I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 19 of 100.
“What would happen if you released the story that you are not good enough?”
That’s one of my mantras, or whatever — are white people allowed to have “mantras”? This whole idea of releasing feels sort of appropriative, actually. I am stealing it without asking. I am a bad and racist person.
And that’s exactly the trap. I am wrong. I am failing. I have to take responsibility for my actions. My unhappiness — and maybe the unhappiness of all the people around me, AND MAYBE THE WHOLE WORLD — is entirely because I am a terrible and bad and not-good-enough human person.
On the phone the other day, a friend told me that he has felt in his life that his own self-care takes up too much space. He is a cis-gendered, relatively heterosexual, white male born into the middle class. He argues that people like him think too highly of themselves in general. His time might be better spent fighting for the greater good; advocating for important causes; being as selfless as possible. And I get that. But I do believe that he is gripping very tightly to the idea that he is not good enough.
Another friend of mine posted a Wendell Barry quote on her Instagram page recently. It’s in front of a church she passes all the time. It says, “Love someone who doesn’t deserve it.” She struggles with this, because she is recently out of an emotionally abusive relationship. She doesn’t want to be pressured. “I get the sentiment, to have compassion for people even when they haven’t done anything to merit it. But it’s hard to love someone who has treated you like shit, and to have a healthy detachment from it, too,” she writes.
The Phone Friend mentioned that maybe the Dalai Lama or someone once said that you can search the world but you will never find someone who deserves love any more or less than you do. This is not the exact quote, and the Dalai Lama didn’t necessarily say anything like that. (I Lite Googled it; Brainy Quote ascribes it to Buddha, so who knows.) But my friend on the phone said it, and I liked it. “I like that better than the Wendell Barry quote, even though they’re saying the same thing. It is less confusing,” I told him.
I am going to go on a little tangent here, and it may not seem related, but please bear with me.
I struggle a lot to write about my own Big Traumas. When the #MeToo moment was swelling, I felt sick and guilty, because I didn’t want to come forward. I didn’t want to out anyone; I didn’t want to tell my story. I felt awed by the women who did, because yes, it is brave to revisit that shit. It is brave to ask to be believed.
Uh, I never came forward. I am writing in a little whisper, can you tell?
But I have a few of those traumas; they’re in my chemistry, keeping me from having good sex sometimes, re-assaulting me as they populate occasional flashback dreams. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, or needlessly vague. Assault happens, and it leaves its scars. This is all stuff you have heard before.
At some point, though, the anger and hatred I felt for those few violent men in my life grew too heavy for me. It takes so much energy to hate someone. It fills your whole body. The world dims a little and you don’t enjoy nachos as much and your jaw never really unclenches. Deciding to love the violent men was not a decision to re-engage with them or to try to fix anything. It was a decision to release. I do believe that even people who do the worst things deserve to be loved. I also believe that the world “love” is stretchy. Love can wind all the way around a person, but in its center it is just the desire for someone else to be happy. This is not a difficult thing to feel.*
I'm making it all way too simple, I know. Bad men can’t be allowed to continue to silence women. This is why we have to out them; this is why we have to name the violence. But after we out them and name it, what then? What are we supposed to do next?
In an article for the New York Times in April, Katie J. M. Baker writes, "The dearth of alternatives to exile is a depressing testament to our inability to have a real conversation about what should happen to these men. But it is only by discussing the issue, not ignoring or dismissing it, that we can begin to come up with something better.”
I am not choosing love because it’s hard; I am choosing it because it's easy. And love is not synonymous with excusing violent behavior. I’m arguing that it is not even necessarily an active verb.
But this is not a post about whether or not we should or should not forgive abusers. That’s fraught, and I don’t know the answer. The point I am trying to make is that hating someone is a lot of work. And so: hating yourself is a lot of work. What would happen if you released the story that you are not good enough, just as you are?
Here’s what my brain answers: “If I released my self-loathing, I wouldn’t be safe. Other people would see all my flaws, and they’d think I wasn’t self-aware. They would believe I was selfish. They would say mean things about me behind my back.” I have written about this before, folks. And before that, I had written about this before.
I hate myself because (1) it makes me feel like I am in control, and (2) it makes me feel like I am a more outwardly altruistic person. There’s this paradox wherein I believe that I can’t be a good person unless I hate myself, but in hating myself, I can’t believe I’m a good person. This is a never-ending cycle. It’s actually quite silly.
When I was working on my book, I sent off a few chapters to my friend Hannah, whom a lot of the book is about. She was calm but stern with me. She didn’t like everything I’d written. Her major complaint was that I had been too self-deprecating. I was frustrated with that feedback: Didn’t she know that the publishers only bought the book because my self-deprecation was adorable and hilarious? They liked how funny it was when I put myself down. No one wanted a book that was all the way earnest; they didn’t want a person who didn’t outwardly know that she sucked.
Hannah visited; we talked about it. She told me that the self-deprecation made her feel angry, and she thought that it might be because she was working so hard not to put herself down that it kind of triggered her to see someone she loved doing it.
It’s a release. The release is simultaneously very difficult and so much easier than the other way of doing things. I hold tightly to beliefs that I think are keeping me safe; but when I let them go, I experience real joy that’s big and pure and different than the short-lived aspirational joy that comes from meeting a weight loss goal or publishing a fancy article.
And the thing is, the release makes space for other people. When you love yourself, there is space to love others. Trust me: love is easier. I know that at first it seems harder.
It's like you’ve been holding onto this branch and it takes all your muscle and discipline to hold onto it, and when you let go, it’s terrifying, because you’re falling, and there’s no control, and maybe your parents told you that you would DIE if you let go of it. But then you realize that that’s ok; that this is some kind of magical space realm where gravity doesn’t exist, and you’re maybe supposed to be falling. The falling becomes less scary; it becomes the only way to be. So when you see other people holding onto branches, and telling you that the branches are safe and that you need them, it makes you mad. You just let go, but you don’t want to be alone. You don’t want to be the one person falling through space while all your friends are firmly affixed to branches. So you grab another branch, and then you get stuck all over again.
The only way to release is to release. You are already holding on. You have all the tools you need. Just take a breath and let go.
* I wish to note: Anger is useful. It wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t useful. When someone has hurt you, you are allowed to be angry; it’s not your job to forgive someone point blank; you don’t have to forgive someone EVER. You can and should feel whatever you want to feel. This is my story only, and I am in no way suggesting that it goes for us all.