Pronouns, Woman Training, and Sexy Halloween

A friend recently posted a video “6 Things Trans Women Want You to Know” with Carmen Carrera.

DISCLAIMER: I am a trans ally.  My first and favorite dormmate was mid transition and shared a lot with me.  I had MANY conversations with others who did not support or understand his gender identity.  I am fully supportive of others’ gender identities wherever they fall on the gender spectrum.  (Hopefully this doesn’t just sound like “But I totally have a black friend”…  because that’s not how I mean it.)

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HOWEVER, while I mostly really like this video and am all for more visibility and acceptance for transgender peeps, I feel this video was mildly offensive or ignorant (hoping the latter) in places – and felt motivated to blog about it.

The 6 things Miss Carmen wanted to talk about as a trans woman:

#1 – We don’t like being misgendered

Yeah, totally get it.  Everyone is on board.

#2 – Gender identity isn’t tied to sexual orientation

Yup, we’re all thumbs ups and high fives out here.  Gender identity and sexual orientation are totally separate.

#3 – You don’t have to have a uterus to be a woman

Yaaay!  Wait….   can we clarify this?

“I feel like it’s rude to tell me I’m not a woman because I don’t menstruate, not only to trans women but just to women in general.”

Really?  It’s rude to women to acknowledge the fact that all cisgender women have this crazy bodily system that effects our lives in a pretty fundamental and really regular (hopefully) way?

I am all for using the pronouns that make someone comfortable, but as someone who has been a woman my entire life, with all the built-in ups and downs… I find it just as disrespectful and dismissive for a trans woman to say that she understands my life as a cis woman as it is for me to say I understand her life as a trans woman.

I do believe that Carmen is a woman and should be regarded as such.  She IS a trans woman and no one can tell her otherwise.

But she isn’t a cis woman.  And that’s totally cool.

It is not dissimilar to people who change their appearance to be a different race (check out Rachel Dolezal) and then say they understand how it is to be that race. Perhaps they now know how strangers will treat members of that race, they have a little taste of what its like.  However, to miss the huge part of a gender or racial identity that starts at birth and is part of your identity for your entire life is to truly discount part of what it means to be human in that skin. It also discounts what it means to be human in your own skin by dismissing the things that only exist in a trans skin.

I am absolutely in favor of everyone doing what makes them comfortable and I have absolutely no problem using whatever pronouns float someone’s boat and recognizing them as the gender they are. 110%!

But it’s sad to discount the life experience of womanhood by saying “Not having a uterus or a period or children doesn’t make me not a woman”. It doesn’t make you not a woman, but it makes you a trans woman and not a cis woman.  Do not strive to be something you are not. Be who YOU are.

Be proud of who you are. Be proud of who others are. Ask for empathy and respect, but also give empathy and respect. Ask others to see you as a transgender woman, but understand that you will never understand the true experience inside a cisgender woman’s skin and please be understanding when people struggle with a new concept and a new pronoun.

#4 – Trans women are figuring it out along the way

“I wasn’t fortunate enough to have preparation for being a woman growing up”

I find it pretty strange for you to assume women receive training on how to be women. There is no right way to be a woman.  There is no right way to be a man.  This is not a binary system (we only have one sun :P).  There is no handbook!

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Remember that time that humans are humans and while gender does influence your internal and external environment… EVERYONE GETS TO BE AN INDIVIDUAL. FVCK your notion of WOMAN TRAINING. Many MANY people struggle with their gender, the cognitive dissonance between expectations and internal truths. Many reject cultural gender norms, question their gender, or rejoice in the norms that fit them and celebrate their gender.  There is a whole flavor spectrum of gender and everyone has found their own spot along it (which remains a moving target). There is no training. EVERYONE is figuring it out as they go along. EVERYONE.

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#5 – You’d be lucky to hook up with a trans woman

There are problems with this statement.  I’m sure Miss Carmen is just making a point with this one and trying to address one of the most dangerous situations for a trans woman…  Which is good…   I get it.

But then my brain gets all semantic and technical about it:  Yeah, you know what it feels like to have a d*ck.  But all d*cks are NOT made equal.  What works for you may not work for someone else.  Great sex is all about comfort, trust, and open communication!  Previous experience with one person just simple doesn’t translate to the next….

You know what, never mind.  This stream is full of red herrings.

What’s next?

#6 – Respect the privacy of trans people as it might threaten their safety

Totally.  Yes.  Preach it.  Shout it out.

