“Withholding Sex” and Other Lies

excel

You all might have seen the recent story going around about the man who put together an excel spreadsheet of all the times that his wife said no to sex with him. Niki has a great takedown of a lot of the issues with this, focusing specifically on the fact that no one can ever owe you sex. I’d like to take that idea one step further and look at the concept that seems to be encapsulated in this story, which is that this man’s wife was withholding sex in some fashion. After quickly google searching “withholding sex” and being highly disturbed at the huge number of advice columns about reasons women (always women) withhold sex, it appears obvious to me that there is a common trope in our society that this is not only possible to do but also something that happens on a regular basis for some common reasons.

The underlying idea is that women have no other way to get their husbands to do what they want, so they have to punish them by not having sex (because of course it’s their only source of power). This stupid trope goes all the way back to Lysistrata (which is a damn amusing play even for its issues). Apparently men will get really angry and apologetic and do anything to get laid, especially because being married/in a longterm relationship is apparently supposed to be a “have sex whenever the hell you want” card.

Here’s the dirty little secret about this though: there is no such thing as withholding sex because there is no situation in which you owe another human being sex. Ever. Your body is 100% your own and you get to consent or not consent to other people doing things to or with your body for whatever the hell reason you would like. This includes because you’re pissed off at the person, because they did something you didn’t like, because you just don’t fucking feel like it, because you’re tired, because you don’t feel attractive, because you’d rather read a book…any of the above. And not wanting to have sex with someone because you have negative feelings towards them at a given moment is not in fact punishment. It’s actually a very natural human feeling not to want to be physically intimate with someone when you’re annoyed/angry/hurt/sad with them. Oddly enough letting someone be close to your body when you don’t feel emotionally close to them doesn’t always feel great (if that’s your thing then go for it, but for those who don’t like it then there is no fucking reason to apologize).

But the idea that you can pull some sort of power play in a relationship by not giving the other person something which you don’t owe to them in the first place makes no sense. It would be like telling your partner that you’re going to punish them by not baking them chocolate chip cookies every day: sure, maybe they would like those cookies but in no way are you obligated to bake them cookies anyway, so they should probably be just fine getting along without it. The idea that you should feel as if the only way you can express that you’re angry or upset or unhappy in your relationship is by taking ownership over your body in a way that is so basic it should never have been a question is somewhat disgusting. If your partner has you so convinced that you owe them sex, no wonder you feel a little angry or vindictive towards them.

The myth of withholding sex falls into the same category of horrible relationship advice that such gems as “have sex with him whenever he wants or he’ll cheat”, “Men need sex more often than women” and “there’s no such thing as marital rape” do. Sexuality is not the same for any two people, and gender does not determine sex drive or preferences, but underlying all of these myths is the assumption that sex is about ownership rather than about a mutually pleasurable experience and that the man in a relationship owns the right to sex with “his” woman. The concept that sex is a bargaining chip, a way to argue, or something that another person can demand are all great ways to ignore consent and traumatize the person you’re in a relationship with. So please, stop talking about how someone in a relationship should have more sex or needs to do x, y or z with their sex life because a. it’s none of your business and b. if their partner can’t respect them when they say no, the problems in that relationship are not their fault (or at least not exclusively).

I’m done with the idea that sex is the way to express all your feelings in a relationship. Use your words.

Having Difficult Conversations: Depression Edition

depression

The last couple of days have been hard for me. I’m moving out of my apartment and the whole “leaving the country” thing is starting to get real. That means my emotions have been all out of whack, and I’ve been trying to rely on the coping skills I’ve built up in the past year to deal in a healthy manner. One of the things that I’ve really been trying to practice is asking my friends for help when I’m in a bad place, particularly if I think I’m going to use symptoms. But as I experiment with this, I’ve noticed that there are some serious potential pitfalls to asking for help. As someone who wants to be a responsible adult who manages their emotions without demanding things from other people, I want to be able to ask for help without being manipulative, obnoxious, or clingy.

The first issue I’ve run into is that when I tell someone that I think I’m about to use symptoms (especially self-harm), it can come across as extremely manipulative. “Pay attention to me or else!” it screams. “If you’re actually busy and can’t make time, it is ALL YOUR FAULT if bad things happen” seems to be hiding under “I think I want to hurt myself”. Partially this is your support person’s responsibility: they need to learn that they are not responsible for your behavior, and that a request for help is not the same as foisting off responsibility. Oftentimes when we think we’re going to use symptoms we have to pull out every coping mechanism we have, and even when we do everything right we still slip up and do the thing we’re not supposed to do. That’s ok. Part of being a good support person is knowing that you can’t fix the other person or control their behavior.

