Got this one from my brother.
Got this one from my brother.
Throughout the past few years, there have been occasional moments when I stopped to think to myself, “Wow, so I’m really an adult now.” When I no longer needed a parent signature to get a piercing, and instead pulled out my driver’s license for proof of age. Watching my friends format their resumes, and dress business casual for job interviews for full-time positions. This morning, I had another one of those moments.
I was on Skype with a close friend, and we were discussing how the behavior of a guy she knows could be partially explained by the recent loss of one of his parents. Then I paused for a moment and said to her, “Remember when we were little, losing a parent or getting cancer was something that only ever happened to the friend of a sibling of someone you kind of knew? It always seemed like a distant tragedy – something you knew was bad and caused people sadness. But now, if it hasn’t happened to you, it’s happened to someone close to you.”
Growing up means experiencing, or witnessing firsthand, moments when you, or someone close to you, are not OK. And it means learning that someone who has had their trust betrayed, or has lost a loved one, or has otherwise had their world turned upside-down is not necessarily broken. They’re not frigid if they don’t cry or don’t want to talk about it, and they’re not emotionally unstable if they do. You come to understand that it’s never that straightforward.
It’s unarguably painful to experience (or even to witness in close proximity) loss and hardship, but these experiences also cultivate an ability to empathize – to empathize truly, beyond recognizing when someone deserves sympathy. It’s an ability to recognize when and how to help, but also when to give space. It’s knowing that sometimes people need love the most when they deserve it least. It’s being able to give advice without being condescending, and reassure someone that they’re understood and not alone.
And that’s something.
The NYT published an incredibly interesting piece in the Opinion pages today: a conversation between Times columnist Bill Keller, and Glen Greenwald (who broke the Snowden/NSA story) on journalism – its ideal and its purpose. Although large papers such as the NY Times and The Guardian are still considered by many people to be the most “comprehensive,” “impartial,” and “credible” news sources, more and more people are turning to less traditional and more (often unapolagetically) vocally opinionated sources of news – everything ranging from comedy news shows such as The Daily Show, to online magazines such as Slate and The Huffington Post, to news bloggers, to members of the community of “journalistic activists” such as Greenwald.
I’ve copied what I found to be some of the more thought-provoking quotes, although I would highly recommend reading the entire column, which you can find here.
“The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.” -GG
“But this model has also produced lots of atrocious journalism and some toxic habits that are weakening the profession. A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful “here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts” formulation. That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on “objective” reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge” -GG
“I don’t think of it as reporters pretending they have no opinions. I think of it as reporters, as an occupational discipline, suspending their opinions and letting the evidence speak for itself. And it matters that this is not just an individual exercise, but an institutional discipline, with editors who are tasked to challenge writers if they have given short shrift to contrary facts or arguments readers might want to know. The thing is, once you have publicly declared your “subjective assumptions and political values,” it’s human nature to want to defend them, and it becomes tempting to omit or minimize facts, or frame the argument, in ways that support your declared viewpoint. And some readers, knowing that you write from the left or right, will view your reporting with justified suspicion. ” -BK
“I believe the need for impartial journalism is greater than it has ever been, because we live now in a world of affinity-based media, where citizens can and do construct echo chambers of their own beliefs. It is altogether too easy to feel “informed” without ever encountering information that challenges our prejudices.” -BK
Personally, I’m inclined to agree with Keller as an “informed public” who only chooses to listen to one side of the story can hardly call themselves “informed.” And nowadays, it’s only to easily to exclusively read/watch/listen to any broadcasts that affirm what you already believe or want to believe. My favorite section of the NY Times is the Opinion section, as I love nothing more than a well-delivered argument, but I do like being able to separate the opinions from the news.
The things you do to make yourself feel better shouldn’t also make you feel guilty, right? I’m talking about those especially rough days that end with a second glass of wine, or a cigarette, or an episode of reality TV, a chocolate bar, whatever your choice coping mechanism. Whatever makes you feel better, whatever you need to calm your thoughts and get through the night. But ultimately, is that extra glass of wine worth the guilt?
The Atlantic recently published a piece (read here) about how (typically middle-class) high-functioning women are turning to increased wine consumption to cope with the daily stress of their lives. ”In a recent poll done by Netmums in Britain, 81 percent of those who drank above the safe drinking guidelines said they did so ‘to wind down from a stressful day.’ And 86 percent said they felt they should drink less.”
