I’ll start by owning one great privilege and advantage (thereby possibly costing all hope of elevation in to the ranks of the suffering): I was raised by two healthy, responsible, educated, and loving parents and an extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles—which has always been the most important thing about me. And perhaps they just happened to be that way– but just maybe, they learned to overcome or at least to compartmentalize adversity, and passed their ways among them and down to their offspring.
Here’s a flash memoir.
As a child, I was acculturated to femininity while seeing quite plainly that boys had it better. I really thought I could be a boy if I wanted it enough. At seven, I lost my hearing in one ear. I was introverted—always had to work hard to join in while preferring to sit back and watch. Had a crush on a girl. As an adolescent, I grew unwanted breasts, bled from my vagina, spoke in a high voice and found myself the resistant object of male desire when I was sure I was meant instead to spit, cuss, save the weak, solve the world’s problems, lead troops into battle, and someday rise to literary fame as a social philosopher and raconteur. I never knew what bubble to fill in when required to categorize myself on a form. Had a crush on a boy. Throughout youth and beyond, I was subject to passionate infatuations, rages, sorrows, indignities, agonies. Fell in love. I thought I was smarter than everyone around me, but I did dumb and dangerous things again and again. As an adult, I skirted the edges of the accepted and acceptable, not finding a way to be wholly in, wanting to be special but not abnormal, not committed enough to be wholly eccentric, either. I went into debt. I doubted myself. I smoked cigarettes and tried about every other wrong thing a person can try, and I was nothing more than extremely fortunate that none of it killed me. I was groped, raped while drugged. Twice. I dropped out of school, then clawed my way back in. Went into more debt. I lost friends—to entropy and nonspecific attrition—divergent paths; to bad behavior and to death. I gained friends. I made messes. Sometimes, everything went well. Sometimes, I drank too much, was lonely, was depressed and broke and saw no way forward. I fell in love with a man who cheated, had my heart ripped from my chest. Metaphorically speaking.
Being human—for everyone—is complicated, challenging, difficult, painful, unpredictable, often overwhelming. You already know that, because you’re having your own life and it is a vibrant or dismal, churning, sharp, cold, warm, cozy, alienating, delightful, terrifying maelstrom, an island of calm, a mall of boredom, a well of darkness, a pool of light. Nothing entitles me to wag my finger at you or to ‘splain things to you. I don’t need to teach you what it’s like to be me, because you’re you—and have your own set of circumstances to deal with. This is my husband’s response to my mini-autobiography:
As a child, I was acculturated to masculinity while seeing quite plainly that girls had it better. They did not have to join fistfights and rock fights, play physical sports and risk humiliation, or fret about the amount of money they earned. They got close to the men that the boys yearned to know. I broke bones three times trying to excel at sports. My skin was dark enough to read as not quite white at a time and place where there were only two races. Later, my skin lightened and categories expanded and my racial ambiguity became invisible. I was short, shorter than all the boys and therefore not taken seriously in many contests, and shorter than many of the girls I longed to date. One year, just before college, I grew eight inches and my years of shortness became invisible. I was supposed to be successful in a world in which success was a moving target, constantly adjusted upwards depending on what I had accomplished. I flunked out of college, too immature to get myself up in the morning or to put myself to bed at night. We lived in eight different states before high school, so all friendships ended abruptly. I made allowances for people, afraid of losing them, my acquiescence attracting narcissists who, when I finally expressed an agenda of my own, would leave me. I fell in love with a woman who broke my heart. I developed one of the few skills that no one ever sees you do, so I always felt unappreciated.
Each of us is born into and grows up with different (historical, economic, genetic, political) advantages or disadvantages; different social positions; different cultural privileges accorded.
THe difficulties faced by one may be unimaginable to another, upon whom fortune may has smiled more often than not (and blessed, not despised, may both be).
Some have a marvelous capacity to reframe the worst of times as not only survivable, but fortifying if not ultimately rewarding; others lose heart or even embrace misery. And each of us lives as a better person for acknowledging and understanding such differences; for not assuming poverty of character where poverty of circumstances shows itself, and for exercising goodwill and compassion as a general rule.
But, I don’t need to teach you that. As a human, you already know it–and, if you do not (if you’re not curious, thoughtful, self-reflective, observant and insightful) then me putting you in your place (and providing guidelines for your improvement) will not actually make the world a better one.
Thing is: today, one faces contempt if one seems fortunate—unfairly fortunate—from, well, anyone else’s outside perspective. If one has managed to successfully rise to and above the occasions of his/her (all our) human difficulties, s/he can be dismissed. S/he is somehow less worthy if s/he is healthy and happy, reviled as simply having had it better, having had it easy. If one has not automatically fit in with the imagined normal, yet has managed heroically to belong nonetheless… if she has been ill, but is now well (or worse, has lived conscientiously and luckily and never been ill)… if he has floundered yet by sheer will and hard work, made of life something he cares to live (or has framed his floundering as life lessons and never whined)… if she has dealt with hunger, food, and need, yet managed to stay thin… if he has come through hell, yet found himself on his feet… or, has simply maintained (with all the effort and pain it entails) his general well-being… then s/he is ineligible for kudos. Health and wellbeing in this view are undeserved, even contemptible. Illness, frailty, misery become markers of a superior identity.
Kudos seem to go to those who have failed and continue to fail. A prize to Janette if she tries to drop those extra 60 pounds but gives up because it’s so hard, and then feels terrible about herself. A prize to Elton if he joins a walking club instead of just walking! A prize to Emory if she balances her bills at the end of the month to stay just this side of eviction (but not if she rents an apartment she can afford)! A prize to Judit for quitting alcohol, with which she’s been poisoning herself and her relationships for years.
Nothing to you but eye-rolling if you’ve faced your demons daily… if you’ve not allowed grief or loneliness to become a habit… if you’ve actually kept your chin up, your private parts wisely in your pants, your ducks in a row: it is only if you’ve failed or are failing that you are esteemed in this upside-down world.
Behind most well-intentioned articles, autobiographical posts and angry tweets that feature stigmatized identities, blame widespread ignorance and purport to give lessons in how we (who–presumably–encounter nothing bad in our own lives) ought to live is a misunderstanding of how stigma works and a profound under-appreciation of our shared human condition.