It’s a common sight at events, concerts, or attractions to see someone (or many someones) with their camera or phone firmly planted in front of their face, recording or snapping pictures for the entire experience. It is also a common sight to find blog posts, rants, and other forms of judgment telling everyone that this is the wrong way to enjoy your life. “Get off your phone! No one wants to see those pictures! You’re not experiencing the event, you’re just taking pictures!” There is a common sentiment that an unmediated version of reality is the best version of reality, and that if you’re taking pictures or video your mind is on how to capture the experience rather than on the experience itself. If you’re not 100% mentally and emotionally present, then you’re ruining your own experience!
The odd thing about this is that more often than not, those taking these pictures aren’t distracting anyone else. Their behavior is entirely irrelevant to the people who are upset with it. It simply has to do with how that individual is experiencing someone, a personal choice that is entirely their own. This need to police other people’s happiness is an impulse which is both incredibly self centered (other people need to do things the same way I do or they won’t be happy) and incredibly unhelpful.
Here’s the thing: everyone has different ways of experiencing the world, and everyone appreciates different things. We get happy in different ways. We engage with things in different ways. We are present in different ways. These individualities are why not all of us like to go to bars and not all of us like to play Dungeons and Dragons, but for some reason when technology is involved it’s no longer ok to have preferences but instead there must be a Right and a Wrong way to exist because otherwise technology will infiltrate our lives and destroy our human connections (or something).
For some people, taking pictures allows them to experience things in a more active way. They prefer not to simply be passive recipients of their experience, but want to think about how best to capture it, about the angles of light and the image of what’s going on. For some people, thinking about how they will capture the experience makes them think about what they want to remember in the future, and helps them focus on the things they like most about their experience. Some people just like taking pictures or videos and that is an additional enjoyable experience beyond whatever primary experience they may be happening.
And guess what? Even if you personally don’t want technology to be a part of your day to day experience because you find it makes you less present, that doesn’t mean that technology inherently pulls people out of their lives and pushes them into the “unreality” of the internet. Some people find that having their phone on and around is a distraction from the people they want to be with, where others (especially the introverted and socially anxious among us) find it a useful way to take a quick break from socializing when they need a mini recharge. The point is that people experience technology (as well as social situations) differently. In the past, if someone had a hard time being fully present in a situation with lots of people for a long time, all they could do was leave or just try to stick it out or maybe dissociate. Now there are more strategies they can employ through technology. They may be more visible, since someone taking out their phone is more obvious than someone simply zoning out and ignoring what’s happening around them, but people have always had ways to take a break from a current experience. All of us do it, and that is 100% ok. We don’t owe any place or person or experience all of ourself for the entire time we are there.
So please friends, take out your phones if you want, take those pictures, hide behind your camera or take that video because you want to watch it tomorrow. Let yourself disappear for a bit into technology or find new ways to love the concert you’re at by finding the perfect image to capture it. I want you to know what makes you smile, and that’s no one’s business but your own.
“I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?”
-Hazel Grace, The Fault In Our Stars
In The Fault In Our Stars, the main character Hazel Grace is dying of cancer. When asked about why she won’t have a relationship with Augustus Waters, her response is the above quote.
There are some things that I want to tell Hazel.
Hazel Grace, we are all grenades. Every human being in this world is a series of small explosions. Some of us go out in one oversized burst that levels those around us, some of us putter through life throwing shrapnel and leaving those in our wake bleeding. But no matter who we are, one of the essential facts of being human is the fact that you will hurt people. You will most likely hurt everyone you have any kind of serious interaction with.
This is not a fact to feel guilty about. It simply is, and it happens because communication is imperfect and we all die and we all hurt and when someone cares about us all of these things are pain. Augustus Waters told you that we don’t get to choose whether or not we get hurt in this world, but we get to choose who does the hurting. There is a flip side to this statement and it goes like this: we don’t get to choose whether or not we hurt others in this world, but we have to trust them to know who they want to do the hurting.
The problem, Hazel, is not whether or not we are grenades. It is not whether or not we can minimize the damage (because let’s be honest, there is only so much minimizing that we can do). The question is how do we live with ourselves knowing that life is a long series of shitty incidents that hurt the people we love? The question is how do we imagine ourselves to be good people who deserve to be alive, who might have a positive impact on the world, how do we not burn out on even trying, when no matter how hard we try to be decent, our very existence means pain for someone?
The question, Hazel, is how do we keep going?
As you so eloquently put it, we could just ignore it, which is what most people do. We could close our eyes to oblivion and pointless pain. We could just keep muddling along in the best way we know how.
