2018 has been quite an year, with a lot of perspective shifts. Not immune to the spirit of reflection that comes from the year ending and my birthday being close together, I decided to do the exercise I end all my facilitation sessions with: listing all the “aha” moments from 2018, and some of the biggest lessons it brought. Here they are –
1. “wholehearted and half sure”
I first heard this beautiful phrase in a talk by Diane Moore, and it’s one of those guiding light-like things that has just stayed on as a mantra of sorts. A reminder that at every moment, I want to be present in every situation with everything I know, including the little nudges from my shadow side, yet be aware at the same time that there is a lot I don’t know in that situation.
2. The idea of active surrender as an act of growth
We spoke about this at length at one of my favourite collective sensemaking gatherings, speaking about how do we let go and find compassion for ourselves without using it to make excuses. To this dilemma, Devin offered the idea of seeing it more as “collaborating with life”, letting life have some say, letting time take some responsibility while doing my part.
3. “Think of balance through the metaphor of dance rather than walking a tight-rope”
This was one of those ideas that came up during a therapy session that shifted my perspective majorly – I realised that this whole time, I had been talking about balance like it were something that required a lot of focus and practice, like walking a tight rope, and failing at it would mean falling off the rope. To think of it through images from dance allows for a lot more freedom in movement, and losing some balance still allows the opportunity to start again.
4. “Give, receive, process”
Speaking of balance, a mentor told me that it was important that my calendar had the balance between giving, receiving and processing – be it information, love, time, emails… It’s been interesting to pause
when I am overwhelmed and think about which of these I am missing, and make more effort towards that. Works like a charm!
5. “The lack of self-care is terribly near-sighted”
I have had my fair share of lecturing about my time-management all my life, but this exclamation really pushed me to think. I started to pay attention to when I was romanticising busyness, I began to see time through a lens of abundance and it’s certainly changed my relationship with time.
6. “For a good relationship, make sure you trust the intentions and impressions the other person has for/of you” (~Will C.)
This has to be one of the simplest truest sentences about relationships I have heard, and pretty much sums up all the heartbreak this year has brought.
7. So many of the lenses I have about examining the world are masculine, western/individualistic and positivistic.
Early this year, I was in a salon gathering discussing #metoo, which triggered me more than I expected to be, in ways I did not anticipate. At some point, the conversation turned to what #metoo looked like outside the US, and this hit me. For example: My definitions of power, even in my feminism, came from a rather masculine perspective. The idea of self as we understand it in the human rights context is a rather western/individualistic idea that need not be universal. Similarly, the way I think of “data”, despite my inclination to qualitative methods, comes from a positivist lens, scouring for empirical evidence. The last year since this realisation has been a lot of effort to pay attention to these lenses, and begin to at least imagine what an alternative could be, and that has changed so much of how I interpret the world – it has given me a more expansive understanding of the self, it’s been wonderful to change my relationship with tenderness and softness, and has me believing more.
8. “Make sure your vulnerability is not performative – does this only look vulnerable or does it also feel that way?”.
I have been experimenting with vulnerability for a while now, and thought I had some decent understanding of it. Then in a debrief about one of the collective sensemaking gathering, a friend challenged a lot of what I claimed was vulnerability. Asking this question has allowed me to continue digging when it got uncomfortable, and has been its whole kind of epiphany (which I have written about here).
9. Most of my anxiety and sadness came when I wandered from the present
I am a persistent daydreamer and ruminator. And while I still enjoy that – I do think a lot of my work stems from this – it has been extremely useful for me to come back to the present when I feel anxious or depressed and not use daydreaming and overthinking as enablers.
10. “Trying to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders in hard. It hardens us. We become aggressive, impatient – pushing, manipulating, charging forward… Our hearts soften as we feel the world carrying us” ~ Jason Garner
When I moved back to India and was figuring out what I wanted to do, I was nervous, angry, scared, annoyed. And then a friend sat me down late one night and challenged all the assumptions I was making about my work and definitions of impact, and asked me to examine what my current definitions served for me. That conversation has stayed with me and humbled me as I made decisions since. I read this quote much after, but it summarises the things I have since learned.