All of that being said, there are better and worse ways to ask for help. Any “if…then” statements should probably be avoided (e.g. if you don’t talk to me then I will hurt myself). If you are capable of letting your support person know what it is you want from them, that’s also preferable (instead of just saying HELP, say “I want to talk to you/I want someone here/I want a giant hug and a bowl of ice cream”). One of the hardest parts of this for me is giving the other person a way to say no if they legitimately feel as if they can’t help in that moment. It comes across as super passive aggressive when you say “well it’s not important but…” or “don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine…”. These things seem to imply that you really really actually do want and need the other person you just don’t want to be pushy about it. I have yet to find a really solid method of signalling to my friends that it’s ok for them to say no in nasty jerkbrain situations, but thus far the best method has been to let them know that I do have other people I can go to.

But there is some tension in trying not to put too much pressure on someone while also letting them know that you are really truly struggling. This does actually make a difference because a. if you want help it’s best to be honest about that rather than just trying to chat with someone and then halfway through sliding your problem into the conversation and b. your friend might be a lot more willing to make themselves available if they know what’s up. There’s a balance to be found between signalling that you really could use some help and that your support person should probably prioritize this interaction higher than any old chat, but also signalling that they have the space to set boundaries and take care of themself. I suppose this is just a microcosm of the struggle that is all human interaction, namely finding ways to get what you yourself need while allowing the people you interact with to get what they need as well.

So even asking for help is extremely difficult, but let’s say that you ask your friend for some time and they say yes: one of the other things that is extremely difficult is that when you’re in the midst of a depressive episode, your honest to god feelings are things that are not deemed socially appropriate. They’re things that no one knows how to respond to, they’re things that are ugly and gross and embarrassing. And quite often, they come with an intensity that means it can feel as if you’re beating your friend about the head and shoulders with your Sad!feels.

I have been on the receiving end of an interaction in which one party just throws all of their depression at me. It’s overwhelming and leaves the support person fairly incapable of doing anything useful or helpful. It feels icky and like the individual is fishing for compliments and over the top. Especially when the depression feels are of the self-hating variety, it’s like walking through a minefield (often because the person with the self hatred feels both wants to be contradicted and validated).

The problem is that when you are in the midst of feeling incredibly depressed, you really truly feel that you are the least lovable human being on the planet, and that you’re ugly and horrible and stupid and disgusting and cruel and selfish. And for me personally, I often just want to be able to say those things out loud to get them out of my head. But what do you and your support person do with those ugly words once they’re out in the open? How do you make them something that is ok to talk about and acknowledge and validate while also letting your support person pull you back onto the solid ground of facts and reality?

I mean, if I knew the answer to this I’d probably be making a lot of money off of an innovative therapy technique, but it seems to me that it might be a good idea to ask your support people to set up some ground rules with you before you’re in the midst of a shitty headspace. These might include: no invalidation (I get to feel however I want), if you have evidence that might change my feelings, please present it, or here is our secret signal for when I just need you to listen to how I feel. Conversations in which someone who has a mental illness can actually tell another person what they feel about themselves without being judged and without putting pressure on the other person to fix or reassure are few and far between, but they also have the potential to be transformative. While they are difficult and terrifying and vulnerable, they also illustrate to someone with mental illness that those bits they feel the most shame about are acceptable and wanted. I’m still working on my scripts for these conversations, but hopefully we can share them as we make them.

Why a Compass?

steampunk_compass_rose_by_fairyants-d3hamim

This post is going to be incredibly personal, but I think some of the imagery that I’m using might be useful for others who deal with perfectionism/body issues/self esteem issues which is why I want to explain my use of the image.

I’m planning to get a new tattoo soon, and unlike my previous two this one is not nearly as self-explanatory as the others. I think in part, I don’t even entirely know what it means to me except that the idea of it has been calling out to me for quite some time now ever since my therapist threw out the idea of “why don’t you think of yourself as an explorer?” in a therapy session a few months ago.