Or we can be acutely, exquisitely aware and hope that the awareness motivates us to better behavior, that our guilt over the past might keep someone, somewhere from getting hurt. We can play the martyr and try to take all the pain onto ourselves (guess what, that doesn’t work).
Or we can try to escape, never form relationships, convince ourselves that this means we are avoiding the problem of the hurting others. Except of course that rejection hurts and every time we close a door in someone’s face we hurt them.
Of course it seems like there must be another option, an option that doesn’t suck, an option that isn’t full of douche. Unfortunately, I have yet to discover that option. Perhaps it’s there, but I don’t believe that the universe exists to please us, so no matter how badly we want another option to exist, that is not evidence for its existence.
And so Hazel Grace, you are a grenade and there is no way to minimize casualties and in the explosive process of living you will find yourself injured by many other grenades along the way. I hope that you survive.
I hope that we all survive, at least for a little while. I hope the pins remain unpulled.
This morning I was at an event put on by BePollen that focused on women in the workplace, particularly how they can influence others. One of the themes throughout the morning was the idea that influence is most powerful when it’s subtle. Speakers called out administrative assistants and secretaries as the silent power in many organizations, told stories of how they took bad situations and found ways to create influence and power, and pointed towards gatekeepers as a source of power.
It’s absolutely true that subtle influence can be immensely powerful. If you can get someone to do what you’d like them to do without them even realizing that you’re influencing them, you do have a lot of power. And taking a position that isn’t inherently influential and finding subtle ways to use it to influence others is a great skill, especially as a woman who may have a harder time reaching the top echelons of most organizations. Of course subtle power has its place, and flying under the radar can give you a lot more freedom than being in the public eye.
And yet this focus on “subtle influence” started to drive me a bit crazy after a while. One other theme that cropped up repeatedly was impostor syndrome. The question was asked over and over how we can fight against it, how we can keep other high achieving women from feeling like impostors, how we can continue to achieve while feeling as if we don’t belong. Something that wasn’t mentioned as part of this discussion is the fact that the face of power and achievement is still white and it’s still male. Of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies only 24 are women. No female presidents yet. Women only hold 18% of the seats in Congress.
Women don’t see other women in positions of power, so it’s no wonder that when they begin to achieve things themselves they start to question whether they truly belong or are simply faking it. They don’t recognize themselves as among the set of people who could have influence.
So when a group of women gets together to talk about influence, it makes me sad that we talk about subtle influence, about being behind the scenes, about being the power behind the throne. Why are we so afraid of openly saying and acting as if we have power and deserve power? A huge part of being influential is being visible. Sometimes simply existing in a space that is designated as “powerful” is a huge influence and shows young women that they can be in those spaces and have that power as well. A great way to fight impostor syndrome is to keep young girls from feeling as if there are certain spaces and ways that they should live in and act. It’s showing them a wide variety of choices so that no matter where they end up it seems appropriate for a woman.
Another element of this is that subtle power doesn’t garner respect in quite the same way that open power does. A big part of influence and power is having a platform. Unfortunately, the way the world is set up is such that more people listen to someone with a title. Having that clear and open title that says “I have power and I have influence” actually heightens one’s ability to do work. It comes with resources, it comes with respect, and it comes with an equal footing to others that you may want to influence.
I’m afraid that when we say how powerful secretaries and admin assistants are, we’re doing more than recognizing the seriously important work they do. We’re also reinforcing what kind of power is appropriate for women. We’re giving ourselves a consolation prize because we still don’t feel that we can be on equal footing with men as CEOs or presidents. We’re telling ourselves that we have the same amount of influence that men do, but if that were the case then why would we be having a meeting to discuss how to encourage women to embrace their ability to influence?
I don’t want to have to sneak in sideways to influence people. I would like to be able to equally and calmly express my opinion, own my power, and have others respect that. If I want influence, I want it to be the influence of running an organization, or influencing policy through my work, or writing a book that changes the way people think.
Perhaps it’s naive. Perhaps that’s not the way that power works. But when men talk about influence, they don’t have to couch it in terms of being subtle, of taking notes in meetings, of being a secretary who can gatekeep for the person who has the real power. They talk about running for office or starting a company. Why are women afraid to have that same kind of power?
There is a time and a place for subtle influence. But there is also a time for overt influence, for standing up and saying that we deserve respect, we deserve the attention of others, and we deserve our power. When did this go missing?