The article continues, “Jungian analyst Jan Bauer … believes women are looking for what she calls “oblivion drinking.” ‘Alcohol offers a time out from doing it all—‘Take me out of my perfectionism.’ Superwoman is a cliché now, but it is extremely dangerous. I’ve seen such a perversion of feminism, where everything becomes work: raising children, reading all the books, not listening to their instincts. The main question is: What self are they trying to turn off? These women have climbed so high that when they fall, they crash—and alcohol’s a perfect way to crash.’”
I hardly think that life stress is confined to middle-class, middle-aged women, but it’s clear that some people are much better at handling stress and anxiety than others. I recently complained to my brother that I thought my teenage self was much better at coping with stress than I am now. When I was 14, I would mope and cry and listen to some HIM. Angsty – yes, a little pathetic – maybe, but ultimately harmless. But now, that generous glass of Shiraz, or that Marlboro menthol… those have more consequences, including health repercussions and the danger of addiction. And I am painfully aware of those consequences. If growing older is supposed to make you wiser, I haven’t figured it out yet.
My friends and I often joke about our ‘alcoholism,’ or say “Damn, you should’ve seen me last night, I was a total hot mess,” or “I never would have slept with him/her on a good day.” And really, we’re seeking a bit of sympathy and understanding, some affirmation that we’ve all been there, there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing. Is coping by definition giving yourself some small allowance, some small lapse in perfection to do something you otherwise would not? Is it possible to perpetually hold yourself to a rigorously high standard of perfection, and should breaking that standard bring you guilt? What do you do to de-stress, or to cope?
Edit: For those who have individually expressed some sort of concern (mostly via Facebook), I do also have ‘healthier’ ways of dealing with stress – a favorite copy of Franny and Zooey, a bottomless bag of dark chocolate, an Aimee Mann playlist – but I suppose my point is that some days even stress eating or reading Salinger doesn’t quite cut it. And that’s where the wine comes in.
I’ve always loved Google’s “20 percent time” concept, as there have been some really cool ideas to come out of it, and Ngram Viewer is definitely one of them. It’s been out for a while, but was recently updated. If you’ve got a few minutes to kill, (The Atlantic called it a great time-suck) try it yourself (https://books.google.com/ngrams). Here are some word combinations I played with:
I became obsessed with Lissie from the first song I heard, a live cover of Kid Cudi’s song Pursuit of Happiness. The original song isn’t bad, but something about the way she sang it just made it better. I downloaded it and played it on repeat for about a month until I got sick of it, and then played it some more.
For some reason, I didn’t immediately check to see if she had an album or any more songs. Maybe it was one of those moments when something is so perfect, you worry that going any deeper will spoil the original appeal. More than a year later, I discovered that she had an equally kick-ass cover of Fleetwood Mac’s song Go Your Own Way, as well as an original album, Catching a Tiger, that could boast a couple catchy tunes of its own (my personal favorites are Record Collector and In Sleep).
Just this week, Lissie released her second album, Back to Forever. I’ve since downloaded it and have been looping it on repeat. Some of the songs I’ve played so many times, I’ve learned all the lyrics by heart and barely hear them. It’s an accelerated process of listening to your favorite album so many times you get sick of it. Again, I have some favorite songs: They All Want You, Mountaintop Removal, I Bet on You.
Last night I had a long Skype conversation with one of my best friends. Much of our conversation revolved around vulnerability, specifically emotional vulnerability in personal and romantic relationships. We debated whether or not all romantic relationships were necessarily (to some degree) games or battles of power. Must there always be the roles of lover and beloved? As impossible as it is to quantify affection and love, I think that everyone has felt that uncomfortable, almost shameful fear that their object of affection cannot love or appreciate them in the same way that they give love. And that because of this, they are able to hurt you – to break your heart. It’s a weak, and maybe even malicious thought, yet one that’s easy to understand.
First, our conversation reminded me of a quote I blogged about last year. In case you don’t remember it, I’ve reprinted it here. In her book Love’s Work, the sociologist Gillian Rose describes choosing to love as an act of mercy.
