All the Good I See

what-we-see-depends-mainly-on-what-we-look-for

I thought tensions couldn’t get any worse after last election. I think I deserve an award for my ability to vastly underestimate things. Over half of this country is experiencing emotional distress over the election. This stuff is big, and it’s real, and it’s hurting us all.

As I read the comments (my biggest weakness and the biggest source of my depression and stress) I think, “The goal now is to say the meanest, most hateful things imaginable.” Instead of making a point anymore, everyone’s goal is to hurt. That activity used to be limited to trolls. Now everyone is doing it.

If you’re like me, you tend to read more closely the comments of people who disagree with you. In doing so, you’re going to see some horrific stuff. And in seeing that, it really does seem like one side is evil and one side is good. Here’s the problem with that assessment, if you look more closely, you’ll see the really nasty stuff coming from everyone. This, by the way, is not an invitation to point out that the other side is worse. That isn’t my point. My point is, statistically, it’s pretty impossible for everyone to be evil.

The human response to danger is fight or flight. When fighting for survival, we do whatever we need to, without concern with what will be polite or kind. Online, we are fighting (or flighting) with words. It’s all we have, and it’s what we do.

“But,” we think of our political opposites, “how can you believe that?? You are an idiot! And your idiocy is endangering me and my loved ones!!”

Stop – let’s look at that. “Endangering me and my loved ones.”
Do you believe that? I’ll admit I do. It’s a terrible feeling, the kind of feeling that has me refreshing my news source websites over and over to see what’s going to happen next.

Now…. Can’t you imagine the other side thinks that too? Please stop and try to imagine that. It will help.

“But,” we insist, “they’re WRONG! Look at these facts!”

Here’s the problem with that: Both sides have facts. In this wonderful world of information, every person who has access to the internet has access to the facts they need to back up their beliefs. EVERYONE. The information doesn’t have to be accurate to be frightening and polarizing, it just needs to be convincing. And people who already believe something are very unlikely to look for facts to disprove their beliefs.

So what do we have? Pretty near an entire country of people who believe (based on information they can cite, link to, and have heard trustworthy folks in suits confirm) that they and their loved ones will be in grave danger if their political opponent wins.

This pervasive fear means something, though: No matter what happens, we have all already lost. We are a nation afraid. We are a nation angry and hurting and feeling betrayed by our government and our neighbors. We have lost trust in our friends and lost respect for diverse opinions in our communities. We have been blatantly, and in some cases gleefully, used against one another for political and financial gain. More people watch the news than ever because of the lunacy that has been this election. Ratings mean money.

The morning after the election, both candidates will be fine. Whoever loses will be disappointed but convinced that there was nothing more they could have done. They will assure themselves and their family that the deck was stacked against them. They’ll be prepared to regroup and leverage their nearly successful presidential campaign toward something lucrative.

The rest of us, though, will still be hurting. We’ll either be paralyzed by the fear of the dangers we were promised were sure to come, or we’ll be continuing to harbor distrust. We’ll all be mourning the loss of friendships and the absent goodwill of neighbors. Some will be so angry and in disbelief of the results, they’ll be considering revolution.

It will be hard for us to move past this. I’ve stopped believing that there will be any relief on November 9th when this is all over.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from this election, it’s that there are no words or arguments or explanations that will change anyone’s mind. The only things I have power over are my vote and my attitude.

I’m owning that power.

The fact is, I don’t feel any better distrusting or disliking anyone who disagrees with me politically. Yeah, there are assholes out there, and there are some really evil menaces in our country. But I’ve begun to see that people who don’t share my views are voting for what they see as the safest option. They are trying to mitigate danger and ensure the security of their families based on the information they have. Like me, they are afraid. I may not think they have the facts right, but I can empathize with wanting to protect their loved ones.

Realizing that makes me feel better. Looking for the good in people helps me.

For example: I’m sure my neighbor Bill and I have political differences. I don’t know him well. We sure don’t talk politics, but I have a hunch we’re not on the same page politically. Bill is a big guy – tall and slightly stooped with a white beard. He usually wears a straw hat and long sleeves, even in the heat. Every day, he walks his tiny dog, taking her patiently to all the paces she wants to go. Sometimes he looks a little tired, like he’s ready to go home, but he waits for her. I like that. I don’t know how he votes, but I think he’s kind.

