Try asking different questions
For the last several years I have been on a quest to set myself free. First it was freedom from my controlling x-spouse. Then it was freedom from my rigidly unadaptive government job. With those two major life pillars rearranged, I turned toward finding freedom from all the fears and insecurities I collected over the years. It's been a challenging and rewarding process, with much community support along the way. One of the most helpful avenues of self-reflection has been (and continues to be) my martial arts practice.
On my way to brown belt, I discovered I was worth protecting. I divorced my x-spouse and shifted away from that specific (and very damaging) dynamic in other relationships. I could not have achieved my brown belt without ending that marriage, and I could not have gotten divorced without working toward my brown belt. Because martial arts is about building a complete human being (mind, body, and spirit), I had to confront the social and emotional reasons I wasn't willing to protect myself from people I loved.
And before I could do that, I had to notice what was happening. Situational awareness is a martial skill we practice in a variety of ways on the training floor. It's also a life skill that requires a different kind of practice. No matter the application, expanding my consciousness further and further beyond myself without just being overwhelmed requires a good deal of grounding. It's easier to reach out when I am more aware of my internal landscape.
Growing that awareness often starts with exploration. And exploration often starts with a question. My journey from brown to black belt included an even greater degree of introspection. I needed my internal arts practice of Taiji and Qigong to fill-in the gaps of my external martial expression. I also needed to do all that same work to free myself from the unhealthy or outdated narratives woven throughout my life and relationships tethering me to behaviors and patterns that no longer served my health and well-being.
In my solo practice, I ask myself questions. When I train with my teacher, she asks me questions. When I train with my fellow students, we ask each other questions. Until recently, I thought I had to ask the right question in order to be helpful. Since I have been exploring more ways I can let go of perfectionism, I decided to practice by asking the first question that came to my mind during a workshop instead of waiting until I had the prefect question. And you know what? It worked. I was helpful.
Even though the question I asked was not exactly right about what was happening for my training partner in their body, it was the gateway they needed to a deeper consideration. The value wasn't in my seeing exactly the correct piece that would perfectly "fix" their issue, it was in offering my perspective. I could see something from my vantage and I simply offered what I saw without attachment to being right about it. I asked a question they didn't think to ask themself and that was what they needed.
I'm incredibly grateful to share this practice with people who can ask me questions when I get stuck. We would all benefit if this was a more common practice in broader society. It isn't now because most of us are too caught-up in trying to be right, just like I was. The art of sincere inquiry is necessary for self-exploration as well as for relating to each other. The fastest way to deescalate an argument is by responding with curiosity instead of confrontation. And the only way to grow that skill is to practice it.
I would love to see more examples in popular media. I would also love to see a greater (and more honest) variety of outcomes from the practice of personal growth. Take for example the classic love story where two unlikely lovers meet, one person ruins the romance by hurting the other person, then learns a lesson and apologizes, and they get back together and live happily ever after. That's one possible outcome, but it's the least realistic and most uninteresting.
I want to see the story line where the guy is a dumbass and the girl leaves him, then the guy learns a lesson and apologizes and that's the end of it. He doesn't "get the girl back,” he just owns his bad behavior and apologizes, and they both move on with their lives like autonomous adult humans. I’m tired of the assumption that aggrieved parties are all just waiting dutifully by until The Jerk learns their lesson and apologizes. It's not all our life’s mission to be an object for a slightly-more-well-adjusted-former-asshole.
I think more examples of that kind of interpersonal development would do society a lot of good. The unhealthy dynamic currently played-out all over the place is exactly the same as excusing lying, cheating, lecherous politicians for their bad behavior while continuing to reelect them cycle after cycle. Take the very present example of that one guy who got indicted and arraigned a couple weeks ago. The charges were fairly mundane given all the unhinged illegal shit he has done (and admitted to on camera) over even just the last few years. But somehow a whole lot of people continue to want to excuse his wretched behavior.
Doing the same thing over and over isn't getting us anywhere new. It's just getting us exactly where we are. Just like the current president choosing to run for another term in office. I don't have a problem with old people doing important jobs. But I do have a problem with a politician who has been in Washington for the last half century continuing to occupy a leadership role. Like all of the Old Guard, Biden continues to play the old game the same old way. It's a problem because the world is not the same as it was when they established their protocols and honed their methods.
No matter his party affiliation, Biden is a capitalist through and through. And that’s not what we need to solve the current problems and bring us forward together into a future where everyone is taken care of. Biden can say he’s pro-labor and pro-union all he wants, but I'm sure I'm not alone in remembering what he and Congress did just a few months ago when the rail workers were planning to strike. He’s not evil, but he's not actually progressive either. Endorsing him right away is basically like giving up before the election even begins.
Politicians from my parents (and grandparents) era shouldn't still be in-charge today. They should have retired and passed the baton to the next generation of leaders decades ago. And they should have focused more on succession planning while they were in office rather than clinging to their post in perpetuity. Because these folks struggle to let go of being in-charge, we are all in the position of the present with too few viable contenders.
