listen I love you joy is coming
The last line of Kim Addonizio’s “To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall” has been ringing in my head for the last few hours or so, and it’s got me to thinking about art that is probably or maybe definitely not intended for me, but which nevertheless lives in me. You may know the poem already but if not, here it is:
If you ever woke in your dress at 4am ever
closed your legs to someone you loved opened
them for someone you didn’t moved against
a pillow in the dark stood miserably on a beach
seaweed clinging to your ankles paid
good money for a bad haircut backed away
from a mirror that wanted to kill you bled
into the back seat for lack of a tampon
if you swam across a river under rain sang
using a dildo for a microphone stayed up
to watch the moon eat the sun entire
ripped out the stitches in your heart
because why not if you think nothing &
no one can / listen I love you joy is coming
When Addonizio’s speaker says “listen I love you joy is coming,” she is very specifically not talking to me. She’s talking to the woman in the stall next to her. It’s that specificity, given in the title, that I think gives the poem an extra something. And yet I have never been able to read that poem without feeling like it is, indeed, speaking directly to me and saying something that I desperately needed to hear.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with connecting with art that was not intended for someone like you, art that is trying to speak to someone else. I think that this is one of art’s great strengths: its power to connect across differences in experience. Of course, any connection that art creates—or, indeed, any connection between any two people—is necessarily a connection across difference, because no two of us are ever exactly alike. (As an aside, this reminds me of the answer Rachel Zucker gave during our panel on interviewing, when I asked about interviewing across difference, and she said that the more problematic thing in her experience is when she assumes similarity.) I’m thinking, too, of how much it has meant to me when people unlike me have connected with my own work. When, for example, child-free people have connected with my family images, it has been among the most profound audience interactions I’ve ever had.
Still, I think it is always important to avoid erasing this difference. Not only because differences are what make us unique as individuals, but of course because different groups face very different challenges and pressures. There is a special power to the experience of two people who share a community, a lived experience, being able to speak one to another directly, without interference or intrusion. It’s a different kind of connection, perhaps not necessarily “better” but special in a way that can't be reproduced in any other way.
There is a way in which I am sometimes so desperate to feel a connection, a sense of belonging, that my impulse is to claim—or at least desire to claim—a space that isn’t mine. The impulse itself isn’t wrong, but if unexamined it can motivate behavior that is unwelcome or harmful. My task as a reader, then, is to allow myself to love a thing—when it is a thing not intended for me—with my whole heart, to acknowledge and honor my feelings as real and valid and meaningful in my own context, but also accept that there remains a separation. To acknowledge and understand that this thing will never and can never mean to me what it means to the person it was intended for. The separation doesn’t make my experience less valid or less important to me, but it’s important to keep in mind the “to me” part.
And anyways, isn’t this what love ought to be? A powerful feeling of connection and meaning and admiration and perhaps affirmation, without possession or erasure or coercion or appropriation? A way of making not one thing out of two, but of allowing each to exist in itself, beautiful and wonderful unto itself, complemented and increased by its relation to the other.
I’m thinking about conversations I’ve had or heard or read with people like Matthew Salesses or Natalie Diaz, who have talked about the limits and the trap of empathy, of needing to identify with someone in order to love them. How empathy is (or maybe can be?) a form of possession. I’m not quite there yet, perhaps. There’s still something in me that struggles against rejecting empathy entirely—and, of course, that probably isn’t exactly what either of them have suggested, I don’t really know.
But I feel like I’m getting closer to understanding something about the seeming paradox of human existence being both wholly separate and different from everyone else, and being deeply and materially connected to all other beings. How love is both and maybe neither.
Again, I’m not there yet. But I think I get a little closer the older I get and the more I think about it.
It's Been a While
It hurts to feel unloved.
The first thing I need to tell you is that I'm okay, now. When the person whom you have loved with your whole heart for nearly two-thirds of your life tells you that they don't want you anymore, it is natural to have some feelings. It is natural not to be okay for a while. I wasn't okay. In some ways, I suppose, I haven't been okay for as long as I can remember. I'm getting there now, I think.
I have spent so much of my life feeling unloved and unlovable, feeling unremarkable, uninteresting, unseen and unworthy of being seen. And, yes, when you have devoted your life to a person who has lost interest in you, that doesn't help. But, truthfully, I've been like this since before we were ever an us. And it hurts. It hurts to try so hard to be good, to be worthwhile, and to constantly feel like you're coming up short. To want so badly to be loved and to be known, to feel a connection, and not feel it.
Being loved is not enough to make you feel loved.