It’s not really anything new to assert that relationships as they’re portrayed on TV are total bullcrap. All the people are beautiful and everything is drama all the time. It’s not exactly a perfect representation of everyday relationships. There are many, many things that are unrealistic and unhelpful about the way that media portrays romantic relationships. But lately there’s been a particularly bad doozy of a trope that’s driving me up the wall.
It’s one about breakups, and it’s one that is entwined with all sorts of negative attitudes about both romantic relationships and the ending of romantic relationships. This is the trope in which a woman breaks up with a man, and in response the man utterly loses any compassion or care for the woman, yells, rages, threatens, and becomes basically an asshole.
I was watching The Vampire Diaries (I give 0 craps about your judgment for my taste in TV btw) and the two main characters broke up. After breaking up, the woman got into a relationship with the brother of her ex. Yes, this is not the coolest thing in the world to do, but they were broken up and it’s her life.
In response, he essentially told her that he didn’t care if she lived or died and that moving forward he would no longer put forth any effort if she or her family or friends were in danger (despite the fact that in the past he was portrayed as the good hearted one and that he considered these people his friends as well). He seemed to take joy in showing her how little he cared about her, and when she asked why he was being so cruel he just said “this is me. You’ve never seen me when I’m not in love with you.”
This was portrayed as a perfectly legitimate response.
In reality, this is ridiculously out of line. First and foremost, someone gets to have their own feelings whether they’re dating you or not, and after you’ve broken up with someone you certainly don’t get to dictate their relationship choices. While it makes perfect sense to have anger and hurt when someone breaks up with you, that does not mean that you get to behave in a cruel manner, yell, break things, imply that they could or should die, threaten, or harass.
Particularly troubling is the implication that the only thing that keeps a man from being all these things (many of which are at least bordering on abusive) is being “in love”. It plays once again into the idea that women tame men with their calming influence and that being in a romantic relationship with someone is what keeps your life functional and worth it.
A big part of this is our tendency to see romantic relationships as the defining things in our life, but also for men to feel possessive about their female partners. It has to do with the idea that “love makes you crazy”, and that “without love nothing matters”. And none of this is reality. Of course love is wonderful and can enrich a life, but when you turn one relationship into your whole reason for living, your only source of happiness, of course it will make complete sense if you have a personality transplant when you’re broken up with. No, you don’t own your ex, your ex does not owe you things (except for the basic respect they owe everyone), and you still have to continue being a functional and compassionate human being even without them.
However there are some people who confuse the call to behave reasonably towards your ex with a call to repress your feelings.
At about the same time that I watched this episode, someone posted a comment on one of my friend’s Facebook wall. He said that his fiance had broken up with him and seemed to be opining that according to feminists he was wrong to be heartbroken and sad. He said that his emotions were irrational and so he shouldn’t have them.
Here’s the difference: being heartbroken and sad makes perfect sense. Changing your values, becoming an asshole, blaming the other person for what’s wrong with your life, threatening the other person, verbally abusing the other person, or harassing and badmouthing them are what’s not ok. And those two things are conflated throughout TV relationships (probably because it’s easiest to illustrate hurt and sadness through big, dramatic actions). Then they’re deemed reasonable because “it makes perfect sense to be hurt and angry after a breakup”.
Being angry is not the same as informing someone you don’t care if they live or die. Being an adult means that you have to learn how to feel big, scary, painful emotions, and still behave reasonably and compassionately. And a huge part of this is learning that when a woman breaks up with you, you don’t own her. Scratch that, it’s recognizing that no matter what your relationship is with a woman you don’t get to tell her that you don’t care if she lives or dies, you don’t get to put her in danger, and you don’t get to be verbally abusive. If the only thing that has compelled you to behave ethically and compassionately towards a person and their family/loved ones is that you’re in a relationship with them, you’re really doing love wrong.
It’s possible for either gender to behave inappropriately upon a breakup, to be possessive, to be cruel, to allow their anger to rule their actions and push them to hurt others. However more often than not this is portrayed as gendered. Men are expected to be angry at a breakup, to throw things, to yell, to have a complete personality change. It plays into the trope that a woman should “tame” a man and make him reasonable and good. Without the woman, he is an animal.
There’s something in this trope that says it’s totally reasonable to be angry (which it is) and it’s perfectly reasonable to want to be loved (which it is) and so if you don’t have those things then you should do whatever it takes to get those things because you’re angry (not reasonable). Somewhere in there, a switch got crossed that said ‘having an emotion’ and ‘acting on an emotion’ are the same thing, and it’s part of our larger cultural inability to regulate our emotions appropriately.
