This Pain is, in Fact, Not Useful!
August is a bad time, resilience is perverted for the white capitalist machine, etc.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an adult person who grew up attending school from late August/early September through to June must be in want of a meltdown each August.
This August has been no different. You know at least three people right now who grew up beginning a new grade around the first week of September every year and have spent the last four weeks grappling with, at minimum, a series of irritating events, and at maximum, a total personal earthquake. And if you don’t, one of the three people you know who grew up starting a new grade around the first week of September every year is a good liar. Or, it's you. You’re the one who has been watching seemingly every brick in your proverbial wall get kicked out since August first.
You may or may not be a good liar.
My annual shambles has been a slow burn. So much so, in fact, that I forgot it was That Time Of The Year for the first bit of it. For a minute there, I was all, “this is a rough couple of days!" But soon enough, the reality and all its sharp edges hit, and I have been very tired, very angry, very emotionally activated, very resentful, and very caffeinated since. Last week during therapy, my therapist asked me to lie down on my floor while we spoke. She wanted me to properly feel, in my body, what I was feeling. This was a fair ask, given how deeply in my head I usually am. But the moment I did as she asked, I felt like the stone-pressed guy, Giles Corey, from The Crucible. All of the anger I had, all the doubt and fear and despair, collapsed on my chest. It was almost impossible to breathe.
This has been the experience that many people have been clawing through this month. Of getting crushed to death by a too-muchness, bursting from everyone’s seams. Over the course of the last ten days, however, a specific common thread has emerged in everyone’s stories and the messaging we’re getting about struggle. It wound itself tighter and tighter around my brain until I finally gave in and had a bit of a tantrum on a corner in my neighborhood while out walking right at the end of the month.
I was listening to this episode of the podcast “Beautiful Anonymous" with Chris Gethard. Each week, Gethard takes an anonymous phone call and listens to whatever the caller wishes to share for 60 minutes. The caller on the episode in question wanted to talk about how she had extricated herself from a multi-year abusive relationship. I felt for her; she’d gotten involved with someone when she was 18 and they were 22, and the abuser had capitalized on her youth and insecurity to a brutal degree. But after she laid the groundwork for her story, explained how the breakup and escape had come about, and transitioned to describing her life since, Gethard commented, “wow. Everything that happened with him has made you who you are today.”
“Wow, thank you!” the caller responded. “That’s one of the nicest things someone could say to me right now.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. I stopped the episode. I yelped aloud, “WHAT?”
The sun-drunk Toronto afternoon pulsed around me.
Truly, just before going on this walk to listen to Beautiful Anonymous, I had noticed a set of comic panels circulating on social media. It was an artist’s rendering of a recent episode of NPR’s show LifeKit, featuring podcaster and radio producer TK Dutes. The episode focuses on the Western perversion of the concept of resilience. You can find it here (and the comic here), with all its elegant exploration of, amongst many things:
-the oppressive roots of resilience commentary,
-the racist and colonizer infrastructures that resilience rhetorics uphold,
-the weaponization of resilience against women of color,
-and the ways in which Western notions of resilience keep capitalism’s wheel turning.
At face value, resilience is framed as a unique capacity that folks have to overcome the impossible. But in reality, it is most often used to enforce hierarchies of power, preserve hazing processes, and normalize obstacles presented by systemic oppression.
Sure, it’s hard now, but think of how much you’ll appreciate this later!
It’s like how coal becomes a diamond— only a few emerge from the pressure cooker as precious stones, better make sure you're one of them!
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!
No pain, no gain!
These rhetorics focus on the struggle that folks face in pursuit of betterment, at the expense of themselves and others. It is cheaper to promote these resilience rhetorics than to fund efforts to mitigate obstacles that people, particularly members of marginalized groups, face. It is WAY cheaper to promote these rhetorics than to broaden opportunity and accessibility for everyone who is not white or rich or straight or neurotypical or able-bodied or—
When we focus public narratives on hard work and suffering, we get a twofer: a centering of cultural and public narratives around the value of struggling, and a societal obsession with overextending oneself as a means of developing personal value in comparison with others. Whether in the workforce, our hobbies, our gym attendance, or the relationships we maintain, overdoing it becomes synonymous with self-worth. And that limits the time and energy that is available for other pursuits, such as: relationship building and deepening with loved ones, rest, community organizing, union development, involvement in local government, etc. The wheels of capitalism and white supremacy keep turning, so long as folks keep being forced into demonstrating the resilience that our society so prizes.
This whole thing (as you might have already guessed based on my earlier reaction to Chris Gethard’s conversation with his anonymous caller) is something I’m really not fucking down with.
A number of the folks in my life whose Augusts have been nightmares have heard from peers and loved ones that they’re being “so strong” and that people are “so proud” of them for dealing with so much. And I get why we say that to people, you know? It's a good way to dodge emotional engagement, while still sounding like you care. Especially when you know that if you were to emotionally engage, your own wounds might get activated.
I don't doubt that it’s easier to say “wow, look at you go! One day, you’ll look back on this and be grateful!” than to offer an ear or empathetic curiosity or a couch to sleep on. But by not acknowledging someone’s pain for what it is, we help keep the systems/people/trauma/jobs in folks’ lives that are causing that pain for them in operation.
