I know introductions seem to be the thing, but I’m going to jump in with both feet first and we’ll go from there. I’m Little Light, I blog here, and I’ve been a Feministe guest blogger before. Most of you know who I am.
What I do is preach. I wrap that preaching up in other things, but I will be the first to admit that sermons are sort of what I do. So let’s cut to the chase, shall we?
I’m going to start my stint at Feministe by admitting something we’re not supposed to–as Empowered Women, or whatever it is in a movement like this, and especially as a woman of color in social justice work, but I don’t think anyone’s supposed to admit this:
I am not doing so hot right now. I’m burnt out. I’m tired and I’m scared and I’m hurting. I’m disillusioned with online activism and it’s been so long since I posted in my actual blog–the one where it seems like every time I post, I get set on and taken apart by people who don’t respect my basic personhood and want me to know it–that last week I got a comment from a reader who thought I was dead in a ditch somewhere.
That looks like a statement of weakness, doesn’t it, to a lot of us? That’s like saying, hey, everyone, I’m super vulnerable right now, and here’s my wallet, not in the face, please. It’s like inviting everyone to know you’re right there and you can be hurt. There are a lot of good reasons we avoid admitting vulnerability. Most of us have been stomped somewhere, sometime. Most of us, along some axis or another if not many intersecting axes, have felt the sting of oppression–most people in a social justice movement like feminism, anyway, or they wouldn’t feel the need to care. Most of us have seen someone take advantage of that vulnerability. We have been taught over and over again to hide it, to not show our weak spots, to hide when we’re sick or bleeding and not let anyone know lest we be devoured. Whatever you are, don’t be vulnerable. Don’t tell them you’re scared. Don’t tell them there’s places to hurt you. At best, you’re not just being fatally foolish, you’re being weak. Whiny. Clearly you’re expecting someone else to clean up your mess, or otherwise infantilize you. You’re letting everyone down: family, friends, the however-you-define it movement, yourself. It’s, in many cultures, mine included, filthy like sin to admit your human limits and soft places.
What I am suggesting is that vulnerability is more than that: vulnerability is strength. Vulnerability is radical. And radicalizing vulnerability is vital.
It is vulnerable to connect with people intimately, and in the way that is necessary to build a better world in a lasting way. It is terrifying, and it is often hurtful, and it is very often sad. I have poured my heart and soul into organizations and projects that I threw myself open to, only to find them going up in a storm of flames and yelling, and pretending that doesn’t hurt is just nonsensical. How does pretending that vulnerability away make that stop? How does it help me do things better the next time? What’s so dirty about admitting disappointment or grief? I can’t think of anywhere I’m more vulnerable than the one place I’m safest: at home, with my partner, the person I trust most in the world. The person who can hurt me more than anyone. There is nowhere I would rather be than with this person to whom I am laid open, who knows everything about me and knows exactly where to put the knife if she were so inclined. She is, of course, not so inclined, but that was a risk I had to take, and sharing that risk is something transcendent. Those of you in relationships, especially really intimate ones, back me up here: that’s one of the most miraculous things about love. When you open yourself to loving someone and being loved, that’s one of the most frightening, unsafe things in the world. That’s part of what makes it so exhilarating. That’s part of what makes it so powerful.
It’s right there in that word: compassion. Co-passion. Shared suffering. If you open yourself to others, if you allow yourself to care about what happens to them, to struggle with them and fight with them and build with them, you have opened yourself. If you spend the whole time acting tough, it won’t work. You won’t connect. Your struggle, even if it’s “for” them, will end up being all about you and what you think other people need and want and how it will affect your career and your moment and your fifteen minutes of…well, what was it exactly? Are we doing this “feminism” thing for our careers, to make a buck and get our faces on TV? Are we doing this to be officially Great? Or are we doing something about compassion, community, and shared struggle that works for all of us and isn’t for the most part glamorous? Those connections and sacrifices aren’t easy, and neither is the courage necessary to care about each other and work together.
Vulnerability is radical, and without sharing our vulnerability, without getting all the cards on the table, I just don’t believe we can move forward together–not just as individuals getting ours and getting out, but together. Rather than introduce myself, I’m going to show you where you can hurt me.