I have a relative I know believes different things than me. He can be a little gruff about it. But he’s a hard worker who does generous things for his family (which also happens to be my family). He is devoted to his wife and good to animals.

I don’t know what everyone on my fb friends list believes, but I know they are my friends because they are good, honorable people. So there are 118 people who aren’t actually evil jerks, despite what those on opposing political sides would say about them.

At the end of the day, these people –my friends, neighbors and coworkers — all still have to live and work with one another. And honestly, it’s not worth it to me to believe the worst in them.

The American people have already lost this election. We’ve lost so much, and I’m not sure how long it will take us to recover. I have friends who say, “How can I know what these people believe and still have respect for them?”

Maybe we need to be more careful about what we attribute to others, especially ones we know and once respected. A vote for a candidate doesn’t make someone that candidate. Being on one side of an issue doesn’t mean alignment with the fringiest ideas on that side.

But most importantly, it doesn’t do our hearts and souls any good to condemn so many people. I’m so tired and frustrated and scared. I think everyone is. The only way I can move on is to believe in people’s best intentions and look for the good in the folks I see in real life.  And (as always) stay out of the comments sections. When will I learn?

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An Obvious Miscalculation

512px-Guy_Rose_-_The_Green_Mirror

Guy Rose [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“You’re so beautiful,” he says, with a sweet smile.
I love that smile. It’s like a special secret.
I smile back, and I think I even say thank you. This time.

This, the smile back, is honest and so is the appreciation. But…

“You’re so beautiful,” he has said. The same way he has said, contentedly, “I love to hold your hand.” The same voice and the same gentleness, and I know he’s not lying, but it has taken a lot of effort on my part to keep myself from arguing.

“You’re so beautiful,” he would say.
And I would say, “No, I’m not.”
And inside, I would say, “This is ridiculous. Has he not seen the research?!”
And up against the three words from the man I love, who also loves me, is decades of statistical data explaining why, specifically, I am not beautiful. And images of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of models who are our society’s definition of beautiful. And inside me, the certainty that if I stood next to any one of these women, I would be arrested for my ugliness. No, not arrested, probably. Just poofed out of existence.

Sometimes, I would give him specific reasons why he was wrong. “I’m fat…, My hair…, My skin…, Look at what I’m wearing.”

I don’t know when the data collection even started. Was it from the beginning? Or did I hold off until I was a pre-teen? My friend Liz had a subscription to Seventeen, which I think was where I first got the idea that I should be on a diet. No wait… My first diet was before that. When I was fourteen, I think. I got a lot of praise for that diet.

That was when I learned to talk to other girls about myself.
“I’m having a bad hair day!”
“Ugh, I’m so fat, I shouldn’t have eaten that yogurt.”
They would echo back.
“Can you see my zit?”
“My butt looks so big in these jeans.”
Acceptance and understanding. We hate ourselves and the way we look. Or we know we are supposed to. We are all on the same page. Carry on.

But that goes away when girls grow up, right?

I was twenty-six when I stopped measuring my right to exist (to have a voice, to be seen, to believe I was allowed to be considered) based on anything but my looks. That I know specifically. That was the year my first husband’s cancer spread. That was the year I pulled all-nighters measuring out pain medications, emptying catheter bags, checking IV sites. And that was the year I saw someone I love suffer and die. I didn’t think about being beautiful once that year. I learned how unimportant it really was.

But

I still live in a society based on beauty and thinness, and those judgments creep back in. I have to remind myself.

When I was twenty-seven, I met my friend Tricia.
I tried to talk to her the way I talked to other females.
“Ugh, I look so terrible.”
And she just blinked at me. “Garnett,” (That’s what she calls me), “be nice to yourself.”
I didn’t know what to do with that, but it felt like the inkling of some kind of scary freedom. “Oh, we don’t hate ourselves here?” I thought. And still when I remember that day, my heart feels the same weird-good way.

Later, she told me this story a friend of hers told her. She, the friend, was in law school and was talking to a bunch of other female students.
“You know,” she said, “the only thing straight women ever talk about is their weight.”
“Oh, I KNOW!” said the only straight woman in the group. “I have gained five pounds this term!”

