On Fearlessness

I always thought I was fearless. I thought I was fearless because everybody else thought I was fearless. My fearlessness is easy to find. It is the kind of courage that allows me to stare down a wrongdoer, to fight back. To speak up when words matter. My sister calls it me being good at ‘shutting things down’, and she’s probably right. It is a type of courage so earnest, that many would find difficulty in thinking it is not real. There exists real difficulty because people want to believe, too, that fearless people exist. Fearless people are inspiring. Fearless people stand their ground when it is most needed. Fearless people push us and our narratives forever onward, in spite of the Great Unknown. The thing is, though, that they don’t. Fearless people are only ever at best ‘fearless’, and ‘fearless’ people still fear things.

Shall I tell you what I fear? The name of this blog is telling – tiny fears. I came up with it at a time where I realised that I was scared of a whole lot of tiny things, things that people shouldn’t be scared of. I thought that was kind of funny, and still do. Some of them are downright mundane, and often senseless – e.g. I hate birds because their beaks freak me out – but others, there are reasons for my multiplicity of fears. I believe that because every person’s self-consciousness is unique, so are their fears. Fear exists precisely for the purpose of undermining one’s securities, and to undermine them, one must know what they are. Fear knows exactly how to get under your skin. Fear knows I love big courage. Fear knows I believe that one should never let Fear tell you what to do or not do. Fear knows I think that limits are just arbitrary things we set for ourselves – that limits were made to be broken. I am wrong, and Fear knows it, but Fear won’t tell me, because if it does, then Fear won’t work. And where’s the fun in that?

I was watching an interview with Kilian Jornet, the first man to run up Mt Everest without stopping without the use of oxygen, an amazing feat. Despite the apparent fearlessness of his actions, he lets fear control him. “We all have our limits and capabilities, and should let what we do be informed by those things,” he says. There was some video footage of him walking to the foot of Mt Everest, and then deciding that he wasn’t ready, and turning around and going home for the day. He would try again tomorrow, he said. This astonished me. My immediate reaction to this video was the same as that of his cameraman – “are you serious?”

If I were in his position, I know that I would’ve climbed that fucking mountain. Even if I felt some sort of sickly premonition, I would’ve climbed it. I wouldn’t have climbed it because I was being brave – but because everyone was waiting for me to climb it, and so I did. I would’ve climbed it out of fear for what I would face if I didn’t – the fear of people no longer thinking of me as courageous. And for me, that looks an awful lot like big courage. So much of the time, what looks to be courage is just a front, sparked by self-righteousness, insecurity and fuelled by society’s constant appraisal of big acts of courage over small. So now I wonder, when am I showing courage, and when am I just showing off? How do we really know courage when we see it, if it cannot be defined by our constant rejection of fear, the way we always shove it off to the side? The idea that courage is not the absence of fear assumes that fear is an ever-present characteristic. Yet for highly trained soldiers in war, sometimes fear is not the most relevant consideration. In the heat of the moment, all you care about is making sure everyone gets out of there alive, and you do what you were trained to do. In the end, I think courage is about care.

There is quiet courage in recognising our limits and staying our hand, and there is loud courage in pushing them. We must know our limits, know that there will be moments where we should fold, if it is too much to bear. But also know that our limits can change, and if we push them in the spirit of care for ourselves and for others, we will hold fast. In the end, courage is not just about steady hands, but steady hearts.

 

 

 

 

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Once more, with feeling: A Review of Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

Leslie Jamison wears her heart on her sleeve. With astounding emotional intelligence and acuity, she spends the pages of ‘The Empathy Exams’ in conversation with herself. In the titular opening essay, she writes: “You want to stop feeling sorry for yourself.” In using the second person, she writes both for herself, and also on my behalf. It’s why I picked up this book – I’d wanted to stop feeling sorry for myself, too.

It’s strange how disconnected the concept of empathy is from the notion of pain. In an effort to empathise, I often tell people “I understand,” which does not imply feeling at all – I am telling them, I understand the constructs of your situation, and how it might cause you pain. But what is the content of that feeling? Empathy is often described as “stepping into someone else’s shoes”, which implies that to do so, we must take off our own. Is it problematic, to ask us to shed our pains and take on someone else’s? Is it even more problematic, to take off their pain, and shrug back on our own? This version of empathy implies that pain is not intractable, that we can leave it behind, badly re-hung in changing rooms if we really wanted to. It allows us to aspire toward a condition in which pain is not a reality, yet the presence of our nerves, our innate ability to flinch tell us that it is, it is, it is. Why deny it?

