Blame: growth's nemesis.
While my partner and I go through our separate separation processes, we're both travelling parallel paths to self-knowledge a little. We're both learning about re-establishing our boundaries; we've both recognised some of our recurring relationship patterns that don't work in our favour; we've both tried to come to terms with our baggage. Simply put, we're following the classic long-term relationship breakup process:
The heartbreaking thing about all self-improvement is that it couldn't have happened earlier. A few weeks ago, she asked me if there was some moment in the past that I would go back to, some singular, particular moment where I could have made a different choice and had everything go differently, something that could have saved us from our current mutual heartbreaks.
But I couldn't think of one. I've made a lot of mistakes, and I can think of some ways that I could have set up better boundaries, but I can't think of anything I'd change. Life doesn't give us the option to just go back and fix the past, so I do my best not to dwell on those types of hypotheticals. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I've avoided science fiction over the years; I'd rather deal with those sorts of hypotheticals outside of narrative.
As I've said before, I'm doing my best to avoid the act of blame in my life. Right now, blame is growth's nemesis. I have no interest in blaming my partner, my upbringing, or myself for the way my marriage and relationship have gone. I will take responsibility for the careless words I've said and the ways I've given in to self-created pressures, but I need to keep blame out of it. It's been a difficult tension to maintain, but a good one to practice. I find it much easier to sympathize with people and see their hearts clearly when I try to frame their behaviour without blaming them for my own pain.
Over the last few weeks, I've tried to think about how I would go back and change things, to make it all better, to fix things, but there's no way to go back, no matter what Jay Gatsby (embedded above) thinks. I tried to contort my brain to imagine such a moment, but my efforts fell short. Instead, I have to admit to myself that our personalities smashed up against one another and over the years we grew apart, little choice by little choice. It's heartbreaking, of course, to lose a friend this way, but that's just how it's gone. And I can't blame anybody for it.
Because that's the nature of personal growth, of the experiences that make us who we are. We learn where our boundaries are and move them around over time; we discover needs we never knew; we learn that our upbringings can only take us so far.
And there's no one to blame for that.
I admit that privilege is a thing: as a white, cisgendered, middle class, educated male, I have some privileges that others don't have to deal with. Even as I tentatively plan to go back overseas in a few years, I am keenly aware of the privilege I will carry with me, and chances are I will use that privilege to my advantage. My white, male forbears have set up the world for my success, and have even provided excuses for me if fail. Lucky me.
One of the most discouraging things about having privilege is the fact that there's no way to escape it. Once I've admitted to it, it becomes an immediate, abstract, indefinable burden. My privilege becomes a weak structural support for any argument, a fallacy that I can't escape. If ever somebody doesn't like what I have to say or think, they can make an appeal to privilege and I will likely shut up, not wishing to create a power imbalance. For a sensitive person, the "You think that way because of your privilege" is an effective silencer; I don't want to contribute to the social structures that put me in this position, but my inherent privilege makes it impossible to escape the attack. Silence is the only option.
I'm already feeling stuck in the cycle as I'm trying to discuss it and want to abort this post right now, but I'd like to try to explain the problem I find myself in right now:
I admit that I have privilege, but I'm getting weary of trying to find a way around it. There's a cycle of powerlessness associated with all "You're privileged" attacks. "Privilege" and "enabling," both legitimate, real psychological and social phenomena, can also be used to silence and disempower. I don't know how to articulate this without digging myself into a hole, but perhaps I can do it with a bulleted dialogue:
But I also believe that we need to hear individual voices, that understanding one another comes first. Accusations of "privilege" should not be used as an argumentative bludgeoning stick. Any accusation that decreases empathy and sympathy will breed resentment because they take away agency, take away a voice. Privilege is a real thing, but using is as a tool to derail arguments, to silence ideas, or to decrease the power of empathy, seems like a misuse of the term.
Of course, I'm probably using my own privilege to redefine the term in a way that benefits me.
And the cycle continues.
Balance: Maslow & Jenga.
On Thursday evening, I attended a little conversation/meetup where people discussed "Balance." In that context, we talked about how to keep our lives balanced/keep balance in our lives despite the many different pressures we face from self, relationships, work, and family. Many people echoed the sorts of things I've been learning from Nonviolent Communication, my readings about trauma, as well as my work with counsellors and a psychologist. It felt good to hear how other people deal with balance in their own lives, especially since I feel as if I've done a terrible job at keeping balance in my own life.
As I listened, I thought a little about choice and agency, and I suggested that I feel balanced when I feel I have the agency to say "yes" or "no" to a given situation. It's hard to feel balanced when somebody or something forces my hand, so agency, as a measure of balance, made sense to me. The conversation bounced around on the "agency" theme for a bit and people fleshed it out far better than I ever could.