About four months ago, I tweeted that I'd been having a hard time and asked for someone to say something nice to me. Well over a hundred people—friends, acquaintances, and strangers—responded to me with a compliment. If I'm being honest with myself, it's not even all that uncommon for people to pay me a compliment. But I've always had an excuse.
You're only saying that because you have to, because you're my parent/family/spouse/child.
You're only saying that because you don't know what I'm like on the inside.
You're only saying that because I've tricked you into thinking that I'm worth saying that to.
People have tried to tell me for a long time that I am loved, but because I felt unlovable, I didn't feel their love.
It hurts to let yourself feel loved, when you are used to feeling unloved.
Once, on a high school camping trip, I made a new friend, a boy who hadn't ever had a close friend before, who had learned to hate himself the same way I had. The program of this trip was ostensibly to teach us about ecology and wildlife science, geology, outdoor careers, but really it was about teaching us to love each other and ourselves. One night at the campfire, I watched him receive validation, receive love, for what may have been the first time in his life. His face screwed up and he hunched over, his hand clutching his chest. "This hurts!" he howled, tears streaming down his cheeks. I knew how he felt, because I'd felt the same thing the first time I went on that trip, the year before.
Knowing that that pain exists—the pain of release, of freedom, of love accepted—can make you hold even tighter to self-loathing. Self-loathing hurts longer, but it's less intense in the moment.
Loving someone won't change who they are.
That night on that camping trip, it was like watching my friend being born. We were close after that for a few years, and we loved each other. Then we both moved away to go to college and grew apart. We lost touch some time after his first wedding. When we finally did reconnect, many years later, I discovered that he'd become a conspiracy theorist with unmanaged rage issues. He unfriended me after I told him that I loved him but that I refused to engage with his arguments on his terms. That was years ago now, and it's for the best. I'm still a little sad about it, though.
Loving someone won't fix them. Loving someone won't turn them into a person who will be who you need them to be.
"You are what you love, not what loves you."
There's a scene in the movie Adaptation where Donald Kaufman says to his brother Charlie (both played by Nicolas Cage), "You are what you love, not what loves you." I've carried that line around with me for 19 years now, I think about it all the time. It's come up most often for me when thinking about about my creative work—my writing, my photography, my podcasts, and so on—and my relationship to audience. But it is also something I think about in terms of the world, this country, the people around me, and my relationships to them all.
Lately, I have been struggling. I have believed—believed without evidence or reason, but nevertheless believed fully and deeply—that I have loved my wife more than anyone has else has ever loved or been loved. If I am what I love then if that love diminishes, am I not also diminished? I feel smaller, and my world feels smaller. I've been resentful about that, feeling that my love has been taken away from me.
It's been a long time since I've actually watched Adaptation. In coming to write this, I finally looked up that scene again:
Let me transcribe the exchange:
Charlie: There was this time in high school. I was watching you at the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marshall.
Donald: Oh, God, I was so in love with her.
Charlie: I know. And you were flirting with her, and she was being really sweet to you.
Donald: I remember that.
Charlie: And then, when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Cannetti. And it was like they were laughing at me. But you didn’t know at all. You seemed so happy.
Donald: I knew. I heard them.
Charlie: Well how come you were so happy?
Donald: I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. And Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.
Charlie: But she thought you were pathetic.
Donald: [laughs] That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.
You can't make someone love you, no matter how much you might want them to love you nor how hard you try to be what they want you to be. That's a truth I've known and accepted for some time now. One that I'm learning now is that a person can only take your love away from you if you let them. Perhaps I am diminished now, but if my love is gone it's because I let it go. I let it go in order to protect myself, because it hurt too much to keep it, at least for now. But if I have become smaller, perhaps it's to give myself the chance to grow again in the future.
Sometimes I love the world so much I can't stand it.
I've been thinking a lot about Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese" lately—of course I have. "Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on."
Sometimes loving a world with so much ugliness in it feels immoral. And yet I do. I do.
You can choose to let yourself feel loved.
You cannot choose which feelings or thoughts will come to you. But you can choose which ones to give your attention and focus to, which ones to feed. There are many kinds of love. The temporary loss of one doesn't negate or diminish the others that are still present—quite the opposite, sometimes.
I have long felt that giving one's attention is the purest and truest expression of love. That we all want to feel that we are important, that we are being seen and heard and known, and so to really look and listen closely is the greatest gift. It's what I have always wanted. To be known, and to know. To be loved, and to love.
This is what I'm learning and re-learning, over and over again: that there is color in my life, that there are so many people who love me, that I have so much love to give and so many people who I can and do give it to. I'm letting myself imagine a fuller, happier life, perhaps for the first time. I'm learning to love myself in the same measure that I love the world and the people in my life. I haven't been okay, not for a long time. But I'm getting there. I'm closer than I've ever been, and I'm getting there.