Why is it so important for me to have a word to attach to myself, particularly this one? What is it about being an explorer that helps me as a human being? And why do I want to have a reminder of it on my skin? I think that tattoos can be cathartic. They are changes we choose to make to our bodies, permanent and visible. For me, they are an important element of constructing my own identity. So when I start to construct a new piece of my identity, something that feels like moving forward in a positive fashion, I want to have a reflection of that on my physical being.

My last tattoo was the eating disorder recovery symbol. For me, it was a choice to try to change. But it was also a recognition that my life was still ruled by food in many ways, even if it was through a choice to try to be healthier with my food. Now, as the next step in recovery, I am actively trying to create an identity that has nothing to do with my eating disorder (or at least very little. I do still want to be an advocate for mental health care). The image of an explorer resonated with me for a number of reasons.

One of the things that has been overwhelming to me in the past is my curiosity. I can never know enough, and for the last five years or so that was something that provoked a lot of anxiety in me. One of the things that I like about the image of exploring is that it does not imply that I HAVE to explore any given thing. I get to try out new places, new things, and then come home. No explorer is expected to give up everything else in their life to only explore or to try every single thing. You might go to space or deep sea or discover America, but there is nothing that says you have to try absolutely everything. You can just try what strikes your fancy. The label seems to imply freedom to come and go.

Another piece of exploring that is quite comforting to me is that the essence of exploring is uncertainty.I have had a hard time accepting ambiguity and uncertainty in my personal life. I want to know where I’m supposed to be going and what I’m supposed to be doing. I want a path that will tell me what’s Right. Unfortunately reality does not exist in that fashion, and finding the excitement of uncertainty is a goal of  mine. There is no set path, but that does not mean I’m doing something wrong or that I’m going to die. In fact not knowing can actually be a great thing, something that leads to growth and deeper understanding and connection and support and vulnerability.

I’ve also spent a lot of my life afraid of leaving people behind. I hate the idea that I could be spending time with someone but I’m choosing to do something else, as if it will ruin any love or care that we had. But explorers have to leave. That doesn’t mean that they won’t come home again or that there won’t be loved ones waiting for them. It doesn’t mean they don’t care or that their relationships are not good enough. It means that they have a drive to find new things, and that they need to do that sometimes. But they can always come home. There might be some pain in leaving, but there will always be joy in coming back. There is security in knowing where home is.

But perhaps my favorite part of the image of a compass is the space it implies. A compass is for going, for finding, for doing. It is for wide open spaces and running and sailing and GOING. There is so much in me that loves movement and filling up all the space I can find with my words and my thoughts and my body. There has been so much fear in my life of hurting others if I let myself stretch and be as large as I want to be (this is metaphorical). It has become more and more obvious to me that making myself small does nothing for others. I am giving myself permission to fill every space I want. The image of exploring says to me that I get to do this, I get to be in all these new places. I get to expand myself in all directions. It is freedom.

My body has never been a site of freedom before. I want to know what that’s like. Having an image that speaks to me as part of my skin feels like control to me. It is the control to make decisions about who I am.

The Body As Evidence

Scars visible, still smiling

I’ve written before about the frustrations of having a mental illness that leaves visual signs on my body, and that it can often feel as if my body is betraying me with its scars or its size. I’ve recently noticed what appears to be a corollary to this and it’s something that gets under my skin (pun intended). For those of us who have mental disorders that result in a physical change, our bodies are used far more often than our own words or mental state to gauge whether we’re ok or not.

This is something that has been criticized for some time now. We’ve heard that “you can’t see whether someone has an eating disorder by their size”. Many people are still convinced that size and weight loss are the indicators of eating disorders. Others are certain that depressed people probably look like vagabonds and don’t wash or take care of themselves. I would hope that we all have enough evidence by now that people of every shape and size can have a mental illness and most of the time it’s utterly invisible.

But there’s another layer of looking at bodies as evidence for mental illness, and this one is more subtle and more insidious. This is the one that comes when someone knows that you have a mental illness and really wants to know how you’re doing. So they pick apart your physical appearance for signs: are there dark circles under your eyes? Have you lost weight? Gained weight? Is there a scar or a cut that indicates symptom usage?