In real life, if someone tells you upon your breakup that they would let you die if they were given the option, or that they suddenly don’t give a crap about anyone but themselves, that is called abuse. That is the moment when you feel solid in your decision to break up with them because that is straight out manipulative bullcrap. It implies that you have created a monster and that if you don’t get back together with the individual, you’re responsible for their shitty behavior.
For those who think that this is only a TV phenomenon, let me just assure you that while it is rampant on TV, it has been picked up by people in real life. I’ve had people tell me things like this upon breaking up with them. Now thankfully because we’re not in a fantasy world in which I could be killed by vampires at any moment it doesn’t matter in quite the same way, but it is still manipulative, it is still painful, and it is still unnecessarily cruel.
We can do better. We can write stories in which men are adult enough to manage their emotions, ask for help, do some venting, cry a bit, and then move the fuck on. A break up is not the end of the world. A break up is something that happens. Relationships grow and hold and wane and end, and that is a part of life. People don’t stay the same forever, and we cannot all grow together.
Of course it’s sad to let go of something that you loved, but in almost no other place in life do we see people losing it over the organic end of things (when a pet dies, when a friendship ends, when someone moves away, when school ends). All of these endings are understood as part of life, and, while sad or melancholy, not a reflection upon you as a person, or an attack. We allow people a time to grieve, and then we expect them to continue their lives.
As a culture, we need to learn how to see the ending of relationships as something that can be coped with. It is hard, and we can survive. It is hard, and we can still behave well. It is hard, and we can move on. It is hard, and we can still do better.
I’m pretty clearly a cis individual. I’m pretty straight and I wear relatively femme clothes. I have a feminine haircut (although it’s short) and rarely (if ever) present in a way that isn’t quickly and clearly recognizable as female. When asked to identify my gender on surveys and such I answer “female” without hesitation.
And yet I feel almost no attachment to the idea of being a woman. I don’t have any strong feelings about making sure people identify me as the correct gender (although when my mom said I looked like a twelve year old boy I was a bit miffed). At one point I was posed with the hypothetical question whether it would bother me a whole lot if my breasts were removed and I was pretty much not bothered by the whole idea. I could take em or leave em. I don’t really much care what my gender is. This is not to say that I identify as agender or feel uncomfortable presenting as femme, just that I only do it because it’s the path of least resistance. It’s easy.
I’ve wondered for quite some time now whether I would even identify as female if it weren’t for the strict policing of the gender binary. The more I think about my gender, the more I think that it is the way it is because I’m a rule follower, I’m not strongly attached to any gender, and I’m fairly lazy about my gender presentation so I end up firmly in the “cis” category simply because it’s where society has pushed all of my impulses. Want to dress up fancy? Buy a dress. Want to look pretty? Wear make up. I’m encouraged in some things and discouraged in others, an so I end up with the amalgam that most people identify as female just by not fighting back.
And for a long time I didn’t even think about gender identity. I just went about my life and wore whatever I felt like wearing and ignored the elements of being female that I didn’t really care about (makeup? What’s that?). But despite the fact that I’ve never made any effort whatsoever to look, act, or be female, somehow I ended up squarely in the “lady” camp.
So I feel like I have to ask myself: if I lived in a society in which gender was more fluid, there was more of a spectrum, and things weren’t policed so heavily, would I even identify as female? The answer is probably not. Would I be happier and more comfortable in my skin if I didn’t feel like I had to follow certain rules and boundaries and ways of being because I’ve somehow ended up as a woman? Most likely. It isn’t like I’ve spent my life feeling deep anxiety about my gender identity, but perhaps if things were more fluid and open I would feel a bit more comfortable in my skin.
If I feel like this, someone who was raised by staunch feminists, who is surrounded by queer and non binary people, who has very little by way of gender enforcement in their life, and who generally doesn’t care a whole lot for performing roles for others, then how many other people must there be out there who are probably somewhere closer to the middle of the gender spectrum than even they might imagine? How many other people would identify in a different way if it had even been presented as an option for them? How many people wouldn’t even identify at all if we weren’t so fixated on gender as the end all be all category?
In terms of the larger questions about gender, sexuality, and oppression, this group of people is probably not at the top of the list of “people who need our help”. But I do think it’s worth mentioning that if we open the door for a wider variety of gender identifications in order to help those who truly are distressed by the current state of things, there are probably thousands of other people who will feel just a bit more comfortable, a bit more themselves. And while that shouldn’t be the focus of activism, it’s a great thing to keep in the back of our minds: there are tons of much quieter people out there whose lives will be made easier and better for all the loud, out, genderqueer or trans* people we know and are fighting for.
