how to resist

It’s February 2, 2017 and I’m sitting with a small group of student activists, faculty mentors, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s come to Oregon State’s Black Cultural Center to answer questions about his background and his books, but given that it’s been less than two weeks since Donald Trump became the President of the United States, there is one question on everyone’s mind:

How do we resist?

Someone finally asks just that, and Ta-Nehisi Coates responds with something like, “This may be counter to what you usually hear, but in my experience people who live lives of resistance tend to live lives of disappointment.”

This shocks the room. How can this be the answer given by a man whose writing has had such consciousness-raising impact — a man whose every move looks like resistance. The effect is not lost on him so he continues, “The truth is that this work has been happening for generations, and it is highly likely we will not see the change we wish to see in the world during our lifetime.”

Despair now permeates, so he brings his point home:

“Look, let’s not do the outside in thing where we see how we want to change the world and try to conform our insides to fit that. Let’s flip it and reverse it. Let’s do what we love, and let that change the world. I’m a writer. So I write. If that has an impact, great, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because that’s what I do. And that’s what I recommend you do. Do the thing that you are called to do.”

A collective sigh from everyone. The kind of sigh that signifies recognition and relief. Truth has been spoken here today, and we all know it. We know intuitively, buried beneath the noise, that this is how things work. But somewhere along the way, we got it twisted.

We’ve even twisted Gandhi’s words on the subject, into that famous “be the change” platitude that on the surface seems to suggest we begin within. But it doesn’t, does it? “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This means you see a flaw outside in the world first, and then you internalize that and try to change yourself. What Gandhi actually said was this:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

Though this does indeed mean that change within us will be mirrored in parallel change outside of us, it looks to me to mean something deeper. It points to the fact that we “need not wait” — that nothing in the outside world is responsible for our happiness. Rather, “the divine mystery supreme” is that “the source of our happiness” is found within.

Ok, but what do we do? What does all of this mean for how we resist? Does this mean I should just seek inner peace by moving to Nepal and meditating on a mountain for the rest of my life? Does it mean it’s cool if I just watch Futurama and eat cinnamon buns on the couch? ‘Cuz that makes me happy. How are either of these things helping anyone? Also, how often should I call my Congressperson? Does it even make a difference? When and in what ways should I voice my support for Black Lives Matter and when should I sit down and shut up? And should I go to marches, and how do I know if the march I want to go to is exclusionary or oppressive?

This is the kind of ruminating that leaves me living a life — not of resistance — but one that feels resistant. Because, truly, when I’m not up in my intellect angsting away — when I’m doing what I’m called to do — I don’t feel called to move into the mountains or watch Futuruma all day anyway.

I feel called to do all manner of things, like when I inexplicably felt called to take the course at OSU that wound up landing me a much coveted spot in that small discussion group with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Or when I felt called not to march on January 21, but wound up having a soul-nourishing afternoon with a friend that helped us both move forward.

All sorts of things call us, constantly, every day. And they usually don’t seem epic, or grand, or glamorous. They call us in the exact same neutral way that our bladders call us to go to the bathroom before we pee ourselves.

We can never truly know the impact of what we do before we do it, but the butterfly effect is definitely real (and is the topic of next week’s story). All we can know right this second is what we’re called to do in this very moment. And we can do that.

What if everything we feel called to do is actually resistance? For if we act from that place of clarity (or love, justice, logic, wisdom, righteous rage — whatever clarity looks like to us in the moment), it stands to reason that everything we do will further our values and our vision for the world.

What are you called to do — right this second — in this very moment? I for one am called to take a pee break. So I’m going to go do that.

Hey B #2: Am I destined to be fat?

Hey B,

I’ve tried everything to lose weight. I’m one of those yo-yo’ers. I’ve tried Atkins, portion control, diet pills, appetite suppressants, but nothing sticks. I can white-knuckle my way through for a while by sheer force of willpower. I know what I really need is a lifestyle change.

I’m seeing a new weight loss doctor now, who’s helping me see that I need to religiously get in the habit of eating 5 small meals a day so that I don’t store up fat. I know I should make sure to stop what I’m doing and eat something when I’m hungry in the middle of the day so that I don’t eat so much at dinnertime. I hope this will be the lifestyle change I’m looking for.

