Posted by: Dan | June 28, 2017

On Kindness

I was in collecting a detailed account history of my once joint bank account when the banker told me her daughter had died.  She had been staying in the psych ward but they let her out on a day pass and she killed herself.  We were approaching the anniversary date.  I haven’t really gotten over it, she said, and she spoke in a perplexed way, like a mother might, trying to understand how to “get over” the suicide of her daughter, her baby who was dead and gone and no longer there and who, in the midst of some kind of illness and darkness and sorrow, chose that.

I don’t always think it is useful to talk about suicide as a choice (although sometimes I think it is).  I think some who suicide were murdered years before they actually stopped living.  I didn’t say this to my banker, as she was printing off the details of my account so that I could provide them as evidence in Family Court.  But I did mention a young man I knew who did the same thing on a day pass once, many years ago, although I didn’t mention that he hung himself from a door handle with his belt, sitting on the floor, able at any moment to stand up, to untie himself, to walk back out of the bathroom, but he never did and he sat there with a belt around his neck and I think he must have really wanted to die.  I don’t begrudge him that.  People had done horrible things to him and with him.  Instead, I talked about sorrows that we always carry, scars we have on our insides, cracks and empty and dark places in our hearts and that we learn to live with because they never go away.  This seemed to resonate with her.  She gave me my papers, complimented me on my children (whom she remembered from another visit to the bank) and I think that was the last time I saw her.  Seeing her in public settings, and in interactions with other customers, she looked just fine, like she had it all together, but she was full to overflowing with all that she loved and all that she lost.

At that time, I was also overflowing and broken all to pieces but, somehow, I still walked around like a single entity, a person with arms and legs and jobs and bills that were always paid on time.  I was far away from the communities I had sought out for most of my adult life, and I was learning that it is not only people experiencing oppression and poverty and homelessness and colonization who are being called upon to engage in Herculean tasks to just get through the day.  It’s most of us.  People with money and nice jobs and nice houses and nice pictures of nice vacations in nice places on facebook—they’re all just barely holding on as well.

~

I’ve been wanting to write about kindness but, Mariam Toews was right.  It’s complicated.  Women who are being abused by their intimate partners don’t need advice on being more kind – even though that’s what Disney is teaching our girls (“If I had a friend who was treated the way the Beast treats Belle, I would tell her to keep being nice because that will make the Prince come out…”) – but they do sometimes want assistance getting out and away to somewhere safe.  And, given the right set of circumstances, I’m still down for punching Nazis.

~

I’ve been thinking a lot about road rage.  The other day I saw a woman in a car pull into a lane and not speed up as quickly as the man in the truck behind her would have liked.  He tailgated her and then pulled up beside her at a red light.  Rolling down his window he screamed terrible things at her.  Not that long ago, I saw a woman driver do something similar to another woman.  A few months before that, I saw a man in a truck pull out into oncoming traffic, perform a u-turn, and block the turning lane beside him (boxing in the truck waiting there), so that he could get out of his truck and assault the person now trapped in that vehicle.  Road rage is an example of a regular occurrence of what seems to be a massive overreaction – a woman pulls out a little too slowly for the liking of the guy driving down the road behind her and now he is screaming at her you bitch, you cunt, and I think I heard the word hatefuck (what does it say about us that such a word has traction in our culture?) before the guy sped away.  The woman looked pretty terrified and frozen, the way I’ve seen women look when men take off their masks and start treating women the way they fantasize about treating them.  She reminded me of my mother, many years ago.

But this guy, and that other raging woman, and that other raging guy, I think they’re all people who feel like they’re already trying to cope with more than they can bear.  Add just one more drop of water to their cups, even just the smallest drop, and everything comes spilling out.  Please note, I’m not saying this to excuse them or to justify their actions or to say, “hey, those assholes are really the victim in that situation” (because they’re not).  I’m saying this because this seems to be the broader context in which these interactions are taking place.  Everyone, including the assholes, is barely surviving the day and feeling they can’t take it anymore.  And when you (rightly or wrongly, whatever that means) feel like you are being shit on all the time, you just might jump at opportunities to shit on others.