I think about that story all the time. I try to make it remind me to talk to my straight women friends about things other than hating our looks. I let it scold me when I fail. Societally, that is our language.

Now I am edging my way toward forty-three.
I’m old enough to feel silly when I want to argue with the man I love about whether or not I am, objectively, beautiful.
I’m smart enough not to judge myself when insecurities creep in, because there are a whole lot of years of bad lessons to unlearn.
And just recently, I’m wise enough and compassionate enough toward myself to smile and say thank you.
Because, this is the man who loves me most in the world, the one who has seen me cry and rage and laugh ‘til I snort
The man who has watched me watch our little boy with eyes so full of love they overflow with it
And, just maybe, this guy knows what he’s talking about when he says I’m beautiful.

When the Trolls Are Silenced

I started following the Humans of New York Facebook page, not only because of the incredible photographs and arresting captions, but because the comments section was so positive. It was this big upbeat community, and it was like a miracle. How amazing that people are able to rein in their nastiness in support of HONY’s subjects, who are really making themselves vulnerable by agreeing to be photographed.

It wasn’t long before I realized the comments must be moderated. I’m no stranger to comments sections, and people’s behavior in this one was atypical. Sure enough, Brandon addressed it himself.

“Been getting some emails from people who have been banned…the moderators have very clear instructions: ban anyone who is attacking the subject…feel free to joke. We aren’t stiff or prudish. But we do know the difference between being funny and being a dick.”

That was written last year, and as far as I know, he hasn’t addressed it again since. At the time, HONY had 5 million followers. It’s now up to 16.3 million. In other words, not allowing commenters the freedom to be an absolute shit to someone is not limiting his readership. It is helping it.

The beautiful thing about this is that HONY moderators are setting a standard of behavior that the members of the community help enforce. If someone says something nasty that gets missed by the mods, the community members chastise that person. We love our safe, supportive, troll-free space, we love to read people’s stories. We want people to pose and talk when Brandon shows up with his camera, not run screaming.

I’m a member of a women’s writing group. The group has guidelines, and it is moderated. It is another troll-free zone. The moderator, Barbara Bos (who runs Booksbywomen.org, in addition to this writing group) is smart, dedicated and no-nonsense. She has said she has zero tolerance for trolls. She doesn’t announce that something will be deleted or call the person out; she just makes the comment disappear (and, I assume, the commenter sometimes.)

We are none the wiser, and that’s okay. If I knew, if she hinted, I would feel myself wondering,“Who? What was said? What happened?” It would make me a little outraged and feel a little more guarded. But we don’t know. It’s rarely mentioned, and I don’t have to wonder.

The result is a warm, compassionate and supportive group of writers. When I joined, there were under 1000 members. Now we’re nearing 7000. Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t mention how safe and supported they feel in this group. I have met some amazing people and made dear friends in the space because I felt safe there.

A lot of people say,“You need to toughen up and learn to deal with criticism.” I wonder how often the people who say that are ones who are fond of criticizing but who are upset when others push back.

Yes, there are some areas in our lives when critiques are necessary: when we are learning something new, when we are on the job, and (most importantly) when we are voicing opinions about other people’s realities.

But I really think the last thing this world needs is more toughened people. I feel like that “toughen up” cry is just a bunch of bullshit said by people who don’t want to be called bullies so they can keep bullying. The fact is, this world is starving for more compassion and less toughness.

The smallest acts of kindness, the unexpected shows of compassion, the little pictures and videos that make us smile, these things are trending now. This is what’s going viral.

In Western culture, we are sold the lie that toughness equals strength. That’s more bullshit. That is demanding that people change their reactions to attacks instead of demanding a stop to the attacks.

Toughness in the face of constant, unrelenting and unrepentant negativity isn’t strength; it’s a tragedy. It demands that we disconnect ourselves from our hearts and our feelings so people can’t hurt us. That is expecting that the good parts of ourselves should be changed, damaged or denied so trolls can’t get to us.

And guess what: You can never be tough enough for a real troll. If you don’t react, there will always be escalation until you do.