Now of course if you’re nervous or worried for someone it makes sense to try to find evidence of how they’re doing. Where this turns into a problem is when bodies are used as evidence against the person whose body it is. Often, when someone with a mental illness says that they’re doing ok, their body is scrutinized to see if they’re right or not. The individual can’t be trusted to know their own mental state or to truthfully express it to others.

In many ways, I think this plays into the idea that people with mental illness are manipulative or disconnected from reality. For most people, if they said that they were feeling ok, or doing better, or their mood was up, they would be trusted unless there was some glaring evidence to the contrary (muttering, monosyllables, glowering face). Particularly with physical illness, if someone has an injury but says that they feel fine, most people take them at their word. We’ve all experienced having a particularly nasty looking scratch that doesn’t actually hurt and reassuring others that we’re fine. For the most part, they trust us to know whether we’re in pain or not. Even with illness, if someone has some symptoms but reassure us that they’re feeling much better, we smile and tell them we’re happy for that.

Obviously all of us use our common sense to determine whether we think someone is lying to us about their internal conditions, but for some reason those with mental illness are held to a far higher bar than others. Any evidence of symptoms is often construed as evidence that our  mood cannot and is not ok, or that things are going downwards. Particularly for things like purging or self-harm, there is a guttural response of disgust and fear to the symptoms that means outsiders are often convinced that it’s impossible for an individual to be doing ok and still engaging in those behaviors (never ever nuh uh). That means any evidence of symptom use is held up as evidence that things are not ok and if the individual says they are it is a lie.

Maree Burns in Eating Like An Ox says “In cultures where identities are read off the surface of the body, one’s physical state is understood to represent both moral and mental health”. There are intersections here with numerous other oppressions: fatphobia, racism, sexism, slut-shaming, ableism (as well as many others I’m sure I’m forgetting at this moment). The problem with assuming that a body is an identity is that no one can ever convince you you are wrong because they must be lying. There is an odd tension in American culture in which we partially dismiss the importance of bodies (we assert that focusing on looks is shallow, we eat horribly and don’t take care of ourselves, we shame people for having sex, and we typically subscribe to a Cartesian dualism that suggests our mind is our self while our body is just a nice carrying case), but at the same time we are convinced that we can read identity and selfhood off of bodies. Fat people can’t control themselves, people with disabilities are lazy, people of color are Other (scary or dangerous).

We don’t see bodies as selves, but we see them as books on which selves are written, clearly and unequivocally. The tension between the fact that we don’t see our bodies as our selves and the fact that we think our selves are clearly reflected in our bodies can make self-identity a serious challenge, but it also serves to undermine the self that an individual might seek to portray or express to others through means that are not the body. And this of course always impacts those who are already oppressed because we are more easily assumed liars.

My body cannot tell you things about my self, my well-being, or my identity. I may have scars, but I am ok. Someday I will openly wear my scars and smile and laugh and be a walking advertisement for the fact that mental health is not visible. Until then, I will just repeat over and over: I’m ok.

Assorted Questions and Thoughts

Fear: sometimes fear is incredibly helpful. Fear has helped me get my shit together for moving to a new country. Unfortunately fear is also making me want to grab all my friends and throw them into a cuddle puddle and curl up in a little ball under all of them and never move again. Sometimes fear is based on reality (there are some threats to me in moving to a new country and so I need to take precautions) and sometimes it goes crazy and gets out of hand and convinces me that I’m probably being chased by a fucking bear when I’m actually just sitting at work typing. I suppose there should be easy ways to tell when fear makes sense and when it does (look for bears: no bears? Good to go.) And yet that doesn’t make my heart stop pounding and my ears stop ringing. Where did evolution go wrong?

Rightness: Most people think that the beliefs they hold are right (or they wouldn’t hold them. I suppose some people hold beliefs because they feel comforted or they want those beliefs to be right, but generally a requirement for belief is thinking something is true). And yet the likelihood that any of us have 100% correct beliefs is pretty much 0. How do we move forward and act in the world knowing that in all likelihood some (if not most) of our beliefs are incorrect? We probably don’t know which ones are the wrong ones or we’d have changed them. We may not even be able to know which are incorrect. What is the best course of action in this situation? I think somewhere in here lies the difference between “faith” of the religious variety and belief. Faith does not look for more information to constantly update its worldview. It has its conclusion and it’s done. I think it is possible to have faith of this type in nonreligious settings. Belief ideally is a temporary condition. You think you know something and you operate off of it but you seek out new and better information.