In her essay ‘Devil’s Bait’, when Jamison sees pain in those who suffer from Morgellons’ disease, she writes simply: “I know something about that.” A bold statement, coming from a woman who does not feel as though she has parasites within her, does not scratch until her skin gives way to coagulate. Many may read this and feel a surge of annoyance, at this woman who claims a pain which does not belong to her. What right does she have to locate her own pain in the experiences of others? Yet this assertion assumes that sufferers of Morgellon’s have a claim to pain, while Jamison doesn’t. She cannot let go of her pain, any more than Morgellon sufferers can remove theirs, and so she says, “I know something about that”. I know how it manifests, occasionally as fabrications of an unnamed truth, or sometimes not at all. The way it imprints itself into our skins and bones and lives, and make us feel sorry for ourselves. I don’t pretend to know your pain, but something about it looks familiar to me. It is through this introspective brand of empathy that Jamison finds herself over and over again in these essays.

Occasionally, the notion of ‘finding oneself’ comes up in conversation with friends, in one way or another. We often send each other Myer-Briggs personality tests, Buzzfeed quizzes on which type of junk food we are. We can find a version of ourselves in just about anything. But usually that version is the best version, the King James Bible of versions. A version we may not like, but yet a version we are proud enough to show off. I made a Pottermore account to find out which Harry Potter house I’m in, and then found an online free version which promised a fuller, more accurate experience, and took it again. I was emphatically pleased to have gotten the same result, because somehow it meant that the test was more ‘true’. That this version of myself was truly the best. “This is how speech swells around memory,” Jamison writes. “How intellect swells around hurt.” We wrap our tests around us like blankets in a storm, shivering against the threat of our own subjectivities. That our feelings may to some extent be unknowable; that we might hurt unlike anyone else. How can we learn to accept the inevitability of difference, while we try to relate to each other? How can we use the pain that cuts to connect rather than divide?

In the essay ‘The Empathy Exams’, Jamison pushes us to try out a new kind of test. She describes tests that medical students take, on how well they empathise with patients. Where does it hurt, these medical students ask their ‘patients’. If they ask it right, maybe she’ll tell you how she’s had disassociative states since her brother died. Why don’t we value asking these questions in real life, Jamison asks. I think we have gotten rather good at sidling around the painful things, the things that cut too close to the bone. And the people around us have gotten good at not asking “where does it hurt?”. We don’t ask, out of politeness, out of fear. Because sometimes the answer is “everywhere”, and within “everywhere”, we might locate the wrack of pain inside ourselves. “We have sewn ourselves up”, Jamison writes. “We bring everything to the grindstone”.

Jamison ends the book by repeating the phrase, “I want our hearts to be open.” Everything falls away – Jamison’s clarity, her intellectual talk, until what is left is only feeling. Oddly enough, putting it into words doesn’t articulate what she mean by that, it only evokes. It feels deep and nebulous – but it also feels patient, generous, kind. It feels empathic. ‘The Empathy Exams’ is not about how to stop feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s about how to feel – for ourselves and others, and the interconnectedness of that feeling. Pain does not end where empathy begins. Fortunately for us, neither do we.

A pocket of sky

I went for a run the other day, for the first time in almost a year. In hindsight, both those runs were anomalous, given that I hate running. For an unfit person such as myself, there is almost a sense of powerlessness that accompanies the act. Very quickly everything in me burns up, and I feel like everything in me is failing, and that I too, must be failing. The discouragement I give myself is not at all coy, and I avoid running to avoid my own wrath in the case of failure. But there is something about running that spurred me to strap on my armband and stick my keys in them, and hit the pavement. It gives freedom, an ability to break free from the things that hold me. There is a sense of escapism to the run too. Each time I run, it is no coincidence that all these things are at a head. 

