Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Exhibit Inspirations: I Wanna Hear People Say 'Can I Help You?'

Sisyphus, Franz von Stuck, 1920.
Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.
I had a string of very bad days recently after reading too many posts on Jezebel about literal, legislative, and psychological assaults on women and their rights. Sometimes I just hit a wall. I get frantic, outraged, angry, bitter, and above all heartsick, pervaded by this kind of vacuumed-out sensation of weak hopelessness and exhaustion that's more than anything like a feeling that happens to me occasionally in dreams when I'm attacked by someone and I try hitting them and I just physically can't do it. The feeling of doors that won't lock, legs that won't run, injuries I can't inflict, safety I can't make for myself. And the worst of it, for me, is the part of that feeling that has to do with the deep and scary suspicion that the men in my life don't care. No, that's not quite right -- that they care, but distantly, or just because they care about me, and there's no way for me to express my boundless feeling of misery, that ground-down sensation of endless burden and Sisyphean toil, that they won't eventually tune out of because it's not their problem.

 What I want is to see the perfectly nice, everyday guys in my life - the ones who don't post about politics or comment on threads about injustice or spend much time considering privilege but who are, nevertheless, thoughtful, decent human beings - reach out to the ladies they know and say "Hey, you know, I read about some truly f%@!&ed-up nonsense being perpetuated on your gender, and I want you to know I've got your back. What can I do?" I want to see straight people doing this for LQBTQ people. I want to see white people doing this for people of color.

But what's hard, for me, is trying to find a way to express that longing - to be reached out to - in a way that's going to catch the eye & get the attention of the people I most want support from. Listen, I know the ladies in my life have got my back. I don't have to ask. But sometimes, you know, when I don't hear my male friends go out of their way to talk about how frustrated they are with sexism or rape apologists or panels of men making decisions about women's bodies, I'm really not sure: are they there for me? Where does the silence come from? Is it simply that the news stories don't catch their eyes because, well, they don't really feel like it has anything to do with them? Is it because the injustices are invisible, or hard to discern, to the population that doesn't experience them on a daily basis? Or is it because somewhere deep inside them they aren't on my side? I'm pretty sure it's NOT the latter. But when I just don't see the men around me engaging with social justice on a voluntary basis, well, it can be hard not to go there in my heart. (I should note that I have a number of straight, white male friends who do actively engage with social justice on a daily basis, and I feel happy I every time I see them give a shout out to a lady, call out casual sexism and racism, attempt to explain to their college buddies what makes for nasty & degrading behavior, and generally behave like the mensches they are. But even in my small and ultra-liberal circle, they are not the majority.)

The Good Samaritan by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. I love the parable of the 
Good Samaritan. It's the passage where Jesus says that loving God 
and your neighbor are the only things you need to have eternal life, 
and then he tells the story of a man helping another man for no good 
reason other than being a decent human being to illustrate what 
he means by "neighbor." Enjoy the details of the parable here.
Facebook is a notoriously bad medium for the communication of meaningful experiences. But when I hit that wall this week, I found myself struggling to write something that would catch the attention of people beyond my usual response group of empathetic ladies who know what's it's like. So I wrote something trying to explain that Sisphyean sensation and asking the men in my life if they have things that make them hit that wall. It's very important to me, I said, not to turn on the men in my life with a snarl for not reaching out harder to help us with this burden, but it's going to be a lot easier for me to keep from snarling if I know you GET it. Not this battle necessarily -- I mean the feeling of being bent double like this, feeling incapable of just letting go of some injustice but also feeling incapable of fighting it.

I got some thoughtful responses although only a couple of them were from those I most wanted to hear from. But I got something else. I got a message from someone I knew through a job I had years ago, someone I didn't really know outside of work, with whom my only communication since then (I can't remember which of us left first) has been a handful of Facebook likes. This person shared an extremely personal story with me and thanked me from the depths of their heart for having written what I wrote, for articulating a longing and desire for empathy. I have rarely, if ever, been so moved by words sent to me through the medium of social media. It made me feel clearly that all my misery and heartache and frustration and fear had been worth it if it had led me to writing something that gave this person a sense that someone shared the burden. 

What this person said to me brought sharply into focus what I said above: I have a longing to be reached out to. I hadn't articulated that before. It's a scary thing to say. I tend to say I FEEL BAD!! in a variety of ways, from the adorably melancholic to the belligerently aggressive, and hope that people just, you know, show up to make me feel better. What is much more nerve-wracking for me to say is it would really help me a lot as a human being if you would turn around and say to me I'm here. What can I do to help you?
Al Green knows what I mean.

