The Illusion of Safety

For a few decades of my life, I tried my damnedest to make sure that I felt safe because I never had that in my childhood. I shrank my world little by little until I was only leaving the house to go to the grocery store. Occasionally, I would go out with friends, but for the most part, I stuck to my house, feeling much like a doll in a glass cage*. I was very fragile, and I felt as if the slightest negative experience could crush me and/or reinforce my belief that my life was worthless. I sat alone in my glass tower until I was practically ossified. It felt safe, but as my last therapist said, “You can’t shrink your world enough to feel truly safe.” I hated her for saying it at the time, but she was right for two reasons. One, unless I never left my house at all and eschewed online communities completely, I was going to run into something/someone who made me uncomfortable/unhappy/angry/etc. Even if it was just a chance encounter at the grocery store, it could happen. Two, I couldn’t get away from the voices in my head. They were with me 24/7, and they were harsher than any external critic ever could be. The goal became making myself more comfortable in my own skin rather than trying to place myself in a bubble to keep out the negative influences.

It wasn’t easy. I can’t say I’ve succeeded completely or even mostly, but I’ve at least put the bubble away. Unfortunately, the tenor of social media, mostly Twitter, has started to put me back in that bubble because everything has become problematic for one reason or the other. I see liberals yelling on the daily about how other people are not as enlightened as they are or as progressive, and it’s not the usual emo prog suspects who are doing the shouting. The sad part is that they’ve taken a good idea, “Be kind to others” and morphed it into something that is, well, ugly. Be kind to others has become, “Be the way I want you to be which is purportedly for the benefit of others or you’re an evil person.” There’s a saying based on the Bible that I’ve always had issues with. It’s, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” On the surface, it seems like a fine saying. Treat other people the way you want to be treated–what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong is that what makes you feel good isn’t necessarily what makes other people feel good. In romantic relationships, for example, people experience love in different ways. Taking a heteronormative example, a woman feels loved when she’s being listened to or given little gifts randomly. Her boyfriend shows his love by making sure the gas is always filled in her car and fixing any computer issue she has. You can see where there might be problems here.

I think the saying should be, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them”, which is admittedly not as snappy, but it’s better advice. On the other hand, if you know that someone doesn’t show love in the same way you do, then try to accept the love they do show. My brother and I could not be more different, but I know he loves me because if there is anything broken in my house, he’ll fix it or walk me through it. He built my desktop computer for me, and he’s my go-to for all my computer needs. In return, I listen to his problems and help him with them, which is how I show love. Recently, he’s actually voiced his concerns for me and he asks how I’m doing, which is huge for him. I’m touched that he’s making the effort and impressed that he’s growing as a person. But, I don’t think it would have happened if I harangued him about it rather than just accepting him and appreciating him as he is.

This is how I feel about trying to change people in general, whether it’s their ideas or their behaviors. Think about a disagreement you’ve had with someone, one that is based on what seems like insurmountable differences. Were you able to change the other person’s mind by screaming at him and saying what a terrible person he was for believing what he believed? Probably not. Back to my brother. He was a staunch Republican who voted for W. twice. Nearing the second election, we had a heated disagreement as to that decision. He said it’s because W. espoused Christian values such as being against abortion. I told him that abortion is lower during Democratic presidential tenures than it is during Republican ones. I also asked if leading us into a fictitious war is a part of Christian value or cutting money for education. He acknowledged that wasn’t very Christian-like, but he stood his ground. We argued some more until he finally yelled that he had the right to his opinion. That stopped me because he’s right–he does. His opinion might be dead wrong, but I wasn’t going to change his mind by hectoring him about it.

Instead, we just talked about issues, and I gave him as much information as I could glean about each issue. He started to see for himself that W. was a piece of shit (my words, not his) without me having to hammer him over the head with it. He did vote for W. a second time, but it was more because he didn’t like Kerry (and I can’t blame him) than that he was enthusiastic about W. During the next four years, we continued to have these discussions. As he grew more and more disenchanted with W., I didn’t tell him, “I told you so” or rub his nose in it. I simply continued to have those discussions with him and to validate his evolving feelings. By the time the 2008 elections came around, he had renounce the GOP, and he voted for Obama. I was never prouder of him than I was in that moment. He doesn’t call himself a Democrat, but he’s fallen far off that Republican wagon. A few months after his conversion, he called me saying, “Minna, the Republicans lie on their website.” I said, “Yeah, I know.” He said, “No, I mean, they actually lie on their website.” He couldn’t believe they would publish flat-out lies, even though that’s what I’ve been telling him for eight years. He had to see it for himself, and one of his strengths is that he’ll change his mind if he’s presented with enough facts that contradict his current beliefs.

The thing is, he’s a good man with a generous heart. He’s an intensely moral man as well, and it would have been a shame if I had lost sight of that during the time he was a W. supporter. One of my biggest gripes about online communities is that it’s too easy to reduce things to black and white (literally and figuratively). Someone is a hero until s/he says or does one thing that is deemed problematic. Then, s/he is cast out of the community forever, never to be spoken of again. There is not much room for people to be, well, people. Messy, complicated, contradictory, far from perfect people. I see too many people frantically trying to make the online world their safe space, and it’s simply not possible. More to the point, it’s not desirable.

