unBecoming a Savior

I find power dynamics fascinating; the ones we create within ourselves, and the ones that worm their ways into all variations of our interpersonal relationships: close ties or spheres of influence, all the way up to our governments, our sense of identities (the many ways we slice ourselves into Us vs Them), and the ways that media introduces and reinforces those labels are all simultaneously vying for our attention. Somehow, we manage to tune them out, to stop actively participating in their roles in our lives. But that doesn’t mean these things aren’t constantly affecting us.

I wrote recently about unBecoming a Victim,  and I would like to address the other end of the spectrum in this posting: Savior Complexes. In the previous post, I addressed the Victim as someone that was not the Reader, and listed what, in my opinion, was decent enough advice for the Reader to implement should they encounter and identify someone who was struggling or causes strife for others because that Other Person had embraced their own victim status to the degree that they were experiencing a negative effect or affecting others similarly.

I did not address what to do if you, the Reader, were identifying as a Victim. It was not intentionally avoided, but after some careful thought I have decided to leave that angle on the topic unaddressed in the original blog posting. After all, this is a blog fueled solely by coffee and overthinking, the result of what my mind connects and what my fingers regurgitate into the inter-webs and onto the computer screen. If you are a Victim, but don’t know it, I hypothesize that the post addressing that would not be well received. We all have a tendency to be a little of everything now and then, but if you are so fully a Victim that there is little room for anything else, my thoughts are most likely dismissed as criticism instead of observation. But it’s ok; it’s not your fault. You legitimately have no control over what I think or say, so don’t take it personally. Of course, there are always legitimate reasons to identify with the Victim, the largest being the capacity to experience compassion. As Martha Nussbaum writes:

Compassion requires the judgment that there are serious bad things that happen to others through no fault of their own. In its classic tragic form, it imagines that a person possessed of basic human dignity has been injured by life on a grand scale. So it adopts a thoroughly anti-Stoic picture of the world, according to which human beings are both dignified and needy, and in which dignity and neediness interact in complex ways… The basic worth of a human being remains, even when the world has done its worst. But this does not mean that the human being has not been profoundly damaged, both outwardly and inwardly.

The society that incorporates the perspective of tragic compassion into its basic design thus begins with a general insight: people are dignified agents, but they are also, frequently, victims. Agency and victimhood are not incompatible: indeed, only the capacity for agency makes victimhood tragic. In American society today, by contrast, we often hear that we have a stark and binary choice, between regarding people as agents and regarding them as victims. We encounter this contrast when social welfare programs are debated: it is said that to give people various forms of social support is to treat them as victims of life’s ills, rather than to respect them as agents, capable of working to better their own lot.

Now, swinging the pendulum to another word for the other extreme she warns of in that stark binary choice: agents who exhibit The Savior Complex.

buddy christ

If being categorized as a Victim is marked by a total lack of personal responsibility for their involvement in a situation (i.e Being taken advantage of in some way), then being a Savior is defined as taking on substantially more responsibility than is appropriate. It has its own set of substantial issues.

On a personal note, for the year I taught abroad in Burma, living among people whose lives are so drastically more financially impoverished than what I had come to understand as Normal (as defined by being Midwestern, small town, American, middle class, white, privileged, etc) really cranked up my capacity to experience a Savior complex, because I lost perspective for what I was doing. What was meant to be an opportunity to see the world, experience different cultures, and to just help in some ambiguous, ethereal, substantial Margaret Mead-ish way, turned into a really negative experience by  feeling responsible for fixing everything and thus being overwhelmed at the multitude of things that needed to be addressed. Without a realistic scope and direction, it isn’t difficult to start feeling responsible for trying to fix everything, and if all your sensors get overwhelmed, you shut down.

teach for america

There’s a fine line, and a balance must be struck.

As a Victim, some things are within your control. It is your responsibility to note and address them appropriately. As a Savior, there are many things that are not within your control; it is not up to you to micromanage reality and flip all the switches. In each case, we must find a middle ground where we are not overwhelmed by how vast the world is and how insignificant it can make us feel.

It’s a tough balance to strike, and it has tricky interpersonal details, even a Catch-22: You can’t be a Victim without depending on other people, and you can’t be a Savior without people who depend on you. We’re all in this together, so there is responsibility and dependency on all sides; these two archetypes exist when our balance goes out of whack and we spiral toward one pole or another.

Victims are necessary in systems that are designed to be unfair, corrupt, and highly imbalanced. Yes Men, Sheep, Lemmings, Robots, whatever you want to call them, they are Victims who have embraced a false Safe Status of invisibility, with the assurance that as long as they do what they’re told, and as long as they let their Saviors take care of them, then everything will be alright. A reassuring lie is preferred over an inconvenient truth. It is a comforting lie, but a lie, regardless. It is a formula for people to engage in behavior, largely unchecked.

Saviors exist to fix problems, to save people from danger, harm, failure… but what they profess to do really depends on the judgement available to the people around them. Without significant dependency, good or bad, there is no room for Saviors to exist.

White-Savior-Complex

As much as we all love our Khaleesi, in becoming Daenerys bit off more than she could chew…but not more than her dragons could. There is much praise to be had for being Breaker of Chains and Mhysa, but she overlooked her people’s needs and abilities to take care of themselves. 

In addition to the pitfalls outlined in the linked blog above which lists all the ways that taking care of others before oneself can be harmful to the Savior, there can be, serious dangerous consequences to others.

In the same way that Victimization is utilized to obtain empathy, the status of being a Savior elicits praise for being selfless, despite the carefully crafted narrative existing solely to fuel that kind of praise.

Munchausens by Proxy is one severe example, where a caregiver “fabricates, exaggerates, or induces mental or physical health problems in those who are in their care, usually to gain attention or sympathy from others,” as illustrated in this clip from the 1999 film “The Sixth Sense.” The clip is of a child’s wake, where a father is given a video of the mother secretly poisoning her child to keep the child sick, feeble, and dependent, in order for the mother to maintain a constant stream of praise from those around her for being such a good, vigilant, attentive caretaker through it all.

Creating a dependency is key.

The common American belief that a college degree is necessary to succeed is one example.
You have to take out loans to pay for college.
You are then saddled with an immense amount of debt in pursuit of what was meant to be safe existence/normal social expectation.
Some jobs are more highly rewarded than others (tech jobs vs teachers, etc), and base take home pay reflects this.
If you didn’t study something that is monetarily valued at this level, you will struggle to pay for what is now retrospectively a 4 year vacation from a very specific reality.

Food is another dependency. During the Great Depression, the American government called on the people to step up and take care of themselves, more or less. Today, food is a trademarked commodity, and those who attempt to be self-sufficient are frequently fined, jailed, or robbed of their land and possessions because in many ways self-sufficiency has become illegal. Simple things, like keeping chickensutilizing rainwater, or having a garden  in place of a lawn, are verboten, because taking care of yourself doesn’t create a monetary benefit for your Corporate Saviors.

Grandma

On a more extreme note, Hitler was also seen as a Savior by (some of) the German peoples, for identifying the cause of all their problems, and by creating a means to lead them out of it.

Perspective is everything.

So, who are you saving? And from what, exactly?

