“Who is there? What does it feel like?” my therapist whispered.
I placed my hands over my sternum and breathed deeply. I tried to aim my breathe at the exact spot my hands were covering. I couldn’t quite decide what it felt like. Opening a massive, ancient tome that’s been collecting dust for hundreds of years? Using the jaws of life to pry open a particularly nasty car wreck? And then it came to me: an octopus.
An octopus was living inside my chest. More specifically, it had nestled itself into the space between my breast bone and skin. The octopus had spread its tentacles through muscle, bone, and sinew. It reached into every inch of my body. It’s worth noting that despite the picture at the top of this post, my octopus has a much more cartoonish design to it.
The image made perfect sense. The feelings of panic and tightness I frequently experience could be the result of the octopus flexing and pulling at my nerves and muscles. The waves of shame that regularly wash over my face and torso could be the result of the octopus squirting its ink into me. The octopus immediately joined The Critic, The Monster, The Gatekeeper, and the rest of the parts I had previously identified during my time using the Internal Family Systems method.
Internal family systems 101: Internal Family Systems is a therapeutic model that treats the patient’s inner world as a family gathering. The wounded and painful parts of our psyche are given names and identities. They all hang out together. These parts are in varying levels of conflict with the Self, our essence and core. Suffering happens when we “blend” with our parts and they take over, causing us to forget who we are. Healing occurs when the patient is able to heal the wounded parts and restore a sense of balance to the internal system. This happens by visualizing the parts, establishing relationships with them, and conversing with them. There’s lots of visualization, self-reflection, and breathing. IFS is obviously way more detailed and complex than this, but hopefully you get the gist.
A brief example from my own practice. Like many people, I have a rapacious inner monologue. I have personified it as The Critic, a figure who hangs out in my psyche and points out everything I’m doing wrong and what I should have done instead. Sometimes the inner critic is helpful, but mostly he’s a pain in the ass. Some of the work I’ve done in therapy has been to recognize when The Critic is talking in order to establish a boundary and help him understand that everything is okay; I got this.
Normally I’ve been able to interface with all of my parts. I talk to them and they talk back. Something was different about the octopus, however. It felt almost alien. Not only did it refuse to talk, it refused to wake up. In my visualizations, the octopus was in a deep sleep. Nothing I did could garner a reaction from it. So my therapist told me to keep breathing into the space and telling it that I was there with it.
For the remainder of the week that’s what I did. I imagined tickling the underside of the octopus with my breath. I visualized putting pressure on its tendrils by filling my lungs with air. But no matter what I did, the octopus remained silent and inert. And then something happened. I was sitting for my nightly meditation when I noticed an absence where the octopus normally sat. I breathed and breathed, using the air filling my lungs as a searchlight to scan the depths. But nothing was there. Then, a new feeling began to emerge like a submarine rising to the surface after years of dormancy.
It felt like what I imagined being stabbed with a knife might feel like. A sharp, one inch incision appeared right above my heart. It burned and smoldered. I pulled in The Analyzer, the part of me that loves to think things through from multiple perspectives, and tried to figure out what was going on. It dawned on me that I’d experienced this scenario before in video games. In some games, the player has to do a certain amount of damage to a boss before the weak spot appears. Shoot the armor off and you get access to the heart, for instance.
Is that what was happening? Was the octopus guarding a deep emotional wound? Was the octopus protecting me from the wound or the other way around?
The wound disappeared after a few minutes, and I haven’t been able to find it since. Not only that, but the octopus seems to have faded a little. Maybe my breathing was a threat and it sunk deeper into my tissue to hide. I literally have no idea. Hopefully it will reveal itself again. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing. Hold the space. Breathe into the space. Hold. Exhale. Repeat.
“You just wait until that baby comes! Then we’ll see what happens to that routine you love so much!”
When folks at my school found out my wife was pregnant, they had a lot to say. I was continuously befuddled by the amount of joy folks appeared to take in telling me how hard I would struggle. They know I need routine and structure to keep my life manageable. They also know I used to spend most of my free time tweaking lesson plans and spitballing different classroom activities.