Yesterday I was talking to my therapist about anxiety and thinking that I would crash and burn in Ireland and fall back into really nasty depression. She looked at me and listed some of the stuff I’ve managed to do in the last two years: take a year off of school despite thinking it meant I’d never accomplish anything, survive a job that I hated every moment of while dealing with intense anxiety, boredom, and depression for 8 hours uninterrupted each day, quitting that job to take a lower paying job, not having any idea where my future is going or what I want out of my life, actually forcing myself to be social despite huge anxieties and making a good circle of friends…the more she listed the more I realized that even just thinking about many of these things now they sound impossible. But I did them. I don’t know that I can call myself “recovered” but perhaps “in recovery” (I hate these terms) and I never, ever, ever thought that that was a possibility and still don’t entirely believe it. But once she pointed out how much I had survived and even thrived through, the more I realized that recognizing that isn’t just about feeling good about myself or patting myself on the back, it’s more about knowing that I can do it and if I’ve done it all once then I can do it again. The fear still exists, but there is knowledge underneath it now that I have succeeded before and that is comforting.

I wish that there were ways to fulfill more kinds of attraction with different people. In the past week I’ve felt serious romantic, sensual, intellectual, aesthetic, and friendly attraction to a variety of different people. In my experience we have two potential words for all of these (plus sexual) attraction: dating or friends. There are some slight variations on these (friends with benefits, casually dating, married), but overall there’s either “sexy/romantic” or “friendly”. I like labels and maybe there’s no reason to label these things, but I think it’s nice to understand what’s fulfilling about different relationships and let people know that they have a priority in your life. I also like to be able to have a template for interacting with people: dating type interactions are different from friend type interactions, and I do different things in them, and different things are considered baseline acceptable. If there were a word for “you’re my brain crush” maybe there would be more clear ways to move forward with fulfilling the need for deep conversation or intellectual interaction. As it is you kind of let someone know you want to be around them in some fashion or other but the only further specification  you might be able to give is “I have a crush on you” which implies romantic/sexual things. I just like to be able to place people in my own network and have clarity about my own feelings and the feelings of others.

One of the things that scares me most about myself is that I am often positioned socially as “smarter than”. I really have no idea if I’m actually smarter than most of the people that I know but people keep telling me I am. I hate writing about things like this because I sound intensely vain, but the purpose of this paragraph is not “I’m so smart!!!” it’s that it’s fairly isolating to be in that position, and as I’ve written before it often leads to inadvertently saying things that others interpret as making them look stupid (or things that really are truly insensitive because others don’t accomplish as quickly as I do or don’t understand in the way I do). But yesterday I was talking to someone who hates feeling less smart than others. I think this is far more common: few people like feeling stupid or uninformed. I feel like there are parallels to some of the other things I’ve mentioned: situations where we know that fear or our beliefs might be ill-informed, but there’s no right way out. In this case, we all know that there probably has to be a “smarter” person in any given interaction but no one wants to be on either side of it. Perhaps this is a place for radical acceptance. There will always be some discomfort in uneven situations but we don’t have to infer bad intentions or judgment because of that discomfort. There have been some classrooms in which I haven’t felt uncomfortable when I know more than others or others know more than I do as the atmosphere is one of sheer curiosity. I don’t know how to promote this kind of environment in other places, but this gives me hope that it’s possible.

I’ve noticed that most people I talk to about philosophical/existential type questions typically view them as abstract exercises which might have some impact on the way they live their life if they come to a fairly solid conclusion that demands action of some sort. This is not what philosophy is like for me. I feel it emotionally, as important to the meaning of my life. I’ve always wondered why this is the case, and I’ve imagined that it’s probably just to do with mental illness. However I had a realization today that on a regular basis I have to question my own sensory perception. I cannot see my body accurately: I have some pretty severe distortions in my body image and I often find myself legitimately confused about whether or not I’m horribly overweight or underweight or normal. It can shift hour to hour whether I can see my body remotely accurately. And so most days I’m uncertain about whether I’m seeing reality. This makes questions of coming to logical conclusions rather than conclusions based on observation far more pressing to me. Every day I am faced with the philosophical quandary of whether or not external reality is there and what I think it is. I emotionally feel the deep confusion of looking at something and wondering if it’s just my mind playing tricks on me. I don’t know that there is a conclusion to this thought, but it’s illuminating to realize that some people can emotionally experience what for others are thought experiments. Perhaps it is a starting point for increased empathy, but perhaps it also suggests that those who do face these questions in their daily lives may have more insight into the situation (just as we tend to prioritize women’s voices in understanding women’s experiences or queer voices in understanding queer experiences). At the very least, it suggests that there might be more ways to do philosophy than through logic and thought experiments.