11. “When in doubt, turn to wonder” ~ Parker Palmer
This definitely has to be one of the most beautiful sentences I have read. And I hope to bring more of this spirit into 2019.
This past year, I have been growing into my feminism, and being comfortable as it grows to become a much more prominent part of me.
This past year, I am re-discovering what being feminine means to me. It isn’t the yin to your yang, and it certainly isn’t the dainty and delicate version of soft. I am re-claiming what “soft” means to me. For years, I have passionately pushed back against the term “soft”-skills because of all the connotations it has carried about being feminine, and thus something not as serious, and somehow lower on the hierarchy of skills. I am learning instead to find the fierce, passionate, vulnerable, confident version of “soft”, and nourish that powerful kind of feminine as a strength instead.
This past year, I have suddenly become acutely aware of the “masculine” language around me, which has so long been my lens to see the world. I find myself wary of the misleading masculine rhetoric that I seem to have imbibed through the years, and disappointed with how much mediocrity I was taught to accept and admire from powerful charming men through the years through that lens. I am learning to hold the men I admire and love to higher standards, and not feeling guilty about it. I am reminding myself to allow my non-male heroes more leeway to falter sometimes, as I have with the men.
This year, I am learning about a leadership that is ferociously feminine, and learning to practice this kind of a leadership that enables, and take responsibility for that power without the hierarchies and designated positions that I seem to have been taught are essential in this “tough macho world”. I am resisting that conditioned voice that constantly measures my own styles against the inherently masculine standards I have inherited. I am allowing myself the opportunity to live my version of feminine as I carve my way into the world instead.
I am angry, I am grieving, I am frustrated, and I am allowing myself to feel those things without judging. I have been raised to glorify silence as graciousness, and I am learning to find grace in my voice instead. I am remembering that there is a zero between the positive and the negative, while also becoming aware when my “rational objectivity” is a way of masking my complicity, and finding courage to speak up then. I am learning not to mistake assertiveness for aggression, and resisting the politeness that I have used as an excuse for my fear of confrontation. While at it, I am searching for forgiveness, kindness, compassion and love – things I stand for – amidst it all, without compromising on accountability and responsibility I have come to expect.
This year, I am growing into my femininity, and learning to embrace all forms it takes. Sometimes I will be wrong, sometimes I will make mistakes and sometimes I will falter into my old habits. Sometimes this will seem too loud, and often I would have to keep working on unlearning all the images and standards I have been taught and finding new ones for reference. This Women’s day, despite all my skepticism about it, I am reminding myself to allow for the space to blossom and learn and evolve through all of that.
In between the flurry of conversations about the Republic Day and all the crap going on in our country(ies), read an unsettling conversation today that reeked of “I told you so” and skepticism (and fear) about the #metoo movement this morning. I have had my own struggle with despair and cynicism (and anger and frustration) these past few months, and found myself reaching out to several people for wisdom. I wrote it all down as a reminder to myself a little while back – and it felt appropriate to share a part of it today:
The #metoo movement, or any movement for that matter, is not perfect. Changing the status quo never is. It requires challenging years of conditioning. Challenging that conditioning in itself is like setting off the trigger – it brings out all the fears and insecurities that we have picked up over the years. Challenging the conditioning also means giving up the security of the known and starting to think of possibilities within a space that we actively participate in and create when we start this process. With that responsibility comes the definitions of fairness and justice we carry, the definitions that in themselves come from the conditioning and fears and insecurities we are fighting. It is a long process and it’s hard. And damn, it’s easier to justify hopelessless on some days. But maybe, just maybe, the hopelessness also stems from perfectionism, that darned belief we have all inherited about the perfect answers. The need for the change-makers to know the very perfect answers before they ask for it is yet another way the status quo maintains its power.