The process of detaching myself from my workaholic identity has been progressing with predictable slowness. I use the term “workaholic” seriously. I’m addicted to the predictable rhythms of spending the majority of every day engrossed in the familiar world of lesson plans and education. Fridays used to be my favorite day of the week because it guaranteed hours of work at my computer unfettered by distractions. There’s also the perfectionist aspect. My brain remains convinced that the harder it works the fewer mistakes it’ll make.
My transition into a life defined by something more than work has three stages. Stage one is the initial uncoupling. This stage began when Joelle was born. Stage two is the replacement of what used to be work with new, family oriented activities. This is where I am now. This weekend, for example, I helped my wife look up activities that would accommodate a four month old infant who likes to eat and two adults who love to eat. I’m also trying to spend less time on work when I’m at home.
Stage two is the hardest stage for me to manage. Habits calcified over my lifetime will require more than a few weekend outings to break.
The final stage of my transformation will be the ability to gain physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance from family oriented activities. To embrace the nourishment that my family provides. This is an almost impossible rewiring of my circuity because the life of a perfectionist revolves around outrunning failure, not pursuing joy. But every second I spend with baby and wife are incredible. This child is everything.
My desire to keep my child from inheriting this toxic work obsession is almost overwhelming. I will do everything in my power to make sure they won’t need their own three point plan for embracing themselves and those around them.
I’ve never wanted a work/life balance because work has been my life. It’s been the most important part of who I am and how I want others to see me. I just don’t possess the imaginative capacity to envision a life where work is anything other than everything yet. But it’s happening.
American capitalism requires American racism. We can trace this country’s race-based oppression to the political economy of the colonial era. More specifically, to colonial Virginia. By the end of the 1600s, the colonial elite in Virginia had united an unruly society by instituting a racial hierarchy. The combination of private property and anti-Blackness they created became the standard for many of the colonies.
The 1622 Massacre and the Invocation of Crisis
The Virginia Company quickly realized that the best way to accumulate wealth was to rely on tobacco. The new crop was lucrative, but it was also labor-intensive and expensive to harvest. In addition to the expensive cost of labor, the Company flooded the market with tobacco. The resulting overproduction lowered profits. In order to make more money, something had to change.
An opportunity to do just this came in March of 1622 when indigenous tribes from the Powhatan Confederacy decided to launch a combined counter-attack against the ever encroaching settlers. They killed colonists, burned corn crops, and raided settlements. Over ⅓ of the colony died the day of the attack.
The Virginia Company elite used the attack and resulting devastation to clamp down on the colonists. They barred anyone from growing corn or hunting, claiming that these activities left the colonists open to attack. They ordered survivors to abandon their plots of land and relocate to a central position. Living in a centralized location would help guarantee security, they said. The Colony Council then decided that in order to grow corn you had to first have a corn-trading license. They distributed these licenses to themselves and no one else. As a result of the 1622 massacre, a group of twelve Company men were able to seize land, consolidate power, and control the flow of food.
The value of corn skyrocketed due to scarcity. And the only way to buy it was to trade tobacco. Unfortunately the price of tobacco had fallen due to overproduction. Since the value of tobacco went down, the majority of tenants (and the planters they were working for) struggled to make enough to survive.
Colonial Labor and the Transition to Chattel-Bond Servitude
Tobacco was labor-intensive and expensive to grow. In order to remain profitable, the planter elite needed to increase their margins. Since the market had been flooded with tobacco, the only way to increase profits was to decrease costs. The traditional bond laborer needed to be more cost effective.
For the majority of the 1600s, the VA colony’s workforce was made up of primarily English workers. They were referred to as bond laborers because they signed contract agreements with the Virginia Company and its stockholders before they boarded ships to the colony. The typical bond laborer expected to work as a “tenant-at-half.” This meant they agreed to work for a Company planter on Company land for half of the profits. The Company was responsible for supplying bond laborers with clothing, food, shelter, and a plot of land upon work completion (typically 4-7 years).