My Body Is My Self

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I have a fiery hatred for Cartesian dualism. There are well documented problems with dualism, and modern neuroscience indicates a close relationship between the physical aspects of the brain and the subjective experiences of the mind. Being embodied can really suck sometimes (trust me, I have an eating disorder), but one of the important elements of being mentally healthy for me is accepting not only that I have a body but that in many ways I am my body.

I recently posed the question to a friend “if you were removed from your body and put into a robot, would you still be you?” I suggest no, as the ways that I can think of to define self nearly all rely on bodily experiences: our actions, our thoughts, our feelings, our values. These things are all highly dependent on what we sense and how we sense, and are affected by the ways that our bodies work. A well fed body acts, thinks, and feels differently than a hungry body. These experiences of being dependent on something that is changeable and fallible seem to be an essential part of being human.

Even when we think of the memories and narratives that we have, our bodies are essential to a sense of self. Memories are often sensory experiences, dependent on what we perceived and the emotions elicited in the moment. There’s evidence that smell is more connected to memory than other senses, which points towards the idea that our memories are colored by both our fallible and finite brains, and the ways that our body is capable of processing an experience. Even the stories that we tell about ourselves are highly influenced by our bodies, if only because our social position is affected by our weight and height and strength and gender presentation. It’s easy to imagine that our concept of selfhood is entirely abstract or mental, but most of our emotions are experienced physically, and things like stress or relaxation are very physical, embodied experiences.

All of this is to say that I’m firmly convinced that me, Olivia, is not simply my conscious experience, but my conscious experience as situated in this body, and that if I were to be transplanted there would be a pivotal change in my essential identity. I’m not entirely sure what this means as far as continuity of identity or whether or not we can really assert that we have an underlying self that continues to exist through all our experiences except insofar as we have memories and stories, but that’s not the focus for today.

Instead, I want to talk about sex.

Some people are totally down with casual sex, and this post is not for them. This post is about why (at least for me and probably some other people too) sex can seem so intimate and personal, why it seems so vulnerable, and why for some people it feels violating. One of the reasons that I am starting to consider labeling myself “sex-averse” is because of the highly intertwined nature of self and body. I trust very few people with the more intimate parts of myself. Sure, I’m open about the fact that I have an eating disorder, and I write about my experiences here, but in person there are many, many things I don’t talk about often. Many of these things are embodied experiences: sexual assault, self harm, purging. My experience of my body is one of pain, and more often than not it is a solitary experience because these things are shameful.

It is deeply embarrassing and terrifying to me to let that side of me be real, to actually be quiet and vulnerable in my body. My body is puke and blood and tears and snot. That is not the intimacy I want. I can grudgingly accept that those things are a part of me, but I don’t want to dwell on them or revel in them. It’s possible that at some point in the future my body will become something else to me: strength or grace. But those elements, those animal elements, the things that we cannot control will always be an essential part of having a body and of sharing that body.

For many other people, discomfort with sex is about judgment. It’s easy to write this off as the same kind of fear of judgment we have when we’re going to the beach and showing more skin than usual, or when we’re spending some serious one on one time with someone. I tend to think it’s more than that though, which is where questions of dualism come in. I’m sure some people are fairly capable of bifurcating self from body (although I also am fairly sure that this is somewhat illusory for the reasons presented above). But I think that some of us feel the “me”ness of our bodies more: we feel intimately that my body is not simply something that belongs to me or a bit of meat that carries me around, but is in fact an integral part of how I experience the world and what makes up my worldview.

I feel this quite thoroughly when I am in sexual situations, and that’s a major part of why they are so intimate to me. I am not simply sharing pleasure with someone or sharing my body with someone: I am sharing one of the most essential elements of self with another person, the part of me that is my only way of connecting to the world. This is perhaps why all physical contact is intimate to me in a way that speaking is or writing is not: it demands that I am present.

