winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2016-11-15 01:28 am

Three ineffectual strategies for dealing with trauma and pain

The last week has been challenging for all of us. In the depths of my own fear and uncertainty, I reached for one of my favorite books —Pema Chödrön’s Comfortable with Uncertainty— and opened to a passage at random. On friday, a friend of mine asked how I’ve been able to deal with it all. I told him about the passage, and he (a non-buddhist) found it helpful in dealing with his own pain, so I wanted to share more broadly.

Before getting to the passage, I think it’s important for people to recognize that this pain we are feeling is a collective trauma. This is not our day-to-day pain, not our usual suffering. Everyone develops habits and skills for addressing the typical discomforts of life, but those skills are often inapplicable or ineffective for recovering from truly traumatic events. When someone is in a car wreck, or attacked, or raped, or abruptly loses a job or loved one— we recognize these things as traumas. We recognize that these events take some extra work to recover from. In the aftermath of the election I have seen many of the symptoms of trauma in the people around me. Depression, hypervigilance, difficulty concentrating, short tempers, and so on. When trauma hits, our usual coping mechanisms often fail or go haywire. A drink or two to unwind, turns into bleary drunkenness every night. Playing games to let go, turns into escapism to avoid thinking. Solitude, turns into reclusion. A healthy skepticism, turns into paranoia. If we do not recognize traumas for what they are, it becomes all too easy to find ourselves with even worse problems. Recognition is necessary for forming an appropriate response.

Now, the passage. As humans we have three habitual methods for relating to suffering. All three are ineffectual at reducing that suffering. These three ineffectual strategies are: attacking, indulging, and ignoring. And I’ve seen all three in great quantities in all the OpEd pieces floating around over the past week.

By “attacking” Pema Chödrön means not just lashing out, attacking Trump’s supporters or their ideals, but also all the ways we attack ourselves: We condemn ourselves, criticize ourselves for any indulgence, pity ourselves to the point of not getting out of bed. This strategy shows up in all those articles criticizing us for not having interpreted the polls correctly, or chastising us for not voting, or condemning the way the internet has formed these echo-chamber bubbles, and so on. But all this self-flagellation, all this beating ourselves up, does nothing to heal our pain. Now we suffer not only from our fears of what’s to come, but also because “it’s all our fault”. We refuse to “let ourselves off easy”, so whenever someone tries to address our pain we attack them and beat them away, protecting our pain because we feel like we deserve it.

Indulging is just as common. Though we are haunted by self-doubt, we condone our behavior. We say “I don’t deserve this discomfort. I have plenty of reasons to be angry or sleep all day.” We justify our pain to the point of turning it into a virtue and applauding ourselves. This strategy shows up in all those articles that relish in the details of how bad things will become, or congratulating ourselves for saying something like this would happen. But again, by cherishing our pain and presenting it as something to be praised, we are preventing ourselves from healing. Noone wants to give up something they cherish, nor give up on all the attention and sympathy they are lavished with.

Ignoring is no less common. “Ignoring” means not just refusing to acknowledge our pain and fear, but also pretending it doesn’t exist, dissociating, spacing out, going numb, acting on autopilot, or any of the other ways to try to keep our suffering out of sight and out of mind. This strategy is advocated by all those articles talking about how things actually aren’t that bad, or how this is just business as usual, or how it’ll all get better once the mid-term elections happen. While ignoring seems effective in the short term, it does nothing to address the suffering you feel. In addition to not healing that initial wound, it creates more pain as we inevitably force ourselves into tighter and tighter spaces in order to keep it out of mind.

There is an alternative to these three futile strategies. The enlightened strategy is to try fully experiencing whatever you’ve been resisting— without exiting in your habitual way. Become inquisitive about your habits. Recognize when you are pushing your suffering away, or embracing it, or denying it. Become inquisitive about your suffering. What is it, exactly, that you are denying? Why does it feel so urgent to push it away? Why does it feel so necessary to cling to it? Stop trying to justify your feelings, stop trying to explain them. Start instead to look at them, to see them for what they really are. Ask why it is they hurt, what part of your ego they compromise, what ideals they belie.