But it also makes me sad, because if somehow I, the most cis, straight person in the world, can have my gender identity damaged and distorted by the gender binary, then think of all the other people out there who have had small parts of them taken away. If all we see are the people who are SO hurt by the mandatory gender binary that they feel they must speak up about it and must fight back against it, then imagine all the smaller hurts and destructions.
Of course this is all speculative. I have no evidence that there are tons of other people out there who only identify as cis because they hadn’t even thought about an alternative, and who have suppressed certain parts of themselves in order to be cis. But I sure as hell wouldn’t be surprised. And if that’s the case then it’s just another little reason to push back against gender policing of all kinds.
It’s been a rough week. Many of my friends, fellow bloggers, and role models are starting to show a bit of wear and tear. The whole internet has been buzzing with news about the shooting, with debates, with misogyny, with threats, with victim blaming. I’m tired. My patience is worn out. I’m getting triggered left and right by the smallest, stupidest things, and my coping skills are slowly running out.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t stop when my spoons run out. I still have to work. My dad’s birthday will still happen this weekend and I’ll have to be social and entertain. I still have to write. I still have to clean my kitchen and cook (somehow) and deal with the sudden heat and plan for my move to Ireland next year. I just have to do it all while also feeling like I’m about to snap or break down and start bawling or just run out, stop moving, fall over and not get up.
I’m sure this is the same quandary that all those with mental illness, or those who engage with difficult topics, or those with chronic illness face: how do I remain functional and keep anything from getting worse when my reserves are almost out? I drag myself into the office, but how do I accomplish anything when my brain power is spent just trying to refocus my mind on something other than sexism and shootings and self hatred?
I’ve been trying to use a few tactics, but I would certainly appreciate any suggestions that you all have. Mostly, I’ve been trying to reorganize my priorities so that I can accomplish some things with minimal brain power. This means that my to do list has shifted away from more writing and into some easier tasks at work (as well as I can). At home, instead of trying to tackle some of the bigger project I’ve limited myself to basic, mindless things that will help me feel accomplished: putting away my clean laundry right away, making a big pot of rice and beans so I don’t have to cook for the rest of the week, paying close attention to my schedule so that I don’t miss anything. It’s hard sometimes to feel like I can do these things, but if I get one or two done each day I can head off a lot of the feelings of uselessness and keep myself from hitting a bigger breakdown later.
This also means that at work I am shying away from things that I might really screw up if I’m not all the way present. I’m doing behind the scenes work and trying to save my energy for the times I’m in meetings or have to be front facing for the company. This is the biggest challenge. Part of me is trying to accept that there are certain tasks I simply can’t do right now, but that isn’t something I like to accept and of course it makes me feel like I cannot do my job. In reality, what it means is that right now I need to focus on something slightly different, make my job something a bit different.
And when I don’t have anything that needs to get done, that means complete and utter self indulgence. It means I get to go home and take a nap, or buy myself ice cream every day if I feel like it, or go running twice, or avoid everyone if I want to, or whatever the hell at that moment sounds like it might break through the hazy fear that’s hampering me right now. I hate feeling that desperate. I hate grabbing on to any impulse that seems like it could be remotely positive, but I know that if I simply won’t get through. I hate listening to my needs. I am demanding it of myself though.
Perhaps the hardest part is being responsible for myself and my emotions. I want to fall apart over everyone, bitch people out, yell and scream and swear and cry. I want to tell everyone to piss the fuck off. I want the people who are nonchalantly commenting on blog posts about misogyny to hurt as badly as I do when I see people talk about how mental illness makes you violent. I want to puke.
But it is no one else’s fault that I feel this way. Even the people who are pushing my buttons in all the wrong ways. I still need to be responsible, and when I do lose it, I have to know to apologize and take responsibility for the ways that I can’t cope. I need to be able to set healthy boundaries: I can’t just avoid people, but I need to actively tell them I need space. It is so hard to find the emotional resources to recognize when you’re being out of line when everything feels raw. But as someone who wants to be a positive ambassador for mental illness, I need to be able to function appropriately in my relationships and with my acquaintances even when my mind is not acting appropriately.
And just for fun, I’ve been trying to take mini breaks at work during which I look at goofy GIFs on Tumblr or watch lindy hop on youtube. Little things are all that get me through. Little things are what distract me and keep my mind from spiraling. Little things are what drag me away from that nasty comment.
I will remain functional.