Way Down to the Very Bottom of Everything

This has nothing to do with the post. Looking at the ocean just makes me feel better. Photo by me.

This has nothing to do with the post. Looking at the ocean just makes me feel better. Photo by me.

I do this every year. I indulge in the game of time and I reflect on the previous 365 (or 366) days. I don’t think a new year is something to celebrate. For me, it’s a time to reflect.

2016 has been being called a terrible year by many people in my circles—a lot of death, a lot of loss in other forms, what seems like an increase in violence and destruction in the world, a baffling presidential election in my country.

In darker moments, I fear what is to come. I spend too much time thinking about the consequences of capitalism, about war, about bias, about how often it seems people misperceive the shared world around them. I tend to use my intellectual fascination with the ugly aspects of humanity to shield myself in numbness, but in my bleaker moments, I feel that fear and frustration deep down in the pit of my stomach. I fear I’m running out of time.

I wonder sometimes if I live in the same world as other people. I wonder if it’s not the condition of alienation that comes with capitalism, with being defined as a woman, with being a philosophical thinker, but something else. Something active, sinister. I’ve been ignored and silenced and not taken seriously for most of my life, partly by my own doing, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Sometimes screaming into the void is all I can do.

But it doesn’t help. So I feel like I’ve started to disappear.

Way back in college, a friend of mine—from a different country, a different culture—told me that statistically I don’t exist, because I’m not like most Americans. And he was right. I’m not. When I was a kid, a teenager, a college student, a graduate student, people used to call me weird all the time. 

I never really minded the adjective. But the funny thing is, I never felt like I was weird until recently.

I identify mostly as nothing. A lot of a-, anti-, and nihil- prefixes populate how I see myself and how I see the world. Sometimes this matters a lot to me, sometimes I want to be recognized, my views understood. But ultimately, all I am is a series of memories that don’t mean anything to anyone but me.

Maybe I should resolve to live by the ocean. Photo by me.

Maybe I should resolve to live by the ocean. Photo by me.

That’s what we all are, isn’t it? And yet.

Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition wrote about the difference between immortality and eternity. We used to want eternity, she said. We used to want to ascend. To become one with all things. To lose ourselves. But somewhere, somewhen, somehow that changed, and now we seek immortality. To live on after we die, through our legacies, our work, our children.

But most of us don’t. Most of us fade into memories and then exist as a line in a census record, if at all. I’ve always been fascinated by the immortal, with vampires and the undead. My own desire to live forever means that I obsess over big ideas and ways to get them heard. To no avail.

I am an observer of people, a watcher. I see myself in the tired faces, in the bodies of people I will never know. Every old woman stooped over, shopping alone in a grocery store, pushing a cart that has nothing in it but a loaf of bread and cans of soup—I see myself, what I might become.

In virtue of being human, I am in everyone. But I am nothing. And sometimes I want to shout at people that they are nothing, too.

When it comes down to it, I am a series of songs lyrics written by someone else, by Jeff Tweedy, by Conor Oberst. I am a character in a Murakami novel—Oshima, maybe. I am a product.

I’m happy just because
I found out I am really no one

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I can help. How I can make this world seem less hostile. The thing that often holds me back is that I honestly believe it’s futile. I believe in power, in institutions. I believe that capitalism is an avalanche that won’t stop until all but a few are buried under it.

And every day.

And every day. Photo by me.

But in my heart, I confess, I’m an absurdist.

I don’t know where meaning is. I don’t know where hope is. I don’t even know what needs to be changed. I just know that I want to live in a different world. I want to live in one where I’m not afraid, where I’m not invisible up until I’m a target or a genre, where I don’t feel like an alien in my body, where I’m not treated as if I don’t have autonomy.

I want to live in a world where I don’t find myself rolling my eyes, getting angry, and saying “I hate men” at least once a day.

I can’t do much. I can’t smash the patriarchy. I can’t redistribute wealth. I honestly can’t even imagine what a non-patriarchal world would look like. But I like to end these posts with something to think about, something to do in the year ahead that fits into my version of “better.” So this year, the one thing I’m going to do more of is to do whatever I can to promote, support, and empower women.