Okay, Miss Carmen brought it back to a serious note that we can all agree on.  Again, this is something that is unique to trans gendered women.  Cisgender women may have to live with a lot of fear because of their gender and certain fvcked up cultural norms, but we will NEVER have to live with the fear that a transgender woman will.  This is another reason that I think it’s a disservice to Carmen to want to be identified as a cisgender woman because it erases so much of the struggle, hardship, and uniqueness about walking in her skin.

It is absolutely heartbreaking that anyone would feel justified murdering a transgender individual in cold blood simply because they are too ignorant and close minded to respect and honor the trans individual.

Everyone is allowed to dress, behave, speak, dance etc however they want – so long as it doesn’t actively harm anyone else.  A transgender woman, a cisgender woman, a transgender man, a cisgender man, a gender queer individual – each one could wear sky high heels, a mini skirt, and pasties or utilitarian welding coveralls and work boots or a scuba suit, astronaut suit, power suit, cheerleading uniform….   It doesn’t matter.   They are each who they are underneath the outfit.  If they go by he, she, they…   who cares?  They get to be them, and that is fabulous because you get to be you!  And no one can tell you otherwise!  This doesn’t entitle you to touch, verbally assault, or do any knowing harm to anyone – that’s not included in the “Do You, Boo!” mission statement.  But who wants to do that sh*t anyway?

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This is perfectly timed for Halloween.  I, personally, find the “sexy” version of anything to be an uncreative concept (for anyone) but I also respect everyone’s right to wear ’em loud and wear ’em proud.

But, no matter how sexy the costume, or the person underneath…  a costume is NEVER consent.  Someone could go as “consent” for Halloween and wear nothing but a bumper sticker that says “YES, OF COURSE” and it’s still just a costume.

Make sure you get a yip yip before you try to dip dip

Do you, boo.  And respect all the other boos out there.

Boo.

Happy Halloween.

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Mass Shootings, Yin Yang, and Challenging my Internal Patriarchy

I am overwhelmed by the number of shootings by angry, young, white males in our country.  At first I blamed the “entitled brats” for their actions, but the issue is deeper than just misogyny, racism or entitlement – although those are obviously big contributing factors.

Our culture is good at creating a sense of entitlement, even if the methods seem innocuous.

In exploring the underlying cultural issues, I found the Taoist Yin & Yang incredibly helpful in describing our current imbalance in the natural human dichotomy of gender.  This may seem hokey to some, but I think it’s a great tool to look at our cultural climate.

The imbalance of Yang over Yin is so strong in our culture and everyday lives, that I can see it in my own mind and in my own struggles.

In fact, this whole line of thinking has led me to an interesting conclusion: The most effective way that I, personally, can challenge our flawed patriarchal system and foster change is to challenge my own Yin Yang imbalance. 

This is work that I have known I needed to do for years.  I’m incredibly harsh with myself and mentally aggressive, but realizing that doing this work is actively addressing this issue may be the motivation I need to enact real change in my own psyche and in those around me.

There’s your synopsis.  Unless you’re ready to TLDR out – read on for the deets!

Schism by Kelly McKernan

 

Entitled Psychology and the Illusion of Control

Do we each deserve to be happy?

No, but neither do we deserve to be unhappy.  This is the only succinct answer I have to such a loaded question.  Skipping passed the snag that is defining ‘happy’, to assume we deserve anything is dangerous. 

Life is not about what you deserve, what is owed to you, what is your due, what you’ve earned.  As many readers have probably experienced, even if – in all fairness – you have earned something, there is no guarantee that you will get it.  You did a favor, but no favor was returned. You followed the diet, but lost no weight.  You worked hard and bought a house, the house burned down.  You were kind to someone, and received only bitterness. Not fair, but real.

To assume that we deserve anything and that we should expect it to be given to us, is to assume that life is fair and governed by absolute rules that are never broken.  Expectation is often unrealistic and breeds disappointment.

Fairness is a fairy tale about a world we can control – a land where each goal has a clear set of requirements that, once fulfilled, will consistently make you reach this goal.  This fairy tale land is a video game.  Shoot your bow 20 times, increase your archery skill 1 point.  If you think shooting a real, live bow 20 times is automatically going to make everyone one point better…  you didn’t have to take archery in high school.