“In personal life, people have absolute power one each other, whereas in professional life, beyond the terms of the contract, people have authority, the power to make one another comply in ways which may be perceived as legitimate or illegitimate. In personal life, regardless of any covenant, one party may initiate a unilateral and fundamental change in the terms of relating without renegotiating them, and further, refusing even to acknowledge the change. Imagine how a beloved child or dog would respond, if the Lover turned away. There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. To be at someone’s mercy is dialectical damage: they may be merciful and they may be merciless. Yet each party, woman, man, the child in each, and their child, is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability. You may be less powerful than the whole world, but you are always more powerful than yourself.”
Perhaps it reveals my cynicism in how much this quote resonated with me, but I began to think that it is almost a calculation how much you empower someone by sharing your vulnerability. If you want to feel close to someone, to befriend them, allow yourself to show a small amount of vulnerability, and hope that they do the same. Build up the trust slowly, but surely. But for a casual lover, or a reputed gossip, don’t overshare and don’t become too attached. Letting them get the emotional upper hand is how you get backstabbed, or how you get your heart broken. In these situations, it’s better to arm yourself with indifference, real or pretend.
Vulnerability may be weakness, but it also can also bring strength to relationships. Willingness to be vulnerable, as well as to accept others’ vulnerability, are unarguably essential in building deep and meaningful relationships. It is the difference between superficial acquaintances and true friends. I can remember multiple instances of the first time I bared my soul to someone, sharing my fears and admitting my weaknesses and struggles. It’s a terrifying and intimate moment as you spill your words, waiting and watching for the other person’s reaction. And how they choose to handle your vulnerability – with honest care and understanding, judgement or rejection – determines whether a bond of friendship can form, or you forever regret that moment and avoid that person.
However, I also think that the closer you become with someone, the less you feel vulnerable. Vulnerability is accepting the risk that you may be pushed around, or even knocked down – that you’ve given someone the tools to break you. With my friend, I know that I can tell her anything, and I trust her not to hurt me with whatever I’ve chosen to share. The same is true of family members.
Finally, I think of where my life is now. Many of my closest friends and confidants are thousands of miles and many time zones away. We no longer share classes, or workdays, or various other experiences. Now, I need to build new personal relationships. But at the same time I’m scared that I’ll choose the wrong people or the wrong time to let my guard down and expose my vulnerability. I worry about all the personal baggage I have, and who I will scare away or who will judge me, rather than understand. I know that most people out there aren’t looking to take advantage of me, and that not every failure or emotional disconnect is the end of the world, but when I think of it as a choice between aloneness and vulnerability, I still get a little overwhelmed.
Growing up – well, really until I left my parents’ home for college – I spent a lot of time envying the people who had stories to tell. My parents never allowed me to attend sleepovers, or school dances, or to date, and my family rarely traveled or went on vacations. Thus, I often felt as if I had missed out on a number of things in life. I lacked hand-eye coordination, but envied my friends’ tennis trophies and even the sports-related casts and crutches that seemed an inevitable part of the “exciting life.” I was glad to never have to reveal my middle school crushes, but felt incredibly left out when my friends would giggle recalling last weekend’s sleepover games of Truth or Dare. I wished that I had aunts in England, or had been to Disney World, or even just the beach – any beach.
I even envied my parents, whose childhoods and young adult years were in many ways an incredible struggle as they grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution (read about it here), for at least having lived.
After I left home for college (though still in my hometown) I hardly went wild, but especially in the first few years, I tried hard to take more opportunities to escape what I considered the familiar uneventfulness of my existence thus far. I stole dining hall trays to sled down Libe Slope on a snowy winter night. I took the notorious BIOMG2810 and discussed drosophila with my lab partner while drinking Red Bull and watching the sun rise through the library window. I waited in line Wednesday night to drink fishbowls in a dank basement bar, and then stripped down to streak through the quad with drunk friends and strangers. I had long-term and long-distance romantic relationships with men who could not have been more different in many ways. I waited until the cops weren’t around and completed a Cornell rite of passage, plunging into Beebee Lake from the footbridge above in a mixture of glee and fear.
Some things I did not necessarily because I especially wanted to at the time – don’t get me wrong, I regret very few individual experiences and given the opportunity, I would make many of the same choices. But the important thing was that I now had my own stories - as well as a caffeine tolerance, a casual attitude towards drinking, and a “number” associated with my sexual history. I had hardly adopted the most exciting or eventful lifestyle among my friends/peers, but in retrospect it seems appropriate to say that I occasionally lived by “YOLO”, thinking more of the present.