Stop asking the movement to be perfect. It’s about baby steps. It’s about noticing that there needs to be a movement and standing by it. It’s about then doing your very best to figure out the best way to do it. Allow the making of mistakes while holding high standards – remember that by asking for change we are venturing into a world that is new to all of us, with new questions, and hierarchies and outcomes we might not be able to predict. That’s the difference between blind idealism and believing in possibilities. Be the latter, and then set high standards of integrity and kindness while you are at it. Remember the things you felt when you experienced injustice, and let that be a reminder of what you shall not take anymore for/from anyone, even as the one asking/fighting for a little more power. And while you are at it, take the time to think, to consider, to reflect on what it is that you are fighting for and with, and that that is good enough to stand for. And then, stand for it.
Despite all my skepticism for social media campaigns, this one felt important to participate in. To acknowledge the fact that I have struggled to say “me too” in the past, and never quite known how to.
9 years ago, a security guard groped me and pinned me against the wall before I could run away. Accordingly to the “morality” that had then been imposed on me, I had technically been somewhere where I shouldn’t have been, at a time I shouldn’t have been at with someone I shouldn’t have been there at. A fact that the guard pointed out before he used that situation to find me alone, and all of us, in that fear, had given in. I did not remember the face of the guard: I was in shock.
That night, I told one of my closest friends I had been molested. He was standing on the step lower than the one I was standing on, still taller than me, and with his body suddenly tightened, he asked me kindly: “what exactly happened?”. I described the event to him, still shaken up. “Oh! I thought it was a lot more when you said molestation. Thank God! That was just groping. I am sorry that happened to you, but it happens to women all the time. You will be fine”, he said. I liked to believe then that he was trying to make me feel better, and swallowed the “don’t be too dramatic, you will be fine” suggestion he gave, and shut up.
Thankfully, I had other friends who did not feel the same way. The friend that I was with remembered the face of the security guard and they complained. The guard was fired, and the issue was closed, right?
A gnawing feeling followed me though. Although still not sure of the nuances it entailed, I still called myself a feminist and had been for a while. When this incident, I was ashamed, more than anything else – this wasn’t how a feminist was supposed to react, right? The story of what happened was muddled with so many other stories that I wasn’t ready to own up to yet. I wasn’t ready to tell the story of why I was where I was. I didn’t want people to know that I was actually a coward who had not come forward to take action. I wasn’t even sure this was molestation (“groping”, as I had been corrected, remember), and I liked to believe I was strong for not letting that incident be important. I liked to believe I had “moved on”, because at 18, that’s the version of the stories I had heard.
A little more than a year later, I did tell the story though. On stage, as a part of a play. Something about telling the story again and again made me feel like I had owned up to it. Another friend came up to me after one of my performances and said “it was such a nice light-hearted play. You had to add your melodrama, no? Why can’t you deal with your crap in your own time?”. He then laughed. “Attention seeking” and “drama-queen” was squeezed in somewhere in all the mockery that followed. Guessing this was yet another social memo I had missed, talking about it felt less cathartic and right. There had been women who had hugged me for that piece, but it was this voice that continued to pierce through. I decided to “move on” again and not talk about it. After all, it wasn’t a big deal, being dramatic wasn’t cool and this happened to everyone all the time, right?