Finding Tribe

Tribe is one of the most beautiful words in the English language to me, a word which conjures vivid colors, lush fabric, downy quilts, arms opening and closing in embrace of one another. It conjures steamy, inviting cooking smells and stacks and stacks of books, tea, coffee, soup, warmth warmth warmth.

coffee table book

For many people, I think ‘Tribe’ is strongly connected to Festival Folk, people who participate in Burning Man or Bonnaroo. I would like to think it’s because of the inclusive nature and mutual respect that those events are founded on, but unfortunately I think the idea has lost the backbone of those components, and rests more heavily on looking the right sort of trendy.

fashionable tribe

We’ve used Tribe from an anthropological standpoint to make notes and classifications through the safety of a biased cultural lens atop our White European Soapbox for centuries. We have systematically dismantled any group of “primitive” peoples to the point where finding true Tribe is rather exclusive, an oddity. The grandeur that once belonged to Tribes is now to be found mostly in story books; we no longer even have the opportunity to experience its mysteries via National Geographic.

Now, for many,’Tribe’ may as well be synonymous with ‘Freak Show;’ from the outside, this may be intended as an insult towards people who are so unlike the Viewer that they seem like primitive outcasts. However, in my experience, observation, and research, self-identified ‘outcasts’ are some of the most welcoming, interesting people on the planet, whatever their particular stripes. People embrace who they are, or who they think they are, and that is a good first step towards Being. But no man is an island.

Belonging to a tribe is essential. After all, “it takes a village to raise a child.”

The connections founded on some Mutual Sameness are invaluable. In a world so connected by technology and global trade and travel, we are spoiled by our ability to so easily find tribe. It’s simple enough that I think many people take it for granted, and become lazy with their expectations. People find comfort in internet communities, but they are not Tribe, really. Tribe requires physicality and presence. There is something wonderful about being able to communicate in a meaningful way with Tribe scattered across the globe, to plan visits to one another and to compare loss or progress. But the people who you play World of Warcraft with online are not Tribe, nor is the compilation of that Secret Facebook Group you run so you can bitch about everyone else in peace, at least not if that’s all you do. (Sorry.) Online communities have their place, but they should not be ranked first and foremost, and they certainly should not be the only ring of Tribe in which you immerse yourself.

Substituting screen time (or Face Time) for actual face time is dangerous. Presence is important. Stepping away from electronics is necessary to attain and maintain a healthy level of emotional intelligence. We can’t connect to others if we refuse to connect with ourselves. We can’t go out and explore our emotional landscape if we’re too distracted by everything else that we’re always trying to accomplish simultaneously. As eloquently put forth in this 19 minute TED talk by Sherry Turkle, we’re connected, but so very alone.

We’ve cultivated an ability via social media to surround ourselves exclusively with like-minded people if we choose to do so, and have largely lost the ability to air opposing viewpoints with one another in a peaceful, respectful fashion. Any disagreement escalates almost immediately to palpable tension, and climaxes in emotionally fueled arguments. This is a problem in terms of the social ecosystem we create by specializing ourselves like insects. If we are unable to be a panoramic person in terms of expressing, hearing, and existing amid a diverse set of beliefs, viewpoints, and information, then we are self-sabotaging ourselves. It is comfortable to be Like Other People, it is detrimental if we are all Exactly The Same. Homogeneous societies can become fragile because of their sameness, as can digital societies become fragile because of their disconnectedness.

Touch is essential, for infants, children, and adults. It is more essential than food for our survival. True, food nourishes our body, but love, touch, affection, and attention nourish our soul. Without a sense of connectivity, we become isolated, depressed. Without tribe, we fail.

We lose and find our paths so many times throughout our lives. Rediscovering yourself is a wonderful, terrifying thing. Depression is one component, which can be both an effect and a catalyst for anything else that happens. For anyone, whether you’ve experienced severe depression or not, this blog provides brilliant insight via the depths of gallows humor the author has implemented. It is one of the most perfect creations in this world. (Be sure to also read part two. You won’t be disappointed.)

We need 8 hugs a day  (according to research!) to reap the full benefits of oxytocin, “the neurotransmitter also known as the “bonding” hormone. Oxytocin contributes to our sense of connectedness and, as a result, our happiness.” The elderly are frequently the most at risk population for suffering the consequences of neglect. Last fall, I started down a rocky path. As stories go, there wasn’t one identifiable catalyst that engaged the universe’s gears to start churning in any particular way, but the slow water torture of misplaced best intentions over the previous who-knows-how-long finally aligned or accumulated and I was jolted once again in a direction towards being My Authentic Self.

But I started painting again. And making beautiful things to surround myself with was insulating.

I enrolled in massage therapy classes. And finding a tangible way to provide comfort to others was empowering.

I met someone truly wonderful. And being vulnerable together was reassuring, because, as he pointed out, I didn’t need someone to take care of me; I was perfectly capable of doing that myself. Being your Whole Self, however broken and fractured you feel, creates a different beacon than someone who is reveling in and floundering because of their brokenness.

When you revel in your brokenness, and accept it as Who You Are Entirely, you’re overlooking your capacity to heal, and to become anything beyond or other than what you presently feel you are. If you look for connections in this state, you may only find ones who fit with the limited version of who you are, and this limitation ensures that you remain that way in order to maintain the connection. You’re a puzzle piece, looking for it’s corresponding link.

puzzle

But when you embrace your Whole Self, flaws, cracks, fractures, psychoses, the whole range of who you are, whether the traits are flattering or not, you’re able to do something wonderful, albeit slowly. You start to be able to flex emotional muscles that you had previously babied when they were broken. If you can’t slowly start to reintroduce their use, you remain crippled. Broken People take advantage of other Broken People.

But Broken People who embrace opportunities to heal are drawn to one another, and make it possible to be more than the sum of their parts.

arms and legs

We find compliments to what we perceive to be our flaws, in ways that complete us.

Thanks to the Tribe I have recently found, I have also found an interest in permaculture, which is, as far as I can tell, the truest means to have the highest form of Tribe in the 21st century.

I have wanted a Commune since I was 12 years old. I wanted a big, rustic family, the opportunity to learn more about the world around me than what I knew the day before, the opportunity to take pride in my work.

I am at a crucial juncture in my life, on this journey with my Tribe.
And the view from where I sit is breathtaking.

 

unBecoming a Victim

 

We have a very backwards view of the word victim, in my mind. It doesn’t really jive with the dictionary definition.

Merriam-Webster has this to say about it, for a starting point:

Full Definition of victim

noun vic·tim \ˈvik-təm\

  1. 1:  a living being sacrificed to a deity or in the performance of a religious rite

  2. 2:  one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent <the schools are victims of the social system>: asa(1):  one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions <a victim of cancer><a victim of the auto crash><a murder victim>(2):  one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment <a frequent victim of political attacks>b:  one that is tricked or duped <a con man’s victim>

We have all but done away with the first definition, and we have become used to eschewing a near-constant disbelief in the legitimacy of the second. We constantly question the nuance of a situation to challenge the authenticity of the label victim in scenarios that have to do with personal autonomy. What I personally think usually leads down a multi-story rabbit hole away from the main point, but I will abbreviate and just say that there is a particular paradox which astounds me like no other, and that is, at the same time, these two things are true:

Victim Blaming is pervasive. The amount of shit society gives rape victims (as one example) about the survivor applying that particular label and how openly the general public looks for loopholes (she knew him, look at what she was wearing, she shouldn’t have been in that part of town, etc) to squash any shred of humanity and empathy we might muster for them, and instead place full responsibility for the scenario on the part of the person victimized. In  refusing to legitimize their claim to that word, it is removing a crucial component for those women and men to acknowledge what was done to them, and to work through their resulting trauma. The Media active perpetuates this, and encourages catty, hateful behavior.

