Tell Me I’m Wrong

Tell Me I’m Wrong

I like it.

I do. It’s new – maybe a few years that I’ve had positive reactions to being accurately corrected – but it feels so good when I do. It actually gives me a physical rush. Maybe rush isn’t the right word. It’s like a piney breeze softly winding through my body. It feels like freedom.

When I find out I don’t know shit…

I don’t know why, but it feels like Freeeeeeeeeedom

(thank you for the only upbeat popular songs of 2021, Mr. Batiste)

Oh, don’t think it’s always been this way. It definitively ain’t. I’m one of those people who has had a lifelong embarrassment of showing ignorance. Not any ignorance: I allowed myself some realms of detached unknowing. Mostly in realms I didn’t care about. You could tease me relentlessly about never having seen a full Star Trek episode or most forms of etiquette or different cuts of meat or fantasy novels and I’d laugh it off. But for a shockingly, shockingly broad swath of topics, not knowing something churned up not interest, but shame. Even some things I didn’t give two shits about, like the names of different kinds of rocks. I’d still feel stupid because I know we covered that at some point in grade school. So I should know it. Different kinds of architecture? Never studied it, but I know educated people often do, so I should know it. Damn near every event in history, every geographic location, every word in Spanish, every philosopher, every person who ever accomplished anything noteworthy, every non-obscure scientific theory.

Everyone who shares this affliction has their own unique backstory, I’m sure. As a child I was shamed and sometimes psychologically tortured for hours if I failed to define a word correctly or adequately explain why a race riot somewhere in Asia was noteworthy. And it wasn’t just facts or intellectual prowess I was expected to excel in, but physical activities as well. If I didn’t rapidly learn how to hit a tennis ball without lobbing it over the fence or catch a baseball thrown with some velocity at my face, I was met with anger and heaping gobs of disappointment. Is it any wonder I mournfully sat out softball while my BFA class got to know each other on the field my freshman year in college? Or wouldn’t partake in any new activity until I had already practiced on my own beforehand? There was also a fun little twist in that my abuser often accused me of “pretending not to know.” I really wonder where the hell he got that one. What kind of masochist did he think I was, to invite hours of soul-crushing confusion and barely contained violence just for fun?

Weirdly, or not, I have treated myself with much the same bad logic. I put a slightly different spin on it: knowing that I don’t know an answer, I’m clearly not faking it, so at least I don’t have that bullshit to contend with. Instead I see my ignorance as a personal failure. For someone who considers herself logical, it really doesn’t make any more sense than my dad’s accusation. If I don’t remember something from high school, did I choose to forget it? Obviously not, so how can I blame myself? More things are forgotten than remembered by every person, every day. And even more things are never acknowledged in the first place. We’d be unable to function in society otherwise. Perhaps I didn’t study hard enough, but considering the overwhelming mass of things I expect myself to remember, “enough” is an unreachable goal. Many crucial facts are things I didn’t even learn in class, things that might have been casually referenced in passing. If I had worked to commit to memory every stupid tidbit I’m expected to know, I wouldn’t have lived a life.

What if my ignorance is, Buddha forbid, just plain old stupidity? I certainly can’t blame myself for that. And if I am intellectually stunted, I’ve done remarkably well for myself.

Why does knowing things even matter? What wisdom or insight or empathy or connection is gained simply by carrying oodles of items around in your head? What real knowing comes of it?

Of course, if talking oneself out of bad habits were enough to erase them, we’d all be a whole lot healthier. My intro was an optimistic exaggeration. There are still too many areas or scenarios in which I feel that shame creeping in, and one of them will be put to the test yet again for the umpteenth time next week. I’m taking a Spanish class for the first time since 2019, and as much as I love the language, relish speaking it, and crave fluency, practice has always been an opportunity for me to start waving that flag of self-loathing. I can rationalize my way out of the wise analysis of previous paragraphs with the simple fact that I have been studying Spanish off and on for decades, so obviously I should know it perfectly by now. I will also be participating in an Mindfulness Intensive program during part of the semester, so I’m hoping that will help me process any fucked-up feelings I’m experiencing.