Actual strength is being authentic and vulnerable, and understanding that it is right to be hurt when people are hurtful. Actual strength comes from allowing others in the space to be authentic and vulnerable safely, as well.

There are people in this world who thrive on negativity, who feel like they can only make an impact with their fists, who feel so threatened when someone challenges the status quo, that they have to stomp on that person. Their voices are not meant to share an idea but to stop other people from sharing. They demand the freedom to deny others a voice through intimidation.

But a funny thing happens when you silence trolls. People start opening up, sharing their experiences more, seeing different points of view and supporting each other. I know I do.

When I know I can speak without getting stomped on, I will speak. Maybe I don’t need to. Maybe I can and should keep myself to myself. But it feels good to connect and share. It feels good to read someone saying, “ME TOO!!” It makes me feel less alone. It makes me feel inspired and hopeful, the opposite of the way I feel when I am in a space overrun with negativity.

We are social animals, and we tend to take our cues from one another. If a community is mostly positive and welcoming, the expectation is that others will be positive and welcoming, as well. Most people there are already that way. Some people will begin to act that way because others do. Some people who are that way naturally will be drawn to the environment. And some people will not conform and will be negative. Often when this happens, the existing community members will speak up to maintain the benefits of their positive environment.

A while back, there was a TED talk given by Monica Lewinsky. Nadia Goodman and three others had the unfortunate task of deleting the negative comments on the Facebook feed. She said it was some of the nastiest most vitriolic stuff she had ever read. But after several hours of boosting the positive comments and deleting the vitriol, the trend began to shift. A lot more supportive and positive comments started being posted.

People who moderate spaces and make them safe from trolls often experience outraged push back. “How DARE you silence me?! This is oppression!! You are being cowardly by not allowing a lively debate!!” they might be heard to shriek.

veruca_salt

No, Veruca. That’s not how this works. When has this ever been the way things work? In what area of the real world, are you free to storm into a community conference and call the presenter a stupid fuck? When was the last time you were invited into a women’s meeting to weigh in on whether or not you believed them to be a bunch of uptight feminazis? At work, are you encouraged to publicly provide your opinion on your coworker’s attire and if it makes her a slut?

Freedom of speech is the freedom to express your opinions without being arrested. That’s all. It is not the freedom to enter people’s homes, studios or businesses and shout your opinions in their faces. If you want to talk about it in your own space, talk about it. But don’t expect to be welcomed in and handed a cup of tea and a microphone.

I have found myself becoming relieved when there are no comments sections, especially connected to articles and posts about women’s issues. These are a lightning rod for nastiness, as well as dismissive and violent rhetoric. Not having a comments section makes me feel safer as a reader. It saves me from my own sick compulsion to view the opposition to the very simplest of women’s concerns, which are my concerns, being a woman and all.

Recently, my mom was telling me about the people she met on a cruise and how wonderfully kind and friendly they were. She was high on humanity. Then she asked how I was, and I said I was depressed by how miserable everybody was.

Mom was like, “But haven’t you been listening? They’re not!! I just met a whole ship full of good, nice people.”

I was being influenced by all the nastiness I was seeing everywhere. But the nastiest people are not a representation of the whole world. They are just the loudest. It’s really hard to remember that.

Yes, I know I’m comparing the outside world to the internet. But we can’t keep pretending that online is something separate from real life. There are still human beings on the end of these wireless signals. A lot of people ONLY interact with others online. Some are lost and hurting, maybe waiting to see which way the tide is turning: hatred and vitriol? Or positivity and compassion?

So what will I do? Well, first of all, I need to spend less time on the internet. But beyond that, I will stay in safe spaces and help build safe spaces. I will promote the positive and try my hardest to disregard the negative. I will ignore outright nasty trolls, but speak up when I see bullying. I’ll share the good stuff and not give a voice to the trolls.

Little Heartbreaks

I have plans for you, eggs

I have plans for you, eggs

Once, when my son was three or so, I overheard him talking to himself while we were getting ready for work/preschool.

“This is gonna be fun!” he said.

So I had to look. He had gathered up some plastic Easter eggs, and was smiling at them.