The passage on the three futile strategies follows a koan about “heaven and hell”. From a buddhist perspective, “hell” is not a place, it is all the feelings of pain and fear and suffering we experience. Nor is “heaven” a place, but rather all our feelings of gratitude and joy and understanding. Thus, the buddhist does not say “hell is bad and heaven is good” nor “get rid of hell and just seek heaven”. Rather, one should approach all things with an open mind, greeting both heaven and hell with that openness. In her words,

Only with this kind of equanimity can we realize that no matter what comes along, we’re always standing in the middle of a sacred space. Only with equanimity can we see that everything that comes into our circle has come to teach us what we need to know.

I find these words powerfully healing. It is healing to remember that no matter where we are or what befalls us, our life is a blessing, and in virtue of that blessing our bodies and the places we move through are sacred spaces. The sacred is not something which exists without us, but something which is created from within. Moreover, it is healing to step away from questions like “what did I do to deserve this?” and instead remember to ask what it is we can learn from the experience.

I have endured many traumas in my life, and I half expected the election outcome, but still it felt like a kick in the chest. This wound brought back all my darkest habits. Once I recovered from the shock enough to begin the rituals of healing and self-care, I reflected on the question of why this particular wound hurt so bad. In my experience (and not just because I’m buddhist), deep emotional pain always stems from some threat to one’s ego; so what part of my ego is on the line? For me, the reason the election hurt so much is because I had become complacent in believing that the world is steadily becoming a more just place and believing that people are by-and-large fundamentally good. With the election of Obama, the passing of the ACA, the supreme court ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, and so on, I think a lot of us on the progressive side have been susceptible to those beliefs. The election hurt so much, for me, because it forced the recognition that it’s not just the legacy of systemic institutionalized hatred we must fight, but that over a quarter of the population actively supports the worst extremes of that hatred. Yes, the election itself was offensive. Yes, I fear for my life and the lives of those close to me. But the real root of the pain itself, the reason it hurt so bad, is this refutation of those optimistic beliefs about humanity and the path towards justice. Realizing that this was the root cause of my pain did a lot to help me process it and move on. It also gave a healthy way to shift focus from the pain itself, to something actionable. Having experienced the pain, I can accept it. And having learned what it has to teach me, I know what I must do.

So sit with your pain, and try to experience it fully. Stop pushing it away. Stop embracing it. Stop beating yourself up over it. Approach it with an open mind and let it pass through you. And, finally, ask yourself what you can learn from it.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2014-07-18 12:00 am

I Don't Hear You Talking: a silence on Silence Culture

A lot of ink has been spilt over trigger warnings lately. And I don't want to write about it because I feel like I don't have much to add to the conversation. But when I stop, that feeling nags at me. You can't think with your mouth open; and as someone who always had issues keeping her damn mouth shut, it took me a long time to learn that to listen you must be silent. ... And yet. ... And yet, when someone experiences strong emotions about her own marginalization, but feels compelled to self-silence: that's when you need to listen harder.

Because there are a lot of voices I know full well, and I don't hear them talking.

I know them because they're the voices of my friends, and among friends we talk about things we don't talk about. In the workaday world we put on our faces and never hint at the behemoths raging through our china cabinets. And when we let down our hair, those faces stay on, because you always know who might be listening. And behind closed doors, still, we keep them on because elsewise love would be too tragic. But in secret spaces, we talk. We are, every one of us, damaged. I may not know who hurt you yet, I may not know your story of pain, but I never assume there isn't one; because every single person I've known, when we get close enough, they tell me things we don't talk about. Sometimes it takes years before they feel safe enough, sometimes they never feel safe enough, but if they've ever lowered their guard to me, they've told me. Every. single. person.

We are born and raised and live in a world drenched in abuse. And that abuse doesn't leave scars, it leaves open wounds waiting to have dirt rubbed in them. The first rule of what doesn't happen is that it cannot be spoken of. So healing only happens in those secret spaces, one-on-one, in the dark of night, far far from friends and strangers alike. This privatization of healing only compounds the problem of abuse. When we cannot see past others' faces, when we cannot see the living wounds they bear, when we do not hear their daily resistance against reiterations of violence, we come to think that somehow maybe they haven't been hurt as badly as we. When we see our own people succeed, or see leaders of resistance and "survivors" and "healed" voices speaking up against the injustice of the world, we think that somehow maybe they must be stronger than us, more resilient than us, more determined than us. When we cannot witness their struggle, we think that somehow maybe when they go to bed at nights they need not take the time to scrub out that daily dirt from their wounds. And when we cannot bear that witness, we see ourselves as lesser, broken, impostors.

