So there was a major debacle in one of the online communities that I like to lurk in. Basically my perception of what happened was that one person was singled out as making others uncomfortable. That in itself is nothing notable (as far as I can tell, it happens fairly regularly in the blogosphere – geez, I can’t believe I just used that word), but the reason given for singling this person out was that s/he was accused of being “judgmental” and “bragging,” and of writing things that others found “triggering” to their mental health as it relates to food. (Ironically the person singled out has food issues of his/her own, and as far as I have seen, is extremely conscious of his/her words and how the affect others.)
I came a little late to the party – everything was over by the time I started reading, so I never did put my two cents in. It was really horrible for all parties involved, but it coincided with something I’d had rolling around in my brain for a while.
See, I really feel like my reactions to things are MY responsibility. If someone makes a comment that i find “triggering” (for lack of a better word), I don’t believe it is incumbent on that person to change – I think it is incumbent upon ME to examine my own reaction and come to terms with it. As an example, say I survived a horrible plane crash and any mention of people flying made me uncontrollably anxious. Is it the responsibility of everyone around me to refrain from mentioning plane flights for the rest of my life? Or even for a few years? A few months? Or is it my responsibility to get some therapy, do my best to move on, and if I can’t move on, at least acknowlege to myself in those moments that what I’m experiencing is not normal, and is not the fault of the other person? In other words, at what point do I become responsible for managing my own neuroses?
Now, of course you could take this to its illogical, Jonathan Swift-ian extreme and use that logic to excuse truly horrible behavior. I can imagine a racist telling an African-American, “If you don’t like my use of the word n*gg*r, then maybe you should examine your OWN reaction! I don’t have to change!” [FWIW, I originally wrote that word out, but couldn’t bring myself to leave it in the post. I HATE that word.]
So where is the line? How do we know when behavior is truly abhorrent, and when we’re just CALLING it abhorrent in order to justify our own neuroses and martyr complexes? Is it a truth-in-numbers game? “If more than 100 people think it’s bad, then it must be bad!” Um, no. I could round up 100 racists – does that mean their views are right? Not so much. Obviously the line is there somewhere, but where? How do we find it? Does it move, depending on the circumstances? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately: when do I examine myself and when do I stand up and say, “No, this outside thing is WRONG?” (I realize that racism is an extreme example, and I’m not trying to trivialize it by comparing to plane-flight-anxiety. Quite the opposite, in fact.)
Here’s something else: when did we STOP asking ourselves that question? When did we start to assume that our comfort and peace of mind was someone else’s responsibility? When did we start to define who we are by what is wrong with us? Seriously, when did we all become such victims and martyrs?
Carolyn Myss has a wonderful term for this: woundology. It’s the idea that we have become a culture that only relates to each other through our wounds, through what is wrong with us. It’s an older version of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” and sometimes, “Let’s see whose is bigger!” It’s become how we define intimacy: we tell someone what is wrong with us, and if they accept that, we decide that we are “safe” with them. Why do we do this? What do we GET out of it?
THAT is really the $64,000 question: what do you GET out of your victimhood?
When I was in college I blew out my knee in dance class. It healed funny, so that sometimes it would spontaneously dislocate. It always popped right back in, but it was extremely painful. It was a legitimate problem. But here’s the thing: I found that I got all kinds of payoff for being “wounded.” I got out of classes (even when I didn’t really need to) because “my knee hurt.” I got sympathy, I got attention, I got taken care of. I didn’t have to be responsible for myself because I could always blame “My Knee.” Now don’t misunderstand: I wasn’t making it up. That fucker really did hurt. But it also didn’t help that I wasn’t really doing anything to fix it, either. I held on to that injury far longer than I should have, because I WAS GETTING SOMETHING OUT OF IT. Now that’s not to say that my knee isn’t still a little weird. About once a year, I’ll reach for something, turn funny, step off a curb at just the right angle, and find myself sitting on the ground holding my knee and hollering, “Ice! Ice! I’m fine, but get me some goddam ice NOW!” But outside of those instances, I don’t really think about it anymore. I climb ladders and carry boxes at work. I run up and down the stairs in my office building. I do a lot of yoga so that I can keep my knee strong, because I like to run in the park. But I don’t talk about it. I’m not ashamed of it; it just doesn’t come up. It’s a quirk of my body, but it doesn’t define Who I Am.
I wish I could say that I don’t hold on to anything like that anymore. But I’ve been dealing over the last few months with a number of things that fall squarely into the category of woundology, and I’m learning how to let those things go. Because the problem is that no matter what I get from them – no matter how much attention, sympathy, ego strokes, whatever – I wind up losing more than I get back. I lose my independence, my self-esteem, my belief in my own abiities and capabilities, my sense of personal worth. I give all those things into the hands of other people and then get angry and affronted when those people don’t cater to my every personal comfort. It’s just not worth it.
But it is pervasive.