You who are so wounded

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.





Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

We also have a backstage—the part of our experience that is not on public display and which we seek to keep private. The process of hiding our backstage processes and only showing our front stage is what Goffman calls “mystification,” meaning, let’s say, that the host likes to clean the sink, vacuum the stairs and wipe the finger prints off the doorjamb before the guest arrives. Arriving, we say, “Wow, your house is beautiful! I wish mine was this clean,” as if we believe that their home always looks spotless. As if we do not also clean our homes when we have company. We seek to mystify, and we allow ourselves to be mystified by others.

Our backstage is like a wait station at a fancy restaurant. It is like the slaughterhouse from which neatly wrapped steaks emerge for the grocery shelves. It is like the dressing room where the athletes are naked and vulnerable; it is like the teacher’s lounge at the middle school. Our backstage is our bathroom. We have many physical backstages in life, which suggests that for every backstage there is a potential front stage where we present what is presentable. The delicious plate of food, delivered by a clean, happy waitperson, turns the diner into an audience. The would-be backyard barbecuer, looking for the right cut of meat on display at Safeway, is the audience for that performance of “Bloody butchery? What bloody butchery?” The well-lit stadium, filled with fans and magnified by the media, makes an audience out of millions of people both local and remote. The classroom turns students into an audience for the school’s performance of “We Will Tell You What to Think About and How to Think About It.” The living room, where we open the front door dressed and made-up to greet our dinner guests, is the setting for our performance of “Aren’t You Impressed?” or at least “Please, Like Me and my House.”

Another kind of backstage is what we’re thinking and feeling behind the expression that we’re wearing on our faces. Front stage, we look like we’re paying attention; we’re taking good notes on the guest lecture; we’re sitting up straight. Or, we’re performing something else, the rebel version: “I don’t care. You don’t scare me and you don’t interest me, so I’m going to read the newspaper AND listen to my i-pod while you talk. I’m going to text my friends, or tap on my laptop keys, because I don’t care.” That’s a front-stage performance of high status, a performance titled, “I’m too important to be bothered with you.” (What we don’t think that we’re performing is, “I’m too stupid to be able to follow what you’re saying,” Or, “I’m a narcissistic pain in the arse.” ) But, we’re not always in control of how our performances are perceived. And, backstage, we might be having an experience that we desperately seek to hide in our outer expression. If I have a migraine at an important job interview, I must not crease my brow or appear uninterested. If I feel incompetent or vulnerable or needy at a job interview, I must not appear so; I will smile and nod and perform what I do not feel in order to mystify my audience, my interviewer.

Whenver we are in the presence of others, we have a backstage and a front stage operating. When we are intimate with others- our best friend, our twin sister, our lover- the backstage may be far less monitored: we pick our toenails as we watch The Daily Show, or burp, or fart; we leave the bathroom door open when we use the toilet. Managing the impression that we make on others is exhausting, and we are relieved when the burden is significantly lessened by familiarity, love, affection and trust. But even with our closest mates, we do not reveal everything. There is always, always something held back, if not consciously then in spite of ourselves. We have schemes, fantasies, desires that we have never shared and never will. Joseph Campbell called it the Shadow or the Shadow Self; Billy Joel called it “the Stranger.” Erving Goffman would not say there is one essential self, but rather many potential selves, and points out that the first meaning of the word person is mask, which implies that there is something behind the mask. He would say it’s another mask.

I am not saying that everything we do is a performance. If I sneeze because sneezing accomplishes a social goal for myself, such as allowing me to leave the room momentarily to collect myself, that is a performance. If I sneeze to demonstrate to someone in the elevator that her perfume really, truly is taking up too much space, that sneeze is my performance of victimhood, meant not as a low-status move but as a way to demonstrate to the perfume-wearer that I have been mightily offended by her scent overtaking my personal boundaries—my performance of “Victimhood-as-Power.” I am better than she, because she has made me suffer. If I sneeze because I have  a tickle and can’t stop the sneeze, the sneeze isn’t a performance, but everything I do afterwards is a performance: I will try to save face. Check to make sure there’s nothing embarrassing clinging to my skin. Wipe my nose with a Kleenex, perhaps trying to hide the nose-wiping, which is a sort of performance of modesty, a performance of “I don’t really have a body or bodily fluids.” I will save face by apologizing, “Excuse me!” or making a joke: “Kablooey!” or by blaming something outside of my control: “Damn pollen!” I will try to create affiliation: “Anybody else have allergies? Then you know how bad it is!” Or, I will pretend nothing happened. A performance of “Sneeze? What sneeze?” or “I’m too  important or secure to be bothered or stopped by a reflex.”

