard to be sympathetic. They just didn’t know.

I think when people express outrage about privilege they’re usually just trying to communicate onwapathy. They just want to feel understood.

Now I’m still skeptical of the word ‘privilege’ because it’s used in an accusing way, a way that implies wrongdoing or obligated atonement on the part of the privilege. I don’t believe in being ashamed of fortune or doing anything to counteract privilege, but I do believe in communicating the way you feel, especially if you feel misunderstood. All I really wanted from Josh and Brittany was an acknowledgement that things were harder for me than for them – that introverts have a harder time talking to strangers, that a crooked nose is a lot worse than a crooked tooth. That was it.

So I vote for eschewing the concept of ‘privilege’ for the concept of ‘onwapathy.’ It’s gentler, less accusatory, more communicative of feelings rather than aggressive moral principles, and I think brings us closer to the thing we all want the most deeply – to be understood.

The Iron Price

There is pain, and then there is suffering. The division between the two can get a bit fuzzy, but on one end we have things like “my fish just died” or “that dog just bit me” or “I just got fired from my dream job.”

On the other end we have things like “My father never loved me and I am angry” or “the world is unjust because my best friend killed herself” or “It’s been ten years and my abuser still haunts my thoughts.”

One side of the scale is an immediate, visceral reaction to pain that seems to be designed to get us to escape whatever is hurting. The other end is what happens after – when we’ve categorized the pain into part of the “story of our lives”, when we recognize how this affects us, and we’ve decided that it is bad.

When it comes to suffering, this frequently isn’t something we do voluntarily to ourselves. It doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels like a wound so great that it stayed open while all the others closed.

Other ‘bad’ things that happen to us frequently don’t seem so unfair – losing a footrace sucks, but it gives you the motivation to get better. Getting cheated on really sucks, but now you’ve learned what kind of relationship you want and how to look for it. Losing a job? You get the ability to find better employment, or go your own way, or whatever happened to you last time you lost a job and came out of it alive. The experiences might be terrible, but you’ve undergone a multitude of terrible experiences without indefinite suffering, right?

This is because the pain of those experiences are a price we pay to get an equivalent reward, whereas suffering comes when we’ve paid a price and got nothing in return. It comes from a sense of injustice. It is being cheated by life. It is that emptiness in your hands after the death of someone you love. It is that pointless void left from a parent who didn’t believe in sparing the rod. It is the unanswered why? Because there is no reason. You gained nothing. There was no equivalent exchange.

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Sometimes I complain about my job as a camgirl.

This is absurd. I am one of the luckiest people alive. I have an amazing job doing fun work for people I like talking to for a great income. I am living the dream. And yet, after four years, somehow I get discontent about it.

Sometimes I have to take myself by the shoulders and shake a bit. I remind myself of the contrast, of how life would be without camming. I go to the store and look at a box of tampons that cost 8.25 and I think “I used to have to work an hour for that.” The gratitude comes flooding back pretty quickly.

I think we’re all pretty familiar with the concept of the power of perspective, the ability to change the way we feel about the world by changing what we pay attention to.

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The trick to healing from suffering, I think, is deciding that the pain was worth it.

How do you decide the pain was worth it? Find out what it gave you.

I have a friend who told me her story. She had an emotionally abusive father and, as an adult, experienced a great deal of suffering about her childhood for many years. It impacted her relationships, her ability to function at jobs, and her mental health – until one day in psychedelic-assisted therapy she sat down and “relived” her traumatic experiences, from her earliest memories to leaving home.

This was immensely painful for her, but the contrast of shifting from the memories of childhood trauma into memories of adult freedom made her feel overjoyed and she realized the things she had gained from that experience. It taught her that the world could be so much worse, which gave her a deep gratitude for things she had now, whereas so many others seemed so pessimistic. It taught her heightened awareness of emotional boundaries which helped her to avoid damaging relationships herself. It had taught her that she could endure horrible things and come out alive, which gave a rare confidence few other people seemed to have.

And she realized that the benefits she had gained were so great that, if given the choice, she would live her life over again exactly the way it was. It had been absolutely worth it.

And in deciding that it had been worth it, the suffering ended. Life had no longer cheated her. Life had made a fair trade.

You can always find the thing pain gives you, if you look hard enough. Sometimes that search takes years. Sometimes it’s hidden deep. It takes a very specific kind of hunt.

It’s also different for everyone. There is no One True Path of meaning gained from tragedy. Whereas my friend found her price in gratitude, others might have found it in something like “being able to empathize with others who have endured the same” or “knowing what not to do to my kids.” And lots of people around us have problems or insecurities that came from a lack of difficulty rather than a surplus. Your life is a story and your character might just be climbing a higher mountain than most. If anything, there’s a little bit of “worth it” in knowing that more people would watch your movie.

If you want to read more along these lines, I highly recommend the book Man’s Search for Meaning. One of the top 5 most influential books in my life. It was written by a neurologist and psychiatrist who went through the goddamn holocaust and then wrote about the ways humans deal with trauma.