But there are alternatives and, as an alternative, I’ve been trying to cultivate gentleness.  I’m learning how to relate to others gently, as best I can in whatever interactions I have.  In a context where people are starving from the absence of affection (and I think we are, I think that’s our context), the smallest drop of gentleness can prompt what might appear to be overreactions.   All it took was a little gentleness – communicated more in tone and body language than anything else – and my banker was telling me about her dead daughter.  Although I don’t know that her daughter is dead so much as dying again and again, every morning that my banker wakes up to the world where her daughter went out on a day pass and never came back.

~

Peter Maurin used to speak about creating the kind of society “where it is easier for people to be good.”  I like this idea.  It suggests that the cure for road rage isn’t so much meditating more and going to anger management and learning to count to ten, as it is learning to structure our lives in such a way that we are not dependent on cars.  Most lifelong pedestrians don’t get upset when traffic is flowing a little slower than usual – even when they are passengers in cars.  Mostly they’re thinking, “hey, I’m still getting where I’m going much faster than usual and with much less aches and pains in my knees and feet and hamstrings” (even if they are also secretly missing saying good morning to the river and running their fingertips over the long grasses that grow beside their walking path, and wondering if the snails have arrived yet).  That said, when these lifelong pedestrians are rushing and depending on a car to get them quickly where they need to go – because they have to get there quickly or they will displease a boss or miss an appointment, well, that changes everything.  Working bullshit jobs has so taken over the hours of our days that we start trying to cram everything else – including travel time between various locations – into the smallest time slots possible so that we can try to get everything done that we want to do outside of work.  So another cure for road rage is to pay people more for doing less, and giving them enough time to get an adequate number of hours of sleep at night.

~

I once tried to cut down on my travel time.  I started biking to work instead of walking but I found I wasn’t having enough time to transition from the stress of my job to my role as a father with my children.  When I got to the school to pick up the kids too soon I was still stressed out and tired and this could carry over into the rest of the evening.   However, when I walked, I found I was better able to make that transition and came to my children much more present and excited and ready to talk and play and cook and clean and do all the things a parent does.  I have also observed this in my children.  We often have wonderful talks walking to and from school and our home.  However, on rare occasions when we have gotten car rides, I have noticed that the kids are more prone to fighting with each other and arguing and poking each other in the eye and often, in the car, there are tears even though such things almost never happen when we are walking.  We all need transitional moments as we move between different environments and transitioning well takes time.  A world where it is easier for me to be good is a world where I have or take or make or steal the time I need to transition between my job and my family.  Beyond that, I think we need to talk about how we work shitty jobs in order to support our children but then these shitty jobs rebound on us and make us shittier parents.  Any job that drains you and leaves you not fully attentive to your child at the end of the day is bullshit.  Being a better parent doesn’t necessarily mean scheduling more activities into your day to improve yourself.  It means having the freedom to have more time with your children and having the energy you need to play with them then.

~

But the personal is also political and this applies to kindness, too.  When I was carrying more than I could bear, surviving in a set of circumstances that was completely overwhelming to me, simply because I was too stubborn to not not survive, it was interactions with kind people that were a balm on my wounds.  Many of these kind people were children – my nephews and nieces and my own kids who would all play with me as if I were someone special and lovely and exciting to play with.  To them, I was all of these things and with them I was all those things.  But sometimes adults were kind to me, too.  And in those interactions I felt okay.  For someone accustomed to feeling constantly not okay, and much worse than that, too, it’s hard to describe how wonderful a gift that was to receive from others.  Increasingly, it seems that people don’t get this feeling from others – they get it from antidepressants or alcohol or pot or hydros or whatever else they can put into their bodies to alter their brain chemistry.  If you have a doctor help you do this, you’re a good person.  If you discover that doctors won’t help you in the way that you need and you find your own way to do this, you’re a community health concern.

But what I mean to say is that I think the default position for our interactions with strangers or in public and professional environments shouldn’t just be politeness and professionalism and a strict adherence to whatever rules, laws, or protocols govern the spaces we inhabit.  I think the default position we take should be one of kindness and of gentleness.  I’d like that a lot.  And when kindness and gentleness conflict with rules and laws and protocols, as they inevitably do, especially in so-called caring professions designed to surveil and discipline members of populations considered deviant (i.e. sick), then I think kindness and gentleness take precedence.   We’re all in over our heads.

