Thursday, January 18, 2018

A lifetime of learning

Fred Rogers, image in the public domain

From the outside, I pretty much look like a competent grown-up. Someone who has it all together. Well, I have been circling around the sun on this blue planet for over 5 decades, so I've had a long time to learn some stuff. But the reality is, I'm still learning and I'm still changing. And, no, I don't have all the answers.

I have learned to think deeply about all sorts of things and especially to interrogate my own most closely held beliefs. Honestly? That's my definition of adulthood - being willing to examine your biases and change them. It's toddlers who hold to irrational beliefs and throw tantrums when they are challenged. Grown ups shouldn't do that.

All too often they/we do.

These are some of the things I've been thinking about/lessons I'm working to learn:

1. Not everything is about me. Not everything is for me. Every space doesn't need to cater to me. Shutting up & listening without needing to offer my opinion is a useful skill.

I'm a white, cis, het woman in her middle age. I have A perspective, but not THE perspective. And to be honest, my perspective is more widely understood and accepted than those of someone more marginalized than me. While in some contexts, I may be the marginalized voice, in so many more, I am privileged. My job, when I am privileged, is to clear the way for other perspectives. And not expect a cookie or a pat on the head for it.

2. I have the responsibility to ask for what I want, not the guarantee that I will get it. 

I spent far too much time worrying about pleasing (or simply appeasing) people around me. Somehow, I was convinced that I was only likable if I catered to what everyone around me wanted and needed. This does a number of very unhealthy things: It made me believe that what I wanted was not important. It made me believe that I had to manage other people's emotions at the expense of my own. It made me believe that others - if they truly cared about me - would know what I wanted or needed. In short, it encouraged me to act in a passive aggressive way and to deny my own agency and personhood. 

3. I have learned that empathy is not the same as subsuming my needs for someone else's. 

This is closely linked to the point above. I had to learn that I had the right to have preferences that differed from those of the people around me. This reverberates in small matters and large: the movie you want to watch, the way in which you and a partner express sexuality. 

4. Disagreeing doesn't mean the end of a relationship. . . 

I used to believe I had to agree with/enjoy everything my friends did, or I was being troublesome or rude or disruptive. Somehow I was convinced that by saying "No, I don't want" or "I don't like" would end the friendship. It was *my* job to bend to the needs of those around me. What I've learned is that clearly having an opinion doesn't negate the opinions of others. We can like different things and still be friends. I know! Radical! 

5. Except sometimes it does. 

Opinions about favorite Doctors (Doctor Who), or Star Trek franchises, or pie varieties are not fatal differences. (Though I will fight with all my strength if you tell me that canned pumpkin makes as good a pie as fresh.)
I have given myself permission this year to distance myself from individuals in my life who hold political beliefs I feel are incompatible with empathy and democracy. If you make a joke in which you 'punch down' and when I try to talk to you about it, you tell me I have no sense of humor, I will walk away. If your facebook feed is full of memes that are actively hurtful to people in my life, I will walk away. If you continually act to bait me or my friends in arguments manufactured to make us justify our existence, I will walk away.  


Finally, I may indeed judge myself and others by Mr. Rogers's standards of decency. If he would have been disappointed, perhaps we need to rethink our actions. 

If you have lessons you'd like to share, please add them in comments. This list is certainly not exhaustive and I'm still learning every day. Just don't challenge me about the pumpkin pie. ;) 


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  1. I make fresh pumpkin pie for the daughter every year for Thanksgiving, even though I despise all forms of pumpkin, which I think earns me a pass.

    For something that is free kindness has become a rare commodity these days.
    I've been the grateful recipient of much kindness, so I'm working on being kinder to others myself. Anyone, really, but especially people who are overworked/underpaid, obviously stressed or generally ignored or avoided. A smile, a cheerful word, offering a sincere thank you, lending a hand -- i.e. stopping and getting something from a high shelf for a person in a wheelchair cart at the market -- take seconds, but they can all make that person's day a little sunnier. With all the hostility and hate around us I feel like it's become a priority now.

    1. Thank goodness I don't need to sever our friendship over fresh pumpkin pie! You had me worried there for a minute. ;)

      Yes, kindness. It takes so little to offer a moment of kindness. And it can mean the world to someone struggling with something you have no idea about.