Thank you, and take care.
What Would You Be If You Stopped Trying?
Do you ever wonder what you would be like if you stopped trying to be the person you want to be? I don't mean "the person you think you're supposed to be" or "the person you should be" or "the person your parents/spouse/friends/therapist/society want you to be." I don't mean "your best self," or at least I don't exactly mean that. I mean that maybe there is a way that you want to be, in order to live according to values that you hold deeply and dearly. Maybe there is a part of you that does naturally exist inside of you, and you feel good about yourself when you are able to turn toward that part, but you have to work at it. Maybe there is a way to be that really works for you, that reduces your stress, helps you feel at peace, helps you accept your life, that when you lean into this way of being everything is better, or maybe not everything is better but some things are, and even the things that aren't better are at least more tolerable, but maybe it doesn't come naturally for you to be that way, maybe you struggle with it, maybe sometimes you fail and the failure is hard, and even when you succeed it's still sometimes exhausting.
I like to think—although maybe I'm kidding myself—that if you've known me less than five years and especially if you primarily know me online, you might not know that I am, by nature, extremely argumentative. That sometimes the most alive I ever feel is when I'm debating somebody, when I can get into a good back-and-forth with somebody and my whole brain lights up with the effort of making points and counterpoints, not necessarily in order to win the argument, which usually ends up feeling like ashes in my mouth, but, yes, in order to win this point, and maybe the next point, and the next one. My parents and brothers and old friends know this about me, and of course J knows this about me, but I like to think that maybe you don't know this about me, and I like to think that maybe my kids don't know this about me, because I try not to be this way anymore. A while back, maybe five, six, seven years ago, partly through therapy and partly through just looking at myself, I decided I didn't like this about myself, that it wasn't working for me, that it was causing me problems, and that I wanted to change. I think I have changed, at least outwardly. I don't argue with people as much as I used to. I have an easier time seeing other people's perspectives and accepting disagreement than I used to. I am better able to both set my own boundaries and respect other people's boundaries. But none of that comes naturally to me.
I want to be a kind person. I want to be generous and gentle, nurturing, patient, understanding, supportive. I want to be a good and sensitive listener, someone who is open and vulnerable instead of guarded and defensive. I want to be someone who prioritizes healing over justice, collaboration over competition, love over intellect. When I am able to be those things, I don't just feel better about myself, I feel better in general. But it all takes so much work. None of that is what I would be if I didn't keep putting forth effort to interrogate and counter my natural impulses. It's not that I think that these things aren't me in some way, because I believe—or at least I want to believe—that my desire to be these things is an authentic part of me, and that it's okay to judge myself at least as much by my actions as it is by how I feel on the inside. It's just that I wonder if I'm trying to squeeze myself into a shape that doesn't actually fit me. I don't know what I'd be if I stopped trying so hard, and it's terrifying to contemplate the possibility that my authentic self might be the opposite of everything I value.
But even as I write this, I'm remembering saying something very similar to my therapist several years ago. A lot of what I worked on with her had to do with letting go of doing things out of a sense of obligation to others, and at the same time ceasing to place obligations on others, and to just do things because I wanted to, and to allow others to do what they wanted to. After several months of discussions, I said to her that I could see that if I accepted this framework I would probably be happier, but that I didn't know if I could accept it, even so. I didn't know if I wanted that, because it went so far against what I thought of as being a good person, and it was terrifying to contemplate letting go of that ideal. I did eventually accept it, and I think I am happier. I guess I can hear the echoes of that same resistance here. It feels different, though, because my desires to be a certain way aren't coming from a feeling of obligation now, of what I feel like I have to be for others—or anyway they're coming much less from obligation than they used to and much more from a consideration of what I want for myself and what my values are.
I'd like to think that there's a way to integrate all of this, a way to live according to my values that doesn't feel so hard all the time, a way to be the person I want to be while also accepting the person that I am. I don't know what that looks like, though.