But, I guess I can’t shake the fear that evolution made me this way, that I’m going to be fighting my natural urges forever. I feel powerless against the fact that before grocery stores, humans would have seized on any opportunity to store up on sugar or fat. I can’t help it that my body thinks it needs to eat and eat and eat because it doesn’t know where its next meal is coming from.

I’m tired of being fat, and I don’t want my weight to get in the way of my health as I start to age. I want to do everything I can to prevent osteoporosis and heart problems. But I‘m afraid it’s hopeless. Am I just destined to be this way?

Thanks,
Hopelessly Hungry


Hey Hungry,

This, this, THIS:

“I know I should make sure to stop what I’m doing and eat something when I’m hungry in the middle of the day so that I don’t eat so much at dinnertime.”

I almost want to end my letter here, because that, my friend, is truly all you need to know.

I too tried almost everything you listed. In my case, add “juice cleanses” and “fasting” to the list (which are really just socially acceptable ways to dabble in anorexia).

It was learning to trust myself that made all the difference.

I too had heard that evolutionary theory — that we modern humans over-eat because we weren’t designed for grocery stores. I too was taken in by it. These theories are appealing, aren’t they? Our intellects love ‘em. This one is especially insidious because it also appeals to our fearful thinking, the kind of thinking marketers exploit to sell us things like diet pills and exercise programs. This narrative that we can’t trust our own bodies prays on our insecurity, feeds it, and perpetuates it.

Now, I’m no evolutionary biologist, so even though I suspect that theory you cited might be bullshit, and that all the healthy people running around eating when they’re hungry and stopping when they’re full are proof of that, I can’t officially speak to it.

What I can speak to, friend — what I can back up with evidence — is what I see in front of me. The core question of your letter looks to me to be: “Can my body be trusted to take care of itself?” And from where I’m standing, the answer to this is a resounding, “Hell YES!!” Here’s my evidence:

  1. Some little voice inside you tells you exactly when you’re hungry. You said yourself that you know you need to “stop what [you’re] doing and eat something when you’re hungr.”
  2. That same little voice tells you when to stop eating, which is how you can be aware that you are over-eating “at dinnertime.”
  3. That trusty little voice in your belly told you to try Atkins, diet pills, appetite suppressants, and your current doctor. It even told you to write to me! I’m not saying that any of those things are effective. What I am saying is that there’s a wise part of you that is crying out for help — the same part that wants to keep you healthy as you age.

So, my friend, how do you give that trusty little voice the help it needs? How do you treat your body like a temple without having to join a new church of fad dieting?

In my experience, all it takes is fully realizing that the voice is there. I hope the evidence I gave above helps you do just that. Another trick I like to use when I catch myself feeling scared or ruminating is to reflect on what I hope to see afresh. In other words, what would it take for you to have an insight that makes you see that your body really can be trusted? Does journaling trigger insights? Talking into the recorder on your phone? Sitting still? Going for a walk?

Whatever it is, I hope you do it until you see. Because there really is a little voice. You don’t even need to try that hard to listen. All you need to do is know it’s there and let the rest unfold. And remember to forgive yourself on the days you forget to listen — even the days you choose not to listen. Life is too short for self-flagellation. (Unless you’re into that sort of thing…)

How beautiful you are, my friend. How lucky you are to have a wise voice inside your belly telling you exactly what you need, exactly when you need it. Now, if you would kindly get out of its way, I suspect you might not feel so hopeless after all.

Love,
B


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What if Writer’s Block is actually a gift?

I wanted to write so badly this morning. I had so much I wanted to say. And yet. I couldn’t. My Muse was on strike.

Writer’s Block is what we like to call it. But what the hell is that? And what is a Muse?

First of all, they’re myths. Stories we invented to let ourselves off the hook. If we believe there are mysterious forces at work on our creativity, then we can throw up our hands in public while flogging ourselves in private.

I used to think Writer’s Block was caused by the pressure to produce. I even wrote as much in this piece, where I advocate for freedom from discipline. I was sure the thing keeping me from writing was the fact that I pressured myself to write in the first place.