I have a particular anxiety, one that stems from my perceived inability to control my emotions. I was an aggressive, wild child, or so I have been characterised to myself by my family over and over. I harbour in myself the fear that I had never grown out of being that person, that if I don’t shut it all down, I’m going to hurt somebody. I will not let myself forget that there is a rage inherent, and so I will not let myself feel. And when I feel, a policing of emotions begins. Sometimes the suffering feels unbearable. One part of me understands that I don’t deserve this, yet the other part tells me I do. What can you do to stop the harm, when you are both the victim and the perpetrator? I don’t know, and so I run.

 There are so many limits to running, both those supplied by myself and that of circumstance. I navigated steep hills and cobblestone pavements until I got to the park, careful of putting unnecessary strain on my weak ankle. Already jogging there, I felt like I was ready to give up. I tried to distract myself with my music, but something in me told me not to, to pay attention to the run, and so I did. 800m in I felt myself failing already. I could see the hospital on Commercial Road approaching me, and wondered if I should let myself take a break. But I realised that it wasn’t my body telling me to stop, and that I was much stronger than I let myself think. This panting, this gasping for breath was not a cry for a respite – it was my body trying to gulp down enough oxygen so that I can carry on. To try to breathe was, is, and I think always will be an act of resilience. To breathe, especially when it gets hard, is to tell yourself that you are capable of carrying on. 

As the run only got tougher, I found myself looking up, through the barrows of leaves that swung about overhead, for a glimpse of sky. On such a cloudy day, it was difficult, but satisfying whenever I saw a patch of blue. It kept me pacing on from one kilometre, to two, to two and a half, where I finally gave in. The way it stretched on reminded me that there was an effortlessly beautiful blue sky out there, even if it was tucked undercover. It comforted me to think that my resilience too stemmed from the same atmosphere, from every puff of air. It comforts me to know that I am as resilient as the sky.  

On Being Lost

Yesterday I was in a rather foul mood, and thought I’d go hang out with a friend to take my mind off of things. It was an open house to celebrate the end of Ramadan, and it is precisely these communal gatherings that remind me of my own culture and traditions – Chinese New Year reunions in particular. But I forgot where I was – in the middle of Perth. By the time I got to the open house, it was just a bunch of people sitting around watching supercuts of cats doing stupid things on Youtube. Despite knowing that this stuff wasn’t really my speed, I stayed for the company.

I stayed

to watch a bunch of 30 year old white guys make snarky comments about the quality of the crap on Youtube. “That can’t be real,” one says. His girlfriend patted him absent-mindedly on his leg without taking her eyes off her phone. He stared, glossy eyed at the screen, frosted tips hanging over his forehead.

I stayed

for an air-hug from the roommate of my friend, while she looked through me, glossy eyed. For her to tell me “I’ve missed you,” though we have never hung out together in our lives.

I should’ve left

earlier than I did, but I followed them to Belmont to catch the new Spiderman film, the second movie they had caught in two days. (This is the bad mood talking, but I kinda hate that yuppie Marvel bullshit, which is intent on privileging entrenched narratives of young boys becoming great men before they were ready.) “That was pretty good,” I said to my friend. God, I never lie. I pride myself on speaking my mind, always and often. But I didn’t know what to say to these people. I didn’t know what I could say. The sentiments of the movie was not lost on me, but

who they were, was lost on me. I felt utterly, totally lost.

At this point, I had the common sense to pass on Dominos, and got in the car to drive home. But, shit. I was parked at one of the white guy’s houses in Belmont, where I had never been before. Strictly speaking, I was lost, in the sense that I did not actually know

how I had gotten there, or

which way my house was, or even

whether to turn left or right at the next intersection, but I didn’t feel lost at all.

I didn’t feel lost, because I knew that one way or another, I was only a half hour from home. I had left the house this morning, and I would find my way back there again.

On the roads, I let my instincts guide me. My instincts, honed by years of driving in Perth, of traversing these roads over and over. A brightly lit apartment complex in the distance looked familiar; I drove toward it. It took me back to the Great Eastern Highway, which I was familiar with. But now I stopped at the lights – was it right, or left? One would take me to the airport – one would take me home. All of it looked terribly familiar, but the industrialness of the area made everything look the same, too. My instincts were quiet now, and my compass spinning. Think of something else.