These are the voices I do not hear speaking out, or hear speaking in only roundabout whispers. These are the voices for whom trigger warnings are writ. As so precisely put by Aoife,

Here's something I need you to understand: the vast majority of students when 'triggered' don't write howlers to department heads or flip laptops over in crowded classrooms for YouTube counts.

On the contrary, they most often shut down and collapse into numbness.

That numbness, that collapse, is the last tool our minds have to keep our faces in place when some sudden shock reopens sore wounds. The second rule of what we do not talk about is that wounds never heal, not entirely. We —some of us— can manage not flinching when someone raises their hand. We —some of us— learn to laugh along when someone touches our back. We —some of us— learn to feel safe in a room alone with a man. We —some of us— learn to turn blind to the "tranny" jokes, to the blackface, to the jibes about trailer parks and country living, to the "sex" scene where she lay sleeping, the scene where he takes the other man 'round back, the man who slaps his wife, the mother who cuffs her child, being told to go pick a switch, to the child starving on the street, to the college kids playing "tricks" on the homeless. We —some of us— learn to live as stone. But stone don't heal, and we all have our rituals of self-care we won't talk about. But when everywhere all you ever see is stone, you know your flesh will never make it if the light still shines in your eyes.

And I too am guilty of this silence culture. Because the fact of the matter is, in this day and age, to speak is to jeopardize my career. I can talk about being trans or being a dyke, and I can at least pretend that the laws on the books will mean a damn. But if I talk about my childhood, I won't be seen as an adult. If I talk about my abuse, I won't be seen as stable. If I bring up my mental life, I won't be seen as professional. If I talk about spoons, I won't be seen as reliable. And so I stuff it down and self-silence and hide what it's like, that daily living with depression and PTSD, til some trigger sets it off and out comes that rage which grows on silence. Some full-force punch to the gut, some words like "I'm not sure suicide is ever the answer" and my eyes go black, and words come out, and they sound nice enough, but every one means "I hate you".

Not to be rude, but sometimes suicide is the answer. It may not be the best answer, but it is an answer. And, unfortunately, sometimes that is all that's required. Sometimes a terrible fucking answer is the only answer to be found.

I say this as someone who's spent more of her life being suicidal than not, as someone who's survived multiple attempts, as someone whose friends have almost invariably spent years being suicidal. Yes, it sucks. And no, it doesn't "solve" anything. But think of the suffering of the victim. It is incredibly difficult to overcome the self-preservation instinct. Profoundly difficult. Imagine the volume of suffering it takes, the depths and duration of misery required to actively overcome the single most powerful compulsion any living creature can experience. There comes a point, long after endurance has already given out, when the full weight of that volume cannot be borne.

Whenever this happens, my thoughts are always with the victim. I cannot help but empathize with that terrible terrible suffering

Because the fact of the matter is, I'm too scared to talk. We live in a culture where suicide is "the easy way" and you're supposed to "take it like a man", but the fact of the matter is noone can take it. We are, every one of us, damaged. We privatize our healing because the first rule of abuse is that it must never be mentioned, must never never be discussed. The learning of silence is the first abuse: it is how we are taught to abuse ourselves, to never never hear that we're not alone.

This isn't about suicide and depression. Isn't about rape and racism. Isn't about violence and neglect. This is about silence. About the words we don't use to not say what you can't talk about. This is about learning to speak using words. About how we must open our mouths in order to listen.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2014-07-12 11:35 pm

A Word on Words

I'd like to take this moment to point out that all forms of binarism are bad. (Including the binarist notion that all things are either "good" or "bad".) I feel like this has to be pointed out because we, every one of us, has a nasty habit: in our overzealousness to tear down one binary, we do so by reinforcing other binaries. So let me say again. All forms of binarism are bad.

