On Angst and Finding Your Inner Bruce Willis
Iâ€™d like to invite you to do an exercise with me. I know that exercises are your favorite thing.
It goes like this: start by drawing a basic wheel. Label each spoke with a â€śsocial locationâ€ť; the standard ones are things like gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, ability, and age, but you can add whatever else you like (height, penmanship, toes like sausages).
Next, mark an â€śxâ€ť along each spoke representing the amount of oppression youâ€™ve experienced in that social location. The more oppression youâ€™ve felt, the closer to the inner circle you should mark your x.
Final step: connect your xâ€™s.
Youâ€™re looking at a visual representation of the amount of privilege you have. If youâ€™re peering down at a nearly-perfect circle, like I am, itâ€™s likely that your biggest problem today was your mom asking you to explain what a FUPA is, or forgetting to bring your iPhone to the toilet.
I am a white, educated, 24-year-old American woman, and I have an s-load of privilege. But I have a confession about which I am genuinely ashamed: I have trouble being grateful for it.
Because I havenâ€™t earned it, I feel like I donâ€™t deserve it.
My last year in college, I moved off campus, swore off all animal products, and started wearing overalls. I spent a whole month trying to find an ethical pair of shoes, eventually settling on some vegan organic slip-ons that literally deteriorated around my feet.
Needless to say, my well-intentioned efforts didnâ€™t get me far. I made myself so crazy that when Iâ€™d finally let myself relax Iâ€™d get drunk and feast on an entire box of Annieâ€™s Mac and Cheese. To be fair, Iâ€™m sure Iâ€™d have been a really awesome vegan if all varieties of cheese and ice cream had ceased to exist.
Anyway, as it turns out, guilt and self-criticism are terrible motivators.
Like almost everyone else in their twenties that I know, Iâ€™m trying to figure out how Iâ€™m going to navigate my life. I find myself thinking of a study I learned about in a high school psychology class called the â€śvisual cliffâ€ť experiment. The set up is a sheet of plexiglass over a checkered tablecloth, which, halfway across the length of the glass, drops off about 4 feet. Researchers set babies on the table and coaxed them to crawl across the glass. It turns out that on the first few trips across the table, a typical infant will crawl right over the edge of the visual cliff. Nice, evolution.
After the first few tries, however, a baby will become increasingly reluctant to cross over the visual cliff, and will eventually refuse to cross at all. The point, as the designer of the experiment Eleanor J. Gibson explained, is that â€śwe perceive to learn, as well as learn to perceive.â€ť
Good lord. Iâ€™m just one, big, angsty infant.
I think the key is in the learning to perceive part. Iâ€™m trying to be more receptive to that voice deep in my gut – the one that drowns out my doubts and other peopleâ€™s expectations and the magazine headlines promising me an ass that defies gravity. The one that stands up for me against my own self-criticism. The one that sounds a little bit like Bruce Willis.
It can be hard to pick it out, but Iâ€™m getting better at recognizing it.
So. Unless I decide to drop off the grid (and I recently moved to Oregon, so Iâ€™ve already taken a step in that direction), Iâ€™m going to have to learn to accept an imperfect self in an imperfect society. Iâ€™m going to have to come to terms with the fact that I canâ€™t fight every battle, and choose the one I care about most. And, hopefully, I can learn how to enjoy my privileges without giving up on my ideals.
The next time I get that feeling like a bottomless void is opening up beneath me, Iâ€™m going to try to remind myself that I am, in actuality, totally fine â€“ supported by a layer of glass I might not be able to see. And that just maybe the feeling is a sign that Iâ€™m developing my depth perception.
Is this me transitioning to adulthood? I guess thatâ€™s ok – as long as no one expects me to be graceful about it.