I don’t know what else to do, but it feels right to take back what I’ve been reduced to.

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4 thoughts on “Way Down to the Very Bottom of Everything

  1. I’ve been feeling similarly hopeless of late. The political situations in both our countries are fucking dire, and it’s brought out feelings of rage I didn’t think I had towards fellow citizens. I’ve been thinking about ‘the bubble’ and what it means to live in one. According to the media, I do, and it’s something I should try to break out of. But in many ways, people have created these bubbles because we need some safe space. We need to hear some others who actually think and believe how we do when we’re bombarded by horror and oppression day in, day out. I’ve been thinking, too, about the divisions in our countries. Brexit passed by 52% to 48%. Clinton got 48% of the US vote, Trump 46%. So we’re both more or less split down the middle as nations. There is a part of me that finds the symbolism of that elegant, but more of me which finds it fucking hopeless. I don’t know if we’ll be able to reconcile our beliefs in future votes, and elect someone for our common good (or even be able to decide what a common good is). Far more likely is that we’ll end up with a few small percentage points, residing in a couple of places, which will dictate policy and direction for everyone. That’s a pretty shitty situation. I don’t have any answers, either. It’s all still making a mess of my brain. Still, helping women’s organisations seems a pretty great way to try and do some good. Sending you love, and peace, my friend. 🙂

    • I read a lot of political philosophy, and every single political philosopher I’ve read, even the super idealistic liberalists from the 18th century, warned that democracy doesn’t work unless people share in a common good and vote in terms of that common good. But in practice, I don’t think any democracy has ever actually functioned that way. I don’t even really think people can think in terms of a “common good” on the level of a nation-state or in a capitalist system that thrives on exploitation and individualism. Which is all to say that I think you’re right. In my darker moments, I think that there is something more sinister in these divisions–because people have a hard time thinking in terms of nonbinaries, people in control specifically exploit “us vs. them” mentalities to prevent people from practicing empathy outside their bubbles so they can work behind the public’s back to profit from things like war, energy industries, etc. I mean, my only “response” is to exploit that binary type of thinking, too, and do what I can to promote and lift up women. But, I’ve given up on men unless they can give me some indication that they actually want to actively overcome implicit and systemic biases against women.

      And thank you for reading! I miss you! My other resolution is to cross the pond sometime this year. 🙂

  2. Dear Heidi,

    I have lost a great deal of sleep since November 8. I quite literally wake up in the middle of the night and think about Donald Trump, a thing which I would have considered impossible two years ago. I am filled with loathing at the thought of this awful man; this unstable, thin-skinned narcissist who hates women, immigrants, minorities, the poor, anyone different, being our President. It would be easy for me to give up. I have a bent toward cynicism. For me 2016 was a dark year.

    I am irritated at you right now because your New Years essay forced me into the unaccustomed role of a Pollyanna. No, I don’t think everything works out for the best. No, I don’t think the asshole Trump is going to be transformed by the awesome experience of being President into a “pretty good guy.” No, I don’t think the people who elected him are going to suddenly embrace diversity and tolerance. And no, I don’t think the avalanche which is capitalism is going to stop rolling down hill.

    But I do think we gotta try. We gotta try because every once in a while the U.S. Supreme court does say that marrying the one you love is not a crime. Every once in awhile we elect a thoughtful, intelligent, African-American man President. Every once in awhile the heartless corporation gets it’s comeuppance (okay, well that doesn’t happen very often.) And every once in awhile justice and goodness prevails. It may take years or generations but, as Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

    As cynical and irreligious as I am I do believe this from the evidence of my own eyes. The world is a better place than it was when I was born. I can see it. The world is violent, but it is less violent. It is intolerant of diversity, but it is more tolerant than it was. We are making a mess of the environment, but it is less dirty and polluted than before. We still have not addressed the appalling inequalities in our world. We still have not done enough to give opportunity to the poor, the disenfranchised, women, minorities, anyone who is different. But there are people trying. You are one of those people and, as dark as this world can sometimes seem, you are making a difference that will matter.