And because allowing another person to experience your body is so close to letting them experience you (just as having a serious, deep conversation is, or showing them something you care deeply about is), it becomes so much more rife with potential judgment than other situations, and when judgment occurs it is much more painful. It feels far more like a rejection of self than many other circumstances.

Perhaps all of this is overthinking things, but I think it’s too easy to write off our bodies as simple mechanisms that allow us to feel pleasure and pain, or get from point a to point b. There is so much more to them, so much that is terrifying and disgusting, but also that is intimate, vulnerable, and exciting. For the moment, the selfhood of my body makes me want to shy away from physical contact, but perhaps in the future it will make it more fulfilling. However it ends up interacting with my sexuality, I want to be aware of my body and its role in my self-identity before I gallivant off into the land of sex.

Missed Opportunities: Arguments From Potential and Living Forever

humanpotential

Warning: this is long and rambly and may not have a point, but there are many thoughts that have been swirling around in my mind about the question of potential and its role. Here they are.

Most human beings hate the concept of missing opportunities. It’s a sort of common wisdom that you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did do. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lost opportunities lately as the large impending move in my future is cutting off a lot of the things that I might like to do in my current life (jobs I’d looked at, relationships that are just starting, volunteering I’d like to do). These things make me incredibly sad, especially the things that I’ve been able to dip my toe into but will have to abandon.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend about living forever. He made some good arguments about all the amazing things that the world offers and the potential experiences that could come from living forever. The finitude of life means that there are always more missed opportunities than taken opportunities and having more time to take more opportunities does sound quite appealing. There may even be some moral impetus to want to live longer in order to take advantage of more of these opportunities. We certainly see that denying someone else of these opportunities (through murder) is untenable. The idea that we should or might want to live longer for the sake of potential things we could experience has a strong pull for many people.

The way that we see potential and potential selves impacts our ethics in all sorts of ways we wouldn’t expect: it’s most often applied to things like stem cell research or abortion, but it also affects how we should live our lives and whether we should want to live forever and the sadness that is appropriate to making choices. To live consistently and logically within our ethical systems, we should be aware of the fact that questions of potential reach far further than the stark examples that involve life and death.

We like to use arguments from potential: we use them against abortion and suicide, we use them for living forever. Emotionally, they speak to us: “what if” we ask ourselves. But we miss opportunities all the time. Every moment is wasted potential and there is no way to make that up. Every decision we make is choosing not to make a different decision, closing other doors. At any given point in time there is an infinite number of things we could be doing: infinite potential. Sure some infinities are larger than other infinities, and the potential of a life that goes on forever is larger than my current lifespan, but at any given moment we have an impossible number of things we could be doing (and even if we do live forever, the infinity of things we could do will always be larger than the things we will do).

If we were to be morally consistent we would have to feel intense guilt every time we choose not to do something, which would be nearly every second of every day (as an example I am currently choosing not to go do my workout because I’m blogging instead, not to go in to work because it’s my day off, and not to eat more lunch because I’m lazy. These are all good reasons, but I could be doing any number of things right now that I’m not. I don’t feel guilty about that).

Every decision we make removes potential other decisions and actions. When we suggest that we need to maximize potential we are arguing for indecisiveness. There is no way to do all the things. it implies we should feel guilty every time we make a decision that cuts off another decision. While some people have no problem with the idea of a moral obligation that is unattainable, I find the idea a bit distasteful. Beyond that, we have good reasons to be suspicious of arguments from potential through the debates on abortion. We don’t generally confer rights or moral imperatives based on potential (the potential president does not demand the same respect the actual president does), and there are all sorts of negative potentials as well.

So how do we understand the strong, visceral reactions we have to many arguments about potential (for example in the case of suicide or murder) in conjunction with the fact that most of our lives are made up of lost potential? Are there other ethical issues at play in most of the cases that we feel rely on potential? How do we understand the regret of missing potential in an ethical context? Is there any ethical impetus in our lives that should be driven by potential?

Let’s look for a moment at suicide, since questions about the end of life throw potential into the harshest light, but suicide does not have the added difficulty that abortion or murder does of one individual interfering with another individual’s choices.

One of the arguments against suicide is that it deprives society of the individual’s contributions and deprives the individual’s potential future selves of life (in the case that they would change their mind). We generally see suicide as a waste of potential, as an individual not seeing all of the things that their life could hold. Most people think that we should probably at least try to convince a suicidal individual to look at all the potential in their life, and some assert that we have a right to interfere. We see the future life and potential actions of individuals as things to be protected.