To reduce labor costs, the VA elite decided to change the established English conditions of bond contracts. After the change, tenants arriving at the colony often found themselves assigned to private planters on private land. Furthermore, workers were now expected to pay for their own food, shelter, and clothing. Since the price of tobacco was so low, tenants were barely able to make enough money to survive.
Rebellion and Social Control
The situation was dire. Food was scarce. Land was privatized. A steady stream of European laborers fed the environment of discontent. No longer could laborers expect to hold public office or find workable and ownable land for themselves. Members of the colony’s workforce began expressing their anger in a variety of ways. Some ran away to indigenous tribes. Others linked up with African slaves and burned tobacco crops to protest over-production.
The various rebellions culminated in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Freemen, slaves, and bond laborers banded together to resist. The plantocracy was terrified. The threat of a united labor force pushing back against the plantation system was immediate. They needed to divide the laborers. They did this by creating a system that allowed one group (poor Europeans) to control the other (African slaves). But in order to make this a viable solution, the planters needed access to cheap labor. They needed someone for this new class of landless Europeans to manage.
In the 1680s, the English gained access to a steady supply of African slave labor by way of a treaty with the Dutch. The unfettered access to African labor was counterbalanced by a marked decrease in the availability of European labor. King Charles II made it harder for the Virginia Company to recruit poor European workers. Colonies in the Carolinas and Pennsylvania opened up, creating a place for poor Europeans to move to. The price of tobacco began to rise, improving the lives of planters and their mostly European tenants.
Prior to the early 1680s, most African slaves came to the Virginia Colony by way of Barbados. African slaves who labored in Barbados were often able to learn some English. This wasn’t an option for the new slaves abducted directly from the African coast. They struggled to acclimate and learn English. They were unable to communicate, plan, and find common cause with poor Europeans workers, leaving the new slaves alienated and alone.
In addition to these larger changes, a newly constituted Virginia Assembly instituted a series of legislative moves to place Africans in a state of permanent chattel servitude. Normally, under English common law, the status of a child drew from the status of the father. The Assembly flipped it so that a child’s status was now linked to the mother. This allowed European planters to increase their supply of hereditary chattel labor by raping their female slaves. Additionally, new antimiscegenation laws meant any European woman who married someone of African descent became property of her husband’s owner.
A Community of Privilege
The Virginia and Maryland colonial assemblies used the law to create a community of privilege bound up in skin color and status. Non-Europeans were unable to vote, own property, testify against Europeans in court, and buy/own anything resembling a weapon. On the other side, European slaves were given “freedom dues,” corn, weapons, and other living essentials. Poor whites were often placed in positions of authority over African slaves. This is because the community of privilege is contrapuntal in nature. Every European privilege is built upon the denial of freedom to Africans.
Those in power needed to create a new class that was so attractive that poor Europeans would see themselves as similar to the English elite. This is the origin of the white race, a legal category that begins showing up in official documents around the 1670s and 80s. The lack of historical precedent over a distinctly white race and the visibly distinct difference in pigment made whiteness a perfect way to maintain social control.
This is the origin of anti-Blackness, capitalism, and white privilege in the U.S.
Works consulted for this post:
Birth of a White Nation by Jacqueline Battalora
The Invention of the White Race v.1 and 2 by Theodore Allen
Settlers by J. Sakai
A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia 1660-1710 by T. H. Breen
Colonists in Bondage, White Servitude and Convict Labor in America 1607-1776 by Abbot Emerson Smith
“The Plantation” by
Licensed under CC0 1.0
Dominant groups have the most narrow or limited view of society because they do not have to understand the experiences of the minoritized group in order to survive; because they control the institutions, they have the means to legitimize their view. (DiAngelo and Sensoy, 48).