So, we lie to ourselves about another persons story, because it might be traumatic for us to acknowledge that there is a set of real societal problems to be addressed. People openly shame them for circumstances that were genuinely beyond their control. While at the same time:

Victim Mentality is encouraged as a default status. People who perpetuate a victim mentality about their day to day lives and constantly deny any margin of personal responsibility are openly given feedback from strangers and their inner circles which encourages that harmful mindset to linger, fester, and thrive. This gives the self-identified victim any number of reasons not to face their portion of responsibility regarding the matters in which they become victims. This allows them to be forever free of responsibility for anything they do, because the resulting consequences will never be because of their own actions.

Victim_role

From Cambridge journals online:

The desire of sympathy is crucial in that the mere experience of a harmful event is not enough for the emergence of the sense of being a victim. In order to have this sense there is the need to perceive the harm as undeserved, unjust and immoral, an act that could not be prevented by the victim. The need to obtain empathy can then emerge. 

The nuance I want to illustrate is the intentional manipulation of responsibility within these two approaches to understanding victimization. People can adopt a victim mentality whether or not they have actually been a victim of a serious, traumatic event (like a rape). People can be held responsible (blamed) for their situation when they had nothing to do with the circumstances or events. Neither approach allows the person in question to take full stock of their actual position in the matter.

We create opportunities for people to mark themselves as victims because of the positive feedback it gives them, and because it allows them to be more easily controlled due to their perpetual inability to take proper responsibility for themselves, but we argue against situations that have created real victims, or worse, invalidate those situations entirely by not recognizing their truths.

The difference in these two positions is further chilling when you apply it to racial discrepancies in statistics for nonviolent offenders in jail/in the system/with a record, and for likelihood of being shot/violated by the police. There are many more writers, bloggers, and activists who can speak to this more eloquently; I am still stuck trying to make sense of a world that, until my mid-20s, I was naively unaware of. All Lives Matter, of course, but Black Lives Matter because we have systematically and socially decreed that they don’t. We reinforce this through active and passive channels.

Death at an Early Age by Jonothan Kozol is a chilling first hand account of the ways in which students were systematically victimized by their school system and many of the educations whom the children were meant to be able to trust, and a stark reminder that the events of the last few years (excessive police brutality, vilification of the Black Lives Matter movement, horridly biased media coverage) are just the most recent moves in a game that we allow to continue because of buck passing on a grandiose scale.

I would like to further compare/contrast these viewpoints with the Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets observed in Carol Dweck’s research, but will save that for another blog posting.

We shame one another, and ourselves, into helplessness, then retaliate against the hardest hit individuals and populations. We chastise them for slander against their perpetrators, and we complain that they are “part of the problem,” when we refuse to look at what the real problems entail.

So much research has been done on why the Nazis were so successful at the horrendous goals they set for themselves, and it comes down to power dynamics and personal responsibility. The author of the article link above, Marvin Zuckerman, goes into detail that is very much worth reading in its entirety, but the quick and dirty summation is that people were scared, and lazy, and believed what they were told to believe because the lie of the majority felt like too much to fight against, so people submitted. Victims believed they were victims. People just doing their jobs, taking orders. The Milgram Experiments showed that, under the right circumstances, a majority of people will follow orders despite an awareness of those orders being harmful or fatal to others.

following orders

And if we maintain a society of victims, none of us are truly responsible for our actions. That is terrifying to me. Encouraging someone to be a victim, to be helpless, to create stories that demonize other people, is evil. Perhaps it seems unjustified to equate enabling harmful behavior in one person to the success of the Nazi regime, like vilifying one drop in the ocean. But what is the ocean, but a series of drops? All Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Personal responsibility matters. We are here to take care of one another, and part of that is facing harsh truths, one of which is that we really suck at it sometimes, but each of us has the ability to make changes for the better, no matter how small they seem.

Stand up for people, people like you, people unlike you.

Don’t let racist, sexist, xenophobic comments go–don’t accept their normalization and casual use.

Show people by example that they can stand up for themselves, and help give them the tools to reclaim their autonomy and responsibility.

Don’t encourage gossip, fear-mongering, or shaming.

Don’t teach anyone–friends, children, loved one, strangers–that they are helpless. Encourage everyone to take stock of what they have control over and what they don’t. Encourage critical thinking.

Don’t believe everything you are told. There are many sides to every story. It is up to you to find the truth, and the loudest, most pervasive voices are often just as persistent as they are incorrect.

***

From the same Wikipedia page listed above, here is a list of common points that emerge with a victim mentality. It’s not our place to shame someone who has adopted these: quick, reactionary behavior will only enforce their perception. But to acknowledge that someone has created this world view might help you help them ease away from it.

The attention they seek through this behavior is a drug. To recover from their addition, they need to be weaned off it, not provided with an endless supply of encouragement to continue with destructive behavior.

  • Blaming others for a situation that one has created oneself or significantly contributed to. Failing or being unwilling to take responsibility for one’s own actions or actions to which one has contributed or for taking action to ameliorate the situation.
  • Ascribing non-existent negative intentions to other people (paranoia)
  • Believing that other people are generally or fundamentally luckier and happier (“Why me?”).
  • Gaining short-term pleasure from feeling sorry for oneself or eliciting pity from others. Eliciting sympathy by telling exaggerated stories about bad deeds of other people (e.g. during gossip)

People with victim mentality may develop convincing and sophisticated arguments in support of such ideas, which they then use to convince themselves and others of their victim status.

People with victim mentality may also be generally:

  • negative, with a general tendency to focus on bad rather than good aspects of a situation. A glass that is half full is considered half empty. A person with a high standard of living complains about not having enough money. A healthy person complains of minor health problems that others would ignore
  • self-absorbed: unable or reluctant to consider a situation from the point of view of other people or to “walk a mile in their shoes”.
  • defensive: In conversation, reading a non-existent negative intention into a neutral question and reacting with a corresponding accusation, hindering the collective solution of problems and instead creating unnecessary conflict.
  • categorizing: tending to divide people into “goodies” and “baddies” with no gray zone between them.
  • unadventurous: generally unwilling to take risks; exaggerating the importance or likelihood of possible negative outcomes.
  • exhibiting learned helplessness: underestimating one’s ability or influence in a given situation; feeling powerless.
  • stubborn: tending to reject suggestions or constructive criticism from others who listen and care; unable or reluctant to implement the suggestions of others for one’s own benefit.
  • self-abasing: Putting oneself down even further than others are supposedly doing.

A victim mentality may be reflected by linguistic markers or habits, such as pretending:

  • not to be able to do something (“I can’t…”),
  • not to have choices (“I must…”), or
  • not to know the answer to a question (“I don’t know”).

 

New Beginnings: 2016

Alt Title: Mandatory New Years Day Blog posting. 

Alt Alt Title: Despite Yearly Best Intentions, How I Still Can’t Seem to Get to the Gym Past February. 

Alt Alt Alt Title: Do No Harm, but Take No Shit.

It is a new year, by the Gregorian calendar, a time of rebirth, renewal, and a socially normalized opportunity to make promises to ourselves that we don’t particularly seem deeply invested in keeping. Possibly this is because we turn out to be fragile little flowers with too many high-falootin’ aspirations. Or it could be that we haven’t cultivated a persona that knows what goals are reasonable for who we are. Individual awareness is more important than social or situational awareness, in my opinion, and it is one facet of ourselves that we overlook most readily.

(See previous blog post outlining my thoughts on that very topic.)

As mentioned, the New Year is a period of Rebirth, but we don’t usually respect it as much as the romanticized rebirth associated with Easter in the Christian tradition, and in Spring for those of us who trend towards the safer matriarchy found in various forms of Paganism.