She’s done this more than 20 times…

I don’t like this reality any more than anyone else.  I have fairness in my  DNA.  My mom told me that, even as a 6 year old, I demanded that games be fair, even if the imbalance was in my favor.  I have constantly struggled with the fact that life isn’t fair and that no karma fairy is following me around making sure I get my due and everyone else gets theirs.

But the second we think things are fair, we think we are entitled to equal and opposite reactions. I give you 10 kind points, you give me 10 kind points.  

Some men buy into this ‘fair’ system so much that they believe being ‘nice’, having the right job, or saying the right things will necessarily lead to sex.  If they do the right things and don’t get sex?  Apparently that means all women are horrid, hateful people who never hold up their end of the bargain and deserve to die.  Obviously this is the extreme end of the spectrum, but the fact that some people literally believe this is…  indicative of the fact that our culture is seriously imbalanced.

When entitled men feel that they deserve to kill whomever they want just because the life they wanted didn’t show up on a silver platter…  what are we teaching these individuals as children?

If we could teach each other to live in a state of openness and gratitude in which we accepted the truth that we are never owed anything, we would be pleasantly surprised at how much we were given instead of disappointed by how much we are still owed.

I’m definitely still working on this mental shift…

 

Yin and Yang

Quick rundown on Yin and Yang for noobs:

“Everything contains Yin and Yang. They are two opposite yet complementary energies. What does this really mean? Although they are totally different—opposite—in their individual qualities and nature, they are interdependent. Yin and Yang cannot exist without the other; they are never separate. For example, night and day form a Yin-Yang pair. (Night is Yin and day is Yang.) Night looks and is very different than day, yet it is impossible to have one without the other. Both create a totality, a complete whole” -http://www.tcmworld.org/what-is-tcm/yin-yang-theory/

The Yang (the masculine, active, aggressive, hot, hard, creative, logical) is so strong in our culture that it is completely out of balance with the Yin (the feminine, passive, receptive, cool, soft, nurturing, feeling).  Our culture prioritizes excessive hard work, aggressive and monetary success, independence, incessant progress, and marginalizes self care, simple and appreciative success, interdependence, sustainability. 

We have become so out of balance that just staying home from work if you’re sick is seen as weak, and selfish instead of responsible and healthy.  More masculine individuals especially (and I include myself in this category) might even be afraid to let on that they’re sick as simply being susceptible to an illness is “weak”.

With the dual imbalance of excess Yang AND deficient Yin, this aggressive capitalist version of Yang has become a caricature of itself.

The Yang should be about creation, but it has become destruction.  The masculine overconfidence that fosters innovation has instead created entitlement.  The Yang’s energy and expansion has turned into frenzy and greed.  We live in the constant hot, hard daylight of Yang without the balance of the cool, soft and restful nighttime of Yin.  We are burning ourselves out and never allowing ourselves to feel and heal.

We witness individuals struggling with entitlement dealing with their frustration in the most aggressive, active, hard, isolated ways.  The Yang is not comfortable with submission, compassion, or with confronting one’s emotions.  The Yang is comfortable acting, asserting…   killing without a real motive apparently, if there is no receptive, empathetic Yin to balance.

The Yin and Yang of World Hunger by Deevad (Deviantart)

Each individual carries a balance of Yin and Yang that may change moment to moment, so this isn’t to say most people in our culture are on that end of the spectrum.  Neither is Yang evil.  A wild, imbalanced Yang is destructive the same way a wild, imbalanced Yin would have it’s own problems.  But I think it’s appropriate to use the Yin Yang example to describe some of the most unhealthy, destructive traits of our present culture.

 

Taking Down the Monster from Within

This is where I get about as spiritual as I ever get.  This is the deepdown, vulnerable part where I say “Hey, this feels true to me and while I can’t back it up with a handy study, it resonates with me and hope it resonates with another.”  But my truth is my truth and will never be exactly the same as someone else.

Within my own mind, my masculine, Yang voice is very strong.  It tells me that my Yin is weakness.  It tells me that I have no inherent value without creating something and that if I have an opportunity to be valuable in some constructive way or another and fail to do so, that it reflects on my self worth.  It fails to understand that resting, feeling, and filling myself, make me more receptive to others, more creative, more healthy, more balanced.

That’s the status quo talking.  That’s the hyper-aggressive, hot, hard, flawed, unchecked Yang.  That’s the “you can buy happiness if you work hard enough to afford our products” marketing.  That’s the fear-based information of a news industry built around profit.  That’s the mentality of a capitalist culture more interested in the contents of your bank account than your heart.