I am tired. I don’t sleep enough. I spend too much time and energy on a job that doesn’t fulfill me and not enough pursuing my genuine aspirations. I have ugly feelings about who I see in a mirror every day. I miss people who were never good for me. Ever since a severe illness a couple of years back, my body has been totally shot–it doesn’t do the things I expect of it, forces me into accepting new limits, hurts. I am struggling hard with post–traumatic stress that leaves me, many days, shaking and unable to leave the house, bursting into tears at sudden noises, waking up from nightmares that make me want to run and throw up. Sometimes it barely affects my day and sometimes some little thing like a stray comment or a coworker handing me some paperwork from behind will get me shuddering and hyperventilating. It makes me exhausted and angry and frustrated and I want it to go away, but it won’t, so I’m working with it instead. I am dealing with a lot of grief right now, having lost a lot of important people in my life just as I’m planning a wedding, and for a while I insisted that it was fine, I was fine, but it’s not and I’m not. It gets to me. It should get to me. I am afraid–of more loss, of losing the people and chosen family I’m open to now, of an unjust world becoming more unjust. I should be.
See, I can refuse to admit vulnerability, but that won’t make me not vulnerable. There is nothing that can do that, not even covering myself up with layers and layers of the armor we all use to get through the day and pretending away the ugly things and the hard parts of my history and everyone else’s. This isn’t about complaining. I’m just stating facts that are, yes, relevant to who I am, why I participate in feminism and the greater movement toward social justice, why and how and what I write and contribute. Pretending it isn’t so forces me into a strange and inhuman position where we just posture at each other. You’re not vulnerable, I’m not vulnerable, let’s have an abstract debate about theories, and hey, justify your feelings, and hey, little lady, the grownups are talking and why are you so upset and come back, we were just having a friendly little debate about ideas, and what do you mean this is real life for you?
Social justice is about theories and ideas underpinning our actions, but if those theories and ideas are to mean anything, they have to be grounded in our real lives. They have to pay attention to what happens to us, and what can hurt us, and why some things–like a seemingly-innocent comment, like a sudden noise, like a bigoted slur, like making it through a day of work or classes when the only thing in your head is the rape you may never be over or how you’re going to be able to feed your children this month or when the water is getting shut off or just that thing your parents said that will never stop eating at you–affect some of us more than others. A functional movement isn’t one like the one we have, where people burn out and drop out and vanish because it’s all too much and they aren’t being supported and they just can’t take it any more, where everything we do is met with all of us tearing each other apart and always always always going for the throat until we stop being people to each other and start being…adversaries? interlocutors? enemies? objects? Have you noticed who suffers when we build a movement premised on never admitting that we can hurt each other, on never admitting that we’re tired and limited and human and just aren’t up for it today? Who stops making blog posts, who stops showing up to meetings and town halls and community projects, stops putting their work out there and speaking openly and honestly? Who stops making friends? Who stops taking risks? Have you noticed what happens in a world where we do this? Where we never talk about what we need, let alone what we want, all while we’re told all day what we should buy instead?
We fight an impossible battle against troubles we don’t even admit exist. We focus on enemies, and neglect ourselves and our loved ones, lose track of what we’re for in a storm of obsession with what we’re against. We don’t let it get to us, until it does. And then we go down in flames and everyone has to start over.
Can we do something different, start from different premises? Like: I’m hurting right now. Like: I can’t do everything. Like: I get tired and hungry and scared and confused. Like: I’m grieving. Like: I’m human, and human beings are vulnerable, and I can be hurt, and I can hurt others. Like: if we’re all going to make it, we have to do this together, and that means being vulnerable, and we can either choose to avert our eyes from that fact or we can embrace it and build something more compassionate, more functional, that makes our lives different for the better.
Like: let’s let vulnerability be radical. Let’s embrace it. Let’s admit that even the best things in the world are unsafe and go into it with open eyes and held hands.
We can choose make it work, or we can choose not to. I am going to spend my two weeks here choosing to try to be as vulnerable with you all as I possibly can, and maybe some of you will feel more able to be vulnerable, too. A dear friend told me once that writing is like getting up in front of people, pulling open your ribcage, and saying, here are my organs. I hope you like them.
Here are my organs. I hope you like them. I hope for the next little while we can try something dangerous and new, and I hope that you won’t take advantage of it in the wrong ways, because yes, I’m vulnerable. So are you. And we have a lot of work to do.
Let’s get cracking.
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