Some Things That Are Not the Same as Having a Personality, According to Twitter
- Adult dodgeball
- Being an asshole
- Being depressed
- Being from Atlanta
- Being from the Midwest
- Being horny
- Being a newlywed
- Being a poet
- Being the new kid in town
- Carrying around a milk crate
- Cynical skepticism
- Disliking the word "moist"
- Drinking coffee
- Enjoying dumplings
- Following 666 people
- Getting a COVID vaccine
- Going to Nashville once a month
- Hating everything
- Having a book deal
- Having a dog
- Having a personality
- Having screeners
- Liking Adopt Me
- Liking Game of Thrones
- Liking Hollow Knight
- Liking hot sauce
- Liking IPAs
- Liking pineapple on pizza
- Liking natural wines
- Liking Taylor Swift
- Loving pizza
- Making money
- Not finding Adam Driver attractive
- Not liking Adopt Me
- The one Andrew Garfield scene from The Social Network
- Showing the finger while taking a picture
- A single character flaw
- Spoiling movies and TV shows for people just because you saw them early
- Taking AP classes
- Taking naps
- Thinking that Africa is a country
- Tim Burton
- Tweeting song lyrics with YouTube links
- Wearing those shoes that individually wrap your toes
- Working out
Searching for Meaning
Last night, after it had already ceased being last night and was on into today, instead of going to sleep I stayed up looking up different kanji for my name. This wasn't, perhaps, the wisest use of my time at that moment as I am now at the point of mild sleep deprivation where I have turned into a living Magnetic Fields song.
I should probably back up a little bit. I've been thinking a lot about my name recently. Partly that's because of a Twitter trend that started a few weeks ago where Asian Americans began including their native names in their profiles as a show of pride and empowerment in the face of anti-Asian hate. (I should note that this is not a new phenomenon in general—I know lots of people who have been doing this for years, but it did gain some new significance and momentum recently.) It's also partly because I read Beth Nguyen's excellent and moving essay about choosing to change her name. I'm finding the discussion around names and Asian pride interesting, and it makes me happy to see people make the choices that are right for them. For myself, "Michael" is the name that my parents gave me and the only name that my family called me until I was old enough to ask them to call me "Mike." So there's no separation between "me" and "Mike."
Still, I do also have a Japanese name. Legally, Kenji is my middle name, but in my family it's more of a second first name, even if no one has ever called me by that name. Neither of my parents and none of their siblings have Japanese names, and I've always liked that I've had one, though at times I have been envious of my brothers, one of whom doesn't have a Japanese name but was named for our dad and the other of whose Japanese name came from a beloved great-uncle, while I was stuck with "second son."
But, as my mom's mom—the one close family member I have who is from Japan—would point out, a Japanese name's meaning depends on how it's spelled. Kenji is one of the most common names in Japan, and there are many different combinations of kanji that are used for it, each with a different meaning. And the thing is, I don't know how my name is spelled. Neither of my parents speak or read Japanese, so they never picked kanji for my name.
I do know how my family name is spelled: 酒瀬川. I can't write it, and I always have to look up the second character, but I know what it means. 酒 is "sake" (as in the drink). 瀬 is "rapids" or "shallows." (My grandmother used to say it was like "edge" but would then say she didn't know the right English word.) 川 is "river." Thus you get the derivation of my website and Twitter handle.
In the past when I've had to write out my name in Japanese, for a class or whatever, I've written it as 酒瀬川マイク (Sakasegawa Maiku). I could certainly keep doing that, but lately I've found myself thinking more and more about how to use my Japanese name. If I were going to start doing that, I'd have to pick a spelling on my own. But that means that I'd also have to pick a meaning. I'm not sure why it feels less strange to define your child's name than your own, but for me it does. It's always felt... presumptuous? But I've become more and more curious about how I would spell it, if I were going to. It's been sort of a strange journey.
If I were to go with the meaning I'm most used to, it would be 建二, where 建 is "build" and 二 is "two." This is the meaning that my grandmother told me when I was young, something like "second built." This would be in some ways the closest to having my family pick the name for me, I think.
On the other hand, the meaning that appeals to me most is 謙実, which (if I understand it correctly) is "humble" followed by a character that can be "sincerity" or "kindness" or "fruit." Though, there's something about calling myself "humble kindness" that doesn't feel, well, very humble.
If I were to pick based solely on which characters look the most visually beautiful to me, I would probably go with 健次. This is "strong/healthy/vigorous" and "next," which is often translated as "strong second son." I'm not sure how I feel about that meaning, but just look at it:
Then again, maybe the most honest thing to do would be just to spell it phonetically in katakana: ケンジ. That would be closest to how I was actually named, but somehow it doesn't sit right with me to have a name with no meaning at all (even if that's not at all unheard of in Japan).
I haven't come to any conclusions or made any decisions at this point. There's something about the idea of picking my own name that feels both exciting and like a heavy responsibility. I mean, I have a hard enough time picking out a new pair of glasses, and those just go on my face. This actually feels a lot like the process of naming our kids, an experience that was both fun and that I felt the gravity of. With each of them we narrowed down to a short list and then waited to see which one fit the best. I'm not sure exactly how that would work here, but on the other hand it's not as though I have a deadline. If I end up not deciding at all, I'll still have two names and I'll still be myself. So, I'm thinking about it.