Having our year’s cycle start in the middle of frigid nothingness in January seems apt, even if time-keeping modes are man made, based on normalized needs, and entirely arbitrary, albeit fascinating to think about. I have never been present for an actual mammalian birth of any sort; I’m squeamish around bodily fluids and other things that I won’t detail here, as this is not a blog about motherhood and I could never do it proper justice. But I do know that We as a species tend to romanticize everything, view everything through a highly individualized filter, and in some cases, go through life with the equivalent of blinders Krazy-glue’d to our temples to maintain whatever perspective vortex is most appealing to us, despite the pesky details of reality lingering there around the edges, and happily, just out of our sight.

We edit our nostalgia so Everything is Beautiful and Nothing Hurts, but the truth is that birth is messy. Birth/rebirth comes from chaos. Elements combine, explode, and a star is born. Baby birds and reptiles struggle to free themselves from shells. Butterflies are my favorite illustration of this, as gruesomely detailed here, and is really worth reading to geek out for those of you who are into bugs and stuff. We all know caterpillars turn into butterflies, but it goes overlooked, somehow, that they literally have a complete meltdown first:

Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth.

Gross right? But so awesome! I completely identify with that, because every superior-to-previous-versions of myself has come out of a crisis situation. The potential benefit or catastrophe of every fork in the road laid heavily on me identifying what was within my control, what wasn’t, and how I handled those components…but more on that in a moment.

After their literal meltdown, butterflies aren’t in the clear yet. They transform into their adult selves within the protective casing of the chrysalis, but the snug nest you build isn’t supposed to be the whole of the world.

ship harborMixing metaphors is one of my favorite things to do. As is beating a dead horse. Not literally, of course, as a dead horse is a dead horse, of course? Of course. And it does no one any good to actually beat a dead horse, thus further illustrating the ridiculous of the saying at all.

But ships and butterflies are majestic, and you can never have too much majesty.

Anyway, BUTTERFLIES. They then have to struggle out of their chrysalis in order to strengthen their wings. If they are deprived of the opportunity and helped to do something they, by nature, must accomplish themselves in order to live and thrive, then they are permanently crippled.

A more beautifully written allegory to that effect can be found here.

Google has eight gagillion versions of that story; sometimes its a biology teacher, sometimes a student, but in every version some kindly person dooms the butterfly because they didn’t understand the purpose of the creatures struggle (nor did they stop to consider the philosophical aspects of struggle at all) and intervened to “help,” without having enough information to know that their intent wasn’t a true representation of what was helpful. Viewing someone/something as a victim doesn’t help them: expectation of victimization leads to a smaller/significantly limited/more cramped world than what we are able to create for ourselves when we acknowledge our limitations, and utilize a crisis as a means to strengthen our selves and sharpen our resolve.

If the butterfly fails at first to extract themselves, they adapt until they’re successful. Intervening outside of what is appropriate doesn’t give them a chance to grow through this very necessary struggle.

If you haven’t identified and taken stock of the tools at your disposal, of course you aren’t capable of utilizing them, properly or at all.

If you default to help from others before assessing what is within your own power, you may cripple yourself.

The best way of helping anyone–people, animals, ourselves–is to help them to live under their own momentum, allow them to help themselves. Don’t patronize something just because you think it is weak, as your misjudged “help” is assuring that it will remain so. Help them by assessing a situation, and being truthful about the nature of their reality.
Closer relationships necessitate a higher degree of truth-telling within those relationships. Why else cultivate a community, if not to have each other’s best interest in mind and to help one another succeed to the best of their ability?

To build reason and action upon undisputed, unexamined versions of truth is unsound, unsafe, unnecessary, and unethical.

Truth Lie

Birth and rebirth are messy. Let yourself struggle Practically a little, and with purpose, as opposed to Arbitrarily: remember, the butterfly has a goal in mind (to be reborn). They aren’t just crawling into cramped places for the sake and sport of it. They’ve undergone a huge transformation, and intervening before they’re ready, before they’ve done their own leg work, is more hurtful than you may know. You may as well just step on the poor thing yourself and get it over with, rather than inundate them with Misguided Best Intentions.

I’ll be examining threads along this theme in the coming weeks. If you have a question, a topic of preference, or any of your own thoughts which you’d like me to respond to, please leave a comment!

And Happy New Year. May the new year provide new insights, and may you be surrounded by people who truly help you to both become better versions of yourselves.

Pieces of Me: Constantly Rebuildling Oneself, Brick by Brick

It’s difficult to keep track of the pieces of who we are, as they are constantly changing, an appropriate observation as the only constant is, in fact, Change (especially if you’re a pan-handler, or familiar with the election platforms of two-term American President, Barack Obama).

On the cellular level, we change at a rate that we never bother to think about. At the end of every 7 year cycle we are composed of entirely new cells, and are therefore reborn as an entirely new person in a very literal way. In prep school, every year was a rebirth of a new version of the same routine: new teachers, new classmates (within a small margin), and new unfamiliar, scary things to overcome on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Also, rapid childhood development; wonder and curiosity and implementation of social norms and expectations. People constantly offering you pieces of who you are like sticks of gum or bathroom haikus or commercial jingles that you internalize but never quite know what to do with. Just a hormonal, emotional junk drawer of things that are individually useless, but which you can’t bare to throw away. After the first three years (first 1000 days), a concept that has been approached from a very basic, practical perspective, linking the aspects of life that nutrition and wellness may or may not allow a child’s life to branch into, developmentally there’s a lot going on. There are problems if a child is malnourished, and different problems that arise when a child’s  body is appropriately fed but when their soul and developing self are allowed to be emotionally or socially neglected.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (I love to quote them) are with us for our whole lives, and we experience them within the scope that our developmental capacity allows for.

I’m borrowing from a page outlining the most basic tenant of this concept and basis in history.

They were originally 5 levels, updated in the 1960’s and 1970’s to what follows:

1. Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.

2. Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, etc.

3. Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, affection and love, – from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.

4. Esteem needs – self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.

5. Cognitive needs – knowledge, meaning, etc.

6. Aesthetic needs – appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.

7. Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

8. Transcendence needs – helping others to achieve self actualization.

 

The notion cites that we cannot graduate to the next level of ability until our needs on the previous level have been met.

I do prefer this graphic, however:

Wendy McNoughton

Maslows hierarchy of needs reimagined by Wendy MacNoughton, spied on the cover of ArtCenter College of Design‘s magazine

The top point of “art” has been removed, and inserted at the bottom in it’s existing shape, so the whole of ourselves teeters atop the point like a see-saw. It’s the foundation of who we are in any moment of our lives, an interpretation by or representation of a person we have never been before and will never be again, and it is a thing that we treat as just that: a treat, an exception, an eventually-after-you-meet-all-your-work-quotas reward.

To become who we might be, we must become comfortable with examining who we are and, by extension, who we are not.  Our existence, and our evolution, depend on this examination, both individually and collectively. We do ourselves a profound disservice when we perpetually over-indulge in outliers; we are not faultless and we are not worthless. We are constantly struggling to exist, in every way, between those two extremes.

I tried rock-climbing once in my life, and it was terrifying, hanging for only moments on tiny projections of safety. I wore a harness, of course, but fear of heights (more specifically, the pain an anguish encountered by falling from them) is something we must train ourselves to un-know, and is not a thing that can be un-known after a single climb. There was the initial layers of anxiety 1)to do something new, 2) which specifically scared me 3) in front of strangers 4)which I was certain to fail at (because of it’s newness to me and compounding factors), etc.