Side road about safe spaces. Safe spaces are necessary, especially for minorities who have to navigate a hostile world on a daily basis. When I used to do performing, I occasionally participated in events that were women only because I needed that space to create art that was out of my comfort zone. In that space, I did a performance piece that had me stripping to my panties by the end of the piece. It was one of the best works I’ve done, and I never would have created it if i had to perform it before a mixed audience. I would have been too worried about being ogled or harassed or having guys focus solely on the ‘omigod, I can see titties!’ bit rather than the message I was trying to convey.** It was an empowering experience, and it doesn’t hurt that I received a standing ovation at the end of the piece.*** I will cherish that memory forever and the amazing energy of the women in the joint that night. However, there came a time where I felt more constricted than liberated by performing in women-only spaces. I wanted to see how my performances would be received by a broader audience, but that only happened because I was able to strengthen my resolve by performing in women-only spaces first.

Side road to the side road. The internet can be an incredible cruel place, especially to women. Online harassment is real and pervasive, and it’s intensified by the fact that you can do it anonymously. It also helps that most social media platforms don’t take online abuse seriously because they are more concerned with retaining and adding as many users as they can. Women who speak up online get attacked more often and in specific ways than do men. It can be wearying to have to fight off trolls all day long, so I understand the zero tolerance policy that many women have. The problem is, though, that once you decide anyone who disagrees with you is a troll, there isn’t any room for discussion. Again, I want to emphasize that it can be difficult if not impossible to separate the trolls from the people who are interested in discussion. My policy tends to be give the person the benefit of the doubt for two tweets, but I only have 2500 followers. I can see how if you have tens of thousands or more on a daily basis, you might not be willing to give some rando the benefit of the doubt for even one tweet.

I don’t have an issue with that so much as I do with the people who are constantly scolding others for not being progressive enough according to them. They brush aside any discussion, no matter how rational, resorting to insults and ad hominems when they’re not able to respond with reason. I’m about to say something controversial in certain lefty circles: personal experience is important, but it’s not everything. I’m disturbed by how being part of a group is supposed to inoculate you from any criticism of what you say about said group. In addition, there’s a tandem belief that no one should ever be judged or shamed for her decisions/lifestyle, which is ludicrous. It’s also hypocritical because the people who are the loudest about not being judged/shamed are doing exactly the same thing to the people they’re yelling at.

Pointing out that someone made a bad decision is not shaming in and of itself. And, sometimes, shaming is the proper response to egregious behavior. In addition, we love to judge/shame conservatives, but we bristle when the same is applied to us. I have no problems judging Donald Trump or the people who support him. From a more personal example long ago, I worked with someone who was on welfare. She was a single mom struggling to make ends meet. She was always talking about how she didn’t have enough money, sometimes even to feed her kid, and yet, she bought herself a $1500 bed and baby Jordan kicks for her kid who’ll outgrow them in two months. I will fully admit I’ve never had to worry about money in my life–I’m extremely privileged in that way. I will also add that poor people are fucked because they’re surrounded with messages of consumerism in which they cannot partake. That said, she was buying Jordan shoes over food for her kid. I can say that is a bad decision, and I don’t think it should be controversial. I can theorize all day long why she made that choice, but at the end of the day, her kid was going hungry.

i think we’ve swung too far in the direction of never making anyone feel bad ever because for too long, anything outside the norm was considered bad or evil. I don’t know if this is a product of the helicopter parent generation in which every kid gets a trophy for participating, but it makes me uncomfortable. Back to my example above, she wasn’t a close friend, so I never said anything when she complained about not having money, but had she been a friend of mine, I would have tactfully pointed out that she’s not spending her money in an optimal way. Or, at least I would have wanted to. I have codependency issues, and one of them is not speaking up when I want to keep the peace–which is nearly all the time. But, at some point, simply agreeing with a friend no matter what isn’t helpful–when taken to the extreme, it’s enabling that friend to continue with his destructive habits. I’ll give you a personal ¬†example. My last boyfriend was emotionally abusive, and I think he had the capacity to be physically abusive as well, but fortunately, that relationship ended before it ever reached that point. He found fault in almost everything I did or said, and even though we only dated four or five months, he seriously eroded my self-esteem. My friends were supportive of me, but they were also pretty frank about questioning the soundness of the relationship. I was able to see pretty early on that there were problems in the relationship, and I’d like to think I wouldn’t have stayed in it much longer if he hadn’t dumped me first, but I can’t say for sure. I will say that if my friends hadn’t been candid about their feelings about him, I probably wouldn’t have gotten over it as quickly as I did.

There’s this trend of telling people what they should and shouldn’t say to _______ insert group here. I am not completely opposed to this, but at the same time, it’s folly to think you can control what other people say to you all the time. In addition, you’re only setting yourself up for constant frustration if you insist that everyone act/talk the way you think they should. Also, you’re stifling your own growth is you stay in your bubble without any resistance from anyone around you. I’m saying this from personal experience, and part of my frustration is because this outer stricture is matching the voices inside my head. The world is not a safe place, for better and for worse, and while it’s good to have a place or people you consider your shelter, you have to navigate the real world at some point. You’re doing yourself no favors if you try to shape the world around you to your own preference. Sometimes, you have to step out of your bubble and face the world head on.



*Yes, I’m mixing my metaphors. Deal.

**Peeling off the outer layers of a constructed personality to reach the essence within, but that’s not as tantalizing as ‘titties!’.

***Don’t be too impressed. This is Minnesota, after all, where we’ll give a standing ovation to a third-grade Christmas play.

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