Sentry by Kelly McKernan

If I can learn to quiet this inner aggression and tap into my Yin, I can balance my mind.  I can practice self-care, rest, intuition, empathy, compassion, and forgiveness for myself and others.  If I can achieve this balance in my own heart, I will enter all my interactions with the outside world from a more holistic place without so much aggression, fear, defensiveness and close-mindedness.  I can change my presence and energy from dividing and judgmental to healing and inclusive.

This is where I was about to reference Ghandi’s “Be the Change…” quote.  I Googled it for accuracy and discovered it’s a false attribution:

Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like … a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation. The closest verifiable remark we have from Gandhi is this: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

Here, Gandhi is telling us that personal and social transformation go hand in hand, but there is no suggestion in his words that personal transformation is enough. In fact, for Gandhi, the struggle to bring about a better world involved not only stringent self-denial and rigorous adherence to the philosophy of nonviolence; it also involved a steady awareness that one person, alone, can’t change anything, an awareness that unjust authority can be overturned only by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.

This more accurate quote mirrors perfectly my belief that, while shifting my internal dialogue and energy is absolute integral for the health of my self and my community, my responsibilities do not end with myself.  I 100% DO NOT mean that I have a responsibility to change someone else.  That sounds close enough to missionary work to make my skin crawl.  However, it means that I cannot simple change my inner balance and then seal my little balanced world off from the rest of existence.  If my hope is to help those in my community feel more balanced, more healthy, more grateful and less disappointed, less victimized, less isolated, my personal balance must be part of the system.  My heart could be a filter and accept the aggressive, Yang-based pressures, the entitled attitudes, the fearful and defensive actions, and meet them with the cool, soft, understanding Yin within me, returning compassion, healing, gratitude.

This is next level enlightenment and true Ghandi-like behavior.  I do not expect to attain it in my lifetime (expectations are the root of entitlement, remember), but certainly it is worth trying for.

Our culture is imbalanced and divided, and I am trying to start the shift toward a Yin Yang balance in one of the most difficult places I can think of: my own mind.

Entropy by Kelly McKernan

The Hymen is not a Membrane, The Mythical Clitoris, and Other Phallusies

No I cannot claim ownership of that gorgeous pun.  “Phallusy” was coined by Fei Cai over at The Thought Erotic.

In the article, “The Myth of the Hymen: A Social and Medical Mystery“, Cai reveals that the Hymen is not a membrane covering the opening of the vagina.

Whoa!  Newsflash!

This makes complete sense to me.  Whenever the hymen came up in conversation, I would remark that I must have lost mine quite early since I never remember having a closed vagina.  Turns out… that’s because no one ever did.

The Hymen is apparently the ring of tissue just around the opening to the vagina, inside the labia majora and minora.  When we are children, the ring is rigid, like a bunch of rubberbands.  This makes complete evolutionary sense.  Until puberty, nothing should really be going in or out of the vagina.  No menstruation heading out, which should mean no semen coming in since there are no eggs to fertilize.

A narrower opening to the vagina would keep out bacteria and foreign contaminants.

Illustration credit: Theresa Lii

However, just like repeatedly using a rubberband starts to wear it out, the hymen begins to loosen up as girls walk, run, dance or just try to learn weird choreography from Nicki Minaj videos.

For me, I know some personal exploration definitely added to the weakening of my hymen tissue, as is likely the case for any girl with an ounce of curiosity and her own bedroom.

By the time a girl begins to menstruate, becomes a woman, and begins having sex – the hymen should present pretty much no problem.

Heard that rumor that sex the first time hurts and “There will be blood!”?  This is another place where I had to tell people, no that’s not true for me.  The first time I had sex I was comfortable and 100% into it.  I took the lead so I could figure the whole deal out.  It was great.  There was no tearing and no blood.  I have heard a lot of stories on both the pain and pleasure side of things.

Yes, many women experience pain and blood during intercourse the first time, but the hymen is likely not to blame.  It’s more likely because they aren’t properly aroused. The stigma, the shame for women, the lies we’re told that it will hurt and that you are dirty after – that all adds up to a lot of stress.  In a fight or flight mode like that, the body isn’t really gearing up for a great round of sex.  The vagina is not lubricated, the cervix is not raised.  **See Addendum on Imperforate Hymen.