At some point, one group member mentioned Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs. I perked up because I'm quite familiar with the model from University and because I've used it in a few different contexts over the years. When we tried homeschooling our eldest daughter in kindergarten, for example, we had her make her own hierarchy of what her values were, based on the pyramid. I, for one, have no interest in ever using models the way they're supposed to be used, so applying the Hierarchy to kindergarten or to overall life "balance" is perfectly acceptable to me, as long as it sort-of works.
And I got a little bit of a brainstorm, something obvious I'd never considered before: Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs is shaped like a pyramid for a reason: The larger section at the bottom holds the rest of it up. The upper portions don't need to be so big, but they need a solid foundation for support. If something gets taken out of the lower sections, the upper sections will suffer; if something gets taken out of the upper sections, parts of the lower section aren't doing as much work as they could. And a poorly designed pyramid can lead to ugly results, like what happened to the Bent Pyramid at Dashur.
I remember a professor suggesting to me that Maslow did not think everybody could get to the top of the pyramid, to the level of self-actualization. I, however, think we can all get there in our own ways and that it's hard to have a healthy, balanced life if we don't have access to at least part of the tip of the pyramid. A person who can't self-actualize, in my opinion, will feel incomplete.
So if I treat the Maslow Pyramid as a picture of the complete self, as a "whole" person, we can squeeze lots of things into our personal needs pyramids. Some relationships might take part in all the levels, and some might just fit into one of the levels. What matters is that we don't either undermine our support by taking a bite out of a lower level, or trying to squeeze so much into an upper level that the lower levels can't support it. Balance, baby.
But the idea of taking bites out of the pyramid also got me thinking about something else: Jenga. Jenga is a balancing game as well. Let's say we're each a Jenga tower. As stresses hit our lives, we can easily "take a block from the bottom and put it on top." This is normative: it's rare to not have a few stresses here and there; it's boring to have a complete, hole-less Jenga tower. However, the higher our Jenga tower is, the more holes it has, the less balanced it is, the more likely it is to topple over. A tall, hole-y Jenga tower might stand tall, but it's more likely to topple, either when the wrong block gets removed, or when an outside force shakes it.
In my Jenga metaphor, we aim to be as balanced as possible, so I have to stray from traditional Jenga rules a little: when a stress passes by, you can take blocks from the top and put them back into the bottom. For example. within the next week I might b able to put some of the "Master's Project" blocks from the top of my tower back to the bottom. I will likely feel more balanced when that Master's project isn't on my plate anymore.
It's unlikely that you'll ever have a stress-free life, so you'll always have a few holes in the tower and a few blocks on top. I like this metaphor because it doesn't necessarily prioritize as much as the Maslow one does.
Neither are perfect metaphors, but I look forward to playing with them a little.
Here are the two ugly diagrams I made for my notes while I was listening:
Obviously, those diagrams suck and don't really say anything. But when I get back over to the Mainland, maybe I'll make a video with Jenga blocks.
Agency vs. Objectification.
I'm not a confident person. I can deal with that. This plan to limit my use of social media is one part of me trying to increase/improve my sense of self-confidence.
This lack of self-confidence can have some serious negative effects: it makes me unnecessarily stress out about my upcoming research project for my Master's in Education degree; it makes me frightened about self-promoting my own music. There are countless ways that I don't feel adequate.
A lack of self-confidence was rather useful being raised in the church. I could always come across as "humble" because I had no self-confidence. This misreading of the nature of both humility and confidence served me well in the church context because I didn't have an ego to "get past" in order to "serve."
But with relationships, my lack of self-confidence has always been a problem. I squandered many dates by "not stepping up" to the next level, whatevertheheck that might have been at that time. I avoided dates and girlfriends in the name of my lack of self-confidence.
And when I would enter relationships, I'd fall into a seemingly unique hole: I'd be so afraid of objectifying a woman that I would essentially act asexually. I'd feel like any sexual suggestion or idea would essentially make me into a sexist pig who couldn't see past a woman's body. And this still carries on to today in some aspects; I still fear coming off as a "bro" if I make a comment about a woman's appearance. This is good for avoiding making sexist remarks; this is bad for acknowledging a woman's sexuality or acknowledging the time and money women put in to their appearance.
For the embedded episode of This Week In Blackness Prime above, the discussion starts at 42:28.
For the purpose of this weblog, I'd like to highlight the following explanation, starting at 54:20 in the TWIB Prime podcast embedded above.
or, in reference to the tweet that they refer to in the show,
I'd never thought about it that way. That might be helpful. At those times when my partner[s] have agency over themselves, I need to acknowledge and encourage that agency in any way I can. The question might be, "Do I have the self-confidence to accurately encourage that agency in my relationships?" and "What would that look like?"
Now I just need to talk to my wife about it and see what she thinks.
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