But that can’t be it, can it? Lots of prolific writers write every day. Do they pressure themselves? I don’t know. But I do know they produce. The promise of daily output clearly isn’t the whole story.

So what the f*#k is Writer’s Block?

It occurs to me that it always comes just after I’ve started writing from a place of ego, whatever that means.

Does it mean writing to impress others and/or myself?

Maybe so. But I don’t doubt my ability to impress myself or others. Not that my writing always impresses everyone. I just mean that it’s an easy pressure to lift from my writing process. It’s not the thing weighing me down.

I’ve hit a wall here. I feel that familiar tension of frustration.

Knowing good ideas can only come when we stop searching for them — I relax for a moment. I sigh. I go and make a cup of tea.

My mind is still busy. After all, it’s not external activities that distract the mind. True distraction from rumination is an inside-out process.

I’m aware of this as I scoop honey into my tea. I stir, the spoon scraping the side of the cup. This reminds me of Get Out. If you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading this and go see it immediately. Bye.

If you’re still reading, you know the sound of stirring tea is the fixation object the crazy white lady uses to hypnotize. I laugh at the horrifying irony of this moment: Here I am — a crazy white lady, with Catherine Keener-esque bedhead, wrapped in a vaguely culturally appropriative shawl, stirring her tea, hypnotizing herself in the kitchen.

And boom — it hits me.

Writing from ego does not mean forcing myself to write, or even forcing myself to write well.

Writing from ego — the thing that chases my made-up Muse away, and causes this excuse we call Writer’s Block — is a simple misunderstanding. It’s a moment of forgetting what writing is for.

I take my tea, my shawl, and my bedhead — go back to my computer. I write everything you see here, frustration and all, allowing the unknown to linger.

Once upon a time, we started writing, truly, not to “express ourselves” (another myth about creativity), but to learn. To discover.

This is why we write, isn’t it? To reflect, to gain fresh insight, to see something new.

Writing is not about what we want to say. It’s about what we want to explore.

If we don’t start from this curious place, we should be so lucky to catch a case of Writer’s Block, so we don’t write some self-indulgent crap that no one wants to read. If we don’t begin with a burning question, we should thank Apollo and Athena on our knees for putting us in Time Out until we can get over ourselves.

A mentor of mine once said, “In everything you do, you’re here to learn. It’s boring to watch people prove what they already know.”

Five years later, I think I’m starting to see what she meant.

Hey B #1: Can I really have it all?

Hey B,

What do I do if I love my partner but I feel like being with them is stifling my personal growth?

Sincerely,
Young & Restless


Hey Young & Restless,

First of all, I feel you. I’ve been there. Super recently actually.

A few weeks ago, I got into the Master’s program of my dreams. Imagining myself in the program – teaching undergrad courses, conducting research, writing my thesis – it hit me that a part of me is deeply drawn to academia. I immediately panicked at the thought of wanting something (to move around chasing a PhD and ultimately a tenured teaching position) that’s in direct conflict with what my partner wants (to keep living in the town we love).

My head started to spin with fear that, “I’m about to marry a man who’s stifling my personal growth,” which of course led to fear that, “I’ll simply never be able to have it all. I will always have to choose between love and personal fulfillment. I will die either unfulfilled or all alone.”

I worked myself into a pretty good tizzy before it hit me how many assumptions I’d made to get to where I was imagining my own death. I went back to the part just before my head started to spin (because in my experience any “ideas” I have when my head is spinning tend not to be very trustworthy).

I realized I wasn’t even giving my partner a chance to support my personal growth. I was already assuming that he would either refuse to move or move and be resentful. Nor was I giving my own path the chance to unfold naturally, one step at a time. I was already projecting my excitement about my Master’s program forward two years to imaginary PhD applications, and 5 years beyond that to hypothetical job-seeking.

When I paused and took a breath, a few things occurred to me:

  1. I only have to take the step that’s right in front of me. I knew without a doubt that I needed to accept the Master’s program offer. So that’s what I did.
  2. No one but me can stifle my personal growth. Besides, reflecting on how much I’ve grown since meeting my partner, the idea of him somehow stifling my personal growth became pretty laughable.
  3. I’m not a fortune teller. I could never have guessed even a year ago where I would be and how I would feel today. How can I possibly try to predict where my decisions today will take me two or five years from now?