In my last year of college, my two roommates and super-close friends entered into serious relationships and got “real-person” jobs. We would joke about how we were too old to stay up past midnight (life is tiring!), and our conversations would turn to the Facebook wedding photos and even baby photos of the people we went to high school with (they’re – we’re – so young!). And then arriving in Princeton, I found myself in a lab where it seemed that half the lab members were about to get married if they weren’t already. Once at Wegman’s, my friend remarked that people probably assumed the two of us were married as we were two opposite-gender, 20-something year old Asians grocery shopping together.
Surrounded by people who seemed to be entering (or at least looking to enter) the next, more serious stages of their lives, my stories suddenly felt less like something to brag about, and more like…. baggage. My mother always firmly advocated sex abstinence until marriage, saying that no respectable man would want to marry a woman who wasn’t a virgin. I would still retort that I wouldn’t want to marry any man who placed such value on a woman’s virginity, yet I recently found myself in a nascent, still undefined romantic situation, where after the other person had made it clear that they were thinking of the long run, I felt less comfortable talking about my own romantic history and admitting that I didn’t really know what I wanted – not in the long run.
More and more so, I find myself in a hypocritical and confusing game of tug-of-war in my head. On one hand, I still envy those people who are spontaneous and seem able to enjoy themselves unburdened by the judgement of others or the worries of tomorrow. I envy their freedom and ability to embrace happiness whenever and however it comes. I cherish the experiences I’ve collected from the times when I did choose to “let go” or to be more active outside my comfort zone. On the other hand, I think a lot more of the consequences of my actions – anything potential stray step from the tightrope of propriety – that one drink that could take me from tipsy to sloppy drunk, a potential hook-up that could be another “+1,” even an expensive weekend NYC trip that would push me a little closer to being broke. Everything that I once saw as a potential story that could now become baggage. Maybe I’m being too serious, or maybe it’s just “growing up.” I don’t know.
“So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?” — Hunter S. Thompson
Edit: I think there is a noteworthy distinction that I’m not ashamed of the experiences that shaped me and effectively made me “who I am today” (to use that cliche) – as some of these “stories” aren’t necessarily reckless/fun/stupid/crazy decisions I’ve made, but occasions when life just happened for better or worse. Mostly I’m talking about some of the things I did “just because” that now seem maybe not the wisest or forward-thinking in retrospect.
Everyone has read about (and, unless you’re me, is probably tired of reading about) whether or not women can “have it all.” But in yesterday’s NY Times Opinion section, author Delia Ephron wrote an interesting piece about what it means for different people at different times, to want or have it all.
“I’m sure when Anthony Weiner found out he couldn’t have it all, he changed the definition. “Having it all” meant having his pregnant wife not leave him. “That’s all I want,” I bet he said to himself when he was exposed and had to resign. “Just don’t let Huma leave me.” In other words, “all” shrank. However, once he persuaded his wife not to leave him, he wasn’t satisfied. “All” expanded once again.
Having it all seems to breed wanting more. And since we can’t have it all because it is statistically impossible, and since there is no such thing as more than all, the whole notion seems, I’m sorry to say, depressingly American… In many countries, having it all is learning to read. Having it all is getting to choose whom you love. Having it all is walking to school without worrying that you might get raped on the way.”
I’m not a superstitious person, yet when I am going about my day and happen to glance at the clock just as it turns 11:11, I sometimes find myself holding my breath and making a wish. “If only I could have one thing right now, I wish…” A year ago, I wished to get into grad school. Last week, it was to pass my placement exams. Tonight, I just wanted my neighbors to quiet down so I could get some sleep (sad to say, it’s now 2am and their party still seems to be going strong…) I realize that every time I wish, I am redefining what “all” means to me. I would be happy (if for a moment), if only I could just achieve this one more thing. Never have I ever found myself wishing for a successful career, or a family and children.
Which is another point that Ephron makes is that even when we do “have it all,” the feeling is often short-lived. She compares it to an eclipse, “To me, having it all — if one wants to define it at all — is the magical time when what you want and what you have match up. Like an eclipse … it’s rare. This eclipse never lasts more than seven minutes and 31 seconds.”