Everything that happens shows you who you are
Updated: Jul 28, 2022
So. The Supreme Court slammed the door shut on the possibility of getting a safe and legal abortion for millions of women. Those of us who thought this was horrible felt horrible. I know a young woman who cried all that day and most of the next. I know women who are consumed by rage. Here are some of those women, and men, protesting that night on the street below us in LA:
I know women who are flattened by sadness. I know women who are consumed by anxiety.
But I’m not here to talk about our right to have control over our bodies, important as that is. I’m here to talk about our ability to have control of ourselves. About our ability to do what we really want and what’s really best for us. At this moment, that’s what I’m championing here.
So I have to ask: what’s your top priority? Is it to see things clearly and respond most effectively? If so, read on. If not, you’ll probably be happier if you stopped reading now. I mean it!
Still reading? Okay, here we go. (Note: the images here are from The Pulitzer Center partnership with National Geographic’s photographers from 195 countries. This first assignment asked contributors to share the stories of strong women in their lives. Their stories are below.)
When something bad happens to us—whether it’s the Supreme Court decision or it’s someone cutting us off in traffic—we typically have a strong emotional response.
Now here’s where it gets interesting, and here’s where you need an open mind. Our response—some sort of anger, sadness, or fear—becomes the way we ASSESS what happened. Here’s the perfect example. Somebody cuts you off in traffic. You get mad. Your blood boils. Your anger feels natural to you. It feels right. And if your feelings are right—and massive—then what that guy did must be wrong—massively wrong. Outrageous!!
We feel. Then we assess and judge, based on the feeling.
So let’s say your partner does something that hurts you. Like their telling someone that you posed for nude pictures back in college. Violating your privacy, your sense of boundaries and intimacy.
If you can’t forgive, then the action must be unforgivable.
My question is simple.
Is this how we want to live?
Do we want to live declaring that being “cut off” by someone in traffic is outrageous because we feel outraged? That news that makes us feel devastated IS devastating, and so the right and normal response is to be devasted, and so we can relax into and feel okay about our state of devastation? But how is this different from a world where black men are scary because I saw a black man and he made me feel scared, like the woman walking her dog in Central Park who saw a black guy birdwatching and called the cops on him?
Or, to go back to our original question, isn’t what we’d want MOST is to see things clearly and respond to them most effectively?
For women, for me as a woman, this gets to the heart of women’s liberation, a huge piece of which was just taken away from us. What were we liberated FROM? What were we liberated FOR?
Oppression is the denial of selfhood and agency. A place where you can’t be you and you can’t make and carry out your own desires and plans.
Now once the iron gates of oppression are taken away and we’re at least theoretically able to be ourselves and carry out our desires and plans—at least Beyonce and Oprah and Hillary (up to a point) could—then we have to look, in part, at the ways we’re holding ourselves back. No, I’m not talking about blaming the victim. I’m talking about taking advantage of the scope of freedom available to us at any given time, even if it’s in the face of some freedom just having been taken away from us, as happened last week.
And when we let our emotional reaction to something define what that thing is, we do something to ourselves, which is to prevent ourselves from seeing that thing for what it actually is. What if, in spite of my feeling outraged, the guy who cut me off was just a poor dumb schmo driving poorly—sure—but not trying to do anything to anybody? Wouldn’t that be like my being outraged at the wait staff for slow service at a restaurant on a really busy night when they’re clearly understaffed?
These days our emotional energy is in really short supply. Why not spare ourselves all kinds of unnecessary and misdirected suffering? Why not keep a focus on what you care about most?
Here’s exactly how to do that:
Something happens. You have a strong emotional reaction. Fine. Have your feelings. But for heaven’s sake, don’t let those feelings define whatever it is that happened. Feelings are just feelings. They’re not insights or wisdom.
When you’ve calmed down a bit, think about what happened from a more objective perspective. Was it as tragic, as threatening, as doom-laden as you’d thought at first? Is there any reason for you to think so, other than because that’s just the way you feel or because that’s the way you habitually respond? I know that every time I get a bad cold I get depressed because I think this is what it’s like to die. Plus it sucks to be sick! But come on: I don’t confuse this with thinking I’m actually going to die right now!!
Once you see things clearly and not reactively, then think about what you could do to respond effectively. This takes intelligence and thought, things that are in short supply, I know, but let’s be brutally honest. The folks who’ve been taking our reproductive rights away have done so by being intelligent and strategic, at least when it comes to making things happen politically. That’s why they’ve succeeded! So you have to fight fire with fire.
This is what people do who don’t piss away their hope and energy. This is what truly liberated women do. They’re free to see clearly, without anyone gaslighting them, without them gaslighting themselves. They’re free to act in the most effective way possible. And they’re free to base their actions on what’s most important to them.
Don’t add to the ways you’re not free by failing to give yourself the full measure of THIS freedom.
Here's one of my favorite quotes. There were Albanian women in Kosovo whose husbands had been killed or gone missing. How were they going to define what happened to them? Here’s what one of those women said:
“What are we going to do, sit and cry and go insane and lose our children?”
Instead, she started a food business. At that moment, and in that way, making herself the most liberated woman in the world.
In terms of dealing with the Supreme Court’s revoking Roe v. Wade, well, I don’t know what constitutes effective action right now. I just don’t. I’m not a politician. I don’t even know what I can do as one person, other than to vote for and support people who support women’s rights.
But I’m not going to let my feeling helpless let me define the situation as hopeless. I know that what I’ll be looking for is less talk about how awful things are and more talk about thoughtful ideas for how we can turn things around, including what part you and I can play in that. If we all do that, we’ll win.
Here are the stories behind the images above taken from the Strong Women series in the National Geographic:
1. 'I am so proud of you,' [my mother] said as I tugged at the hem of the smart trousers I planned to wear to [my] law school graduation. 'Your father would be too.' When he died, [my mother] plummeted into the depths of despair. And in the process, she pushed me away and snatched me back in an emotional tug of war that nobody can win. Somehow, together, we managed to strike an equilibrium wading through the thick swamp together. And now we’ve emerged, [my mom] wrapped in her bathrobe, and me in my black trousers. Image by Kenya Jade Pinto, National Geographic Your Shot.
2. This is a portrait of my mother who has dementia,” writes Your Shot photographer J. Nobriga. “She was born during the great depression, has beaten cancer, and is now fighting against another enemy. This is my mother in her old home before she moved in with my sister. Image by J. Nobriga, National Geographic Your Shot.
3. This picture was [taken] in a village called Mocan Chai in Vietnam, where the farmers are known for planting crops like rice and corn. The thing I love about this village was how the whole family was involved in planting these crops, and how the children helped their mothers. The whole family seemed bound [together] unlike developed countries were children are busy playing with iPads away from [their] parents. Image by Mohamed Alkaabi, National Geographic Your Shot.
4. My good friend Hanna Miley is a survivor of the Holocaust. writes Your Shot photographer. She has done extensive research into her parents’ life and death, and [has] written an amazing book called ‘A Garland for Ashes,’ which shares the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is Hanna at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, having just emerged from the underground museum, where she had once again to choose hope in the face of remembered horror. Image by Thomas Cogdell, National Geographic Your Shot.
5. About 70% of K-12 teachers in the U.S. are women. Here English Language Arts teacher Allison Divino leads a class of 6th graders at ARISE Academy (@arise_newday) in New Orleans, LA. Teaching takes enormous stamina, commitment, and strong personal values. Every moment, dozens of eyes monitor how you react, how you treat their classmates, and whether you have something of value to bring to their lives. Image by Vivianne Peckham, National Geographic Your Shot.
I found these pictures and stories here.