Scattered, vol. 7
- I got my first vaccine dose this week. I was prepared beforehand for an immune response, which has so far been barely noticeable. I was not prepared for the emotional response. Sitting in the monitoring area after my shot, I noticed myself sniffling and was briefly concerned until I realized that it was only that I was crying a little bit. I've been saying for a while now that I don't mind waiting, that I'm not sure I'll ever actually be ready to go back out into the world again. And that's true, but it still felt like letting my breath out for the first time in a long while.
- I think something that has been eating at me both with the virus and with the anti-Asian violence is that I just don't know how much danger I'm actually in. I'm not sure I can know how much danger I'm in, really. By any objective measure, an educated, affluent, professional, fifth-generation Japanese American is at much lower risk for both than someone with closer immigrant roots, or who has a blue-collar essential job, or who is of a different Asian ethnicity. But lower risk isn't the same as no risk. The richest person I've ever met died of COVID a few months ago. People not too far from my neighborhood who look not too different from me have been picked up in ICE raids. And I've been punched in the face before by someone who was calling me a chink and telling me to go back where I came from.
- It's been 26 years or so since the last time I was punched or kicked or shoved or spit on by someone who called me a chink. That wasn't the last time I was called a racial slur, but the last time the slur came with physical violence was almost two-thirds of my lifetime ago. And, at that, I never suffered worse than a bloody nose or a few bruises where it didn't show. I don't know that it makes much rational sense that I feel as much fear as I do. But I guess feelings don't have to be rational.
- Yesterday, Arden Cho shared a story on Twitter about a time when she was 10, when a teenage boy beat her into unconsciousness, knocking out two of her teeth and hospitalizing her. I think the thing that caught me the most was when she was talking about now, and said "I honestly didn’t realize I was living with all this trauma, I thought I was okay. But seeing countless videos of violent attacks has triggered a lot of these memories and it’s been so heavy and painful."
- I saw that thread because my friend Grace shared it, adding "As Asians we are taught to hide our pain & be grateful it wasn’t worse. That lifelong training has taught us & others that our pain doesn’t matter."
- I guess what I'm saying is that I don't know if it's okay for me to feel afraid right now.
- I can't help thinking, too, about how tenuous Asian American solidarity is and has been, how often the exclusion and perhaps even danger comes from within this so-called community. When my mother's mother first came to Salinas, she was met by a community of nisei and sansei who were skeptical of war brides. When I was a kid, my Japanese/Filipino American cousins and I would laugh at people for being fobby. And it's not like it's over. One of the first things the algorithm showed me when I signed up for TikTok was an Asian American comedian whose whole schtick seems to be making fun of Asian immigrants' accents.
- Nobody can give you permission for your feelings, and if you find yourself seeking permission it's important to ask yourself whether what you're actually seeking is exoneration.
- It was Friday when I started writing this list of bullet points and now it's Saturday. I think I'm too tired now to bring it to a real conclusion.
Reclaiming Asian Names
I read an interesting article yesterday about Asian Americans reclaiming their native first names, giving some background into a recent Twitter trend of adding your Asian name into your display name. A common theme in the stories shared by people interviewed for the piece is having had to change their names in order to make it easier for white Americans—or, more to the point, to give white Americans fewer opportunities to exclude them. I love the idea of taking pride in Asian American culture and identity, and displaying one’s Asian name is something I can understand as empowering for people who have been othered or shamed. For me, personally, it doesn’t feel completely applicable.
One of the people interviewed for the article was Susan Kiyo Ito:
Susan Kiyo Ito from Oakland told me Kiyo is legally her middle name, despite the fact that her parents had wanted to make Kiyo her first name.
“My parents had wanted to name me Kiyo after my late aunt, but then they changed their minds and decided to make that my less visible middle name because they didn’t want me to be teased," said Ito.
Her father had a similar story about his own name.
“My father’s name was Masaji (Mas), but white people struggled with his name, so he joked that they could call him Sam — Mas backwards — to make it easier for them to remember and pronounce.”
“Many of my Japanese relatives used English names in public for assimilation and white folks,” she added.
For me, like Ito, my Japanese name (Kenji) is legally my middle name. I think of it as my Japanese name, but I have never felt comfortable going by that name. And, more to the point, no one has ever called me by that name, inside my family or out. Being gosei and biracial, my relationship to Japan and Japanese culture is very different from someone who has immigrant parents. It’s always been a lot more… tenuous? Neither of my parents have Japanese names, and neither they nor I speak Japanese. Three of my grandparents also didn’t or don’t speak Japanese (though, of those, one was my white grandfather). My Japanese American grandfather also didn’t have a Japanese name, as far as I know, though some of his siblings did.