On my third and final climb of the day, I had made about 1000% progress which, considering from where I started, was still a minuscule amount to celebrate. However, I found a bit of rhythm and a measure of certainty as I started to feel the difference between a foothold upon which I could reasonable rest, and one that only more seasoned climbers could comfortably tolerate. None of them truly hurt me, but some were more reliable, comfortable places to rest than others, even if only marginally. And the same footholds felt different the first, second, and third times through.

I postulate, then, that despite this being my only attempt at rock climbing, it serves as a useful metaphor for illustrating how to lead an examined life, even if the notion isn’t the least bit attractive to you, or if the potential of doing so is frightening. Revisiting aspects of yourself is like re-mapping your climbing route. Everyone stumbles at first, overlooks things, misjudges components…but those that stick with it earn the benefit of learning how best to carry themselves through life. They acquire grace, wisdom, foresight, and strength along the way, through repetition, and most often, most poignantly through a series of failures.

We do one another and ourselves a disservice if we are constantly simply glossing over our missteps. We need not dwell on them just to sit in one uncomfortable place, out of pity or spite, but to overlook the reality of our route, our trajectory, and our abilities (strengths and weaknesses, positive and negative however they are sliced) undermines anything that we might otherwise call progress.

To truly know yourself, you first must become comfortable in the habitual pursuit of acknowledging and confronting yourself. You can’t make progress if you’re catering to the needs, whims, and qualities of someone you are not.

 

 

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Mental Wellness/Mental Illness

This entry includes some of my thoughts on depression. I am not a counselor, just another survivor of depression. We all are, and there are a vast multitude of ways in which to be and to become depressed.

Depression is like peeing in the shower: some people will more readily admit to it than others (although some never will at all), but everyone has experience with it, and generally it makes people uncomfortable to discuss openly. (That’s the only bit of levity in this piece; I wanted to get it out of the way before things got too heavy.)

Generally we refer to our mental state in terms of “mental illness,” and less frequently “mental health” is used. So it seems like whenever we talk about our mental setting, it is always by degrees of dysfunction, steps away from what is comfortable.

Social normalcy is the first marker that comes to mind in terms of measured ways to account for a healthy level of mental state, but we all know that simply being an effective chameleon isn’t a suitable indicator for what lies behind the mask we put on every day.

In extreme cases of interpersonal manipulation, after a horrendous crime has been committed by someone, people who were close to the perpetrator (friends, neighbors, classmates, etc) will usually interview in one of two ways, testifying that the criminal seemed either “perfectly normal” (and in which case the crimes are all the more shocking to them) or they go on to describe the ways in which this individual was “off” or “different” (which is then used as evidence that wrongful behavior should have been expected from them, and just perpetuates another negative stereotype).

Frequently, it seems that these types of reports are based quite heavily on outward appearance, and how closely we associate the mask with the qualities behind it. Good looking perpetrators are generally classified as the former, and anyone who isn’t goes to the latter. I don’t have any proper statistics on this, but because of how heavily we rely on appearances, we don’t tend to delve very many levels down the rabbit hole of reason unless given a good reason to do so.

But I digress….depression isn’t the same as malice or hurtful intent. Someone who commits crimes may be depressed, but they are additionally a long list of other things (or have a legitimate diagnosis of a more severe form of mental illness compounding the complexity of the situation), but they latch onto the other emotional components (things like rage or fear or a narcissistic, righteous God complex) and let those things guide their behavior.

I am not a specialist. I do not have training for mental health diagnosis, nor do I excuse horrendous behavior towards other people. What I’d really like to talk about, and focus on, are depression and anxiety, components of mental state that the general public seems much more comfortable, and are thereby more easily associated with, our feelings. The chemical reactions required to create emotions in us (fear, joy, etc) are basic, and it is understood that these are normal aspects of all people, and their presence and functions are founded in evolutionary basis, allowing us to reasonably respond to situational stimuli.

Depression and anxiety are tricky, because like other mental illnesses, they can exist in a person because of misfiring of chemical signals, either at the wrong pace or in the wrong amount. But they can also exist because of a bombardment of a reasonable amount of the chemical signal based on situational stimuli. We fill our lives with a constant bombardment of horrors around the world, and stress is packed into every aspect of our day–getting up on time, so you can leave on time, so you can drive you work/take the bus to go to a job that statistically you don’t enjoy, to exist within very narrow social parameters that may not be your own, and be surrounded by people that you are forced to interact with within some already established hierarchy, to perform tasks that are not generally significant to the larger picture.

People tend to try to make the most of their day so as not to plummet into depression, but looking at our situations objectively, we become aware that our lives are generally not of our own design, and yet we still may feel responsible for overcoming obstacles that are entirely out of our control. We are constantly bombarded with stimuli that engage our “fight or flight” response, but we are not socially allowed to act on them. We must go about our day as if the chemical battle in our minds isn’t happening.

Depression and anxiety are two of the most dastardly foes you will ever encounter in your lifetime. As someone who is comfortably middle class, I am confident in saying this, because it extends beyond the rough borders of social stigma and socioeconomic hardships. Money and security do not protect you from mental illness the way they protect you from hunger or homelessness.

You may have the resources to seek counseling, prescription drugs, or even extended rehabilitation at exotic treatment centers that more closely resemble vacations than medical treatment because of their luxurious spa features. I don’t know many people who exist in this economic bracket, but it occurs to me that the post “rehab centers” are a thing that people (who may not ever have the means to visit them) expect to exist (even if they, in fact, are purely fictional fixes to our everyday drudgery).

What kind of life does a bronze statue have? What about someone who is agoraphobic, or autistic? Depression makes you feel heavy, immobile, afraid of everything that is not immediately familiar and routine.

Admitting you are depressed doesn’t give you the courage to be Not Depressed Anymore, because there is not a switch that the existence of Courage magically flips, and it is not as if a depressed person is unaware of their depression.

Participating in activities you otherwise normally enjoy feels hallow and meaningless when you are depressed. You feel as if there is no point to engaging with people or things which would otherwise bring you joy, because it is as if the entire world is fully of crumbled plaster and cardboard, and all you are do is pushing it around from one pile to another.

Food doesn’t taste right. Comfort from a loved one is no longer comforting.

Any minor misstep causes a giant fall into a great, black abyss.

It’s not that you hate things, or are carrying around anger; usually, depression is an absence of everything. You are no longer equipped with the mechanisms required to allow you to care about things as you once did. If you live your life in a perfectly balanced ecosystem within an airlock, what happens to that life when the safe, protective exterior is punctured? In no way does it actually matter what causes the imperfection, because regardless, everything within that safe, beautiful space will be sucked away before you can try to tie it down. Which is why it is important to have a survival plan in place before that happens. And why it is important to be kind to yourself while you attempt to rebuild your own civilization in the midst of this particular kind of catastrophe.

Depression is like experiencing the death of a loved one, but instead of having grieving rituals to soak up and peers who are experiencing the loss alongside you, depression is the death of Giving Enough Fucks to Keep Going. It is the death of joy and persistence, the death of the biological, adaptive features programmed into our DNA that insist we go on. We no longer care enough to fight or fly away; the trigger required for survival is broken, and there is no obvious, ubiquitous, certain way of fixing it.

We don’t give ourselves space to heal, to be vulnerable, to allow ourselves to be broken without either reveling in it to the point of that Brokenness becoming a permanent part of our identity (usually in a debilitating way).

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  -Aristotle

The healing process is gentle, drawn out, and must be re-introduced daily in order to be effective. If we are repeatedly thrown down by depression, and we lack the energy to resist it, we are habitually depressed. Any small fight against it, whether successful or not, paves a path for greater success once habituated. I think there are more reasons to be depressed than not, so I don’t play with the diagnosis lightly. It makes sense that we are depressed. But it also makes sense that we would fight against it, even when we feel we can’t. The cure for depression is to surround yourself and revel in whatever beautiful things reignite a spark in the darkness.