A really excited guy who is finally getting to seal the deal is likely missing the foreplay section, which doesn’t help matters either.  With no lubrication, the walls of the vagina are often torn – resulting in blood and pain.  Additionally, if the cervix doesn’t rise up as it does during arousal it increases the chance that the tip of the penis will slam into it – which feels exactly not great and the opposite of sexy.

Where did this myth come from?  Why thank you religion, patriarchy, and a complete lack of modern anatomical awareness.

This is a topic I’ve talked about quite extensively – the need of male-dominated societies to control the female body.  Historically, it seems that men were so possessive and so afraid that their chosen woman (of the moment) would bear another man’s child, that they made up complete lies about female anatomy.  Our ancestors’ patriarchal society told women that if they lost their virginity they were unpure and would die alone with no one to take care of them (also that they weren’t allowed to support themselves for the most part – kind of a fucked up catch 22).  A lot of this has to do with control and was perpetuated by many different societies and religions.  Custom dictated that a virgin would bleed on their wedding night – some areas even required hanging the sheets outside the window in the morning for everyone to see.  Because this is literally not a thing that should happen very often if you make your new wife comfortable and a little aroused, a lot of red wine ended up on a lot of perfectly good sheets. Hopefully they used it as a toast the night before and didn’t waste whole bottles.

Trouble finding the clitoris? This kind of nonsense meant they hadn’t even had a proper look at a vagina before or were so threatened by the idea that they couldn’t prove virginity that they made up a total lie.  Let alone ever getting close to finding or becoming friends with the clitoris.

Here’s the thing, ladies.  Virginity has literally nothing to do with your purity, your value, your womanhood, your respectability, your morals, or your standing in society.

This goes for men, too.  Sex does not make you a man or a woman. It is not shameful.  It doesn’t not bring you glory.  It just makes you a person who has had sex before. Whether your first time was painful or pleasurable, was with someone of a different gender or not, whether it was oral, anal or vaginal…  these things make no difference in terms of who you are.

I know for the most part we’ve moved past the “women have to wear a veil in church to show their shame for original sin”, “women speak when spoken to” shit as a society… but we’re STILL PERPETUATING MEDIEVAL MYTHS ABOUT THE HYMEN.

I have friends in medical school who had never been told this and were still operating under information that someone made up in the dark ages.

At the risk of getting off on a tangent when all I really wanted to talk about was my vagina…   this is an excellent reason that we still need public services like Planned Parenthood trying to disseminate (this pun is mine) solid information.

At the risk of getting even more on a tangent…  even if you are pro-life, you should support Planned Parenthood.  They do very few abortions – they have more male patients than they do patients seeking abortions (not getting, just inquiring).  A not a dime of government or tax money funds them.  These are cases that would be handled by other doctors at other hospitals were PP defunded.  Defunding Planned Parenthood would limit  access to free and affordable prophylactics, unbiased information, cancer and STD screenings, and regular health exams – which will absolutely INCREASE THE NUMBER OF ABORTIONS, unplanned pregnancies, terminal cancers, and STDs.

Okay, I’m off my soapbox.  Back to the beautiful vagina.

Good information about our anatomy can lead to better communication, better first times, and better sex in general.

Who doesn’t want that?

 

** ADDENDUM **

It has been brought to my attention that I may have breeze over a condition that will make sex painful no matter how aroused, ready, and intentional you are.  An imperforate hymen fails to perforate during fetal development (insinuating that the hymen does, in fact, perforate before birth), fully obstructing the vagina. According to the ever reliable wikipedia, the frequency of imperforate hymen vary from 1 in 1000 to 1 in 10,000 females.

I learn something new every day!

Vulnerability, Seattle Freeze, and How to get a Turtle out of a Blackberry Patch

Hey.  Are we almost friends?  Do you enjoy my company and sometimes think we should be better friends, but feel we don’t quite connect?  We probably would connect if I showed myself to you and paid more attention to who you are.  We probably would hang out if I allowed myself time.

This isn’t the Seattle Freeze, this is my struggle with vulnerability and self acceptance.

This is my armor, my turtle shell: I people please and show you who I think you want instead of who I am.  I use my empathy to anticipate your needs and keep you comfortable and attend to you instead of listening to how you feel and who you are.