White supremacy is blinding. It obfuscates our perception of the world, distorting some truths while burying others. The funds of knowledge I’ve attained over thirty-six years represent only a tiny sliver of what’s out there. Only now am I coming to grips with just how little I know.
I’ve always associated myself with perfectionism. I’ve written about it, read countless self-help books on the topic, and attended out-patient support groups for it. As a result, I’ve bought into the standard explanation that perfectionism stems from an unbalanced combination of nature, nurture, and external factors. I attacked it with therapy and medication. I took my failure to “get rid of it” as just more evidence that I had it. And then I came across White Supremacy Culture by activist, educator, and author Tema Okun
In the article, Okun discusses the various ways white supremacy influences individual personality traits by favoring certain ways of thinking, knowing, and being in the world. The article explores fifteen personality traits including perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, paternalism, individualism, and objectivity.
Okun explains that these characteristics are damaging because “they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group.” She explains how these norms and unexamined traits damage everyone. Certain traits on the list such as individualism, fear of open conflict, and objectivity have all made appearances in various books and essays I’ve read. But I’ve never seen anything that positions perfectionism as an outgrowth of white supremacy culture.
Perfectionism is only one example of my recent unlearning. Every few days seems to bring some new revelation that causes me to reread the world. Consider the recent shooting in Las Vegas. In the past, I’ve responded to similar white-on-white terrorism by calling for stronger gun reform and excoriating the gun lobbies. And then I read this Twitter thread from @Queersocialism. That led me to look into the relationship between the Black Panther Party and modern gun laws. I’ve existed on this planet for three decades without being exposed to this perspective on gun violence and gun control.
My understanding of reproductive rights is another example of how white supremacy breeds ignorance. Growing up in a staunchly pro-choice household, I’ve always considered myself to be informed on the topic of abortion. And then I began researching reproductive justice and Black women for this month’s Safety Pin Box assignments. What I’ve learned about eugenics, the history of violence against pregnant Black women, and women of color’s contribution to family planning does more than offer “another side” to consider. It demolishes everything I took to be true about how the world works. It forces me to see what I’ve been allowed to ignore.
Turning back to perfectionism, when I posted the article on social media, a number of my white colleagues voiced their disagreement. They said that the traits discussed in the article are just that, individual traits. Aspects of someone’s personality uncoupled from larger social and historical factors. Where the article saw ideology, they saw a sort of agnostic and deracinated individualism.
Understanding perfectionism as a component of white supremacy asks many of us to take a theoretical leap of faith. We can’t connect the dots until we’re willing to reconsider everything about the way we’ve been socialized to see the world. For many of us, we’ve come to understand white supremacy as something that happens when bad white people do things like march with torches on Charlottesville. But this limited understanding of white supremacy as local and individual acts of explicit racism misses the point. It lives everywhere and it informs everything. A metanarrative of systematic oppression that’s been able to render itself all but invisible to so many of us white folks.
In Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 film Pi, a tortured mathematician struggles to reconcile genius, the divine, and numbers. Towards the end of the film he comments that “If we’re built from spirals, while living in a giant spiral, then everything we put our hands to is infused with the spiral.” This strikes me as an apt description of white supremacy culture. We were born into it. We live within it. And without relentless and careful introspection, everything we do perpetuates it.
-Image credit: CC0
Women of color have publicly rebuked me three times. I didn’t appreciate it when it was happening but now I’m thankful for these experiences. They helped me begin to remove the space suit of privilege that keeps me hermetically sealed from inequity and oppression. This post is for white folks like me. Learn from my ignorance.
I attended my first step show in college. I was astounded and captivated by the rhythm, the discipline, and the air of celebration in the packed auditorium. A woman of color in front of me noticed some of her friends behind me, prompting a delightful outburst of joy and hand signs. (I would later come to learn that hand signs are a part of sorority culture.)