Administer these things every day, and be patient. Change the things you can, and don’t shoulder emotional responsibility beyond what is yours. Remind yourself what things are beautiful and worthy and accept that even if you don’t feel so presently, you are one of those things. And then one day, you’ll wake up, and remember that you are.

 

On Refugees

Brandon at Humans of New York is one of the most wonderful contemporary human rights advocates…and he does it all through simply exposing people to minimalist profiles of strangers he meets on the street.

I shared a video of a CNN interview with refugees, with my own thoughts below:

I have created a Facebook Universe that doesn’t give me a lot of Extreme Political (Right Wing) push back, and which doesn’t give me a bunch of xenophobic messages to sort through, but I know many people who have a subset of internet friends who insist on voicing opinions that are based in fear, bias, and hatred. I would encourage any of you who have one or two or a ton of friends/relatives who are afraid of immigrants for whatever reason, who don’t seem to understand the global impact of warfare or the severity of plight that refugees experience…I would encourage you to share this video, and share HONY postings, often.

Brandon is the Lorax for the people, and reminds us that “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, it’s not going to get better…it’s not.”

I don’t expect you to argue against anyone, or to change their minds. But by exposing people to ideas that initially make them uncomfortable, they can start the process of realizing that refugees are in dire situations. They are not coming here to “take our jobs,” they are not coming here to exploit us in any fashion that even beings to resemble the ways in which we exploit them.

We’re in this together. We need to figure out how to stop being petty and start making changes.

And a link to this petition, to bring Aya, a young woman fleeing a horrendous situation, with my thoughts as well:

It is absolutely, completely unethical how much horror and chaos we create all around the world, and then we ignore the fragile people whose lives we completely flip upside down in the process.

It is vile and reprehensible that the US is only taking 10,000 refugees.

It’s really dawning on me what the power of the pen has (even digitally), and how thoroughly true the cliche “a picture is worth a thousand words” can be. Human rights are a human issue, and with the current climate on Climate Change, and with the drastic rise in gun violence in the US, compounded by the way our global actions ripple out through the other 7 billion people on this planet… we can’t afford to hide from these things.

The quote below, by Martin Niemöller, never fails to resonate with me:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemöller, a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime. He spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

 

We’re all in this together, and none of us are getting out alive.

 

Notes on a Vision Quest

Two friends I met a lifetime ago, a world away, have contacted me in the last 24 hours.

(I’ll spare you the drivel on how the only thing that would have made the contact better was to have opened a beautifully handwritten letter stamped with a wax seal, but no matter; what we lack in 21st century social customs, we make up for with expediency. I can’t really imagine I’d prefer to attempt discourse spanned by weeks on end between replies, so thank you, Internet, for making this all possible.)

I’ve been fidgety lately. Memories of Burma  play across my mind like the opening credits of Star Wars, setting up a mythos long past, out of reach, the very incantation of it fading into the distance before you can quite grasp what it meant.

I’ve been making sporadic efforts towards bringing my photos and journal entries from that period to life, to edit them properly and bring them to the forefront of whatever the hell I call what I’m presently doing. Last night, after explaining all the wondrous fruits available in an area with such a balmy climate, I buckled and bought frozen jack fruit. It was kind of like when, after visiting the east coast, I would get such an intense hankering for seafood that I would justify eating at Long John Silvers (don’t judge)  because….well, it’s Iowa. Options are limited by geography and felled nearly non-existent by my budget.

I found and left a big part of myself there, and I think that since I’ve found another part of myself here, I’m feeling the tugs of urgency to try to recombine those pieces in a way that wasn’t accessible to me before.

In this way, life really is like a video game. And damn the amount of time you waste navigating the map, just looking for something that makes sense. Somewhere within the vague quests that strangers send you on, when you finally find pieces worth holding onto,  you don’t always know what to do with them.When you finally figure out how they’re meant to go together, it’s 3am and you have to work in the morning so that’s all the progess you get to make for now; have to shelve them until you have time to focus on addressing that progress later. And when you finally have time, you’ve forgotten all the earth-shattering Understanding Of Life that had been present before. So there’s a lot of back-tracking, repetition, and awkward stumbling through what you feel should be more intuitive.

I feel like I’m making progress, but sometimes I really miss the naivete of scale associated with said progress. When I was preparing to leave for Burma, there was a lot of joking riffing that “I’m off to fix the country, I’ll be back in a year!” I didn’t actually expect to fix the entire country, mind you, but the largeness of what lay ahead of me was beautiful, unknown, and undaunting. Retrospectively, and as I potentially plan another pass from the sidelines while simultaneously trying to build a life that is stable enough to sustain these kind of adventures, I see more of the flaws in the system overall, which I had been impervious to/unaware of the first time around.  I had Rose-Tinted lenses before, and I have since upgraded to a Wide-Lense of Realism, which makes looking at the world more difficult now.

Anyway. Because I don’t believe in coincidences, I decided to write a blog about the lastest round of the Universe Telling Me What Direction To Go In, aka, Mysterious Forces Validating My Life.

Three of my life-friend-soulmates contacted me in the last 24 hours (two are still out adventuring in the great beyond, and one is keeping herself afloat in the familiar), but all are important enough to me to see that I have conjured an opportunity here.

Looking at previous journal writings, the juxtaposition of these jumped out at me:

****

16/8/13

I’m surprised at myself. I’m hopeful for the future. I’m excited about what it means if this gets off the ground. I’m eager to have this kind of challenge ahead. I’m pleasantly nervous for how much is riding on me. We are better than others tell us we are. We are more than the limitations we face. We are stronger than the doubt we are all occasionally prone to. We are more capable than we will ever truly believe. And I am confident that the opportunity before us will test us all in ways we can’t completely conceive. We all know our own weaknesses; we all can be our worst enemies. But we have the power to be our strongest supports, ore most fervent cheerleaders, and our most ruthless, tenacious promoters.

13/11/13
“I’ll be your nat for the evening,” the man said. He had a silver Don Quixote beard, with brushstrokes of black meeting the corners of a rigid mouth, but the onyx swathes smiled when he did. Balding, bespectacled, and serendipitously placed, he is my motivation to get back on track. A man named Philip M—–, of the greater Boston area, he is currently residing in Bangkok. “I’m going to give you three pieces of unsolicited advice,” he told me. “One, find seven or eight people that you admire, seek them out, and talk with them. They don’t have to be socially significant to other people, they just have to have a story that you have to inquire about. Two, journal.”

“I do, already. Check that box off.”

“…but don’t do it obsessively.” He offered the exception very casually, but cocked an eyebrow at me in punctuation. I shrugged, impetuously accepting of his psychologically-imposed insight.

“Three, do a vision quest.” I sat up in my wicker chair, and the hair on my neck prickled. My shoulders tensed, and a beautiful eon of a moment passed as I sat in serene adoration of what life hands me when only I am brave and candid enough to ask for it. I wanted inspiration, and this man sat down next to me, asked if I spoke French to help translate the menu (I Googled it, which is also supportive) and then we chatted for nearly two hours. He is going home to Bangkok tomorrow, and all I can think—I am consumed by this—is that there is something in the universe that hears me when I ask questions. HE didn’t give me answers, but he gave me solace. He considered my position (a carafe of wine helped, I’m sure, but I won’t give all the credit to the wine) and gave me considerate feedback.

“Have you even done a vision quest?” I inquired.