Pay attention to where you are, in this very moment. The lights are about to go, but find something, some authenticating detail you had cast your eyes over, on your countless trips to the airport, but never really seen. You need to see it now. Trust that you are not lost. That sign over there – Kooyong Road to the left, Brighton Road to the right – Kooyong/Brighton. You remember that sign, because these names are places in Melbourne – you thought it was odd that they would be street names in Perth. When you drove down this way before, toward home – was it Kooyong/Brighton, or Brighton/Kooyong? Remember always the places of things, the way one thing comes before the other. Remember such places, and you won’t ever be lost. You remember it’s Kooyong/Brighton, and you turn left.

Soon the Canning Highway/Fremantle sign comes up, and you breathe easy. You’re not lost anymore, in any sense of the word. But perhaps, if you listen to your instincts, and trust what you see, and know – you never really are.

And what I saw was a pretty crap movie that night.

 

Freeing Thoughts

As I enter into my exam period every semester, thoughts start to swirl and get to me. The same can be said, really, of this exam period – but the only difference is that these thoughts have been swirling around all semester, as I deal with anxiety and general growing pains.

I am a person who focuses very much on places; when I enter a place, I often think of its history and who has come before me. This applies both spatially and temporally, and this exam period I think of the ways in which I have come before myself each time before, and how each time I had somehow managed to calm my head.

When I recall where I was, what comes first is this hesitant feeling, where I tell myself to wait a minute. Obediently my mind slows, and I catch a glimpse of something that comes into focus for a second. I see how each branch on the tree above me rustles its fan of leaves; how a slab of cracked concrete juts unevenly from the pavement, looking like a fat grey lip.

I realise then, as I try to hold on to this ‘wait a minute’ feeling, that each observation in this moment is purely me. Originality, insightfulness, things that I could use to do better in my studies, and life itself, as I learn to grow to become more of myself with each day. In these moments that I regain access to this insightfulness, I wonder why it is moments like these that I throw aside in times of pressure. I shrug them off like they are burdens, simply because they are not as concrete as goals and targets.

So tonight for awhile at least, I tried to wait a minute, each minute for about 120 minutes. I took the long way home, and wrote about it. I’m posting it below, relatively uncrafted. I like the way that it doesn’t quite make sense, because things don’t always have to. They don’t need to be translated into goals, or targets, made concrete every single time. And that for me, is the freedom of thought.

When was the last time you let yourself truly be?

Feel the prick of cold on your fingertips
Looked at someone and wanted to be them, wanted to be human
Admired the loose curls of a girl on a train
The aqua purple scarf of another
Had thoughts that occurred and escaped just as soon
Thoughts that didn’t hook and catch like burrs on a coat

Try to see the things that others won’t.
The sour strap scarf wrapped close around his throat
Listen when an Asian man says, “classic”
“Freaky is…freaky is relative”
Look at a white van and wonder if it had ever carried bodies, in a dead way
See a woman carrying a present and wonder if it could be for me
Care about light up braille pads on Collins Street that give you the urge to tap dance

Try not giving something a chance –
And eating fried chicken because you can
Look at that woman with cropped hair
And wonder if she keeps it as close cut as she keeps other things
A curly haired boy smiles briefly out the window of this moving tram
We cut through thin air together, sandwiching a rush of it between our tram and the next
A man waves at a woman who got on, after she had turned away
And I wonder if he saw, is as dramatically disappointed as I am, this lover of drama and false resolutions
Conclusions are never really real, are they?

That said – I’m home.

 

No one said climbing wasn’t hard

Last week you got your marks back for a law subject. And the day before yesterday, you got another. They were much lower than you expected. Than you would ever have expected of yourself. The people around you did better than you, and you’re happy for them, but can’t shake the feeling that you’re better than this. (You are.) You think about the circumstances surrounding the assignments. Something had been going wrong for a while. A panic attack had hit you, early this semester. It shakes your hands still, now and again, like an old friend whose face looks different from how you remember. But you tell yourself you can’t blame the marks on that alone. You say you could’ve worked harder, smarter. But you won’t tell yourself you should have.

You know when you say ‘should have’, you mean that there are more valuable outcomes than the one you got. You could’ve gotten a better mark, probably. Could’ve felt better about yourself, about the whole damn thing. But the only real thing you get out of doing better, the only really real thing, is not having to deal with the way we treat marks like they’re wounds. And is that all that desirable?