So, dear friend, I have some questions for you. I hope you’ll reflect gently on them with your heart, and not think too too hard with your big beautiful brain.

  1. Where is your experience of fear around your partner coming from? How would you feel and act differently if you believed your fear cannot possibly come from anything outside of your thoughts in the moment? Underneath all the ego fear, what is the wise thought at the core of your question?
  2. What is the step that’s right in front of you? Is there a concrete decision to be made, either around your own personal path, or your life with your partner? Is there something clear and present you know you need to do right now in this moment? Are you open to the possibility that there’s nothing you need to do? Are you able to trust that when it’s really time to take action, you’ll know exactly what to do?

Whether your answers to these questions lead you closer to or further away from your partner – whether they lead you down a career, creative, or personal path you never expected – I hope you’ll trust them. Because no matter how hard we try to deny what we know we need to do (out of fear, arrogance, whatever), the truth always catches up with us eventually. We can either fall in line or live lives of painful resistance.

I hope you’ll reflect on the times you’ve known so deeply that something was true or the right thing to do that you had a hard time rationalizing your decision to the people around you. That’s when you really know. Remember that feeling, and follow it. Right now. In this very moment.

Love,
B


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SURPRIIIISE!!!

Seeing a positive shift in me, my partner says from time to time, “That’s great that that works for you, but I don’t think I really need that.”

His reaction puzzles me. It implies he thinks there’s something I’m doing – a tool or technique I’m using, maybe, or a dogma I’m choosing to believe in – that’s responsible for my move away from angst and toward more ease. Of course, this is not the case.

But what is? What’s responsible for the change he senses?

I’m reminded of the classic surprise party story, where everyone is acting so shady that the birthday girl comes to believe that not only have they all forgotten her birthday, but also they must hate her and her boyfriend is clearly cheating on her with her best friend. Even her coworkers and supervisor are acting strange. Surely, she’s about to lose her job on top of everything else.

The only reliable things left in her life are the knots in her stomach and the lump in her throat. She’s never been more depressed.

Then, just when she’s about to throw in the towel on her entire social network (heck, maybe her entire life), she flips on the light in her apartment and everyone pops out with huge smiles and a big “SURPRISE!” and showers her with love, gifts, and free drinks.

The second she walks in, she realizes that her friends and family don’t hate her. In fact they love her so much that they let her think they hate her so that they could throw her a big surprise party! She’s hit with a huge wave of relief and can hardly remember feeling so low.

Now, what does the birthday girl have to do in order to stop being depressed and enjoy her party?

Nothing, of course. She can’t help but have a blast.

The birthday girl doesn’t have to do any techniques, use any tools, or convince herself of any sort of belief system so that she can enjoy her birthday party. No. She simply realizes the truth of the matter, which is that everyone loves her.

This is something like what happened to me.

I used to think my mind hated me. I thought I was born with a mind prone to anxiety, depression, and addiction. I felt like a victim of circumstances and my thoughts about them. I felt insecure, dis-empowered, and pretty constantly afraid. The only reliable things in my life were the knots in my stomach and the lump in my throat.

When I finally switched on the proverbial light in my apartment, my understanding of reality flipped upside down and inside out. I realized that actually my experience of life can only come from thought in the moment, and nowhere else. It no longer made sense to try to change my thinking about circumstances that weren’t responsible for my experience in the first place.

A wave of relief came over me, and I started to enjoy the party. It turns out that clarity, ease, and fresh thought are available to me all the time, no matter what is going on. I don’t have to use any tools or techniques, or indoctrinate myself. I can’t help but have a blast.

So I guess my partner’s right: there’s nothing that I’m doing, using, or believing that could “work” for him. But, if I could do anything in the entire world, anything at all, this is what I would do: I would show him – and everyone I love – that our minds do not hate us. They are not cheating on us with our best friends. And they are not going to fire us.

They actually love us. So much so that they are planning us a big surprise party. They are waiting for us to get home, and turn on the light, so that we can finally enjoy our lives.