I strongly believe that feeling support from an unexpected source is one of the sweetest and most joyful sensations in human existence. I don't just mean the kindness of strangers; there's also the kindness of people you don't know very well and would never think to ask for emotional help because, you know, oversharing is embarrassing and, if you're anything like me, you tend to fear that showing your feelings to, say, someone you see on the bus every day is a little like putting on a giant wobbly hat and clown shoes and a sign that says PLEASE DO NOT TAKE ME SERIOUSLY in Comic Sans. But those are precisely the people whose presence and acknowledgement in a moment of anguish seems to move us the most.

If I was a supergenius with extraordinary creative powers, The Museum of Joy would have a space in which people would find themselves turning to others - strangers, family, new friends - and saying, perhaps to their own surprise, what are you carrying? what can I do to ease your burden? I don't know how to make that space. I don't know what it takes to create a place where people feel like they can step over the boundaries that hold us politely apart from one another, that keep us tidily blind to each other's suffering, that make us think well it's not my problem and anyway there's nothing I can do. 

I don't need the men in my life to all suddenly become feminist activists. I would just really, really like it if each one of them came to me, one day, quietly, without being asked, and said to me "hey, listen, if things get tough, I just want you to know that if you need somebody to hold your hand while you cry, or go on an appliance-smashing rampage with you while you yell, you can ask me. I'll be there." I want my friends - and my acquaintances - and people on the internet I've never met - to all feel like they can call on me, and I'll be here to say "Hey, what is happening there is brutal and vile and I really, really wish you didn't have to go through it and I think it's a big mountain of suck that you do." Because more than anything, for me, it's about hearing that we're not making it up. That people of color aren't making up institutionalized racism. That women aren't making up rape culture. That queer people aren't making up gaybashing. That men aren't making up how bad it feels to be told that not wanting to own guns means they aren't really men. That people with disabilities aren't making up how damn hard it is to just get around.That whatever pain you're feeling is real

What I want, eventually, is to build a museum of joy with a space in it for honoring suffering. Being affirmed in the reality of the shit you struggle with is transformative, transfigurative, soul-cleansing, life-enriching. I hear that you're in pain is a enormous thing to say to anyone. Not to argue with, justify, try to fix, ignore, compare, or try to talk someone out of pain, but just sit in acknowledgement. Like I said, I don't know how to build that space. But there's a video that's been making the rounds on my Facebook recently, of a work the artist Marina Abramovic did in 2010. (It's better with the sound off.)

Although there's a backstory here (Ulay was her lover and partner in performance art for many years; at the end of their relationship they walked towards each other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, only to hug in the middle and part forever, and she did not know he was coming to the endurance sit at MoMA where this video was filmed) there's also something more: what happens when you just sit with someone's feelings. This will be part of the Museum of Joy, somehow, someday. Maybe I'll find a young artist who's seen this work and thought that's a start. Maybe there's someone who's carried a lot of pain in silence who can help me, or someone who recently had the experience of saying something kind to another person on the internet for no explicable reason. Maybe there's you. But there will be a Temple to Honor Other People's Suffering, and I'm pretty sure someone, at least, will be glad that it exists.In the meantime, though, I guess I might as well try to build it right here in my own damn heart.


  1. What I really hate, the thing that weighs me down, is seeing the women that support the sexism. That support and, sometimes, promote the things that rich, white men want to do against women. The brainwashing disgusts me.

    Just so you know, I was relieved of a job once for standing up for minorities. I'll write that story someday.

    1. Yeah, that gets to me too...and I'd love to hear that story :)

  2. I love that your museum will include a temple to honor suffering.

    I've recently run into what feels like an unending well of pain. When I told one of my teachers about this feeling of infinite pain, she said love is also an unending well & that the pain is the portal to the love.

    1. I'm glad you're taken with that idea...

      I don't disagree with your teacher on the idea that love is an unending well, but in recent years I *have* tried to distance myself from the idea that pain is necessary for love or joy, or that you suffer in the measure you can feel joy, and so on -- things I definitely felt very strongly at one point, but as I get older I worry that that framework sets up a system in which we expect to be rewarded for our pain, or feel the universe is supposed to deliver us a certain measure of happiness because it delivered us a certain measure of sorrow...and I can only speak for my own experience, but it seems to me that love, or joy, while related to pain and suffering, is not the opposite of it in some kind of balancing act that will eventually even out. I find myself thinking but why? in moments of exultation AND in moments of agony.

      That being said, I also know that times when joy is really present in my life, a kind of vulnerability to the universe opens up in me. I am much more naked to small incidents of pain and suffering in other people or things, things I can usually shrug off or turn away from, and they really hit me with full force right when I'm permeable to joy. I don't know exactly what I'm trying to say here, except maybe that I understand joy and sorrow more as brother and sister than parent and child or rival forces or a fire you walk through to get to the promised land. (Jack Kornfield's book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry does a much better job of talking about this than I am, I think.) I

      I'm sad you're feeling so much pain. Let me know if there's ever any way I can reach out to you.


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