In her poem ‘climbers’, Ellen van Neerven reasserts the above. She writes: “the hold patterns in the bunya pine…do not fit hands/ or feet anymore/but it is not a wrecked kind of meaning…marks are not wounds.” Though the ‘marks’ Ellen speaks of aren’t grades, the truth of her words still apply. You couldn’t hold on to as many marks as you would’ve liked. They didn’t fit you this time, for whatever reason – perhaps you were dodging branches at the time. But those marks are not for you to take on, to ingest and allow to become your wounds, to wreck your meanings. But if marks are not wounds, and they don’t look like holds… what are they?

You remember going rock climbing in the gym the other day, as a beginner. You remember seeing that as the difficulty of the climbs got harder, the holds barely imprint on the rock. These holds didn’t look much like holds at all, but they were called ‘holds’ for a reason. They held meaning, one that you perhaps yet didn’t have the techniques with which to understand. You didn’t know how to scramble up walls; to use your momentum; when to stand instead or crouch, or when to crouch instead of stand. But on one climb you were already halfway up the wall. You weren’t about to let yourself down. You knew only how to jump and put one hand in front of the other, so that’s what you did. You jumped and grabbed, your hand slipped and you fell, but the harness caught. You swung slowly in mid-air. You felt a little like a fairy in a school play, and realised then that this was all pretend. If you don’t grasp these plastic handholds, all it means is you didn’t grasp it, and therefore you should try again. There’s no use denying that hold had meaning. Trust yourself, and know that you wouldn’t have begun to climb the wall, wouldn’t have gotten this far up unless it meant something to you to do it. Know that you’re not going to get hurt, unless you let yourself. Unless you’re negligent, unless you beat yourself up about it, unless you get angry and kick something you shouldn’t. You’ve done all those things. You know not to do them anymore. Let yourself dangle with grace, and remember that you’re swinging, not falling. Is that all a law school grade is, a plastic handhold? Is that all this brand of failure represents? I think so. (That’s as close as I can get to understanding it today, anyway.)

So don’t worry if you’re not brilliant in the ways those tests need you to be. Don’t worry about the 62%, the 57%, or how others seem to be going better than you. There are so many things you’re dodging, some of which you maybe don’t realise – though trust me, they are real. But don’t forget about the marks altogether. See them for what they are: things to learn from, things that are there to help you be better – things to hold on to.

Marks are not wounds. Marks are not wounds. Marks are not wounds.

‘Seymour, An Introduction’ and Some Observations on Truth

I have recently been plodding through JD Salinger’s short(ish) story ‘Seymour, an introduction’. The story revolves around the premise of Buddy Glass (a prominent character in Salinger’s other stories) writing an introduction for a tome of poetry that his late brother Seymour had left behind. This story is less a story, and precisely an introduction, in at least one sense. The default mode of the piece lies in the nature of an Introduction – it involves the disclosure of the self, in one sentence after another, wherein Seymour is revealed to the reader. He is revealed necessarily in parts, given his death so many years before, and also given the nature of words and sentences and the inevitable     space     that    occupies     them. This introduction reveals Seymour through an act of dissection, ‘analysis’, a practice which Buddy is wary of, and mitigates against through a supplication of ‘gluey stuff’. A criticism of his process is laid on him by an imaginary reader, to which he defends:

“You said you were going to tell us what your brother Looked Like. We don’t want any of this goddamn analysis and gluey stuff.

But I do… I could use a little bit less analysis, no doubt, but I want every bit of the gluey stuff. If I have a prayer of staying straight with this, it’s the gluey stuff that’ll do it.”

This is the essential tension of the Introduction, Buddy going too far in his dissection of Seymour and then attempting to ‘glue’ him back together. Buddy goes to such lengths to keep Seymour together, of course, in the name of Truth. He obsesses over it with singularity and purpose, in the name of telling Seymour’s story ‘straight’. Yet his definition of truth is not straightforward, but rather nuanced. In the course of providing a personal anecdote, he says: “there’s a certain amount of perverse truth to both, but not nearly enough.” In ordinary discourse, truth is defined by its factual existence. Something is either true, or it isn’t. Buddy’s definition of truth involves this question too, of ‘does this fact exist and is it therefore true?’. Yet there is a secondary inquiry as to the ‘straightness’ of the truth. If this fact is true, how true is it? So there is truth, and then there is ‘straight truth’, which is apparently ascertainable.