In some ways, my relationship with my name feels similar to my relationship with identity in general. It’s not that I have ever tried to hide my Japanese-ness (nor is that something I could do even if I wanted to), and my parents didn’t pick my name for assimilation. They didn’t have to pick my name based on some idea of making it easier for me to assimilate because assimilation is something that my family already did fairly thoroughly several generations ago. I think of myself as “Mike” or “Michael” because that’s my name.
It’s not that “Kenji” isn’t also part of my name and my self. It’s just that there isn’t a conflict or separation between “Mike” and some more authentic version of me. “Mike” isn’t a mask that I’ve assumed (or that was put on me) to make “Kenji” more palatable or to make things easier for white people to understand. It’s just my name.
I think that the discourse around Asian American identity tends to very entwined with the immigrant narrative, with things like assimilation or rejection of assimilation. And there are good reasons for that. That sort of leaves someone like me out of the discussion, which used to bother me a lot. But as I’ve grown older and learned more I’ve come to understand that there are good reasons not to center my personal experience with identity in what is fundamentally a political discourse. I guess I do think that there is room for an interesting discussion about the ways Asian American identity discourse can be, I think, a bit essentialist. Or about what is or is not my “authentic” culture. But that isn’t and shouldn’t be the center of the larger discourse.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I really like seeing other people put their Asian names in their profiles, or including their names written in Asian characters, and I support everyone in doing that. But I don’t think it’s something I’ll do, myself.
Holding Your Own
I’ve been thinking a lot about social media lately, about why it feels particularly challenging for me lately. I think a lot of us—maybe most of us on Twitter—feel increasingly unseen and unheard. I think most people want to feel like their existence matters, that it has weight and importance. I think most people want the opportunity for their perspective or emotions to be noticed and given consideration. Social media offers at least the promise of a remedy for that.
It is a stereotype about Twitter that people blithely reveal intimate and vulnerable truths there that they don’t elsewhere. I think that speaks to what this specific platform is good at: giving us an outlet for our feelings that feels simultaneously personal and public. That’s particularly true for those of us who don’t have big followings. There is enough anonymity that when we say things there it doesn’t necessarily make much of a ripple in the overall stream, but there’s also always the chance that someone will actually notice and engage. I think that even extends to the way many of us think about Twitter when we are actually replying to someone else.
And this sort of highlights both what I find useful about Twitter and what I find challenging about it. I don’t begrudge anyone the desire to be visible. I feel that, too. I want to be known and seen and accepted, for my opinions and emotions to be respected, even validated. I also have often appreciated the opportunity to hear what other people are going through. It has not only given me the opportunity to connect with others and sometimes be of service, but it also has helped me feel less alone, knowing that others feel similar to how I feel.
But in times of widespread harm and trauma, when we are all very understandably using Twitter in the way we always have, broadcasting our feelings—which, again, I also do—it gets difficult for me. Rather than feeling connected, I feel overwhelmed. And since I also live in the world, in times like these I am also already feeling overwhelmed by events, and so trying to hold or even just witness everyone else’s feelings just compounds what I’m already feeling. What makes it even more difficult is that a lot of people—wittingly or unwittingly—use social media to ask or even coerce others into fulfilling their need for visibility. Having that need is natural and unavoidable. But making others meet that need is unsustainable.
Compared to what people with bigger followings get—especially if they are women—I don’t get a lot of people showing up to argue with me. But I get some, and my perception is that it’s been happening more often in recent months. The overwhelming majority of the time, when someone responds to me in a way that feels argumentative, I think what they are actually saying is “I feel unseen, and I wish to feel seen.” Which, again, that’s a natural and understandable way to feel, which I also feel. I try very hard to keep this in mind when answering people, to give them as much grace as I can while also maintaining my own boundaries. Most of the time, it goes fairly well. I think people seem to come away from our interactions satisfied that they were heard.
It bears pointing out, of course, that much of my ability to interact this way is because I am relatively privileged. Being a cis straight man who is not, for example, worried about my livelihood means that people treat me better as a baseline and that I have fewer stressors. That, in turn, means that I have more available emotional capacity to hold space for other people.
Still, my capacity to hold space for others’ emotions is not unlimited, and more and more often I find myself feeling depleted. I think that a lot of people just do not think about what they are asking of others. That is, I suppose, me trying to give people the benefit of the doubt and not assume that people are purposely trying to take advantage of others. I know that happens, too, of course. But I prefer to think that most people just don’t know how to manage or take responsibility for their own emotions. After all, it’s not something that most of us are taught how to do. I certainly wasn’t. I am fortunate to have had the resources and opportunity to work through these things with a therapist. And, obviously, even with the years I spent doing that learning and work, I still backslide and slip up sometimes and put my emotions on other people.