You tell me you’re hungry?  I feed you wonderbread all night and say, ‘Aren’t I a good friend for feeding them’.  But there’s no nutritional value.  I didn’t ask why you were hungry, or how that need felt to you, or if you even wanted to eat something, or what you might want.  I didn’t relate to you a time when I was hungry and let you know I understood how you felt.  I hit the accelerator and tried to be the hero.  I frequently miss the chance to create a connection and dive into the deep end of placation like there was a hundred dollar bill at the bottom.

I didn’t mean to breezed past you and miss something pivotal.  Maybe you have felt I’m aloof or oblivious or uninterested.  Maybe you’ve even thought I didn’t like you, that I thought I was better than you.  It would hurt me if you’d thought that, when really I was concerned about how you felt about me.

I people-please and keep myself overly busy because I struggle with accepting that I have value on my own.

I always believed that having free time was shameful; I should always be working, practicing, doing.  More with less.  Efficency, productivity, success.  I leave myself in an empathy deficit.  If it feels like I don’t have energy for you, it’s because I don’t even have energy for me.  Because I don’t think I’m allow to give myself down time – I’m only as good as my added value.

America doesn’t make that tendency easier – where more with less is our unofficial motto.  We get less paid time off, fewer vacation days, fewer sick days, less maternity and more stress than any other developed nation.

My gender doesn’t make it easier either – I know many women who complain of trouble finding authentic female friends.  I think the struggle to be authentic is difficult for both genders, but for different reasons.

I know that I started to people-please more in puberty when suddenly my favorite activities (climbing trees, collecting frog eggs, and building forts) became unseemly, too loud, and unattractive.  When I realized it was not okay to be myself, something changed. The world was suddenly a blackberry patch, and I added more armor to my arsenal.  I suppressed my vulnerability, emotions, feminine intuition as weaknesses.

My need for outside approval out-paced my need for self approval.  I began to lose my ability to get lost for hours alone in the woods with myself – completely and blissfully unconcerned with anything else.

While I am a product of my environment and past, vulnerability is a muscle that I need to strengthen if I want to push past that barrier into deeper, authentic friendships and I deeper, more authentic relationship with myself.

A wise woman once told me, “A friend felt she needed her armor like a turtle in a blackberry patch.  I asked her, ‘What are you doing in a blackberry patch?‘”.

My blackberry patch is partly of my own creation.  I can learn to slow down and allow myself time to reconnect with myself.  I can remove toxic individuals and situations from my life as I am able.  I can restructure my attitudes and thought patterns.

I’m working on meeting every moment with true authenticity and openness.  I want to start presenting myself and what I believe with intention and time.  If I can just show up and be me truly, rejection will feel like disappointment and not like shame.  If I can really hear someone and give them empathy, a lack of connection will feel like a truth and not a failure.  If I can accept and understand who I am, I won’t need to prove my value to you – I’ll just need to show it.

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I’m waking up.  If we’re almost friends I’m about to allow myself the opportunity to be real friends with you.

Hi.  I’m Alissa.  How are you?  Really?

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On Joy and Loss

I recently happened upon an essay that rekindled my love for life – but not in the way the author intended.

From Zadie Smith’s Essay on Joy:

“The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live? Joy is such a human madness.

Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation? You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do, relationships with animals being in some sense intensified by guaranteed finitude.

The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.”

-Zadie Smith

My knee jerk was “Who wouldn’t accept such a crazy deal?”

Barnes is right, the loss of true joy “hurts just as much as it is worth”.  If something or someone is worth nothing to you, its loss will not hurt – just as the loss of a simple pleasure will not destroy you.  This means two things.

First, the entrance of joy into your life for a moment or for an extended period naturally creates a potential future grief equal to its importance and value.  Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  Each joy has an equal and opposite grief.  If we choose to focus on this aspect, as Zadie Smith seems to, joy is something to be feared and avoided, a “madness” or “crazy deal”.

Second, true joy has real worth so important to our soul that we cannot help but become linked with it, perhaps find ourselves changed by it.  We may crave pleasure as we do joy.  We may fantasize about, lust after, find our brains madly occupied with many things that are joys, or just simple pleasures – brief, replaceable, and shallow.  We may sometimes have trouble telling them apart.  But a joy is something deeper, something that nourishes the soul like no pleasure can. Joy gives life meaning.  Where and how we find joy can define us, connect us, create us. If we focus on this aspect, joy is the most important thing – despite the precipice of loss upon which it leaves us teetering.

Grieving

It has often struck me how interconnected emotions can be, as if the human heart is a crazy ven diagram of feeling.  In joy exists fear, in sadness exists comfort, in grief exists celebration.