Even if the story doesn’t tell us what straight truth is, it is useful for showing that the concept of truth is a) usually qualified, and b) involves a deeper level of inquiry, this concept of ‘straightness’. Part a) will be looked at in further detail in this post.

Qualification of Truth

This notion that truth can and is qualified is an interesting notion to me. It denotes these multiplicities of truth that exist, as well as the different qualities that these truths take on. This is at odds with ordinary discourse, in which we ask each other to tell us ‘the truth’, when we swear an oath in courts to tell nothing but the whole truth. This truth usually refers a request for factual ascertainment. But does the telling of ‘the truth’ satisfy the request? To question this further, I might use my own anecdote.

A friend and I were having a discussion about religion. She expressed her doubts about investing too deeply in it, since she was unsure about its capacity to sustain truth (in particular, its capacity to sustain her truths). She shared with me a story, about an acquaintance of hers who was a staunch Christian, and whose extensive commitment to the church could leave no doubt that she was in fact, a very good Christian. This acquaintance would project to the world at large pieces of her life on social media, tying all aspects of it to religion, even claiming that kit-kats were god-given gifts. Using the usual definition of truth, my friend understood that two truths were present before her. First, that the acquaintance was a very good Christian. And second, that kit-kats were understood to be god-given gifts. Together these truths create the critical observation made by my friend, that religion can be used by others as a crutch to uphold all their endeavours.

Yet we might apply Buddy’s criticism here, and say “there’s a certain amount of perverse truth to both, but not nearly enough.” Indeed there is little satisfaction to be gained from this idea that religion is a crutch. And it is not an answer to my friend’s uncertainty, as to whether religion can sustain her truth, which is the answer she was after. Two truths added together gave rise to another, an idea that oddly is no truer than the sum of its parts.

Perhaps this is something like what Buddy’s imaginary critic was after, when s/he asked to see what Seymour looked like. But perhaps a description of Seymour, like a description of this acquaintance, would be merely an unsatisfactory truth.

 

The Dynamism of Self

Up until recently, the notion of ‘being myself’ had always come easily to me. I pride myself on always knowing what I want, and acting accordingly. This characteristic of mine is perhaps most aptly captured by a favoured catchphrase: ‘don’t tell me what to do’. My strong sense of self has often been acknowledged by myself and others. But I wonder if I am simply good at ‘being myself’ in a way that is consistent with a narrow-minded view of the self? I am referring to the definition of the self as understood by the liberal tradition, where one acts autonomously, who alone decides the terms on which they engage and are engaged with within society.

In her wonderful book ‘The Alchemy of Race and Rights’ (which I am slowly plowing through), Patricia Williams writes about another notion of the self. To explain this, she uses the example of ‘toi’, the Vietnamese ‘equivalent’ for ‘I’. ‘Toi’ translates literally into ‘your servant’, reflecting a radically different view of the self than that which ‘I’ conveys. What I like about William’s example are two things. First, the ‘toi’ example is important for showing that there are other modes of viewing the self that are just as valid as the ‘I’mode. (While this seems fairly intuitive, I think it is worth noting – sometimes we forget the real ways in which our words shape our selves.)

Secondly, I love how ‘toi’ is frank in its treatment of the self. ‘Your servant’ recognises the self as inherently relational (albeit imbued with some cultural (?) notions of servitude) in a way ‘I’ does not. That I name this treatment ‘frank’ of course implies that I believe the self is inherently relational, which I certainly do!

The self is a slippery concept that eludes any precise definition. Nevertheless, in any given definition, the self is in one way or another who we are. While this loose definition leaves much to the imagination (enough, I hope), the self is grounded indefinitely in the present tense. This is not to say that we are grounded temporally, that the self is only ever who we are in this moment. (In fact, that is what the ‘I’ self presumes, I think.) I would prefer to think that the self is dynamic, and continually informed by the presence of our being – being by ourselves, being with others, being with things. This dynamism of the self is captured wonderfully by the relational ‘toi’, in a way that ‘I’ cannot – more on this limitation in a bit.

Interestingly enough, there is some wiggle room for the dynamic self afforded by our liberal society. Constrained by the endorsement of the ‘I’ self, the ‘kind-of-dynamic-self’ manifests itself as such: “We know that we are the product of our environments.” How do these premises operate simultaneously, despite their obvious differences?

