confront our sacred figures.
radical love letter #53
Because I think maybe I am having one, during the second week of January, I google “existential crisis.” I get one hit that doesn’t quite fit, a description that is more accurately existential dread, which I am thankfully not really experiencing. But this other one explains simply, “the crisis of the individual when they realize that they must always define their own lives through the choices they make.” That’s it, I think, and suddenly the enormous specific kind of weight I’ve been carrying for a couple weeks lightens ever so slightly. (Knowing there’s precedent has always had a tendency to unburden me, even if just a bit.)
Choice as related to the power we have over our own lives is something we on the Left try to complicate and nuance, and for good reason. As an example, in feminist studies classes I teach about “agency” vs. “structure”: some versions of feminism understand agency as a choice that is equal to power (crudely: “In a world where women can choose to wear whatever they want, sexism is practically over!”), where as a structural analysis would suggest two important things that challenge this: 1. can you really make free choices uninfluenced from patriarchy while in a patriarchy? 2. power isn’t choice, power is access to resources (or, Marxistly, power is owning the means of production). Always in these classes, the students and I agree that it’s likely some combination of both. We do have the ability to make choices in and in spite of social structures, but those social structures are still going to work to oppress and control, so for many of us, freely making choices that truly benefit us will be an uphill battle.
Both major political parties in the US operate with more focus on agency (think of “personal responsibility” rhetoric from conservatives and “hard work” rhetoric from liberals), and less attention to structure. Is poverty a result of individual failing or capitalism? Of course, it is capitalism. But if you’ve ever been poor, you know choice matters too; you also probably know, intimately, how choices are constrained by the conditions that capitalism creates. In short: it’s complicated.
In many spiritual and self-help communities, structures are rarely mentioned. Instead, we are taught that our thoughts shape our life, and that we get to choose our thoughts. We can rewrite “limiting beliefs” around money, around self-worth, around what love looks like. Although not quite as harsh as “personal responsibility” frameworks, self-help spaces at least tacitly suggest that if things are shitty, it might be a little bit your fault. To be entirely honest with you - even as someone who devotes her life to teaching/writing/talking about the oppressive nature of structures - I kind of buy it. Because I kind of experience it. I’ve seen improvements in my life when I shift my thoughts by practicing gratitude and saying affirmations (including, no joke, “I will get a book contract this year” over and over in 2018, and then it happened).
Here’s the key thing though: I’ve only been able to get deeper into self-help practices after my basic needs were securely met. When I began receiving regular paychecks, had someone to split rent with (and, generally, a safety net via my partner), and spent less energy putting out constant fires, space opened up to read more books, listen to more talks, think more about how to self improve. My material conditions enabled more access to agency.
So the past couple weeks, despite a reactionary insurrection and being back in work meetings, I was stewing in my agency. Spiraling in just how much my choices mattered. And this coupled with New Year’s energy/social media meant that I was wallowing in despair over not making better choices for my “growth.” What if being vegan isn’t enough, should I try raw veganism again? What if 200 hour yoga teacher training isn’t enough, should I try 500 hour? What if being mindful about moderating alcohol isn’t enough, should I be entirely sober? Should I delete all social media? Should I dust off my juicer? Should I up my dumbbell weight? Should I get another master’s degree?
In the peak of despair, I was overwhelmed with the fact that I could be choosing any of these things, and felt a desperate need to know which paths were “correct.” When my brain quieted down a little, I tried to listen to my intuition. I asked myself: nevermind what’s correct, what do you want? (Shortly before, I had read a passage from a writing-group-friend’s coming soon book manuscript that declared, “what you want and what you need are the same.”)
Answering this question caused some obstacles too though, because, after some reflection, here’s what I came up with:
What I want more than anything is to feel free. What I want more than anything is to feel secure. What I want more than anything is perfect health. What I want more than anything is to never again be afraid of food. What I want is to be wholly present for every moment with my loved ones. What I want is the holy pleasure of being temporarily mind-altered with my loved ones. What I want is to be pure and kind and wholesome, the kind of unoffensive girl that everyone likes. What I want is to wear ‘slut’ like a badge of honor. What I want is to be appreciated for my intelligence. What I want to challenge hegemonic definitions of ‘‘intelligence.’ What I want is to be appreciated for my ass. What I want is to challenge a connection between worth and the body. What I want is to flee to LA and write more books, and also movies. What I want is to nest in Ohio with backyard chickens. What I want is to devote my life almost entirely to dismantling systemic oppression. What I want is to rest, in a nice home, with comfort and distractions. What I want more than anything is to love you better than you’ve ever been loved by anyone. What I want more than anything is to be selfish. What I want more than anything is to trust myself. What I want more than anything is for someone to tell me what to do. What I want more than anything is to love myself; (what I want more than anything is to not be afraid of receiving what would come to me if I did).