Wanting to join in on the conviviality, and not knowing any better, I locked eyes with some of the women and attempted to replicate the hand gestures. Their faces dropped as they saw what I was trying to do. Stop. This isn’t for you, one of the women behind me said. My face flushed fire engine red as I pinned my hands to my sides and sat down. Mercifully, I was quickly forgotten as the women went back to enjoying the event and each other’s company. My white shame was overwhelming.
The next day I recounted the story to a friend in an attempt to figure out what happened. What had I done that was so offensive? My friend gave me a quick rundown on the Divine Nine. He said that the rituals and knowledge of African American Greek and fraternal organizations were closed off to me because I wasn’t a member. Fascinated, I pressed him for more. But no matter how hard I pleaded, he refused to yield. This isn’t for you, he echoed. As a privileged white male, this was the first time in my life when I was denied access to knowledge. The situation caused me to reflect on the history of slave masters denying African Americans access to education, rightfully compounding my guilt.
Three years ago I created a Twitter account for professional purposes. One morning a lively discussion about racist curricula and school discipline dominated my feed. I found myself nodding along and cosigning on everything that was being said. Without thinking I charged into the conversation, inserting my unsolicited voice into a space it didn’t belong. Even though I thought I was helping out, I had no business butting in.
With all due respect, one of the discussion participants Tweeted to me, please stay on the sidelines for this. I froze. So great was the embarrassment that I raced to delete my comments, unfollow everyone involved in the conversation, and close my laptop. I slunk down into my chair, saturated with the same white fragility I experienced at the step show. I wasn’t upset at anyone but myself, but I still didn’t “get it.” I must have been misunderstood, I thought. After all, I was just trying to help!
Last summer, determined to “get it right,” I barged into another Twitter conversation about the representation of girls of color in the movie Moana. I had just finished the revelatory Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique Morris. The conversation was about the hyper-sexualization of girls of color in popular media, a topic Morris explores throughout her book. Spurred on by the privileged notion that I had an inalienable right to participate in every conversation and speak on every topic, I fired off a few pedantic tweets about the book and how it refers to hyper-sexualization as “age compression.” It did not go well. The discussion leader immediately called me out, rightfully excoriating me and demanding that I get off of their timeline. My privilege stood between their words and my own understanding.
Determined to get to the bottom of what was going on, I sought out people of color on Twitter and followed them. Academics, pop culture critics, authors, organizers, students, it didn’t matter. At the time, my goal was to figure out what was going on in order to be able to join discussions without getting called out. It had nothing to do with critical consciousness; I just didn’t want to get shamed.
But the more I followed and listened, the more I started to “get it.” The discussions I was inserting myself into were not mine. I realized how I was treating conversations among people of color as something to be commandeered and dominated for my own gain. As if every public space was simply another venue for me to broadcast my own beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be.
This blog post is written to white people like me. People who need to talk less and listen more. People who need to remove themselves from the center and elevate others. If you’re interested in improving, here are some quick and easy ways to get started.
- Be mindful of the social media accounts you follow and rebroadcast.
- Read or watch a quick primer on privilege. It will help.
- Talk with the women and people of color in your life. Develop relationships with them and listen to them.
- In case you hadn’t heard, online spaces can be extremely toxic and hateful for women and people of color. When you see white people engaging in inappropriate and disrespectful behavior, engage them. There’s no value in ‘feeding the trolls,’ but there’s value in holding each other accountable and assuming that once we know better, we can do better.
- Stop talking and listen more!
If you find yourself getting rebuked, take the loss. Lick your wounds, dab your white tears, and move on. Head back into the conversation, but this time just listen. As white folks we must keep each other in check and amplify voices of color. It’s not about us.
I experience life through a series of shifting grids. Everything about the way I process information suggests right angles, coordinate planes, and compartments. Anytime I meet someone new, I assault them with a barrage of out of context and somewhat inappropriate questions: What music do you listen to? How was your childhood? What’s your relationship with your family? What were you like in high school? What are your favorite shows? My brain yearns to place everything and everyone into various interconnected frameworks. Everyone’s answers also act as a mirror, allowing me to engage in continuous rounds of self-assessment to make sure I stay within one standard deviation of what I consider to be normal.