I grew up, learnt how to say no more strongly and fiercely, and said so in the coming years. I evolved to find friends who didn’t think there was something wrong with it. I forgot this had happened and assumed that meant that I had “dealt” with it, right?Or so I thought until a few years ago. It was the day after my birthday, and I intended to recover from the last night by treating myself to a late morning and a beautiful brunch. I was woken up instead, early on a Saturday morning, by a friend calling me to tell me that he had been molested. By another male friend. Who I didn’t know was in the process of coming out. As I heard his side of the story of impulsive lack of control that he deeply regretted, sitting with all the other male friends who were present when this had happened, I struggled to find my objectivity and “balanced view” – how does one begin to reconcile the images of the “kind of people who do this kind of stuff” with someone I deeply respected? I was driving the friend who had been molested back to his house when he, still shaking, looked at me baffled and mumbled, “this wasn’t even a big deal, women go through much worse. I am terrified for my sister who goes through this all the time. I don’t even know why I am so affected! I just don’t know how I am supposed to respond as a man”. I tried to push behind all the triggers that were pounding at me then – all the other chauvinist comments he had made in the past that had pissed me off, and all the layers to what he was saying right now. I don’t remember what I told him. I knew I had to tell him he had every right to speak up, to feel everything he was feeling, but given how I had responded in the past, I remember feeling hypocritical. I remember trying to find, once again, the right language to help him describe what had happened – (“grabbed?” “squeezed?” “groped?”).
I work with stories, and thus, by default, I am hyper conscious about how we tell our stories: the language we use, the images we paint, and what that means in how we understand the world. Recently, as I drafted this story as a part of another speech that I was writing, I struggled to find the right words. On one hand, my speech needed to be powerful, and there were certain ways that stories like that become powerful; I had learnt enough of that. At the same time, I also needed to make sure I wasn’t painting myself as a “victim” – I needed to retain my credibility. I remember poring over the words again and again – would saying “groping” be too graphic? “Molestated” sounded vague enough but powerful enough. Am I coming across as less of a “feminist”? Is it too “dramatic”? And as I pondered over what all of this meant, it also hit me that for such a long time,I was so busy with not being the victim, so concerned with making sure the story fit into my larger narrative, that I hadn’t given myself the time to hurt, and thus, heal. I hadn’t forgiven myself for not remembering the man’s face. For not being careful enough. For not finding the courage to complain. I mean, if I had been scared then, couldn’t it be possible that I wasn’t as courageous as I thought I was? Every time I had visited what had happened, I had found ways to make myself worse, a skill that they teach the girls so damn well.
Like I said, I work with stories, and in working with people on drafting impactful stories and building toolkits for people to do so, I find myself coming back to these questions again and again. How do we narrate these stories of what we go through? What does it mean to share this, in a context where we know “powerful” to be only in a certain way? What happens when what is powerful isn’t that easily true for the self (not just in terms of what happened, but also how one tells that story) or worse, vice versa? What does it mean to be a “victim” of sexual assault, across the spectrum of that (I cringe as I type that)? Can I not be a victim and still allow myself to hurt and grieve and heal (and cope)? Can I allow myself to be “a victim” and still be empowered? Does changing the language from “victim” to “survivor” help, or do the connotations follow? How can I forgive for my healing, but still be angry enough? When does this constant portrayal of “powerful” stories that look and sound and end only one way normalise it, and what does that normalisation look like?
I find myself struggling with these questions again as I type “me too” into my facebook box (which I must also say, I did do, for I think it is also important our fact-obsessed culture to “empirically” see what this is): What does it mean to say “me too” ? What does it mean when our entire timeline “outs” themselves as survivors? What are nuances of the normalisation that it beings about? What kind of solidarity does it stand for? Who gets included and excluded in this narrative? What does it do to how I, too, experience it and thus, how I, too, respond to it?
My mum told me that if you are in touch with your body well enough, your cravings tell you what you really need right now. Not the cravings for chocolate and maggi, she’d remind me, if you get your body used to the good healthy diet, it will truly crave the healthier things you need.
I tried this once. I don’t know about weight loss, but I remember my skin glowed at the end of it. And my body craved a lot of fruits – bursts of nutrients that scatter through your body, like the tickles of a child’s fingers – the kind of good that’s subtle in its presence.
I think it is the same with our lives and our mental and emotional and spiritual healths. I think our bodies and deeper parts of our minds know what we need, and we crave that. Cravings we lose touch with when we get too wrapped up in our calendars.
I have been craving kindness. I didn’t know that.