“Four: one with a medicine man in San Diego, another in Bangkok, the third was self-guided, and one with the Sioux in South Dakota.”

“This is my gap year. I kick myself for not taking it sooner, but I applauded myself for not waiting until I was fifty to travel, to live abroad.”

“Then this is part of your VQ.” He smiled as my face blanked, momentarily. My brain was turning over the casually thrown out acronym, and my features unfroze when I finally decoded it.

He suggested that I look into schools at NYU… and Boston…for social organization…and innovative upstarts. What the fuck did he call them? I passed the two glass mark of understanding, and can no longer recall what specifically was verbally exchanged. I took his email address, and handed him a shred of paper with my scrawled across it.

****

I don’t currently have an interest in social organization, but time will tell where I go from here. It’s just nice to find another marker along the way that tells me I’m exactly where I should be.

 

 

 

 

 

100 Days vs 10,000 Hours

Life has a way of creeping up on you, casting you out on adventures even when you don’t intend to seek them out. Like a good little Hobbit, I was holed up in my home and in my head, with not much else to be bothered by than what I encountered on my day-to-day. I was, admittedly, hibernating quite a bit more intentionally than I had the previous couple of years. The year teaching in Burma, the main reason I started this blog, seemed to be a lifetime away (I returned at the end of April 2014) and I’m not sure that I really properly addressed reentry in a way that was helpful to me. Instead of giving myself time to process anything, or space to decide what I thought (if anything in particular) of my return and potential re-departure, I launched into a position locally helping refugees from Burma/Myanmar in the Des Moines area, with the organization EMBARC.

After a summer, I took an AmeriCorp position with them…and while the job sounded tremendous and perfect, my execution was lackluster and tumultuous. I didn’t fortify myself against worries or dread as intentionally as I should have, and as a result wasn’t prepared for the dark, dreary months ahead.

I admit, last Winter was fairly precarious to navigate. I had spent a year in 80-90 degree weather, with a beautiful two month rainy season, and was not really acclimated to revisit Iowa Winter. As a general rule, even when you are in the regular 4-season rotation, seasonal depression puts a good swath of the populace out of commission, and the doldrums of the workforce take care of most of the rest of us throughout the year. Truly, woe is the individual caught in the overlapping gridlock of that Venn Diagram. *faints dramatically*

I have heard that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master of a craft, and if that is so I am a Jill of Many Trades, Master of None Except Self-Deprecation. Math tells me that if you work at something for 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, you will reach the 10,000 hour mark in just under five years. I have spent a large portion of my life (much more than five years, at this point) dabbling in all manner of self loathing, pessimism, self-sabotage, intense scrutiny, and cynicism. In this, I am surely well qualified to speak on Weakness. We qualify our self-worth according to a list of traits handed out in social circles, and some groups are taught more strictly to adhere to making sure you do not exhibit certain Weaknesses, all the while being constantly reminded that, according to Group A, all of us who find ourselves in Groups B, C, or D are incapable of escaping the traits that are so fundamental to our inherently inferior selves. But I digress.

In all seriousness, however, I had not prepared myself fully for the change encountered in returning home, and instead threw myself into work. As a result, normal stress from life, from work, from feeling worthless in floundering pursuit of purpose, left me weakly struggling against the stranglehold of seasonal and situational depression. As someone who has just enough information to be dangerously self-analytical, I even spent a brief stint at odds with our less-than-superb mental health system, in an attempt to correct my clumsy oversight.

Not to pull focus by dwelling on that, I will say that the average therapist is put in a corner to defer to prescription solutions, and does not have the safety net to honestly accept and admit that the average patient may have absolutely reasonable circumstances under which to be overwhelmed, anxious, frightened, or otherwise put off.

Instead, they rely on handing out pills that make you numb, make you not care that circumstances are shitty. (This will have to be an entirely separate entry, I feel…)
Talk therapy is significantly more difficult to come by than is reasonable, and most people doing good work juggle a precarious workload.

What I found, in short, was that the help I was seeking was not to be found in a formal institution. I was not a lost cause, I was merely experiencing a hiccup in ability; I had stumbled along my path and was merely reaching out to ask directions, and instead received an entirely different account of reality than what I had perceived  and put forth for analysis, one that made it seem really scary and debilitating to formally seek out a generalized “help” in lieu of seeking out individuals/places that are more specifically comfortable.

ANYWAY…

‘Tis the dark times in our lives that cast us back towards the light, and after attempting to keep my head above water in the precarious, socio-economic kiddie pool of white middle class hardship, I was thrown a life preserver. I relaxed enough to float, to wait, and to stop struggling–not to give in, but to perch, gather strength, and wait to make a strategic move, when and whatever I eventually determined that to be.

Yesterday marked the 100th day since my life markedly changed direction for the better.
Well, 143.
Let me back up.

On top of the seasonal, social BS I was struggling with, my body collapsed and decided that since I wasn’t pacing myself appropriately, that it needed to pull a handbrake: I found out that I had mono in May, which really put a wrench in my overall recovery.

But every step back created a perspective to make a more informed several steps forward. The ugly depression I fought off last winter, which caused me to shrink from people almost entirely also caused me to hole up and rediscover my love of painting, a practice in which I immersed myself as self-therapy. Being ill required me to stop wasting energy worrying about every little thing I had no control over to begin with. It gave me an opportunity to filter the people I let into my life, and a necessity to prioritize my time accordingly, since everything suddenly became significantly more difficult, time consuming, and labor intensive to accomplish.

The week of my birthday, as I was still getting used to the idea of how best to navigate the final chapter of my 20’s, I was invited to a free event of music in the park. It was exactly the kind of thing I had been telling myself I needed more of in my life. Contrary to that knowledge, I had no desire to “people.” The last year, for whatever reason, had exposed me to a toxic mixture that zapped my ability to socialize. I had no defenses against crowd-inducing panic; I was a full blown Introvert now, and any exposure to people, even my best and dearest hand-picked from my inner circle, took significant resources for me to withstand.

I arrived at the park, and sat for a full ten minutes in my car, attempting to regulate my breathing and to psych myself up to walk among people that I may have to make eye contact with, or with whom I might have to (Science Forbid!) make conversation.

Forty-two (42!!) days later, another encounter blossomed from the first one.

And 100 days from that, my life sits on a foundation which is distinctly different than the crumbling shambles I was attempting to craft into something meaningful this time last year.

I intentionally withhold all the juicy details, to be introduced for monetary gain once I receive a book deal for all my blogging efforts. (Jokes.) The details don’t particularly matter, though I do like to revel in the details alongside the inspiration for this blog entry, with whom I collided and then who proceeded to save me in ways that I lacked the strength to save myself. The source for such a successful turnabout seems to be in the way I defined and responded to my own vulnerability, and the way they allowed me to be comfortable in examining and accepting my limitations realistically.

We are not meant to do everything, and certainly not alone.

Weakness is a curious trait  that we don’t often permit to exist in ourselves, one that we use as  a marker; more often than not, its mere recognition causes us to despise people, including ourselves.

Weakness is cultivated by things like pity, empathy–anything that doesn’t bring our boot down on the throats of our foes. Mercy is weakness in such a ruthless, selfish, opportunistic world, and we have mistakenly forgotten the strength of that statements inversion.

Such attributes are cowardice, and weak. Love has been similarly labeled.

We alternately revel in our weakness (as an unshakable line of reasonable excuses as to why our individual change is impossible) and condemn it, as folly relegating to the mentally infirm.

We are ashamed to let others see our weakness, when we feel it deprives us of status or respect.

(Many excellent things have been written on the power of vulnerability. My scribbles amount to no more than my own two cents on the topic.)

