That Which We Resist Persists, a commentary on a passage from Nella Larsen’s Passing

Today I was reading Nella Larsen’s novella Passing when a particular passage jumped out at me:

“That strange, and to her fantastic, notion of Brian’s of going off to Brazil which, though unmentioned, yet lived within him; how it frightened her, and – yes, angered her!….

“He had never spoken of his desire since that long-ago time of storm and strain, of hateful and nearly disastrous quarreling, when she had so firmly opposed him, so sensibly pointed out its utter impossibility and its probable consequences to her and the boys, and had even hinted at a dissolution of their marriage in the event of his persistence in his idea. No, there had been, in all the years that they had lived together since then, no other talk of it, no more than there had been any other quarreling or any other threats. But because, so she insisted, the bond of flesh and spirit between them was so strong, she knew, had always known, that his dissatisfaction had continued, as had his dislike and disgust for his profession and his country…

“It wasn’t now, as it had been once, that she was afraid that he would throw everything aside and rush off to the remote place of his heart’s desire. He wouldn’t, she knew. He was fond of her, loved her, in his slightly undemonstrative way. And there were the boys….

“It was only that she wanted him to be happy, resenting, however, his inability to be so with things as they were, and never acknowledging that though she did want him to be happy, it was only in her own way and by some plan of hers for him that she truly desired him to be so. Nor did she admit that all other plans, all other ways, she regarded as menaces, more or less indirect, to that security of place and substance which she insisted upon for her sons and in a lesser degree for herself.”

Wow! I really appreciate the psychological subtlety as well as the universality of this passage. It encapsulates so well the common dynamics that go on between couples. It is unfortunate, but, in many long-term relationships, people are coerced into relinquishing pieces of themselves, aspects of their hearts’ desires in response to the selfishness and insecurity of their partners.

I have seen people pushed into giving up school, abandoning their dreams of entrepreneurship, dumbing down their talents, abandoning friends, and even family. This list goes on. But, for me – because I am keenly aware that I have only one incarnation that I know of for certain – I am not willing to do this.

I accepted long ago that my belief system necessitates certain trade-offs. What other people call “security,” for example, I do not have. But what other people view as security I view as minimum-security prison. I am also aware of my privilege to hold these beliefs due to the country and time period in which I live. In many parts of the world, people, especially women, still face dire consequences for not submitting to society’s plan for their lives. I plan to use my privilege to live my life full out, whatever that means to me over the years. I accept that this makes me an oddball. While other single women often look at couples with a sigh in their hearts and a lump in their throats, I view relationships as calculated risks, mostly ego-alliances, and socially sanctioned refuges from fear and insecurity. Such relationships often encourage mediocrity, consumerism, frustration, and stagnation.

On the other hand, I celebrate the fact that there are also vibrant, dynamic couples in which both parties are evolving, living their lives full out, and actively supporting each other’s dreams, goals, desires, and happiness. In these partnerships, each person feels free to be fully themselves and to pursue their deepest longings, free from emotional blackmail. I admire and respect such couples. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are couples in which neither party has desires outside the culturally-approved goals of a “normal” life, an easy retirement, and a gentle coast into the grave. These couples are traditionally-minded and very well matched. They are doing no one any harm.

But in the many cases in which people are clinging to each other in a desperate attempt to control the natural unpredictability of life, where one or both parties apply external restrictions and psychological manipulation in order to prevent their partners from growing and changing, where people have resigned themselves to an unsatisfactory life out of guilt or obligation, I would hasten to remind such people that Impermanence is an inescapable fact of life.

The protagonist in Passing assumes that she can beat back the passionate longing in her husband to explore Brazil, and pursue other career paths, with a barrage of threats, manipulation, blackmail, and fighting. She is wholly and singularly concerned with her own needs, comfort, and happiness, not his. She comes to learn that what we try to deny in ourselves, and in others, has a sneaky way of rising to the surface anyway. Then we are left not only with the original problem of Impermanence, but an even greater feeling of panic, failure, and helplessness.

The best way to deal with change is to get out in front of it and embrace it. (It’s coming anyway).

