Response Crafting

The keeping of a self

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Keeping, first, as in tending, maintaining, managing. They way in which one keeps a garden or keeps house.

But also keeping as in holding on to; maintaining possession of. The keeping of a self by way of defending our ownership of it.

Some people exist inside – inside of rooms; inside themselves.

There are those of us who stay inside in winter, inside for bits and pieces of our summers, inside at dawn and wait til dusk, who build our lives deliberately and then uphold these things in darkness. There is a difference from one season to the next – staying inside due to preference and staying inside despite it – one is done deliberately; the other in defense.

Some of us do not go out.

We’ve got neighbors speculating on our whereabouts and asking where we’re headed – where we’ve been. Scrutinizing our comings and goings; making assessments of our life.

The more polite ones do so amongst themselves – whispering in the corridors, looking down on us from drawn-back curtains as they watch us cross the street, ignoring their own kettle whistling from the stovetop; their baby crying in their lap. Utterly and deliriously oblivious to their own lives, so preoccupied are they with others’. 

There are also true aggressors among them. There are some people who rage against the lack of knowledge, who cannot simply sit with the unknown, cannot respect the discrepancy between what is their space. And what is others’. Who feel entitled to knowing the nuances… and become angry – accusatory; hateful –  when they are withheld.

These are two sorts of harm we do to one another: the first, to push away. The other one, though? To pull, tug, paw at, draw near… to violate personal boundaries and space; to insist or demand more than is deserved; more than what was granted. To poke around in other people’s lives, pick through whatever scraps of insight they can find – that they feel entitled to – and then cast judgment.

And this really comes as questions, accusations… it’s the obsessive preoccupation with sifting through the few elements of a person’s life you have access to, scrutinizing the details, and saddling judgment… rather than dedicating our attention to where it belongs: on our own lives.

It’s this latter group that’s dangerous; that instills a sense of fear. They boast a bloated sense of entitlement – they think their neighbor’s life is their life – that they are somehow entitled to it; have rights to consume its details – and become angry and despondent when their victims don’t agree and instead go about their day in silence and in shadows.

We argue that people “shouldn’t have to” live like this – protecting themselves against intrusion. And I agree.

There are two sides here – the doing and the judging. And there are two levels of comfort – comfort with your life… and then somehow making peace with those who busy themselves with judging it. The comfort in doing things that make you happy – leaving the house in the daylight – and then somehow simply being okay with being pawed at by people who are too bored with their own existence to make peace, in return, with you simply living yours.

But this is not always how these sort of things go. It’s not enough to simply arm yourself against it – to “accept” that the intrusions of others in your space is “normal” – permitted and okay.

It’s sort of like women when it comes to the risk of rape.

Whenever we talk about rape prevention, we make it the responsibility of potential victims. Women are told not to go out alone after dark – or not to be out at all. Short of satirical responses we have seen only recently, directing the conversation at men, the discussion never addresses them.

And sure, there have been movements – “Take Back the Night” and others – when women have boldly, vocally made their way back into public, sometimes in “slutty,” showy attire, as means of protest and display. But this doesn’t mean that individual women, when singled out from their groups on dark nights later on, don’t still get raped.

Being comfortable in one’s own skin and parading that confidence does not prevent harm from happening.

It’s the same with sexual assault – “an attack on a victim’s right to bodily integrity, to self-determination and self-expression. It’s annihilatory, silencing.”

A 22-year old male recounted his first week of college, driving by two attractive women: “They looked at me, but they didn’t even deign to smile back. In a rage, I… splashed my Starbucks latte all over them. I felt a feeling [of] spiteful satisfaction as I saw it stain their jeans. How dare those girls snub me in such a fashion! How dare they insult me so!… Those girls deserved to be dumped in boiling water for the crime of not giving me the attention and adoration I so rightfully deserve!”

Yes. The attention and adoration that he felt he so “rightfully” deserved. But didn’t. The fact is that he did not have any right to these women or their attention.

There are softer, more subtle attacks – ways to be aggressive toward a person’s right to self-determination in general. “Slut-shaming,” harassment, bullying… not only the grabbing at bodies, but the grabbing at the details of other people’s lives.

In all scenarios, the attackers are not made to stop. Instead, they are permitted to carry on, while the potential victims must brace themselves against their inquiries and attacks. And so, those who go about our own lives are simply left to defend ourselves against the surveillance, scrutiny, and scorn of others – and yes, sometimes this means tucking into silence. And it has nothing to do with our security with ourselves – nothing to do with our own comfort with our bodies, our lifestyles, or our decisions. And it has everything to do with the constant risk on the other side.