More than anything, she’s awfully kind, a friend, A, said a few days ago as she introduced me to someone for work. A strange trait to point out in the middle of a professional meeting perhaps. But K (the third person in the room) and I smiled. That’s an important characteristic to spell out in introductions, she chimed.
Despite all the long list of incredible ideas that meeting gave me, this one, for some reason, stayed. If I were being introduced to someone, I aspired, this is how I would like to be introduced.
I met this “kind” person a few days later. I don’t know what left me warm at the end of the meeting – the great conversation we had, the kindness she exuded or the fact that I was suddenly more aware of it because it had been pointed out?
Suddenly I started to see kind everywhere. In the meetings I’ve had these past few days, with people at varying degrees of high on my “admired” list, I am beginning to see how “kind” has perhaps been such an essential measure towards the admiration.
I told this to another friend, who had just introduced me to someone else with a note of he is very, very kind. We then spoke about a bunch of things before we circled back to the kindness I was suddenly so aware of. He called it humility. That too, I said, suddenly feeling the need to justify, but kindness feels like it’s so much more than that. Empathy? Compassion? Generosity? All that, but not quite. I didn’t have any more ways to describe this qualitative difference in words; I might bode fairly well with words, but my brain thinks in the form of images: pictures. and smells. and sounds. and feel. and kindness, had its own catalogue entries in my senses. And I didn’t know how to curate that to explain.
I met the “very, very kind” person today. I was perhaps looking too hard for it.
I saw that kindness today. There’s a way that kindness touches you that makes something in your body relax. You know that feeling you get when you are meditating, and you can feel your body release tensions as you pay attention to it – something like that. Attention, like kindness, is in short supply lately. I wonder if there’s a connection.
I think I finally know what the term “kind eyes” means: it is the way eyes expand and pupils dilate because someone is interested in what you are saying, because they are taking in and considering it gently and patiently, not just without judgment, but with a sense of calm curiosity with an open heart, a light that shines from that opening.
And as I walked away, carrying this lightness and becoming aware of it at the same time, I started to think of this theme around me that had shaped up over the past few weeks: I was craving kindness, my source of it within myself slowly leaking away as I piled my jenga of unfinished things higher and higher, waiting for it to fall.
I didn’t know where to find the kindness to replenish my supply from.
The type-A me poked her head out as I thought that – she had never gotten along too well with the me that liked to think about things; the two of them have a classic product vs. process struggle with their values. So, I took my book out and scribbled, letting the both of them speak. And now that they are done unloading all that pent-up-unkindness, they are slightly more accommodating of each other.
I then showed them the images I had collected from last few weeks: above all, we are kind, I reminded them. Gave them a product and process to work on. A prescription for a diet of fruits, in some ways.
My friend arrived for dinner visibly agitated. In one of his leadership classes, one of his classmates had shared an example of sexism at work – as an intern in a fancy firm, she was apparently kept out of the conversation in her first week by all the men she was working for. “That’s not a gender thing. Every intern goes through that”, he had protested, and had subsequently been, in his words, attacked by the other women in the class. “You feminists”, he started narrating the incident to me in anger, “so conveniently turn your weaknesses into a complaint about injustice”.
Another friend on the table chimed in, recounting his experience with feminism. He had been in a group activity in class where they had to find a solution to a hypothetical problem that involved stranded ruined planes in deserted islands. One person in the group made a “rather stupid suggestion” that the group heard out patiently, before they decided to go with the suggestion offered by another person, who did in fact, with have some flying experience. The former was a woman of colour, the latter, a white straight cis-gendered man. This distinction was pointed out by someone during the debriefing, as a sign of subtle racism and sexism working in the group dynamic; a suggestion the group found offensive. “I have nothing against feminism”, the third friend said, “I just don’t know why everything has to be about gender all the time.” The first friend nodded. The terms “humanist”, “bra-burning femin*zi”, “men’s rights” were thrown around in the conversation.