Peace and blessings,

Raven

Do You Want “Change” or a Revolution?

With the turning of the seasons come shifts in attitudes and perspectives. A new year tends to bring new resolve towards achieving goals, and manifesting our deepest desires. The prospect of a new and different type of president has filled our common talk-space with various chirps of rage, dread, cautious hope, and giddy elation.

The common idea underlying all of the above is a longing for “change.” The New Year brings with it hopes for change. Many presidents have won elections promising change. Somehow, though, nothing, or little, ever changes. Why is that? Do we really want change? If so, is “change” enough? Or is revolution what we really need?

Revolution, based on the word revolve, means to turn things around. A revolutionary acts fearlessly (which doesn’t mean not feeling fear, but acting boldly in the face of fear). A revolutionary challenges existing practices, institutions, and people in power, questioning their very validity. They are willing to upset the status quo in order to achieve their goals, whatever that means (Vocabulary.com). There are very few genuine revolutionaries.

Artists of all kinds – fine artists, poets, musicians, performers – tend to have revolutionary temperaments. It just seems to come with the package. We spend a lot of time looking and observing; feeling everything deeply, too deeply; analyzing and questioning; making connections between disparate things, connections other people don’t seem to see; trying and failing to communicate what we see to the larger world.

"After the Tears Dry" 16" X 12", Acrylic on canvas
“After the Tears Dry” 16″ X 12″, Acrylic on canvas

This is the real reason, in my opinion, for the starving artist stereotype. It’s not that people don’t care about art or that art is not valuable, it’s that the temperament to make art and the temperament to make money are not often found in the same person. These two things require different skills, different mindsets, different priorities. It’s hard to be a wealthy revolutionary. Society rewards conformity and predictability, not radical change.

And this is what hinders many people, artists and non-artists alike, from truly behaving in revolutionary ways. Society and its denizens will punish you if you do. You might want to revolutionize relationships, or workplaces, or politics, or the financial system. But when you attempt these things, you will be punished. Not jailed, necessarily. But criticized, threatened, ostracized, ridiculed, abandoned. You will lose relationships. And money. And status.  Many people talk a good game. But when it really comes down to it, most shrink back and do as they’re told, or continue to do as they’ve always done. This isn’t a criticism. Pressure is pressure; it’s hard to bear. But it’s better to live in such a way that your words and your actions are a match.

Therefore, many people who truly live revolutionarily, in whatever sense, do so quietly. This is the best way. People who talk a lot and make a big outward show out of going against the grain usually turn out to be all talk; their lives are often quite conventional. The few people I’ve met who are truly living counter-culturally, are quiet but insistent about it. They tend to hurt people’s feelings without trying. They withstand the rejection of family, friends, and society at large in order to be true to their beliefs. They give up certain privileges and comforts if it contradicts their sense of what is right. For all the people who prattle on about “change,” few are willing to pay the price of the revolutionary.

Although I’ve never thought about this before today, I find myself naturally attracted to the revolutionaries. The small price I’ve paid is loneliness and sometimes isolation and/or being misunderstood. I can tolerate this. I would rather pay the price than be a hypocrite. I’d rather be isolated and uncomfortable for being who I am than have stability and comfort at the cost of my integrity.

So, to be more specific, here are some examples. I believe that monogamy is optional, not mandatory. Non-monogamy is a healthy and more realistic alternative and something I believe in. All of the institutions and ingrained beliefs that support and mandate marriage and monogamy are based on sexism and the transfer of property. I actively question all of these beliefs. Religion is a way of coping with life but it does not matter in any kind of life or death sense. All decisions based on fear are wrong. I believe in choosing what works for me. Through my eclectic spiritual practice, I have become a more loving, wise, balanced, and resilient person.

The current political structure is bankrupt. Community organizing is the pathway to lasting change. The current law enforcement system is also hopelessly corrupt. I believe it should be dismantled altogether and a new system based on community empowerment and community responsiveness should be in place. In other words, having police prowling around looking for people to “get” should be done away with. Rather, they should respond to empowered community law enforcement task forces who should be voted into their positions by their communities.