“What’s gonna be fun?” I asked, overwhelmed, as always, by his beautiful little smile at some delight he found on his own.

“I will play with these with my friends.”

Oh no. His school had a prison-strict policy against bringing toys to school.

“Oh, sweetie, you know you can’t take those to school right?”

“OK,” he said. And he was fine. It was fine. But I wasn’t. I felt like I had killed a small creature, his little hope creature, his little fun creature. I have no idea what he was planning to do with the eggs, but it would have made him happy, and even better, he would have shared with his friends and made them happy. And I couldn’t let him. It crushed me.

I know I can’t give him everything he wants. There are some things he wants that aren’t good for him: lots of sweets, no bedtime, a pet dragon. There are some things he wants that wouldn’t really contribute anything to his life, like another truckload of toys. But these little plans, his own first victories, his fledgling imaginations, these are the things that I want him to have, that I feel like a monster for keeping from him.

Plans

Agent C is incognito

I took him to school, sans eggs, and cried all the way to work.

Yesterday at camp, my boy missed out on popcorn. Popcorn is a treat, so much tastier because it is special, made just for movie time. He came in late, and the popcorn was already doled out, and the rules say he has to stay seated.

He told me about it last night, and already, already at four, he’s learning to hide his small heartaches. He didn’t want to look at me when he told me, and he tried not to let his voice shake or that tear escape. And I hugged him, and he hugged me hard. Thank goodness we still have that. I wanted my hug to tell him that it mattered. I knew it was more than popcorn.

This morning I asked his teacher what was the right thing to do if he comes in late from another activity and the popcorn is already handed out.

This woman, who I would now like to adopt into my family, gasped. She covered her mouth in horror.
“WHAT? OH NO!! HE DIDN’T GET POPCORN?? Oh, punkin, I’m SO sorry!!”

She looked like she would cry. I felt like I would cry. She understands. And my little boy’s heart is safe with her for the summer.

It all sounds trite, plastic eggs and popcorn. And my soul bleeds for the moms and dads who cry because they can’t feed their children, or can’t see their children, or have to work so many hours that they can’t be sure their care providers are safe, much less concerned about whether or not they get a cup of popcorn.

I know how lucky I am to have the luxury of crying over these little things. Maybe I should toughen up. But maybe if I can do a better job with these things, I can raise a compassionate person who wants to help solve the world’s problems. Or at least one who will hug his own child when she or he cries over popcorn and plastic eggs.

Fifty Shades of I Don’t Know

Let's Talk About It

Let’s Talk About It

The movie is coming, the books were a hit, and the opinions are strong. Many of the brilliant women writers I respect have spoken up about this, so of course it has me thinking. The movie and the books didn’t, actually (have me thinking).
In the past week I have read several strong opinions on it, all different, and all from feminists. I think they all say the same thing: Women should be respected.

The question or conflict comes in when we talk about how that respect manifests itself. I’m not a fan of the eye-rolling and calling women who read the books “silly” or “giggly.” It is undeniable, there is something compelling in the story line; women I know, smart women who make tough independent decisions all the time, are drawn to it. I personally don’t think it’s because those women secretly want to be dominated by a man. In fact, the women I know that enjoyed the books are very much equals in their relationships.

Is it dangerous? Well, from my safe perspective of nurturing relationships I don’t think it’s realistic enough to be dangerous. I’m lucky. But today, I heard the opinion of someone I respect very much who is the survivor of domestic abuse. In my limited capacity to see it through her perspective, I can see the answer as yes.

In the book, the male lead was abused. He acknowledges himself as a mess. (The title, for those who didn’t read it, comes from him referring to himself as “Fifty shades of fucked up.”) Their relationship is clearly co-dependent. There were lots of times when the plot should have devolved into something more sinister than it did. That it didn’t was part of the fantasy.

We can fear for some young women with this plot being in the spotlight right now. I sure as hell didn’t know who I was when I was in my teens and twenties. This plot, plus ridiculous social pressure to look a certain way, to deny certain parts of themselves to be likable, and to not be seen as a bitch, is the perfect storm for terrible relationship choices, possibly even dangerous ones.