I do wish that more people could be more aware of what it is that they’re doing when they try to make others hold their emotions. I do wish that people could be more considerate. Then again, I know it’s harder to be considerate when you’re going through it. It is difficult at best and sometimes completely impossible to be emotionally aware and responsible when your own emotional reserves are depleted. I know that, and I think about it a lot. I try to give people as much grace as I can, not least because I have always appreciated it when people have extended me the same consideration when I wasn’t at my best. I am not entitled to your grace, which means it is precious when you give it to me anyway. But I still get depleted after a while. I get tired or frustrated or angry or sad. As I know that I, too, have made other people tired or frustrated or angry or sad when I’ve tried to make them hold my emotions.
And something that I want to be clear is that usually when I have asked someone to hold my emotions, I haven’t said that that’s what I was doing. More often I said it was about justice or right/wrong or speaking out/calling out or something else about them and not me. The thing is, the fact that it was, at root, about making someone else hold my feelings doesn’t mean I was wrong about it being about justice. It doesn’t mean I was incorrect in what I said about the behavior or words I was calling out. I don’t mean that I’m infallible on morals or justice. I have certainly been wrong about that kind of thing many times and I’m sure I will be again. I mean that the emotional motivation and the intellectual/moral motivation can coexist, and one can feed the other. That is, it’s not merely a justification to say “this is about justice” when I am trying to make someone else see me. Both things can be true at the same time, I think. I’m saying this because I want it to be clear that I am not telling people not to call out injustice and I am not saying that all call-outs or arguments are emotionally motivated, and I am not saying that emotionally motivated call-outs are inherently invalid.
What I am saying is that I think it is helpful to recognize the emotional components of our actions. I think it is helpful for others and for ourselves. It’s helpful to others because when we are aware of our own emotional processes, we tend not to inappropriately burden others as much. It’s helpful to ourselves because it helps us be more intentional in our actions. And I think it’s helpful in general because the more we take responsibility for our own emotional processes, the less we deplete other peoples’ emotional reserves, and the more they can respond with grace and patience to others. It helps the general temperature come down.
I know that in the middle of an ongoing crisis is not the time to be asking people to do more. Again, when we are in crisis and our reserves are depleted, we just don’t have the capacity left to hold space for others. I know that. But I know that not everyone is equally depleted right now. I am very tired lately and not at my best. But I still have enough capacity to keep trying to be aware of my emotions and to keep trying to be gracious to others. I think that if I have some capacity left, then surely there must be others who do as well. And maybe those aren’t the people who need to hear all of this. Maybe those people are more likely to already know all of this. But I hope that if there are people who aren’t completely depleted and who haven’t heard this stuff before, or who could use a reminder, then this discussion might be useful to them.
Moreover, it’s been my experience that my own reserves of emotional energy have become deeper and easier to maintain the more I keep this perspective in mind. The more I practice emotional awareness, the more I’m able to be gracious and kind to others. Possibly this is because when I’m aware of what’s going on with myself, I’m better able to determine what boundaries I need and better able to maintain those boundaries
If you can’t do this right now, it’s okay. I’m not criticising you or calling you out. I also don’t mean to make it sound like I have it all figured out. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest that injustice doesn’t exist or shouldn’t be addressed. Just, this is stuff that I’ve found helpful for myself. So, if you’re able to make use of it, I hope you will.
Boy, Twitter is awful lately, isn’t it? And not just awful in the way that we’ve been used to and talking about for what feels like forever, but newly and especially awful. I know it’s not just me; in the past month or so I’ve had a number of conversations with Twitter friends who have had to take breaks because it’s gotten to be too much.
It’s not unexpected, of course, or it shouldn’t be. After nearly a year of isolation we’re all (or as close to all as to make little difference) feeling like Bilbo at the beginning of Fellowship, “like butter scraped over too much bread.” Compounded tension and stress make everyone more brittle, more prone to fight or take out our distress on others. With vaccinations ramping up, case rates dropping significantly, and scientists starting to admit cautious optimism, it seems like some kind of normalcy is starting to become visible, even if it’s still months away. You might think that would be a boost to people’s spirits, and perhaps it is for some, but often the release of long-standing tension also comes with an emotional breakdown to one degree or another.
