Over the holidays I went to the movies and saw Les Miserables. It was an emotional experience which got me in the reflective mood. As I watched the revolutionaries struggle and die I felt a strange sensation, a growing internal conviction that I no longer wish to think of myself as better or worse than anyone else. Perhaps this is my newest resolution (which just so happens to fall near the new year).
Losing the desire to be better than others goes against much that I was taught growing up. As a child I remember wanting to be special, and competing with other children to prove that I was. I remember boys performing feats of strength in gym class or feats of numeric processing in math. We measured each other in order to decide who was worthy and unworthy. Such measurement then expressed itself in envy towards the achievers and abuse towards the underachievers. And, as we measured each other, the school measured us with grades and test scores. For me, I felt a desire to compete that I think came from other peoples’ expectations of me but my heart was never in it. In school I saw the stress of the overachievers and determined that I did not want to be like them. Outside of school my father enrolled his sons in wrestling. I often won informal matches during practices but could not stand the pressure once there was competition between teems and an audience in the bleachers. Yet looking back I realize that, while I became uninterested in competing with people athletically or scholastically, I embraced a sort of moral competition. I did want to be superior.
I have spent a good deal of my life watching others and judging them in order to convince myself that I was better than them. I have listened to the words of good people who meant me no harm and, from the safety of my unspoken thoughts, I have thrown litanies of vulgarity at them. This includes things like,
- Why are you wasting my time?
- That thing she said was stupid
- He is an idiot
- I would never get myself in that situation
- You are not as special as me, and also
- racist, classist, sexist, and ableist epithets
These thoughts were never the only ideas I had about people but they would pop into my head, and they often disturbed me. My mind went back and forth between, I deeply admire you, and, you’re a piece of shit; and these contradicting ideas would exist at the same time about the same person. As I grew up I came to notice my judgmental hostility more and more. Meanwhile I desired more and more compassionate ways of relating with people. Through much meditation and self-help experimentation my ability to listen grew and my tendency to judge lessened. Then, as I noticed these changes, I became oppressively smug. I wore my moral victories as a badge to prove that I was superior. This had always been a hidden motivation for me… or perhaps it was a motivation hidden from me though obvious to everyone who knew me.
Eventually I realized that the self was really constructed by society (for example, kids judging other kids is learned by how the school system judges kids via grades). As I figured this out I shifted from a self-help focus to a social change/collective liberation focus. Now I think that my desire to feel special was a predictable response to a society that runs off of artificial scarcity. Basically, we need to prove that we are special in order to prove that we are worthy to receive the resources we must compete over (for example, money). Only a small minority of us are able to have truly secure livelihoods, have our ideas represented in government or the media, find work that is appropriately challenging and fulfilling, and be taken seriously by the people around us. In a socially just world these things would not be treated as scarce privileges but instead as basic human needs. However we live in a world which normalizes and indoctrinates us into accepting less than we deserve; and we behave according to the world we are indoctrinated into.
I also came to see how my desire to be special reinforced racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and other forms of oppression. The privileges afforded to me by my white skin,
Y chromosome assigned male identity*, and parents’ income give me an upper hand in the competition for those scarce societal resources. For example, as a man I am not expected to cook and clean and do the daily domestic work. My father did not do this. Many fathers and grandfathers I have known did not do this. Unpaid and under valued domestic labor has been the role given to women. This privileges me and other men because, without having responsibility for domestic chores, I am afforded more time, freedom, and respect when I chose to pursue the things which will actually earn me that scarce societal recognition. I have more time to work and to play. I have more time to network and more expectation that I will not be home with the kids. I have more access to the language and culture of men who, overall, hold more power. And it is a challenge for me to resist this privilege by, for example, spending an equal amount of time as my wife on domestic chores. This is because I am scared of giving up the privilege that helps me to compete, get what I want from life, and not be as exploited as others.
Lessons about the basic mechanics of privilege and oppression were taught to me in my twenties. But, even as I have learned how the competition for superiority is just a tool of artificial scarcity by a dehumanizing societal machine, I have held on to the child’s dream of being recognized as special and extraordinary (which are ultimately just nicer sounding ways of saying “superior”). But I have a growing sense of the vanity in this child’s dream because convincing myself that I am special does not actually provide me with the world I wish to see. I wish for true love, true friendship, and true camaraderie. I wish to be with people, to share in their joys and their struggles. I wish for no accolades, no shallow rewards, no teacher’s stars to measure zir favor (zir is a gender neutral pronoun; like his or her). Liberation is my desire, and I believe it is only possible when we lose the ambition to become better than others and the fear that we are worse.
Like all good resolutions, I need help to maintain this. I expect to fail often and don’t really care because failure is part of the learning process. But I would like for people to show me where I am wrong because that helps me learn as well. In later posts I will explore what it means to live as though I am not better or worse than anyone else. This resolution entails an awful lot which I am excited to discover.
*I first wrote Y chromosome thinking that the Y chromosome was a trait that could represent many traits that are associated with being male. It was brought to my attention that this was cissexist because it excludes people who identify as male but do not have a Y chromosome and people who have a Y chromosome but don’t identify as male. In other words, having a Y chromosome does not necessarily mean you have a male identity. I found a link to another blog which describes cissexism in more detail.