To counter that:

“Libertarianism typically asserts that the right to suicide is a right of noninterference, to wit, that others are morally barred from interfering with suicidal behavior. Some assert the stronger claim that the right to suicide is a liberty right, such that individuals have no duty not to commit suicide (i.e., that suicide violates no moral duties), or a claim right, according to which other individuals may be morally obliged not only not to interfere with a person’s suicidal behavior but to assist in that behavior. (See the entry on rights.)”

“Another rationale for a right of noninterference is the claim that we have a general right to decide those matters that are most intimately connected to our well-being, including the duration of our lives and the circumstances of our deaths. On this view, the right to suicide follows from a deeper right to self-determination, a right to shape the circumstances of our lives so long as we do not harm or imperil others (Cholbi 2011, 88–89). As presented in the “death with dignity” movement, the right to suicide is the natural corollary of the right to life. That is, because individuals have the right not to be killed by others, the only person with the moral right to determine the circumstances of a person’s death is that person herself and others are therefore barred from trying to prevent a person’s efforts at self-inflicted death.”

-all from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

While arguments from potential against suicide seem to make an intuitive sense, it’s important to remember that individuals are allowed to have preferences and choices about their own potential.  The idea that someone should be obligated to act out all their potential makes no sense when we think about the vastness of potential in our lives.

When we look at the question of immortality and whether we should seek immortality, people seem far less invested in the question of whether or not we are cutting short our potential. The difference appears to be active interruption of potential vs. simply not encouraging potential (leaving a place with all the potentials that organically would grow if you were to stay there vs. actively working to create more time and space to live out potentials). Do we have an obligation to not actively cut short our potential? Perhaps.  Perhaps it is important to have some sense of the amazing number of possibilities that our life contains and discards, some way to motivate ourselves to continue trying and expanding and growing. Perhaps an awareness of all the amazing things we could be doing will give us some hope for the future and prevent something like suicide.

Of course suicide is the ultimate question of cutting off potential. But going home and taking a nap instead of going out into the world and doing MORE THINGS is like a tiny suicide in terms of its impact on potential. This is again, making an active choice not to live out your full potential. Should we shame those who choose to do less active things in their lives, or who choose to do the same things over and over again? Should those people feel guilty for wasting their lives and their potential? Doesn’t the emphasis on potential put an undue amount of pressure on each human being to never be quiet, engage in self care, rest? Don’t we lose some element of enjoyment in what we are actually doing by putting an ethical value on the things we could be doing?

I don’t know that we can ever entirely discount the importance of being aware of the size of the world and the amazing possibilities that we ourselves contain, but I will leave you all with this thought:

“Time is like wax, dripping from a candle flame. In the moment, it is molten and falling, with the capability to transform into any shape. Then the moment passes, and the wax hits the table top and solidifies into the shape it will always be. It becomes the past — a solid single record of what happened, still holding in its wild curves and contours the potential of every shape it could have held.

It is impossible — no matter how blessed you are by luck, or the government, or some remote, invisible deity gently steering your life with hands made of moonlight and wind — it is impossible not to feel a little sad, looking at that bit of wax, that bit of the past. It is impossible not to think of all the wild forms that wax now will never take.

The village, glimpsed from a train window — beautiful and impossible and impossibly beautiful on a mountaintop, then you wondered what it would be if you stepped off the moving train and walked up the trail to its quiet streets and lived there for the rest of your life. The beautiful face of that young man from Luftnarp, with his gaping mouth and ashy skin, last seen already half-turned away as you boarded the bus, already turning towards a future without you in it, where this thing between you that seemed so possible now already, and forever, never was.

All variety of lost opportunity spied from the windows of public transportation, really.

It can be overwhelming, this splattered, inert wax recording every turn not taken.

“What’s the point?” you ask.

“Why bother?” you say.

“Oh, Cecil,” you cry. “Oh, Cecil.”

But then you remember — I remember — that we are, even now, in another bit of molten wax. We are in a moment that is still falling, still volatile — and we will never be anywhere else. We will always be in that most dangerous, most exciting, most possible time of all: the now. Where we never can know what shape the next moment will take.”

-Welcome to Nightvale