Telling someone their resilience is impressive while their parent struggles through a series of cancer treatments does not help anyone. It reinforces this notion that “getting through” is what we all have to do in order to make meaning of our lives. That we deserve pain. That the struggle "makes us who we are.” But that’s not how it works. Listen: everything does not happen for a reason. Bad things happen to people. Sometimes it’s elicited by a person's previous actions, but more often it’s a result of a variety of harmful factors converging, and the results are certainly not deserved by the injured party.
A child who is harmed at home might become a bully at school in an effort to assert some sort of control over their lives. This makes sense. But it is in no way an excuse for the victims of that child’s bullying, because the bully's peers did not deserve to get harmed by someone else who was in pain, just as the child does not deserve to have an unsafe home environment.
Indigenous, Black, African-American and African-Canadian people in the U.S. and Canada are subject to systemic racism that negatively impacts education, job opportunities, loan access, literal safety, health, quality of life, and much else. This is in no way something that "happens for a reason” so that someone can “become a better person through hard work and perseverance.” This is oppression that Indigenous, Black, African American and African-Canadian people are expected to live with in the U.S. and Canada as a result of years of centuries-old human rights violations. But we focus on how impressive it is that folks flourish in defiance of these impossible odds. Not the fact that it is unconscionable that they are being asked to, and that we aren’t making any meaningful changes to those violent systems.
When we go the “wow, you’re so strong!” route, we center struggle, and the idea that if one does not demonstrate resilience on white society’s terms, then one clearly never wanted whatever it is one wanted that badly in the first place. You simply settled for less than your best. And when we prioritize resilience as the path towards becoming our best selves, we center the notion that it is acceptable for oppression to shape people’s lives, and for work to take precedence over love and relationships and health and hobbies and—
If we say that the worst, most unfair of our experiences are what “made us who we are today,” what the hell does that say about the lives we’re living?
Everything, Everywhere, All At Once is a movie I cannot do justice to in words. I urge you to see it (multiple times) and to also consume the excellent commentary that has sprouted up around it in the last few months. I am mentioning it here, though, because I saw it in August and I haven't been able to stop thinking about how its conceptualization of a multiverse lines up with resiliency rhetorics, and how much they can hurt.
In EEAAO, the main characters interact with other versions of themselves from across the multiverse. Each of those other selves is a product of a decision made, or an experience had. For example, if I were in this multiverse, there could be a version of me out there that decided to not be a competitive athlete at a young age. That “me” is living concurrently with the version of me that did pursue athletics, just in a different version of life as a result of that decision. EEAAO and its multiverse propose that there are thousands, if not millions, of versions of a person, living different lives based on all the different outcomes that were possible in situations that that person has confronted.
This was the gist of my immediate response to Gethard’s comment about his Beautiful Anonymous caller’s abuse, and recovery, being what made her who she is. I cycled through a mental blur of the possible multiverse selves that that caller might have had instead— selves that never met the abuser, who got out before the abuse started, who had a mentor intervene at the right place and time early on. I thought about how different her life might have been, how she had been denied those outcomes by someone harmful. How people should get to be celebrated for who they are without crawling through hell to get there.
I thought about my life. About how I have never wanted to be a product of my trauma, that I never fucking needed it in order to become my best self. It happened, I survived, it changed me, but I’m not grateful. The thought that there is a me out there in someone's multiverse who is happier or healthier or doesn’t have the nightmares I have or doesn’t struggle with intimacy like I do actually makes me want to tear my hair out, thank you very much.
No one innately deserves suffering. We are who we are in large part because of what’s happened to us, sure. Nature and nurture, all of it. Yeah. But what happens to us is often shaped by this idea of suffering being necessary. We desperately need a cultural shift that counteracts the pattern of celebrating what people do after they are harmed. We need to focus on creating systems that limit the occurrences of harm, and normalization of harm, in the first place. It’s basically a taking of preventative measures on a mass scale, building breakwalls before hurricane season comes instead of waiting until the first hurricane hits and taking reactionary action.
Being alive is enough, folks. But bleeding out while doing it is the masochistic wet dream we get sold instead.
“Survivance” is a term that is situated at the crossroads of Indigenous resistance and Indigenous survival. It counters mainstream narratives about Indigenous identity and First Peoples' resilience in the face of generations of ongoing genocide. Survivance, as scholar Gerald Vizenor explains it, moves the focus away from the “violated body” of Indigenous peoples, and fixes it on the “violating instruments.” Read: the point is not that Indigenous people are “strong” against all odds. The point is that Indigenous peoples have been under siege for hundreds of years and that colonizer history is rolodex of genocide. That Indigenous people have a right to not be defined by that genocide. Resiliency rhetorics argue that trauma is necessary. That you have worth commensurate with the amount of pain you can take. That Indigenous peoples deserve respect because they have experienced genocide. And that's simply not it, folks. It’s not.
It’s not enough to say “wow, you’ve gotten through so much other stuff, you’ll get through August even though it sucks! You’ve overcome just like a select few other people did, so you have worth!”
What is needed is, “you never deserved this.”
“This is not your fault.”
“I love you.”
“I’m sorry that you have to manage this.”
“This isn’t fair.” “You have a right to more. To better. To different.”
“August is hard. I’m so sorry memories are coming up for you. Do you need a place to stay?”
What’s needed is a future that white society cannot imagine. Which is the point. What we have isn’t working; it's killing us.
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