~

I once had a former corrections officer who had been hired at a shelter ask me what kind of punishment I mete out to individuals who “intimidate staff” in the program I help facilitate.  I laughed and said it’s not something we punish people for since we don’t get intimidated.  Then I felt like that was a bit of a macho dick move, and I explained that although circumstances that prompt a fear reaction can arise, we don’t relate to people as things to be feared but as people to be loved and respected and honoured.  He didn’t quite know what to make of that.  I’m pretty sure he has PTSD from his last job.

I’ve heard a lot of bosses talk about how people are too institutionalized to be treated like real human beings, too institutionalized to be treated with kindness and gentleness and respect and love and affection, but I think the most institutionalized people of all are the staff members who choose to show up every day to work in those institutions.  Prisoners don’t have much of a choice about staying in prison – guards and bosses, though, they choose to be there.  And they’re the ones who sometimes make me wonder if they’ve been institutionalized beyond the point of no return.  So, if we want a world where it is easier for guards to be good and bosses to be de-institutionalized, then we need to start tearing down prisons.  And the same goes for cops and social workers.

This also speaks to the broader point that Men’s Rights Activists are missing.  If they want to do something about the violence experienced by boys and men, they shouldn’t be targeting feminism—they need to be targeting patriarchy.  Jennifer Newsom and bell hooks have this figured out: the making of men, in our culture, is premised upon the destruction of boys.  But, beyond that, if, sometimes, somewhere, a woman beats up her male partner, or a female mother sexually assaults her son, this is not evidence that feminism is violent or destructive or bad.  It is evidence that, if you systematically engage in sexual and other forms of violence against girls and women, and do this across the board to everyone for generations, sometimes some people go on to treat others the way they have been treated.  MRAs refuse to understand this point and so, instead of deconstructing rape culture (wherein local male university students hang signs from their windows reading “No means yes.  And yes means anal.” which I’ve since learned, is not an uncommon chant during frosh weeks across Canada and the USofA), they promote rape apologists and double down on a culture that blames women and promotes violence against women because accepting some kind of notion of male guilt or culpability seems to be more than they can bear.

Why is this the case?  I have been fortunate enough to know several good men over the course of my life – men who acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from patriarchy and men who are working hard to fight against it.  These are men who understand that accepting responsibility within an androcentric and patriarchal society is not a thing that diminishes them but, instead, is something that liberates them.  These are men who seem to be okay with the idea that they have to do things to improve themselves and that improvement of this sort, in this context, is a lifelong project.

I think most men recoil from this because they feel like they’re already in over their heads and dealing with more than they can bear.  They don’t want improvement, they want succour.  Which, of course, means that when they look to women to mother them or fuck them (since men are not encouraged to soothe and comfort one another), and women refuse to play these roles (Sylvia Plath: “girls are not machines you put kindness coins into until sex falls out”), these men lay all the blame on women.

Which also means, I think, that if I want to do something about patriarchy I, as a man, should be cautious about demonizing other men and should, instead, try, as a man, to find ways to offer succour to other men.  This means avoiding the general ways that men do this with other men (talking about how all women are bitches, excusing or valourizing acts of violence, or engaging in social activities that provide people with the opportunity to experience themselves performing macho-ness), and opening a space where men can comfort other men in an anti-patriarchal, feminist manner.  Maybe then the absolutely necessary improvements become a possibility.

And I’m not saying this is right or as it should be, but I am trying to think about what tactics might produce what results.  And engaging on this front does not negate other engagements elsewhere.  I’m a fan of a diversity of tactics.  And if a patriarchal world is structured in such a way as to produce men who are overly sensitive to criticism and incapable of coping well with guilt or responsibility, then this, too, is one of the structures of patriarchy that must be torn down.  Engaging in this task needn’t be a misplaced focus of energy, as if one is making the sufferings of men more important than the women and children who suffer at the hands of men.  If male violence is the problem, then we’ve got to do something about men and, it seems to me, men are well situated to be allies to women by choosing to engage with violent men and with the structures that make it difficult for these men to be engaged.  It makes good sense as Malcolm pointed out all those years ago that white people should go deal with white people; and settlers should go deal with settlers, and men should go deal with men.