Actors have to understand all this, or they suck. Bad actors look like they’re faking it; we don’t buy their performances. Bad actors don’t get that their characters are made up of little performances; that their characters have backstages from which front-stage actions are set in motion. Characters in a play come to life when the actor does what characters in real life do: negotiate status. Occupy multiple roles before multiple audiences. Maintain and protect a backstage while creating and sustaining a front stage. Seek to mystify. Preserve face. Make, use and misuse symbols. Perform rites and rituals. Perform roles. An actor whose character fails to do these things is a bad actor. A one-dimensional actor. An actor who does not understand human behavior. In other words, the actor must, within the context of the play, perform a character who is, himself, performing for the other characters. An actor’s performance of a role is a performance of a person who is performing something. It is said of Shakespeare that his characters’ backstages are transparent to the audience. When Hamlet turns to the audience and wrestles with “To be or not to be,” we see his backstage. But, behind that backstage is perhaps another backstage- that of a man who is performing a feat of logic—“To die, to sleep—to sleep, perchance to dream…” in the face of the illogical. At the very least, behind Hamlet’s visible backstage, there is an actor portraying Hamlet, and that actor’s own backstage: he has a cold. His marriage is falling apart. He has a hangover. He is terribly insecure and fears the critic from the Denver Post who he knows is in the front row tonight.

The Academy may not recognize your amazing gifts, but…

… most people are natural actors. It’s how we develop a sense of self, and how we maintain our roles in families and social and professional circles. Even the word “role” points to performance. I suppose you can imagine a person raised by wolves who, you argue, is NOT an actor, but I’d argue back that wolves live in social hierarchies and have rules, and whoever lives among wolves as a wolf will still have to perform status, if nothing else.

Acting is something you already do, whether you’re aware of it or not. Let me explain what I mean. Humans are social creatures. Human society is structured through rituals and symbols. We are, as Kenneth Burke once said, the symbol-making, symbol-using, symbol-misusing animal. We use symbolic interaction to communicate meaning. Symbols (language, gestures and ways of moving, facial expressions, objects and images, structures, sounds and combinations of sounds)—the meanings of these are linked to their symbolic power: our experiences of human social reality and our place in it are mediated by symbols. People make, use and misuse symbols to survive in a social environment, to create families, groups, teams, cultures and subcultures, to create or acquire and maintain power.

In a human hierarchy created and sustained through symbolic interaction, we are hyper-alert to the minutest of signs given off by others, particularly those whose survival depends upon us and whose survival reflects back upon our own competence, our own roles and our ability to fulfill them (I am a good mother whose child is healthy and cared for; I am a good father who provides for my family; I am a good babysitter who can be trusted).

We are hyper-alert to the signs given off, in our presence, by those upon whose favor our own survival and success may rest. I pay particular attention to the nuances of my boss’s communication when I am in her presence—does she avoid conversation? Laugh at my jokes? Appear to like me? Appear indifferent?

We may be hyper-alert to someone who might give or withhold affection, since affection is a strong motivator: was Mom a little reserved on the phone? Does she still love me?

We may be hyper-alert to someone other than a parent with whom we share a blood bond reinforced by affection and by traditional role expectations, such as a younger sibling.

We are less hyper-alert to to the signs given off by those, such as grandparents, who hold no power over us and whose affection for us does not determine our sense of self-worth, although if the grandparent  is very wealthy and we stand to inherit a significant sum when they die, we may be more hyper-alert to the signs of affection or disapproval that the grandparent gives off, and act differently in response.

We are less alert with those with whom we share the same amount of power, and for whom we hold little or no responsibility.

We are not alert at all to those with less power or status than we hold ourselves and for whom we are not responsible, since it does not matter to us whether they like us or not, or whether they are happy, unhappy, alive or dead. (This is one reason that those who occupy a low status might be compelled to force themselves into view, to make others take notice—because others have communicated that they, the low-status persons, are not worth bothering about. That can be enraging in some circumstances, such as when power, possession of resources and health are flaunted in the face of lack and suffering). Sometimes, it’s true, self-interest (that is, for example, the alleviation of guilt, the promise of heaven or the pleasant sense of purpose and worth that altruism feeds) overcomes self-absorption and makes us care about the weaker, poorer, sicker and less fortunate.

Being alert to the signs given off by others, we respond to those signs accordingly. We “act” a certain way in order to elicit approval, to threaten, to communicate deference, to demonstrate affiliation or superiority. We act dismissively, we act friendly, we act huffy or aloof, we act like we are enjoying ourselves. We act. What we “act like” is our performance for others.