At this point it seems like the great political mission of GenX and Millenials will not be to take charge next, but to usher out the old guard and usher in Gen Z. The youngest generations are fired-up and full of energy. They see the world falling to pieces around them and want something done about it. What's more, they want to do something about it. We should harness that juicy change energy and get out of their way. Let the young folks loose on the problems of the world. They won't solve things like everyone has done before them, they will ask different questions. And I think that's exactly what we need.
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It's not quite that simple
A video came up in my TicTok feed recently that pinged some things for me. The message isn't hate-filled or even entirely incorrect, but it felt like it was missing some critical pieces. And without those considerations, its message is deeply problematic. It's basically 8 minutes of one person's philosophical musings on why it doesn't matter what pronouns other people use to talk about them. What they didn't articulate, but which is a critical distinction: it doesn't matter to them because they are sufficiently disconnected from the consequences of those labels.
The video first points out that gendering of pronouns occurs only with third-person pronouns. The first person pronouns of I and me are universal and genderless, just like the second person pronoun of you. They ask why they should care what pronoun someone uses when talking about them to another (third) person whey they are not around. It's like they have never noticed when anyone has referred to them in the third person while they were also present. Or they have never noticed they sometimes have to read something written about them in the third person.
The video creator is un-bothered because their True Self has no identity; we're just making all this identity stuff up. Yes. Exactly. Identities are a societal construct. But when you are handed an identity by society or the people around you, you then also live-out the consequences of being assigned that identity. It doesn't matter if you reject that label or all labels. The outcome is the same: your experience in society is directly impacted by the labels you are assigned. If that label sucks, then you have to push against it somehow. One way to do that is by shedding that crappy identity and fill the space with something else that doesn't make you want to die inside. In modern society most of us seldom get the chance to just exist.
All measurements of objects exist only relative to other objects. People are not objects, but the video's reference to Einstein's theory of relativity kind of works in a similar way. As I exist in the world, I simply am. I am just me. But I don't live in a formless, solitary vacuum, so I eventually interact with the physical space and with other people. Interaction with physical spaces is how I learn things like I am too short to reach certain products on certain shelves in the grocery store. Interaction with other people is how I learn things like I am shorter than some people and taller than others. Over time, I learn what any of that means for me relative to anyone else.
So even though, as the video creator says, when a person attacks you they are not attacking the real you, they are only attacking who they think you are, and therefore "only if you identify with what they are attacking will you suffer," that doesn't solve the problem of being attacked. This would be a fine resolution if we were all on equal footing in society. If no one had any kind of power over me to affect my day to day living experience in any way, then it wouldn't matter what anyone else thought about or called me. But because the made-up labels come with real consequences, that makes the labels matter. The video creator's answer to this is if rejecting labels means you don't fit into society, then fuck society.
Wouldn't that be nice if we could all just extract ourselves from society? It's fine to detach yourself from the world if you have the skills and resources to do that. But that is not actually a solution to the problems that come from interacting with society or other people. All that does is insulate you from the problem. A lot of people don't have that option. And a lot of the people most affected by the ills of society are the least-resourced people, which makes them the least likely to be able to just escape. Which means the people who have the ability to just leave are the ones who should be investing their time, energy, and resources in making a better society that nobody has to insulate themself from.
It feels important to say clearly that I don't think this person's understanding or explanation needs to be perfect. It doesn't even need to perfectly consider all the things I think it should include. They are in-process just like the rest of us, and as they say at the end of their video, "this is their process." So that's great. Carry on with your process. And also, it's important to me to point out the places where the application of this viewpoint is problematic. Philosophy is interesting and theorizing is important, but I am ultimately interested in outcomes, not just ideas.
It reminds me of the times I've been bowling at a place with electronic screens and automatic scoring. You throw your ball down the lane and knock over however many pins you knock over. If you're highly skilled at bowling, you knock them all down and it's someone else's turn. If you're like me, you hit some number of pins (or none) and a variety of pins remain standing. That's when the computer flashes a tip up on the screen. It shows a diagram of the remaining pins with an arrow for where you need to send your next ball in order to knock all the remaining pins down. I always imagine the screen is saying "just do this!" As if it were just that simple.
And it is. All that is needed is a ball thrown at that one simple angle. But if I had the skills necessary to take the screen's advice, I probably wouldn't need the screen to tell me what to do. Which means it's not actually that simple. It's complicated, just like dealing with other humans and existing in the world that isn't built for every body. You can't say something is not a problem just because you have never experienced that particular problem. And you can't just leave and call that a solution. But you can help change the system so when you or anyone else struggles within it, the means exist to fix the issue.