It’s the same tactic I use when working with men who have sexually abused children and who have been classified as highly likely to reoffend when released to the community.  When such men come into my work, I try very hard to be safe, welcoming, and useful to them.  I try to be kind and form a therapeutic rapport.  Some people would argue this kindness is a betrayal of the children these men have harmed, some people would argue that these men should be killed, but they are not killed and I am not going to kill them, and, given this context, they are more likely to reoffend if they are ostracized and treated like monsters but less likely to reoffend if they develop positive relationships in the community.  So who benefits the most from me trying to create this?  Well, to my mind, the children who don’t end up being abused if this ends up working.

~

I have been thinking about the term “gentlemen” and what a good thing it is to aspire to be and what a shame it is that the term was co-opted by a rapacious and parasitical upper class (as if being a gentleman has to do with the softness of one’s hands, the cleanness of one’s clothes, and the odour of one’s armpits, and nothing at all to do with treating the lives and bodies and sex of “those less fortunate” as completely disposable).

~

For the last two years of our marriage, I was not a good husband to my wife.  I did not know how to deal with conflict, especially when it was very intense and feelings were very escalated.  I did not know what to do with strong feelings of anger or frustration or hurt.  When my dad had shown strong feelings in our household when I was a child, it was terrifying and frequently resulted in physical violence.  Often this was hard to foresee.  Outbursts came suddenly and seemingly at random (he, too, probably felt like he had been given more than he could bear in life).  So it went for the familial conflicts I had experienced and I knew I did not want to be like my dad.  Consequently, the stronger my feelings, the more I shut down.  The more intensely angry or frustrated or hurt I felt, the flatter my affect became.  I became expressionless, mute, and non-responsive.  As a result of this, my wife often became more escalated and so we fell into a spiral where our reactions were triggers to each other. I became more withdrawn as she became more escalated, and she became more escalated as I became more withdrawn, until I finally physically withdrew from the situation and went off to the local pub to drink with other men – the regulars – who, as they got to know me, complained about their exes and showed me pictures of kids they hadn’t seen in years.

It would have been easy for me to then present myself as a victim in that situation, to present my wife and her way of dealing with conflict in the worst possible light, while presenting myself as a silent and long-suffering victim, but the truth was that my way of dealing with conflict was just as fucked as hers.

It took me a long time to realize this and I regret that I did not realize this about myself sooner.  Because not knowing how to deal with a situation is not an excuse for not learning how to deal with it well.  At that time, I found some comfort with those men at the pub.  But I am beginning to think if we rely on anything too long for comfort, it starts to play against us.  I see this all the time with people who turn to substances for relief, but who end up in relationships of long-term dependency that end up stealing everything else from their lives.  This doesn’t just apply to dependencies upon substances which have been made illicit (thereby causing a whole host of other barriers and harms to enter into a person’s life).  It’s everywhere.  It’s in our relationships and in shopping malls and churches and academic institutions and social media.

Eventually, perhaps, we need to move beyond being comforted to being okay.  Okay-ness sometimes means learning to carry inside of ourselves parts that can never be comforted.  I came to a point when I learned I did not have to try and fill my wounds and empty places with things to distract me from them.  Instead, I learned to live with them inside of me.  I learned that these wounds and holes and broken pieces were a part of me and I accepted them as such.  I have also learned other ways of negotiating conflict.  If I am upset about something I have learned to contextualize my feelings and communicate them.  I will say, “It hurt my feelings when you did this thing… but I don’t know if that’s because what you did was hurtful in and of itself or because I am carrying sensitivities forward from previous relationships where I experienced this other thing, so can we talk about this together and see where that takes us?”  At first I felt a bit silly or immature talking this way because it sounds so childlike (i.e. childish) but I have learned that the wisdom of children often far exceeds the maturity of men and the silliness of children is more life-giving than the seriousness of adults and the love of children transforms us into who we long to be because, to children, unless we prove them wrong, we already are good, we already are special, we already are a delight to be with, and we already are beloved.  And what I often think is the deepest wound of all in men is that they have proved their children wrong and until we find ways to create spaces where men can confront that about themselves, we are, all of us, doomed.

pheasants

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Responses

  1. I very much value your ideas/writing here, although I’m just 50% finished (however I did look ahead and saw the word “doomed” as the last word so I have some sense of the trajectory?). Blessings in your work and I could imagine this kind of helpful thinking finding a larger audience via some on-line journal or group blog? Obliged.

    • That last word may have left you with a wrong impression. I feel there is more hope in this than in my other works of doom.


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