I feel obliged to quote Whitman here: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself./(I am large, I contain multitudes).” But so then what? So how do I make choices for this one “wild and precious life” that offer me the stability I need, and the adventure? The health, and the indulgence? The convictions, and the rest?
“I think I just want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge says, voice cracking, from a confessional booth in a scene from Fleabag, “because so far I think I've been getting it wrong.”
(I think about that scene at least once a week. Partially because I resonate with the sentiment, partially because it goes somewhere very steamy.)
I’ve been forced into choices that felt impossible and I’ve made brave choices that I didn’t have to make at all, and I know, for the most part, I’ve done okay. I don’t think I’ve been getting it wrong, but for about two solid weeks I felt plagued about whether I could be getting it better. And the good news is that this spiral was temporary. I crawled out of it, got out of my own head, sat down and wrote through the demons (thoughts to paper, a magic tool that always works if I give myself permission). Which isn’t to say I’m healed, it’s just to say that I’m coping better today than I was a few days ago. And isn’t that how it goes? Progress never linear, healing a spiral, not a line.
I like that the definition of existential crisis encouraged me to confront my contradictions. Choice is scary because we want a lot and those wants don’t always fit together. That’s okay. According to Carl Jung, it’s ideal. “Only paradox,” he says of our inherent push and pulls, “comes anywhere near comprehending the fullness of life.” Maybe being our “highest self” is sitting with the discomfort of holding multiple truths. Maybe it’s there where we, as Jung describes, confront our “sacred figures.” Maybe it’s the messiness of paradox and contradiction -- in ourselves and in this wild unruly world -- that we can find a truth, a patience, and a compassion that gets us freer.
love & solidarity,
This Sam Adler Bell essay about The Romance of American Communism is ev.er.ything. A conversation with Sylvia Wynter. What should accountability look like after the Capitol siege? Sarah Jaffe’s intervention in the burnout discourse is exactly what it needed. Stacy Jane Grover’s beautiful essay on rural Ohio land and trans womanhood. And Saeed Jones, on dogs: “To overly obsess about what we think we deserve only ensures that we will dampen the happiness and prolong the hurt. And anyway, Caesar doesn’t give a hoot about my existential crisis. He just knows I’m home.”
The Woodhill Community Co-op: This amazing project started by residents in an under-resourced neighborhood in Cleveland is working to provide residents with basic needs to survive the pandemic and beyond. Through Food Not Bombs, PPE pop-ups, and a goal of a community-owned laundromat, this group is showing the best of what mutual aid can offer. Please consider supporting their important work!
Joy & Attention.
Our sweetest new kitten, Dolly Avocado. My other precious perfect cats, Diesel and Loretta. A safe and mostly very happy holiday season. Good sleep. Walks. Voice notes with M, voice notes with B. The writing group I’m in with a lovely group of queers. New music. Old music. Cinnamon lattes. The little ‘ding’ Duolingo makes when you get something right. The masses of people who believe another (socialist, anti-colonial, anti-racist) world is possible. Femmes. L and his woodworking. Brandywine Falls. The Underworld program I’m in (which is no doubt opening parts of me that allow for the kind of deep processing I wrote about above<3). Serving as an outside mentor/committee member on a master’s thesis project that is blowing me away, and feeling super honored that my work is influential to this brilliant student. Conversations with SB. The movie I Used to Go Here. MP for the friendship and the networking. Inspiring colleagues. Line 3 protestors and water protectors. Success of my peers. Mutual aid in action. Remembering my tools and using them. Tarot. Baths. Moon magic. Good playlists. Dancing more. Listening to vinyl more. The quiet of before 7am. Love.