E.g. The operation of the ‘I’ self and the ‘kind-of-dynamic-self’is present in society’s attitudes towards women and their use of makeup.

The Progressive Attitude – Don’t wear makeup

The ‘I’ self suggests that women today have the right to ‘be who they are’. While this entitlement to ‘be who you are’ can technically accommodate the decisions of women who do and don’t wear make up, the immediacy of the ‘I’ self suggests otherwise. The definition of ‘who they are’is then made to depend solely upon the current political moment, which at present lauds the decisions of women who do not wear makeup as brave. This singular definition of ‘being who they are’ values no makeup over makeup, and women who do continue to wear it who are seen as continuing to cave to societal expectations, despite this not necessarily being the case.

The Business as Usual Attitude – Do wear makeup

As mentioned above, the ‘kind-of-dynamic-self’ assumes that we are the product of our environments. Ordinarily, this would mean all environments, past, present and future. However, the imposition of the immediate ‘I’ self forces our environments to be summed up, packaged neatly and placed on the doorstep of the present. Everything that we were before – aka women who were always expected to wear makeup- make us who we are – aka women who do bear the societal expectation of wearing makeup today. This to some extent justifies negative attitudes towards women who don’t wear makeup.

It is clear from the above analysis that the ‘I’ self and the ‘kind-of-dynamic-self’ both justify arguments for and against women wearing makeup in society. These arguments are narrow and polarised, and despite being formulated in a liberal society, fail to consider this key point: that wearing makeup is a choice. The fact that the ‘I’ self seems to mitigate against a key tenet of liberalism is criticism enough to warrant a consideration of the ‘toi’ self in this context.

The ‘toi’ Attitude – Wear what you want 

Unlike the ‘I’ self, the ‘toi’ self is the dynamic self in its unconstrained form. It focuses not on the presence of the self, but rather on the relationship between the self and others, and acknowledges how this relationship was in the past, how it has spawned present selves, and how those selves will continue to change into the future. For example:

Past: Women used to wear makeup because it fulfilled societal expectations.

How the Present Relates to the Past: In reaction to the past of fulfilling societal expectations, women now:

  • wear makeup still because they want to fulfil expectations, but
  • also wear makeup because they want to, and
  • some don’t wear makeup at all.

How the Future Should be Shaped by the Past and Present: women should be empowered by what they choose or don’t choose to wear.

The ‘toi’ understanding creates a valuable and nuanced set of attitudes that cut across past, present and future, in a way that allows each self to be truly valued.

Conclusion

Some might believe that the ‘toi’ self is a kind of hippy communitarian ideal; but in reality ‘toi’ values the liberal tenet of choice more than the ‘I’ self. In the end, the flaws of the ‘I’ self seem pretty self-evident: where there is a singular self, can you really choose to be who you are? Your servant doesn’t think so.

 

 

Vulnerability and uniqueness in sport

In my last post, I wrote about the value of vulnerability. On a personal level, allowing myself to be vulnerable and recognising the vulnerability in others helped me to deal better with the people around me.While in the last post, I spoke about how vulnerability is about recognising what other people need, how might a recognition of vulnerability be put into practice? At the heart of this practice, is an innate need to recognise vulnerability as unique; to recognise each other’s unique needs, and meeting them. Society struggles deeply to recognise unique vulnerabilities, especially in discussions of women and sport.

Sport is a big part of my life, and it often comes up in conversations that I have. Whenever comparisons arise between male and female athletes, the conversation almost always ends this way – where the other person would tell me that at the end of the day, men are bigger, stronger and faster than women. Women were more vulnerable, full stop. There is no way a woman, at the top of her game, could beat a man, at the top of his game. While I agreed, I wondered why people, men and women alike, both felt the need to qualify the achievements of women in sport. And was it really true? That men always would hold this advantage that would blow women away in a second?

This notion seems to be the prevailing ideology in society – that good men hold back. Good men don’t beat their wives, even though they could if they wanted to. The same goes for sport – good men let women win, at arm wrestling, or putting one past them in soccer – and society lauds men for doing so, though it entrenches the vulnerability/weakness of women. I make no bones about it when I say this shits me – when will we stop talking about good men, in ways that are mutually exclusive to how we talk about good women? When we  do this, we forget that we are all unique – uniquely vulnerable, and uniquely strong and weak. A featherweight male boxer would certainly not fare well in the same weight class as a welterweight, yet both are respected in their own right. There is recognition and respect of their difference, relative vulnerabilities, relative strengths. Who does it serve, then, to compare the hypothetical  strongest female against the hypothetical strongest male? The analysis is contrived, to say in the least.