In Argentina during the ‘dirty war’ from 1976 to 1983, the military junta was said to ‘disappear’ people. They disappeared dissidents, activists, left-wingers, Jews, both men and women. Those to be disappeared were, if at all possible, taken secretly, so that even the people who loved them might not know their fate. Fifteen thousand to thirty thousand Argentines were thus eradicated.

People stopped talking to their neighbors and their friends, silenced by the fear that anything, anyone, might betray them. 

Their existence grew ever thinner as they tried to protect themselves against nonexistence. And in protecting themselves against disappearance, they also protected themselves into it. 

Silence has concentric circles. First come the internal inhibitions, self-doubts, repressions, confusions and shame that make it difficult to impossible to speak, along with the fear of being punished or ostracized for doing so… Surrounding this circle are the forces who do so, whether by humiliating or bullying or outright aggression. Shaming. Throwing out insults, such as “disgusting.”

Shame on those of us who simply live our lives? No. Shame on you for shaming.

For those who face this, confinement is always waiting to envelope us. 

A word to those who shame or insult: we are not entitled to our neighbors or their lives, and you cannot ever fully understand them.

And we should not strive to write meaning into them – our interpretations will always fall short at best; our arm’s length judgement cheapen at worst.

“There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s or your neighbor’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing. They tell us that there are limits to knowledge, that there are essential mysteries, starting with the notion that we will never know just what someone thought or felt or did in the absence of exact information.” – Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

“Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactive, stifling. it is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish.” – Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation”

To interpret is to impoverish. Indeed. And for both the owner of the story and the interpreter alike.

Especially when we seek not only to understand or interpret, but seek to claim; lay stake over; demand insight into. The world’s events are not ours to consume; to inscribe our own meaning to. And neither are our neighbor’s. To do so strips away the meaning of those to whom these events belong.

They are their stories to own. And to tell. Not yours.

And, in turn, it cheapens even the existence of the judger…

“It struck me at once what quality went to form a Man of Achievement… I mean Negative Capacity, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” – John Keats

Great men are great because they dedicate their attention to building lives that hold their attention. They don’t busy themselves with other people’s business, and they don’t spend their lives obsessing over people.

Similarly, as a wise and kind woman I know once told me, quoting Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

Indeed.

Great men do not spend their lives preoccupied with other people. No, this is the hobby and preoccupation of choice only for those whose lives – and mindsets – are small.

And if we want greatness, we have to live in peace with others, and the inevitable ambiguity of others’ lives. This is the appropriate way to exist with things that are not ours and are not offered. We manage only our own stories. And we let others manage theirs.

Caring for someone means respecting their being, their life, their space.

We often have a perverse perception of “love” and the things we think we love… museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists.

And, similarly, we do this to people in our real lives – reading “love” or the adoration of another being as the act of categorizing, controlling; to strip away their mystery and sit them up in a way that works for us. Some of us believe that “love” – or even “friendship” – means exercising control and making demands on one another.

This is not love. We do not own one another.

On going outside

Yes, in short: we should all feel secure in our lives; feel okay going about our day. If for no other reason than the fact that it is a basic right – but also that the shell of a home is a prison of sorts, as much as a protection, a casing of familiarity and continuity that can vanish outside.

Virginia Woolf’s created protagonist Orlando, a character who was permitted the ability to exist for centuries, transitioning from one gender to another. Orlando, it has been said, “embodies Woolf’s ideal of absolute freedom to roam, in consciousness, identity, romance and place.” The freedom to roam… without, it should be said, someone trailing her or inquiring about her whereabouts; when she came and went, and why.

“To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not just straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sign and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.” – Rebecca Solnit

Indeed. This is the lifestyle to which we all might aspire – not only for ourselves, but for others: Not only the comfort to live our own lives, and the respect to let others live theirs. Un-accosted; un-confronted; un-attacked.

Yes, what a lofty aspiration for us all!

Perhaps we might all aspire toward both the keeping of – and keeping to – our own selves.

Ana Teresa Fernández, Telaraña / Untitled

Ana Teresa Fernández, Telaraña / Untitled

“For now she need not think about anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well, not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by. Her horizon seemed to her limitless.” – Virginia Woolf

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One thought on “The keeping of a self

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