The irony (so often with the irony) is that I may be right about my language expectations. It is entirely possible that someone who has been studying as long as I would know the language at least comfortably, if not fluently. According to language experts, the main reason I haven’t gotten there is because I don’t spend nearly enough time actually interacting with people in Spanish. And why? Because I’m afraid of being wrong. You see here, that old Buddhist mantra creeping in – you can’t really love others until you can love yourself. Our fears create the scenarios we fear.

Alan Watts, apropos of I don’t know what, once said that the Japanese in Japan were generally excellent English speakers, but an Englishman had to get them drunk to hear them talk because they were too afraid of embarrassing themselves to try when they were sober. I empathize, mis amigos. Your culture of shame is far vaster than my culture of one, but I feel you.

I have come up with a procedure that would get rid of all these self-positioned and self-perpetuating obstacles: just detach the identity from the emotion. Because it’s not the embarrassment that kills you, it’s the shame – it’s the attachment of the embarrassment to one’s sense of self that creates the shame. I deal with this whenever I try to get White people to talk about race and racism, and it does get frustrating. At times I just want to shake them and say, “your ignorance is not your fault/you didn’t choose to be raised under White supremacy/you’re not doing anyone any good by hiding from it/ you can make things better for yourself and others if you just open up, allow yourself to be wrong, and grow.” And of course, I recognize that I am in the same boat, just on a different river.

So I am not there yet. But feeling that freedom of openness, of detaching my mistakes from my identity, of just letting them be and moving on, should make it easier to welcome that liberation with my Big Enemy of the language I should know. We’ll see. I’ll keep you in the loop.

Creative Imperfection (Perfection, pt 5)

Paris through the Window, Marc Chagall

We would have stagnated and likely died off as a species if we had settled for perfection. Evolution requires variation – a mutation from expectations, from what was extant or even conceivable before it happened. Our selectively cultivated foods – our pluots and actually tasty apples – came out of a desire for variety and difference: improvement, not perfection. When the focus shifted to profit, perfection took primacy over variety. (In the narrowest sense of the word profit, meaning a strictly financial benefit for the titular “owners” of the item in question, because the loss to the world has been enormous.) When we move from variation to perfection, we get shit. Look at the strawberry. Mass produced, global strawberries are engineered to be very red, very large, and very firm – the perfect image of a strawberry, and perfect for easy picking and long, bumpy transport. They are also flavorless. We are so averse to imperfect looking foods that we created a space for an alternative, radical industry based on selling “ugly” produce to people on subscription, because grocery stores won’t sell them. Because we won’t buy them. Perfect-ly good food, wasted because it doesn’t fit our model of what a particular food should look like.

Likewise, any ideal is just as timebound, subjective, and limited. Who created these standards? In the US, certainly, they are largely male, wealthy, White, able-bodied … you can keep adding privileged identities. What are those guys missing? The answers are infinite. Their idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. Perfect children were quiet and still and obedient. Perfect citizens conformed with social expectations and followed laws, which have at many times been exceptionally cruel and immoral.

What even is imperfection? Is it just a name we give something that doesn’t fit the way we want it to be, the way our necessarily limited human expectations circumscribe the parameters or potential of a being or object? Is perfection simply acceptance? Is that what Neem Karoli Baba demonstrated when he instructed Larry Brilliant to eradicate smallpox while unironically insisting that everything was exactly as it should be? Is a world without pain and horrors a perfect world? Or is the world always perfect, regardless of Global Weirding, genocide, pick your cause; and is our empathy and grief and work to change those circumstances as inextricable a part of the perfection as the ghastly circumstances themselves? Is a perfect world one in which suffering is present for us to relieve? Is that super self-serving and monstrous? That, just as plants and animals must die to feed other plants and animals, and forests must burn to allow for new growth, our human world must be filled with resource extraction and cruelty? Maybe. Or maybe we just throw out the idea of a perfect world and instead live the paradox of simultaneous acceptance and opposition.  