The tendency to fix everything to a grid permeates every aspect of my life. When I was little kid, I told my mom how I enjoyed tracking syllables with my left hand. I would take sentences and count them off into alternating groups of 3, 4, and 5. The goal was to make the final syllable of every sentence end on a particular finger.
Heavy metal, my favorite genre of music, fits seamlessly into the grid. Every band taking up residence in my brain combines jackhammer force with the precision of quartz chronological movement. “Still Echoes” from Virginia metal band Lamb of God is a perfect example. Listening to the drums, guitars, and vocal patterns feels like spiraling out from the center of Fibonacci’s golden ratio pattern.
For this reason, my jogging playlist always contains a single song on repeat. No surprises and no shuffling. Just the same two minute chunk looped. It takes a certain kind of song to stand up to this obsessive level of routine. The song has to be relentless and consistent in beats per minute. Although I try to mix it up every few months, I keep coming back to the staples: Slayer, At the Gates, Lamb of God, In Flames, and Darkest Hour. The one exception here is Usher whose banger Scream enjoyed a couple summers of looping.
I’ve been listening to the first two minutes of Darkest Hour’s The Sadist Nation during every run for the last five years. It never gets old or loses its edge. Every listen is a fresh marching order, a call for muscle and sinew to propel the body forward. 1’s and 0’s, on’s and off’s, starts and finishes. I can’t stand jazz for this reason. The organic ebb and flow of improvisation, the rhythm changes, the fluidity of it all claws at my need for repetition and symmetry and containment.
Schools are perfect for me. In most schools, everything that happens slots nicely into a grid. Bell schedules, assignment schedules, curricular planning, everything is rationalized and consistent. I love it. Every school day is a perfect assemblage of self-contained rituals. I can tackle anything as long as it’s fixed to some sort of repetitive grid.
Ritual and repetition help me manage my ADHD. They place boundaries around everything. During summer and winter break, I keep to the same schedule. Wake up around 5 and play video games until 9. Then, work on writing until around 11 when I do some form of exercise. My afternoon is lunch, nap, reading, then YouTube until my wife gets home. Every day. Without such a setup I drown.
I’ve always been an all or nothing person. I recently had my wisdom teeth removed, an experience that left me swollen on the couch for days. I didn’t brush my teeth. I collapsed on the bed every night in the clothes I had been wearing all day. My diet consisted of slurping down ice cream, apple sauce, and ex lax whenever I felt like it. After a week of being off the grid, I was able to begin inserting modules of routine back into my schedule. Mercifully, my life is once again fully contained within blocks of reading, writing, exercise, and socially acceptable hygiene practices.
My contained existence brings me joy because it allows me to meet life on my terms. Within constraint lies my personal freedom.
My fingers sweat from the effort of forming a basic chord. My right hand holds the plastic pick as if it were made from some alien material. Like I do every year, I spent portions of the summer hunched over my guitar in an attempt to recapture some of my past musical glory. Now that school is back, I have put my guitar back in my closet where it will sleep patiently for the next eleven months. When life calms down, I tell myself, I’ll be able to devote more time to it. This is, of course, not necessarily true. Life is always busy, but carving out regular time is often a matter of discipline and priorities. Doing something other than attending to school simply isn’t a priority. It hasn’t been for at least ten years.
Paul Thomas recently wrote on his blog about his experiences with regret. In the post, Paul explores the rise and fall of his identity as a visual artist. His essay reminded me of one of my own past lives, that of a guitar player. My first memory of the guitar dates back to 6th grade when when a science teacher held a guitar club after school. Although I didn’t join, I would often hang around outside his room to listen to multiple off-kilter renditions of Stairway to Heaven or the Am – G repetition of Nirvana’s About A Girl. Before long, the six-string instrument began showing up in the bedrooms and basements of my friends. It was as if entrance into suburban puberty included a complimentary guitar and Green Day song book. I pleaded with my parents for an electric guitar (acoustic guitars hurt my fingers and just didn’t seem as cool) and was rewarded with a Peavey Predator, a decent intro-level instrument.