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The only way out is through
When a butterfly begins life, it is a hungry little caterpillar. It eats and grows and eats and grows and eats and grows until it's time to become something different. And then some freaky nature magic happens. The caterpillar builds itself a cocoon and then melts into a soup of pure potential. It grows its new self from that soup, and when it emerges from that chrysalis it is a completely different creature. Somehow the butterfly even manages to maintain memories from its time as a caterpillar. Totally incredible.
I've been going through my own chrysalis period the last few weeks. I didn't hang upside down from a tree branch, but I cocooned myself in work during a very intense tax season. Overall, it went really well: I put together a good team, we had good systems, and we did good work. I'm proud of everything we accomplished (and even more impressed with just how much we got done by the deadline), but the pace and volume of work was grueling. Long months of long weeks of very long days with little time outside the office and no time for rest or recovery.
The way I have survived similar periods of concentrated overwork in the past was by being a tough guy and just pushing through. I flipped on survival mode, put my head down and did what I needed to do to get shit done by the deadline. I rode the wave of momentum to keep up the ceaseless level of effort, and then collapsed the moment I crossed the finish line. So that's basically what I did this year, but with some unexpected consequences.
The pace and manner of my tax season participation awakened some of the deep dark personal demons I thought I already worked-through and resolved. And of course I have worked through them, but the old neural pathways are still there no matter how dusty or cob-webbed they may be. Once I got over my initial disappointment at having to deal with these same inner demons again, I realized their arrival actually makes perfect sense. Those demons were the ones who built survival mode in the first place.
That protocol was constructed during the part of my life when I took-on or was handed responsibility for too many things. I thought it was my role in the world to take up as little space as possible and give as much of myself as I could give (and then a little more) to work, volunteer work, home, and family while having no needs or feelings of my own. And if I did need or feel something, I was supposed to take care of all that myself. How exhausting.
Obviously that's not sustainable, so I had to do something to stay alive. One by one the demons showed up, and together they crafted a way I could get through it. Eventually, I decided I wanted more out of life and extracted myself from the relationships reinforcing those toxic narratives. Then I began the long and painful process of removing the metaphorical string and bubble gum that was keeping me together and mending the cracks in my soul left by all that abuse.
Part of that healing included deconstructing the wall I put up to prevent anyone from noticing I was having feelings. Over the last few years I have dismantled a good portion of that wall, stone by stone. I haven't had a clear vision of what should replace it, I was just focused on taking it down to make space for something else. So when I engaged the outdated survival mode protocol and accidentally summoned all the old demons, all the old feelings came too. But this time there was no containment mechanism, so feelings just flooded out and got all over the place.
The old methods don't fit my current circumstances, and even if I could just lock it all away behind a wall I don't want to. I don't want to be more coping strategies than person. I want a different relationship with these once-protector parts of myself. One that isn't so devastating when they arise. So I am sifting through what is merely surviving while allowing the status quo to persist and what helps me live through tumult while also building something more sustainable for the future. A process that feels very much like I am breaking down most of my self parts into formless, primordial goo.
I'm not sure what form I will take when I fully emerge, but I am aiming to treat myself with more curiosity and less control and containment. The wall I have mostly torn down was built for control and containment. You know what else was built for and persists on control and containment? The Patriarchy. I'd like to tear that down too. But I won't be able to if I lean-in to perfectionism and try to erase the parts of me that don't fit into the societally assigned acceptable box.
All I will be doing in that case is working against myself. Just like the two marginalized groups that feature prominently in the latest Black Panther movie "Wakanda Forever." It was an action-packed and entertaining super hero film, but it was also a commentary about recognizing your actual enemy. A lesson about seeing not just the foe right in front of you, but the greater threat lurking in the shadows waiting for you to squabble yourself to pieces before they swoop in for the final blow.
The story follows the only two nations to have discovered and mastered the highly powerful (and highly valuable) substance of vibranium. Wakanda is the land-dwelling, highly advanced society we already knew, and we discover Talocan have been similarly thriving deep under the ocean. For most of the movie they are at odds. Talocan demanding Wakanda ally itself with them under threat of annihilation and Wakanda resisting being bullied into championing another nation's fight.
To me as the viewer, it was clear they should just join forces and protect each other. But humans are complicated and we can't always see the path that will bring us greatest access to health, peace, and well-being. So Wakanda and Talocan fought it out and damaged each other before they realized what the audience already knew. It was good story-telling in part because it was so relatable.
So why do we have to fight amongst ourselves? Probably the same reason we sometimes fight against ourselves. Because we're all traumatized and it's nearly impossible not to lash out from our trauma at those around us. I think it's also sometimes necessary to go through the whole process. Even if I've traveled this dark, windy, thorny road before, I might have to experience the entire journey to gain the embodied understanding of where I end up.
This is why we need to champion each other's causes. If I can stand for my fellow humans, it gives those folks space to fall apart and heal. Then they are more whole and more able to be rested and ready when I need someone to stand up for me. The only way out of this mess of inequity and inequality is slogging through the sticky quagmire of humans relating to other humans. If we can give each other a hand, then we all get to be free.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.