Buddhist, Native American, and other religions imply the idea of an individual entity being perfect independent of the community which literally and figuratively keeps them alive is absurd. Our selves don’t end at our “skin-encapsulated ego” (Alan Watts), and neither does the strawberry’s. That perfect strawberry is here reinterpreted as a massive failure because it poisons the soil, the farm workers who pick it, the air we breathe through the chemical inputs to grow it and fossil fuels to ship it; and denies nutrients and spreads disappointment to the people who eat it. In these interconnected worldviews there is no place for perfection, which attempts to delineate something that is by nature fluid. As the infinitely amazing Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy writes, we have deluded ourselves with the idea that power, or success, means domination. “This is not the way nature works. Living systems evolve in complexity, flexibility, and intelligence through interaction with each other.”[i] Evolution is never just personal; our environment decides which mutations are worth reproducing. Every creative act, every change is a collaboration between living things and their environments and cultures.

In the creative realm, the concept of perfection puts restrictions on what a thing can be, and creative potential can be smothered by such boundaries. If there is perfection to be reached, there is an idea of what is acceptable or appropriate, and therefore an unspoken idea of what is unacceptable, which is pretty much anything unfamiliar and innovative. If War and Peace is “the perfect novel,” where does that put The Vegetarian?[ii] Or Beloved? Or any number of works from other cultures that I have not been exposed to? What is a perfect face and who decides that? We’ve all seen the destructive potential of “the perfect body” and many carry that burden to the detriment of our health and happiness. The idea of perfection has led us to waste food, people, ideas, art. At one time, perfect art was representative, and representative only of the “noble”. Every genre of art rejected the previous genre’s idea of perfection. Nadia Comanechi achieved “perfect 10s” in her Olympic routines in the 70s. Now that same performance wouldn’t even get her into the Olympics. But that’s just time, you might say. Indeed, time is a characteristic of culture, and just as arbitrary and whimsical in classifying excellence. Think of all we would want (in the dual, Shakespearean sense of the word) if previous standards of perfection were enforced. Future creators will say the same thing about our standards, even though that is hard to imagine. A culture of perfection makes the new harder to imagine. We assume that we know what a thing can be, and knowing is the beginning of the end. A beginner’s mind is a space for exploration, creativity, and growth; an expert’s tends to resist change

With perfection out of the way, there are so many more ways to be. Perfection is static, proscriptive, and therefore inhibiting. If the nature of all being is boundless, as Buddhism and psychedelics tell us, then either nothing is perfect, or everything is. And if we are perfect and thereby liberated from the pointless goal of achieving perfection, what could we do with the energy we now spend on self-improvement and material comforts to salve our cravings? We could make gloriously imperfect art, perhaps, or grow imperfect tomatoes, or form imperfect, diverse, messy, mutualistic communities that cultivate the joy of future imperfections.

[i] World as Lover, World as Self– 30th anniversary edition, p.152

[ii] The Vegetarian, Nan Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. Perhaps my favorite novel of the last decade. (©2007, English translation ©2016)

Separation Anxiety: Is Feeling Separate the Enemy of Happiness?

Zoe and I were sitting around a bonfire at an open prairie campsite when a chipmunk cautiously ventured from the tall grass onto the mowed trail next to us, grazing for crumbs. The little guy was easily spooked, darting undercover at any sudden movement, but who could blame him? Birds of prey hovered constantly overhead, scanning. Our chipmunk lived under relentless threat of death from above. Continue reading “Separation Anxiety: Is Feeling Separate the Enemy of Happiness?”

Jumping Off the Cliff: The Dangers of Dullness Intolerance

Caveat: Normally, for this blog, I’m going to refrain from discussing politics, but considering what just happened this November, I can’t resist using the election as a springing off point to talk about something bigger, something far more influential to our well-being than whomever the president is, something spiritually corrosive and downright deadly, but also galvanizing and, in many ways, good. So, without further delay, let’s talk about boredom…

Continue reading “Jumping Off the Cliff: The Dangers of Dullness Intolerance”