For the rest of middle school and high school the instrument and I were inseparable. After coming home from school I would plop down onto the floor of my bedroom, plug into my amp, and practice my favorite songs by Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer. This is around the time I started taking Ritalin, so I spent hours rooted to the floor, the typewriter-key movement of my left hand the only sign I was conscious. I took full advantage of the private lessons and guitar summer camps my parents wonderfully provided. My guitar could be heard in high school musicals, various talent shows, and the corners of every local guitar store. While I wasn’t going to be the next Steve Vai (one of the most celebrated and accomplished living guitarists), it was clear that I had some facility with the instrument.
Playing guitar provided me with an identity, a way to construct myself and understand how I fit into the world of adolescence. It helped me orient myself by creating a center of gravity. My relationships, values, ideas about the future, and predilections orbited around being a guitar player. I wanted to escape the feeling of never being good enough by committing myself to one thing completely. If only I could play faster, I told myself, if I could just pick the strings more clearly then I might be able to become something that didn’t hurt. The identity of guitarist supported me and protected me until college, when I decided to minor in classical guitar in order to explore my new-found interests in psychology and sociology.
College was my first introduction to what journalist and author Chris Hedges refers to as a life of the mind. I traded in my metronome for highlighters and attacked my studies with feral abandon (Also, the notion of playing the intro riff to Megadeth’s Holy Wars 500 times in a row loses a bit of its luster when you live with roommates). By the time I graduated college in 2004, I had downgraded my guitar from the focal point of my room to a dusty afterthought sleeping underneath my box-spring mattress. My fingers had forgotten how to navigate the terrain of the instrument. Instead I identified as someone who was serious about learning. College and graduate school had primed my mental machinery, but it wasn’t until I began teaching in 2008 that I found a subject robust enough to be my everything. I calibrated every aspect of my identity to the rhythms of classroom life.
This is how it’s been for the last eight years. Education is all I allow myself to be interested in. In some ways my obsession drive to give myself up completely to something is a coping mechanism, a way to ground myself and contain my neuroses. I choose not to have much of a social life beyond the occasional lunch and dinner dates with my wife’s friends, and I’m not interested in finding hobbies or expanding my horizons. I have come to peace with the knowledge that I do not live life to the fullest.Teaching makes this easy. The unreasonable demands placed on teachers create a situation where there is always something to do.
As with any obsession, my monomania works until it doesn’t. I’ve struggled to unhook my self-esteem from the predictably unpredictable rhythms of school life. In the post mentioned above, Paul describes how he lost parts of himself in his quest for a practical adult life. He describes the tension between who he is vs. who he feels he should be. While I have also denied myself the chance to explore alternative aspects of my identity, I have done so in an attempt to outrun feelings of inadequacy.
He concludes his post by saying,
Regret of the kind that is not from hurting another is our inability, our refusal to recognize our thing—and then to embrace it as our happiness. Our thing includes “the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth,” suffering, but it is not ours to seek ways to avoid human suffering, but like Sisyphus, to commit to it with all our body and heart.
I have tried to use commitment to education as a way to construct an identity buttressed against not feeling good enough. I have allowed myself to be carried away by my obsessive belief that I can find relief from my suffering in just one more professional book or article. My attempts to study away the struggles that make me human have prevented me from living fully as an educator and a human being. To be clear, I do not regret my infatuation with school life. Along with pleasures both cerebral and visceral, education provides me with an identity I’m proud of. A self that feels expansive and limited only by time and my ability to understand. Perhaps this post is a way of telling myself that while I’ve committed to education with body and heart, it’s time to find fulfillment from the joys and the frustrations. By isolating one from the other, or attempting to use one to shield myself from the other, I’m doing my commitment a disservice. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.