Do I think it should be censored for these reasons? I don’t. (BTW, nobody I’ve read lately has suggested it should be.) I strongly believe that having others decide what is good for us to see, read about, or know is the reason dominance and control occurs. What I think should happen (and yes, the whole world is queuing up to get my opinion on this), is that we should talk about it. We should talk the hell about it.

We should all talk about sex, pleasure, control, trust, dominance and domestic abuse. That last one, we should talk about a lot. Shaming and silencing one another, even subtly, gets us further away from that goal of respect.

Let’s talk about it. And let’s listen. And (this would just be a bonus, I suppose) let’s be nice to one another while we do. I will try harder.

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If you or someone you know is in danger at home, help is available.

In the U.S:. National Domestic Abuse Hotline:  1-800-799-7233 TTY 1-800-787-3244 or Online www.thehotline.org/

In the U.K: National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247 or Online  www.nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.uk/ 

In the rest of the world: International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies http://www.hotpeachpages.net/index.html

Humans of Walmart

hony2

It was late, and I had found someone to stay home so I could sneak away for an hour. I was on a mission, and the only place to accomplish it was Walmart. Options were limited in my small New Hampshire city.

I remember feeling two things that night: 1) Exhaustion so utter and complete that I was shivering and sweating at the same time and so deep that my muscles screamed when I commanded them to move my bones. 2) Excitement about my mission.

I couldn’t tell you what I was wearing. I couldn’t even guarantee I was wearing pants. I remember a jacket. I don’t remember having bare feet. I couldn’t tell you the last time I brushed my hair or even washed it.

My mission: Cloth diapers. I know, it’s not exciting or Earth shattering, but I had the idea that they could help us, and anything at all that could help was welcome. Cloth diapers would be absorbent and could be layered. My hope was that they would keep us from having to change the sheets as often. Nothing we did day to day hurt my husband as much as changing the sheets, but cancer was breaking down his skin. When skin breaks down, it leaks. When it leaks, sheets need to be changed.

I pray most people don’t know first hand that cancer has an odor. It smells of rotting broccoli. (I apologize for being graphic.) My quests in caring for Jim in his last stage of cancer were to keep him comfortable and to keep the smell of cancer away. The odor threatened me. It threatened all my efforts to deny what was happening. If I was going to face the next minute, I needed that denial more than I needed breath, because of how much I loved him and how much he was my hero and how wrong, wrong, wrong it all was.

I didn’t find what I wanted that night, and I went home defeated. When I didn’t find what I wanted, I’ll bet I made some terrible faces. I might have looked like a bitch to someone. I don’t know. You know what else? I might have looked hilarious.

As far as I know, I was the only person in Walmart that night. I didn’t see anyone else in my exhaustion and frustration. It was before everyone had cameras on their cell phones anyway, so probably nobody snapped a picture of me in my craziness.

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy and compassion this year. It seems to be a tougher year than most for it. If current events are any indication, it is sorely lacking these days. I think compassion doesn’t just disappear all at once, but it is chipped away little by little.

It may start with something as simple as a candid picture of a person looking crazy while they are at Walmart. Someone takes it. Someone shares it. Everyone laughs. The subject of the pic becomes a joke, instead of a human. I have clicked and laughed before, more than once. I wish I hadn’t. I won’t again. It’s a tiny chip, but an important one. It is step one, possibly followed by calling a kid a thug, a protester a looter, or a vigil a riot. Removing the human context, the pain, the anger, the fear, the loss, removes the empathy and allows prejudices to blossom.

There is a great TED talk about voting with your clicks. The more people click on dehumanizing pictures and videos, the more likely it is that someone will view a person acting strangely as an opportunity for a viral video instead of a reason for concern, or just a bad moment in someone’s day. They are going to whip out a cell phone and start recording instead of helping, instead of trying to be understanding, or just instead of respecting someone’s privacy and minding their own damn business.

Instead of click-voting to take away someone’s humanity, now I try to find proof of goodness and compassion, and click-vote for that. It makes me feel better. If you’d like to do the same, I highly recommend starting with Humans of New York. Brandon Stanton is the living salve for all the dehumanizing click-bait out there. He’s younger than me, but I want to be him when I grow up. He traveled the world in August/September. He and his subjects make me smile-cry all the time.