It's well-known that I've had a long, fraught history with certain "feminist" communities, due to which I have heretofore disavowed that label. Because of these persistent conflicts, around ten years ago I retreated from feminist circles and communities. However, over the past year I have rejoined a number of feminist circles— or rather, I have joined womanist, black feminist, transfeminist, and queer feminist circles. And thanks to this reinvolvement with feminist activism I have come, once again, to feel a certain attachment to that word: "feminist". The attachment feels strange to me now, having disavowed it for so long in favor of "womanism", "black feminism", "transfeminism", and "queer feminism". But because of this attachment I feel, once more, the need to reclaim feminism away from those "feminist" communities whose philosophy and political methods I continue to disavow.

So, to piss everyone off once more: a manifesto. )

Edit 2014.07.13: Added footnotes [2] and [3].

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2012-02-11 06:59 pm

Hey Google, don't be evil!

Google has their well-known unofficial motto "don't be evil". However, as they have grown as a corporation they often run into issues living up to that motto. As a recent example, Google is a major sponsor of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference. Conservatism alone is not evil, however this conference gives platform to anti-gay and white supremacist bigotry. There's a Change.org petition which has more details on the issue. Do go read it, and please sign it if you agree with the points made there.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2011-09-11 06:17 pm

Be the change you wish to see in the world

Ten years ago a large number of people died tragically. After a decade of colonial warfare, torture, and oppression, Americans are starting finally to come to the realization that maybe it would be good of us to stop killing. As so eloquently phrased in On 9/11 and the War on "Terror": Names, Numbers and Events:

The events that have been taking place since 9/11 are not something that came out of the blue, but rather they are best understood as a continuation of a long history of deception, racism of Western modernity, and the ways in which those who are not white/westerners have figured into this history.

On this day, so full of jingoistic pride at "liberating" humans from their life on Earth, you should read that article and take Ibn Khaldoun's message to heart. Do not think that you are somehow special and exempt. Who funded and armed Al-Qaeda in order to oppose the Soviets? Who put Saddam Hussein into power and supported his regime? Who supported the Shah in Iran and opposed the democratic revolution in the 1970s? Who has been a close ally and long-time supporter of Mubarak? Whose officials helped Gaddafi cling to power and advised him in stomping out the beginning of Libya's uprising? The uprisings throughout the Arabic world are not uprisings against "Muslim extremists". The uprisings are Arabic peoples who are finally able to free themselves from the shackles of western hegemony.

Today, right now, a large number of people are dying tragically. They need our help; and the help they need is for us to stop killing them.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2011-07-28 04:49 pm

The criminalization of walking

An Atlanta area mother was recently convicted of vehicular homicide. Convicted for the crime of being a pedestrian hit by a drunken driver, a driver who was also on painkillers, also half blind, also convicted of two previous hit-and-runs. Her child was also hit, and killed, which is why she's now a criminal. In truth, she was convicted for the crime of being black and poor in America. I haven't been in the country six hours and this is the news story that greets me. Racism, the othering of people who take public transit, and the deadly violent car culture that dominates the US.

A (white) friend of mine was killed in a crosswalk in Portland years ago. The SUV driver couldn't be bothered to check if it was safe when making a left-hand turn across a busy street, at full speed without slowing at all. There were witnesses. He also fled the scene. She was headed to the corner to next to her apartment to buy a mop.

I've been hit three times in crosswalks, all three with the walk sign on and a red light for the cars. Only one of those times was it serious. But I was saved by the fact that the rich white man was driving a sporty little thing so I went over the hood instead of under.

What a welcome home.

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2011-07-24 09:17 pm

The definition of terrorism doesn't depend on skin color

As Glenn Greenwald helpfully pointed out, the editors of the NYT — America's allegedly liberal newspaper — reserve the word "terrorist" solely for use in conjunction with the word "Muslim".

All the hate mongering confirmation bias in the wake of the tragedy in Oslo just shows how much the extreme terrorism of the right wing has corrupted American culture. As Ahmed Moor says in zir excellent commentary on the situation,

But not all liberals are created equal.

It is a credit to the Norwegian people that their prime minister did not respond to the terror attack with scorched-earth rhetoric or a carpet-bombing campaign. A real liberal with strong principles, he did not succumb to fear or vicious speculation.