To love someone allows for recognizing our mutual weaknesses–being vulnerable–and granting the other the kind of permission we dare not grant ourselves for even such wretched, unwanted aspects of self to exist.  To love a person “warts and all” allows for both of you to blossom in ways that we are incapable of accessing in any other way.

When you pick someone apart, when you “could love them, if not for X, Y, Z”– you are systematically obliterating bits of them that help hold together the whole; what we are quick to define as shortcomings are really the glue that holds our particular selves together. True, people have less than desirable traits, but until each person recognizes their own power and decision to change those things, picking them apart will cause the whole structure to crumble. We have to renovate ourselves with the proper scaffolding, allocating proper support for the weight that must be redistributed, not just by haphazardly tearing out chunks as we identify them.

When we berate groups for their monikers of “otherness,” we are attempting to dehumanize someone very much like ourselves by prioritizing particular aspects of their larger self over others; most commonly, these are things that we make easily distinguishable by oversimplifying them, things like race, religion, or political affiliations.

Previous observations I have made (but not published) on the concept of interpersonal connections and  “soulmates”  remind me that “when you meet your soulmate, you will be calm,” according to Buddhist thought (according to my notes from a book that, sadly, did not stand up to my previous encounter with it).

Souls are like stardust: they fracture and scatter so easily. When you feel the aforementioned calm with another person, it’s a sign that a spec in you has been drawn like a magnet to a spec in them, and in that moment of recognition you have joined up with a part of yourself that was otherwise inaccessible, one that you didn’t’ even know was missing.

That’s what I think empathy is: an ability to recognize and accept “weakness” in others in a world where we so vehemently and systematically are charged with denying it to ourselves.

Love is an extension of empathy, and both could be considered “weaknesses.” Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to mislabel or shirk either of them if we really recognized how closely the two are intertwined. They are fundamental and they are necessary for the process of accessing our highest form of humanity.

A Lesson in Customer Satisfaction

A few weeks ago, I was sifting through an email account that has become an e-graveyard of good intentions  full of notifications from graduate schools I have yet to apply to, wine deals I never participate in, and social causes that are too numerous for me to properly keep straight. I delete anything from a name I don’t recognize, but on this particular day, my eye stopped on a message from GoAbroad.com, a company which is somehow affiliated with the one I utilized for my teaching excursion to Myanmar last year.

I opened it, and found a request for me to submit a review of my experience.

I gladly obliged them, and this is what I sent: 

I had an astounding experience teaching abroad, and the GeoVisions staff was attentive to my needs, and quite praising of my level of professionalism. However, once arriving in Thailand I was placed into the hands of Michael Volpe, head of their “regional partner program,” XploreAsia (sic).

This branch of the journey was a disaster on all fronts, and all following comments are a review of XploreAsia’s actions: again, not GeoVisions, but a partner company who is fully aware of their actions and deplorable level of professionalism and accountability.

They overbook themselves–they take up to 100 potential teachers at once, with a staff of only a handful, many of whom are just kids themselves.
They tell 18 and 19 year olds that they can be hired without experience or a degree, but then have them agree to touting falsified documents that state they do have a degree.
Micheal is a domineering bully, who would rather scream into the face of an 18 year old halfway around the world trying to do a bit of good than to have a rational conversation about why he displays such vast incompetence.

On top of their fees, you have to pay for your accommodations on top of paying them for their time (which, I’m still not entirely sure what I was paying for…)
They do not have a job lined up for you (in Thailand) until you actually arrive, and they tell you they are obligated to only provide one job opportunity for you–if you don’t like it, tough.

The people of Myanmar/Burma are poor and lovely, and there is a taut economic divide just ripe for vultures (abroad and within) to take advantage of. XploreAsia is one of those companies.

Local teachers are paid abhorrent wages, and expected to work 6 days a week. In places where you are the only foreign teacher, there is no support group to counter this kind of normalized behavior. You feel dirty for making significantly more than they do, and come to not discuss money at all, creating a severe divide between you and your peers.

What they (XA)are doing is encouraging the status quo of modern-day indentured servitude, while double dipping. They take a cut from both the prospective teacher (again, for what services I can’t quite say, as I paid for all my meals, accommodation, and transportation), as well as from the school, which pays them to find a foreign teacher so as to look more respectable as an establishment.

It is an amazing country, but there is no way you want to become part of the corrupt nature of their emersion. Find a different way to get there, and help the country to become an educated democracy. Don’t work with companies that take advantage of people wanting to do good  in the world.

***

A couple of days later, I received this reply:

Hello,

Thank you for your review on GoAbroad.com for the Paid Teacher In Myanmar program from GeoVisions. We appreciate each review completed on our site from both current and past program participants and their parents or guardians.

Your review is on hold and cannot be approved at the moment as it would harm GeoVisions’ total rating. If you like, I can go ahead and share your review with GeoVisions so they can act on it and make the program better for future participants. Feel free to let me know if that would be fine with you.

Thank you again for making a review, we appreciate your time.

Best regards,
D—
Reviews Manager

GoAbroad — The Resource for Meaningful Travel
(name withheld to protect the costumer-service representative)
**
I then responded thusly: 
D—,

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my review. I understand why it is on hold, from a business perspective, but I don’t understand how a genuinely negative experience is a reason to abstain from including it on the website.
When companies aren’t transparent about their practices, and they withhold pertinent information that would allow future patrons to make informed decisions regarding how or where they spend their money, they are lying to those people by exclusion specifically for their own benefit.
Maintaining a sparkling public view by manipulating the information available to the public (i.e. only including the points that paint them positively) is fascist, and is not an appropriate use of their feedback.
Any organization which participates in this kind of behavior should be called out on it, and this counts doubly so for those that tug at the heartstrings of people who want to do good in the world.
I don’t particularly care if you share my review with GeoVisions at this time; as I said in the review, I had many opportunities where I pointed out the discomfort and outright wrongness of the negative experience I (along with many other teachers who had gone through GeoVisions and GreenHeart Travel to get there) had, and my experiences were met with dismissive tones of “I’ll handle it” or “I’ll talk to him.” Situations were not resolved, and the company in question was left to continue their abhorrent business practices.
Clearly, they (GeoVisions) are at least aware of my experiences, and if this is the way they handle business, by refusing to include negative experiences by instead dismissing them as isolated instances whose publication is bad for business, then I can’t imagine them to be a terribly ethical business practitioner.
The only power we have as individuals is the power to share our individual experiences; the only power we have as a group is when we are given an opportunity to study, compare, and learn from the full spectrum of individual experiences. When negativity is censored because it is inconvenient for a company, it is intentional manipulation of the outcome in their favor. History is written by the victors, and it looks like the same goes for the corporate world; clearly successful businesses are built on lies instead of attention to their actual practices.
None of this is directed at you; I understand that you are only doing your job. And that’s all it takes within a broken system, is compartmentalized, overworked people just doing what their told to maintain the status quo and prevent change or progress.
Thank you for your reply, and I appreciate your time. Have a nice day.

**
To which I received this reply: 

Hello Kaitlyn,

Thank you very much and your honesty is greatly appreciated. I’ll check on further and will send you an update once your review gets live. I am sorry to hear about your experience in Myanmar but I’m glad you still had a great experience teaching abroad.
**
This is where the email communication ceases; what would I say to that? To my knowledge my review is still absent from their website, something that disappoints me even though I do understand why.
Companies which sell goods are held to a standard, and able to be reviewed, and I don’t understand how a company can blatantly say that they won’t publish any review which is negative.
It’s just another means of controlling the information available to us, and I for one am not impressed.