My first instinct was to judge, brand them as chauvinists. I wanted to lecture them, trace the history of feminism through the many waves and schools of thought and the broad range of issues it encapsulates, convinced that once people know the same things as me, they have to feel the same way; right? I felt like a defender of the whole feminist movement, the same way one feels about one’s family; it’s by no means perfect, but if anyone says anything against it, one must vehemently defend to protect the honour. Being a feminist has been such a huge part of who I am, of the battles I’ve fought and the things I’ve believed – this felt personal. Losing this “battle” not only meant being proven wrong, it also discredited so much of what I stood for.
One of them noticed the frustration evident on my face and changed the tone, “we are on the same side, J”. I didn’t agree with a lot of what they said, but this debate looked a lot different from the same side; it felt less like a battle. It was now no longer about who wins a territory, but rather a discussion about what is best for the territory. Suddenly my defensiveness vanished. “Feminism is complex”, I tried to summarise what I was feeling, “and it’s kind of unfair to reject an entire movement because you don’t agree with some people’s versions of it”. I confessed that I was saying this as someone who has had her fair share of tussle with several tenets of feminism – do I agree with all of them? I don’t. If feminism as a whole perfect? By no means. Is feminism still important? Yes. Absolutely.
“What is your feminism”, one of them asked. I paused. Usually, I am pretty clear on where I stand on most issues. Pro-choice: definitely. Strongly vouch for inter-sectional conversations in feminism. Vehemently protective when any girl is accused of “asking for it”. Kind of pro-slut walks. Each of these, however, felt like different spectrums that I stood at different points on. To reduce it all to one center point where all the spectrums merge perfectly would probably be a blessing, but if it were a good idea – I wasn’t entirely sure. Also because a part of me wanted to leave the space open to change my mind on those issues, not out of flakiness, but more as openness to points of view hadn’t yet considered. Yet, some sort of allegiance felt necessary. However, on merit of the same allegiance and family metaphor, I shouldn’t have to defend my feminism – despite what places it takes on the different spectrums, they all lie within the basic tenet of equality, and thus within feminism. Why then did it require extra justification?
Words from Roxane Gay’s TED talk, “Confessions of a Bad Feminist” rang true in my head: “We demand perfection from feminists, because we are still fighting for so much, we want so much, we need so damn much. We go far beyond reasonable, constructive criticism, to dissecting any given woman’s feminism, tearing it apart until there’s nothing left.” For an “intellectual issue”, there was too much feeling, too much decision making in that tiny situation on the dinner table. I could hear the responses I was used to hearing play out on cue in my head “seriously, stop being so dramatic about it”.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am dramatic. Proudly so. I also happily take the blame in being an “overthinker” who “reads too much into things”. But sitting on that table, all these thoughts and feelings stirring up inside me, I couldn’t unsee this. My discomfort came from a place of power inequality – a dynamic that I am as much to blame for playing into – but a dynamic that is very real, despite all the good intentions. A dynamic that comes from a certain assertion of normal, which puts (my) feminism outside of this “normal” forcing me, indirectly, to justify my stand to those standing within that normal to be accepted by them. “Hegemony”, I was taught this was called in college. The “normal” that was created by a group that yields power, a “normal” that gets so embedded, that everyone just assumes it is true. A normal that then becomes an ideology that makes decisions for the people within that dynamic, often without the person even realising that they are agreeing to this cultural domination. Sitting here, in this group of well-meaning men I love being asked to justify my feminism, we were all playing by this normal, perpetuating it, without really being fully aware of it.
I tell them that, as kindly as I can. Thankfully, they take a moment to take it in (or maybe just to eat their food, but I am going with the more assuring explanation of the silence that followed) before one of them responds, “but aren’t you trying to create your own hegemony, such that the new normal makes feminism the normal, and those of us outside of that now have to explain to you? Aren’t you fighting for domination, in a fight against domination?”