These are just a sample of some of my unpopular beliefs. I usually keep them to myself. I provided them here only as an example. I believe the next (successful) revolutionary movement will be stealthy, quiet, thoroughly tested and integrated into many facets of life. As a take on that famous Gandhi quote: “Be the revolution you wish to see in the world.” I would add: be consistent, and be quiet about it.

Peace and blessings,

Raven

The Crucial Nature of Self-Respect for Marginalized Groups

I had the pleasure of watching this archival footage this morning after a weekend of (coincidentally, if you believe in such things) meditating on the supreme importance of self-respect in my own life.

Self-respect, self-esteem, and self-confidence are inextricably linked. They are also persuasive. Our president-elect has little to recommend himself besides a fat wallet and a baffling overabundance of self-confidence. Yet, the power of self-confidence (I’m choosing to use the terms self-respect, self-esteem, and self-confidence more or less interchangeably) was influential enough to earn him the highest honor in the world – the United States presidency.

For those of us with slimmer wallets and rockier childhoods, self-respect is often harder to come by. Members of marginalized groups – women, homosexuals, people of color, those with physical and/or mental challenges, religious minorities, etc. – can have a hard time galvanizing the protective strength of self-confidence in the face of blatant disrespect, discrimination, and mistreatment. It’s great when “allies” come alongside and allow us to borrow their confidence. But that is not a lasting solution. Self-respect is self-generated – even if you didn’t get it from your parents, even if you won’t get it from society. Everything worth having is generated from within.

But how? How can we generate self-respect when everything around us – from society’s structures, to advertising, to friends and family, – seems to be telling us that we really don’t deserve it? How can we learn self-respect, and demand it from others, no apologies, no excuses? I don’t have all the answers, but, as a member of several marginalized groups, here’s what’s working for me:

  1. Remind yourself that you were socialized not to value yourself. Really think about how true that is.
  2. Remind yourself that the dominant culture was socialized not to value you.
  3. Set the intention to forgive yourself – and them – for your collective ignorance. But don’t prematurely force forgiveness. You have to feel the rage first. The forgiveness comes later, if you let it.
  4. Close your eyes and look deeply at who you are. See yourself as a new mother staring at her freshly bathed, button-nosed, newborn child. Smile and cherish everything about yourself. You are both the mother and the child.
  5. Review your mistakes, honestly but without judgment. They were born out of ignorance. Recognize those mistakes as part of that precious newborn. Make amends as necessary.
  6. Visualize who you want to be. Don’t focus only on superficial or cosmetic aspects of yourself. What kind of person do you want to be? See that person in as much detail as possible. In your mind, watch that person move and be in the world. Watch them as they talk to and interact with others. Admire that person’s confidence and poise. Think how proud you are of who that newborn has become!
  7. Spend some time alone in spiritual practice. For me, that’s meditation and walking. For you, it could be prayer, or sewing, or washing the car, or mountain-climbing, or working a puzzle. Be brave and do it alone. Don’t let anyone distract you. This is to allow your new way of thinking to seep into your sub-conscious. Changing mental habits takes a lot of practice.
  8. Commit to yourself. Make a promise to yourself that you will not allow anyone  to violate your feelings of self-respect. You can’t control other people’s actions, but you can control how much access they get to you. You can control your response. Their need to disrespect you shows how fragile their own self-esteem is. Do not internalize their disrespect. Remember, you are that precious newborn and the mother. Protect that baby!
  9. Find someone who gets it and talk to them. This can be hard. Not everyone can be trusted with our hearts. And no one is perfect. But when you find someone who can listen to you, and who supports your journey towards self-respect, let them help you. Allow them to give you what you need.
  10. Once you’ve been practicing the above for a while, it gets easier. Go back to each step as needed. Now you’re ready to help someone else. You can now be a listening ear to someone else who needs self-respect. You have every right to be proud of yourself. You have earned your own respect.

I hope these tips were helpful. The next post will be a poem about the beauty of self-respect.