    Your phrase “But ultimately, all I am is a series of memories that don’t mean anything to anyone but me,” gave me pause. I have thought the same thing, occasionally, in eerily similar words. It made me think of my Grandpa, who would be 100 years old this year, were he still alive. He was a machinist for whom precise tolerances were an article of faith. He was man of great intelligence, an autodidact, who never finished high school. He was a man of kindness and humor. Looking at his grave, the other day, I reflected that all the wonderful thoughts and feelings and memories that made up this man, one of my personal heroes, were lost. I thought what a shame it was that these accumulations of a well-spent lifetime had come to nothing.

    I don’t think I have to hit someone as smart as you over the head with the irony of that. I am his legacy. I will pass on to my kids, and my friends, and the students I taught, and occasionally the rest of the world the stories he told, the lessons he learned, the things he taught me to value, and, hopefully, the kindness he shared with me. We may all be memories, ultimately, but we matter to more than just ourselves. We change the world. If we don’t try, the Donald Trumps of the world will change it for the worse.

    What if Nelson Mandela had concluded that his stand against oppression didn’t matter and just went home. What about Martin Luther King? What if Margaret Sanger had shut up and gone back to the kitchen? Your ideas matter and they have effected a great many of us who read your blog.

    I would like to turn off the TV and pretend that Donald Trump doesn’t exist. For myself, a middle-aged white guy, I might make out okay under his hateful regime. But I cannot indulge my desire to close my eyes to this for one very simple reason. I have a wife and two daughters and a son. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let my kids grow up in a world where Donald Trump’s brand of misogyny is considered normal. I’ll be damned if he’s going to demonize immigrants and refugees in the name of my country without my objection. I’ll be damned if he’s going to turn back all the progress we’ve made on the environment and gay rights and inclusiveness. At least he’s not gonna get it for free.

    I wrote a blog post after the election where I counseled patience. I was dead wrong. This man does not deserve our patience. He does not deserve our respect. He has not earned “a chance.” He has won our scorn and our disrespect and our condemnation. That is what he will get.

    You say, “statistically I don’t exist, because I’m not like most Americans… When I was a kid, a teenager, a college student, a graduate student, people used to call me weird all the time.” Well, Heidi, I could have written that line, too. Whether “weird” is a epithet or a badge of pride is up to us. We do not have to live in Trumpland. We can insist that diversity; of color, of appearance, of philosophy, of thought, is a strength, not a weakness. However the Republicans want to spin it, and whatever the electoral college says, there are still 2.8 million more weirdos in this country than Trump voters, and that’s something.

    Keep on smashing, Heidi. I enjoyed your blog, as always.

    Dustin Joy

    • Dustin, My apologies for not replying to this sooner. It’s been an interesting few months for me to say the least. I’ve been writing less, and I fear I’ve been isolating myself both in my online presence and in real life. But 100+ days into this administration, and I find myself getting up in the morning, scrolling through news feeds, and watching in horror.

      I am cynical, I admit it, though I think it comes from a place of realism. I see a lot of what’s happening as an inevitability of capitalism. But it’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that among the same species of creatures, some of them can show empathy and compassion and some of them seem to be unable to, warped by their own biases.

      But I had a conversation with a former colleague last month, after I presented some of my academic work on feminism and capitalism, and he suggested to me that even as bad as things are, maybe they are still on a trajectory of better–in terms of quality of life, diversification, etc. But I don’t know. I tend to reject ideas of progress and certainly Hegel’s idea of the end of history. I think maybe human culture is more cyclical than anything else, but we’ll never know. My understanding of history is filtered through so many layers of interpretation and inaccuracy I am only going on my intuition between the lines.

      But maybe people, maybe the weirdos will surprise me. Maybe resistance will actually lead to change. I’m just not inclined to live with hope.

      Thank you as always for reading. I enjoy hearing your thoughts.

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