A valuation of brute strength serves only to frame attitudes in ways that systemically privilege men in sport. I noticed this after my best friend told me about the rock climbing community, which recognised women as climbers who were as competent as men. She mentioned that for some climbs women would always do better than men, because of their size and various techniques, whereas the same could be said for men. Whether one gender would do better over the other depended on the uniqueness of the climb, the various handholds and positionings that the rock/rock wall sustained. I realised, when she relayed this anecdote to me, that it was the uniqueness of each climb that so beautifully suited the unique vulnerabilities of men and women, and allowed for the empowerment of both genders.

This conversation with my friend thoroughly convinced me that sexism, without a doubt, was a systemic issue. If structures are in place to accommodate vulnerability, perhaps equal opportunity may be achievable after all.

 

The Value of Vulnerability

This summer, I’ve come back to Singapore for the first time in a year. In the grand scheme of things, it probably doesn’t seem all that long to you, but it’s long enough to romanticise the place of my childhood – to miss the Singlish, the food, the culture. Like most people who have had privileged younger years, it’s too easy to reminisce and put on the rose tinted glasses. Hazarding a guess as to why – for me, there was a sense of easy and honest belonging. I was allowed to ‘be myself’ in the sense that although there were rules of engagement as a child, (e.g. boys play with boys on the playground, girls sit on the bench at recess) there are fewer repercussions for the breaking of those rules (I wasn’t called the ‘monkey bar queen’ for nothing).

Childhood is a valuable memory to me because, at its heart, it was a time when people valued vulnerability. Children were excused all the time for not knowing any better (though there are glaring exceptions to this ‘rule’), and their indisputable status as minors gave them privileges, legal and others. Adults complained to me (and still do) about how back when they were kids, life was sweeter. Despite the dictatorial whims of Donald Trump’s first few weeks as President, many would wholeheartedly agree that it will not do to drag his son, Barron, into the fray. After all, children must be allowed to be children. So, a child’s vulnerability is valued, and protected, and even used to empower them. My question is then – why isn’t it valued in adulthood?

Not only is adult vulnerability  not valued, it is downright undesirable – unless you’re using it to romantically appeal to the protective ‘instincts’ of the opposite/same sex – though even then, feminists may look with disdain on the act. Vulnerability is undesirable, because it is understood as the antithesis of being strong. It is synonymous with being weak, unable to protect oneself. But if we recall the vulnerability of children, this equating of ‘weak’ and ‘vulnerable’ does not occur. It is recognised that there are strong children and weak children, but all of them are vulnerable. This highlights the difference between vulnerability and weakness: weakness is an inability to protect oneself, vulnerability is the signal that one is in need of care.

I believe there is a need to re-establish the difference between vulnerability and weakness in adulthood, and begin to value vulnerability. There is nothing wrong with being in need of care, whether an adult or a child. I spent a good couple decades of my life mesmerised by this notion of being invulnerable, and while there is certainly value in being a strong individual, I see now the way in which a valuation of strength over vulnerability has caused a great number of rifts around me that are seemingly irreparable, and continually damage, over and over again. I see how my grandmother’s lack of care taught my mother how not to be vulnerable; to be irrepressibly strong, to never let herself be taken advantage of. I see how my mother has taught my brother the same; how he resents her for not valuing his vulnerabilities, and now refuses to value his own, using his own strength to protect himself in the same way, from foes equal parts terrible and imagined. Remember that people do not hurt in a vacuum. The pain radiates, and it gets hard to take.

As I continue to slowly notice and value my own vulnerabilities and those of others around me, it only serves to convince me more of its necessity. Those seemingly irreparable rifts, though they continue to inflame, seem a little less irreparable. I see real hope in situations where others cannot see beyond despair. I realise that in valuing vulnerability, you give others license to do the same, and whether we would like to admit it, that is a license that we long for. I don’t think there are many things in life more powerful than our own desire to be cared for.

Let’s give voice to vulnerability .