In a culture where death is hidden away, where sadness is a disease treated with SSRIs, where taking time to sit with one’s emotion is seen as weak and unproductive, it can be incredibly hard to grieve a loss.

Grieving is different for everyone, there is no correct way and there should be no expectations.  However, a huge loss is not something one gets a lot of practice at, hopefully.  No one knows themselves exactly how they will feel or what they will need.  Some built-in methods of grieving in our culture might act as street lights on an otherwise dark path.  A death may be marked by a wake, funeral or memorial, but the public nature makes many feel they must be actors without revealing their true emotions. Many losses are personal with no pomp and circumstance, no remark from the outside world.

In grief we may feel despair, anger, hopelessness, emptiness, betrayal.  We may feel we can’t bear it.  We may even feel that having the thing could not have been worth the loss.  But, as Barnes said, “it hurts as much as it is worth”.

In grief, I have always begun to feel celebration.  I have prolonged and delved into my pain to show to myself the importance of that lost thing, to respect its worth.  In a way, my soul would have felt betrayed if I had turned away from the pain, I wouldn’t have been acknowledging the value of something that had true soul meaning to me.

Many cultures have rituals, timelines, grieving practices that can be cathartic and healing.  Perhaps this can be unhealthy and confining too, but more openness around death, trauma and hardship, and an understanding of grief in our culture would be absolutely positive.

Pre-Grieving

Just as walking a tight rope may require ‘not looking down’, sometimes the fear of loss can cause us to behave in ways that actually result in the loss we feared.  I sometimes find myself grieving the loss of things I still have, focusing on the wrong end of the experience, like Zadie Smith.  If we focus this way we hold too tight, we try to protect ourselves.  We look down into that crevasse and vertigo takes over.  Some of us miss the joy in front of us.  Some of us fall.

A song that really kicks me in the heart is Smother by Daughter.  The song is about someone who smothers their relationships and is so hopeless about making one last and guilty that they wish they were dead.  I have been in that place and know how heartbreaking it can be to lose something because your afraid of losing it.

Even before the fear of loss kicks in, joy itself can overwhelm us. Have you felt beauty that makes you cry, seen something so cute you clench your teeth and want to ‘eat it up’, felt so connected so someone you want to squeeze the life out of them?  This ‘cute aggression’ or dimorphous expression seems to be the brain dealing with an absolutely overwhelming emotion.  This may be the brain allowing the emotion to spill over and activate other nervous systems responses or the brain may be activating responses usually associated with sadness, anger etc as a way of bringing us back down. At a biological level, our bodies may try to protect us from a joy overload.

Joy can be a difficult thing to accept and look in the eyes.  It is complicated, powerful, terrifying and not at all like the slow motion run through the rain at the airport to a swelling, triumphant, orchestral soundtrack.

Palliative Pleasure

Because joy and meaning are not necessarily easy, it is easy to fall back on low risk, low reward replacements.  Our lives are so filled with wonderbread substitutes for meaning.  We are hungry and myriad social networks, screens, etc. make us feel like we are eating but, like wonderbread, they have no nutrients.  We can pretend we are getting what we need without standing on that terrifying edge.  Perhaps some people can live a whole life without many deep, meaningful moments, perhaps that is not a universal need.  I doubt it, but humans always surprise me in their diversity.  The prevalence of unfulfilling social interactions is a very common topic these days, and I doubt that I will illuminate any new information if I continue.  Suffice it to say (although I’m sure this loses some weight as a facebook note) I hope we begin to shift back to more real face time and less facebook as a culture.

 

Life

My feelings in the matter (and I can tell you the exact moment I came to this realization) are that without risk there can be no reward, without lows there are no highs, without the potential for loss and grief the connections and joys in your life lose the meaning that make them special.

I believe Tennysons’ Tis better to have loved and lost is omnipresent, however cheesy,  because everyone at some point has wondered “Is this really better?  Wouldn’t ignorance be bliss?”  Tennyson knows, and I think Barnes would agree, that the beauty of life is not found in the fleeting pleasures, but in the wild, deep experiences and relationships that can lead to pain.

 It is almost invariably better to walk that tightrope, to stand at the edge of that precipice, and sometimes to fall and fall completely.  To be truly alive with meaning and intention.  With joy and pain.  Maybe it’s a crazy deal, but it’s one I’ll shake on.