People talked about similar phenomena around the time of the inauguration last month (criminy, was it really just last month?), for example that long-standing anxiety doesn’t just go away, or that Twitter was likely to get more agitated as we reckoned with what we’d been through. I remember seeing one thread (which I can’t find again now) talking about how often it’s only after a trauma has passed that we feel safe enough to finally fall apart. And, of course, in many ways we are still being traumatized. We are still having climate disasters, children are still being imprisoned at the border, the President is still ordering drone strikes. It’s not nothing, though, that Trump is finally out of office.
I think it might be more than just a release of tension, though. I can’t help but think that the past four years have trained us to fight, even when we don’t need to. One of the most-shared things I’ve seen over that time has been the line from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel speech in which he says we must always pick a side. It’s a principle that has a lot of applicability right now—there is a lot of injustice in the world about which we must not be silent. But not every disagreement rises to the level of the torment, oppression, endangerment of human lives, and imperilment of human dignity that Wiesel was talking about, and something I know from experience (and from working with a therapist) is that having experienced abuse or trauma can leave us unable to distinguish between what is and isn’t actually dangerous—our bodies respond as though we are in mortal peril either way.
I’ve been thinking lately about Seamus Heaney’s poem “Punishment,” about his speaker who would “connive in civilized outrage” but also understands “the exact and tribal, intimate revenge.” I read this poem as Heaney processing what he saw and experienced during The Troubles, but perhaps also reckoning more broadly with human nature and the way that justice and revenge intertwine, how our motivations aren’t clean and separable, how a propensity for violence lives in all of us, no matter what we might think of our own ideals or sensitivities. I think perhaps something that has dismayed me lately is not just that we don’t admit that we’re looking more to inflict our suffering on others than to protect people or heal. Rather, what unsettles me is that some of us do admit it and call it virtue.
It isn’t for me to decide what is and isn’t virtuous, or to tell other people what to value or how to behave. And, truly, I want to give people a break. All of us have limited mental and emotional resources, and when those have been spent it’s hard, even impossible, to keep being gracious or compassionate towards others. Lately this mostly means spending less time on Twitter in general.
Ultimately, I’m not sure whether social media is sustainable for me—being on it often makes me feel more anxious or depressed. On the other hand, spending time away from it makes me feel disconnected and lonely. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to find a way to stay engaged in a way that feels healthy, but I do know that right now it’s not feeling good to be there.
Thinking About Regret
All weekend and continuing this morning, my Facebook feed has been full of people mourning our friend Paula. Two things are consistent throughout: Paula was an amazing artist, and Paula was a kind, enthusiastic, wonderful person. I have often wondered what people will say about me when I go. If I could choose between people saying I was good at something—art or writing or my job—or saying that I was a kind person, I’d much rather the latter. So many of the people leaving comments on the mourning posts have been saying things like “Her work will live on.” And this is a comfort, to be sure. Paula cared deeply about art, her work deserves to be seen, and I want it to keep being seen. Still, though, I’d rather have her.
I can’t help thinking, too, what a shame it is that so often we don’t say these wonderful things about people while they’re still alive to hear it. I hope Paula knew how loved she was by everyone. I hope people told her what a bright light she was. A little over a year ago I spent an hour talking with her about her work for my show. I certainly complimented her work at the time, and have done many times. But I can’t remember if I ever told her how much it meant to me that she was so nice to me.
By now I have lost what feels like so many people I’ve cared about, and every time I have been struck with regret for what I didn’t say to them while I could. And this keeps happening, even though I keep telling myself not to let it happen again. Perhaps this is just how it goes. Perhaps there’s just no way to say it all. There isn’t time, especially for those of our friends and loved ones who we don’t see often. I mean, it is nice to imagine that kind of openness but there is always more to say, and eventually you’d want to talk about something other than just compliments. After all, it’s mostly those other conversations and interactions that form the foundation of the relationship. And I do think that there is something to be said for the idea that we can know a person’s love and regard through their actions toward us. That in many ways that may be a deeper intimacy. But still, it’s good to hear it out loud, too.
Every time I lose someone, I can’t help but think of every other person I’ve lost, and how though this list feels long already, I know it will only get longer. When I was a teenager I hoped to live a life without regret. I am sure now that if I get to live to an old age, I will have accumulated more regret than I will be able to count. And yet, in a way perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Regret comes from not doing that which you wished to have done. But the wishing comes from a happier place. I couldn’t regret the things I didn’t say to my loved ones if I hadn’t loved them in the first place. New love does not fill in the hole left by a loss, it doesn’t make us forget the pain. And perhaps every new love means a new future regret. But new love does grow us. If loss erases something from the canvas of our soul, new love gives us new space to paint anew.
I don’t know that a post like this needs to end with a call to action but if there is to be one it would just be what I always say: if there’s someone who matters to you, whether for their work or their personality or the way that are in your life, I hope you’ll tell them.