(As always, the hat-tip goes to [profile] homasse for cutting to the heart of the issue, as well as informing me of world news in my last week here in Canada.)

winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
2010-02-19 09:32 pm

Why Racism = Prejudice + Institutionalized Power is wrong

Or, rather, why the people who state that are usually wrong.

So this definition for racism was brought up again recently when yet another person claimed we live in a post-racial society. Which is usually the context it's brought up in: someone claims Racism = Prejudice and then declares minorities need to get over themselves because of their evidenced prejudice against white folks; and then someone more educated on issues of racism seeks to correct them (using R=P+IP to disprove R=P). I certainly don't believe R=P, but rather my point of contention is a meta issue about how R=P+IP is presented. That is, the theory of R=P+IP as it is customarily presented online is false, even though I do believe something similar is in fact true.

Why it is wrong comes down to one simple fact: there is no Institution. There is no single power structure in which we're all embedded. Even if we parameterize IP by country (as people often do), it's still wrong because there is no single power structure for the entire country. By stating R=P+IP there is an implicit theoretical belief in this singular notion of IP. And as if the implicit theory isn't enough, people often feel the need to be explicit about it. It is this totalizing discourse which is wrong. In addition to being inaccurate, totalizing claims transfer the problem of racism from individuals and individual actions to some external and ineffable "Institution" which individuals are not able to affect (due to its externality). So in addition to being inaccurate, it also serves to dissuade people from altering their personal actions in hopes of combating racism.

The fact of the matter is that we are, each of us, embedded simultaneously in multiple different and often conflicting power structures. I am not only in America, I'm also in Bloomington and I'm also a graduate student. (And anyone who thinks academia isn't a power structure orthogonal to real life is seriously misled.) More to the point, prior to moving to Bloomington I lived in Baltimore for two years. In Baltimore they have problems with racially-motivated black-on-white hate crimes. Now, when I can be hospitalized or killed for the crime of riding the bus while white, anyone who says it's merely "prejudice" has some very odd definitions rattling around in their head. In Baltimore, yes, blacks can be racist too. So when someone gets on their high horse and starts making totalizing claims about how the general disenfranchisement of blacks in America means they can't be racist, it's my turn to call them out for spouting bullshit.

My time in Baltimore was thankfully free of any (noticeable) racism. And I'm sure most other white residents receive less racism from blacks per annum than the average black person does from whites in most places. This isn't the oppression olympics, but rather it's an existence proof: When I was living in Baltimore there were numerous white people hospitalized and killed due to being assaulted on the bus by blacks because of their race. This happens in spite of the fact that everyone living in Baltimore is also living in America where blacks are typically the targets of racism. These two different kinds of hatred stem from being embedded in two different systems of power. In America whites have more power than blacks and use that to police racial borders. In Baltimore, which has different population dynamics (e.g., blacks aren't a minority), blacks have more power than whites and will use that to police racial borders. There is nothing about the power dynamics of America as a whole which precludes some part of America having opposing dynamics.

So IP is not a constant, nor is it a function only of the country. For the R=P+IP equation to be true, IP must be a function which takes in all the different power structures we live in and highlights whether any of those structures provide power in the given context. Whether my power as a white person in America or my weakness as a white person in Baltimore is more relevant will depend on the situation and is not simply the sum of the power from all structures. Similarly, whatever sorts of power I have as a graduate student are unlikely to be of any relevance in contexts that have nothing to do with education. Institutionalized power is both polysemous and contextually dependent. What is institutionalized in one structure need not be institutionalized in others, and which of these many "institutions" can be brought to bear is constantly changing.

By trying to totalize over these two dimensions, people prone to espousing R=P+IP as if IP were a constant are not only misleading those they are presuming to educate, but in so doing they are also failing to acknowledge that individual institutions can be changed, as can the dynamics of which institutions affect our lives. Institutionalized power can never be entirely eliminated. It can, however, be restructured so that it does not support the marginalization and oppression of racial minorities (or women, LGBTQ, disabled people, etc). And most importantly it is because of our own power within these different systems that we are able, through personal actions, to alter the systems in which we have power. We don't have racism because Those People Out There all got together and agreed to it; it is because our personal actions are complicit in preserving the institutionalized structures which support the oppression of minorities. But those very same institutionalized structures give us the currency needed to alter them; it is not enough to want equality, we must have the power to obtain it.