I could see where he was going with this. I had recently entered into one of those futile but heated Facebook debates about this with another friend, who had shared that godawful video mocking political correctness and “oppression olympics” that went viral recently (I refuse to share the link because, like, contributing to that demand (not happening!)). For those of you lucky to not have seen it, it shares the story of a “privileged man” in a classroom, who essentially gets ostracised for everything he says because it offends some group, and in the end, despite being deserving in his merit, he doesn’t win a certain prize in the math class because equity rules take away points from him and give them to others in the class. Now, if that video was more good-heartedly funny, I would have probably loved to use it engage in a discussion about the the balance between assuming good intentions and pointing out inherent deeply coded systems of injustices, something that I would love to be able to get perspectives on. But, this video made me acutely uncomfortable instead, not because of its exaggerated tone, but the crude way in which it tries to justify its message through a lens of meritocracy.
In the discussion that followed, the much-too-common debate trick of exaggerated exceptions was used neatly, wrapped in reason-appealing notions. So there was the classic “but what about the women who take advantage of these moments and cry wolf in cases of rape”, to discuss the undue misuse of feminism by women to get their way, or worse, to get attention – apparently that’s what happens when we create conditions for women to feel safe and be supported for things like rape. I would probably have agreed to the extent that men need to be given the benefit of doubt when making a decision in these cases, a narrative that sometimes gets skewed. However, the fact remains that the fight against victim shaming/blaming, the fight to give women right to complain against rape without feeling afraid is still too real. While there would definitely be cases of women misusing this power, it is still only the exception. The “self-defense murder” is used so frequently too, but one doesn’t question the need for that law. Several schools misuse the funds that they receive to improve education, but we don’t question the need to push in more funds into education. “Why then does this fight get questioned”, I asked, I must confess, rather aggressively/ defensively.
To which, another commentator said – “look at the context of the video; why does privilege need to feature in a discussion in a math class. It takes away from the learning math”. Conveniently forgotten here is the point that unfortunately that discussion hardly ever shows up in classes other than the social sciences and humanities, but I see his point. A fellow (male) feminist joined in and tried to reason with the barrage of men supporting that video. In a long back and forth that followed, on and off facebook feeds, one of the men said, “look, I am all for equity, but the competition is already intense, and then some populations get unfair advantage because they belong to populations that were once discriminated against”. A point that my friend on the dinner table was also perhaps alluding to; that sense of threat, very real and disconcerting to them.
On the dinner table, I tried to engage with the same thing a friend who fights for racial justice once said to me – “Ideally, we could take a blank slate and start off equally. You know, give everyone the same starting points, same rules, let the best runner win. The problem is, this is a long marathon, several people have already started running a long time ago, and now we are trying to give some people who weren’t allowed into the marathon at all, the chance to catch up by giving them shortcuts in the initial parts of the race. It does not sound fair, and I constantly wonder if it is, I mean everyone else did run the whole route, but it seems also just, once they make it to where the other runners are, who by the way, are still competing, they have a chance to become equal runners. Some of these runners we provide shortcuts to might be Bolt-like fast, and may zoom ahead in this marathon, and all those people who have been running this whole time might have every right to be p*ssed, but I do intend to fight for that Bolt-like person to at least have a chance to fight the race”. My friend didn’t seemed convinced, unfairness always seems too uncomfortable, but when put in the context of the justice issues, the latter feels way too important not to fight for. In my work in inclusion and belonging, I truly struggle with this balance. It is hard to always be able to clearly distinguish between fairness and justice – fairness cannot always be promised or even possible, but justice is ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity to access situations where fairness is possible. The means to this are complex, often with much space for improvement, but the debate needs to be about the best way to seek justice, not about whether or not justice is required.
For anyone who has been following the news lately, this fight feels way too real. And to be honest, I am terrified of having that conversation. I am sure there are things I can learn in the conversation, things I hadn’t considered before, and there is value to me opening up my mind about it while also sharing what I have learnt, but the issue feels too sensitive to allow for that, perhaps even too personal lately. In my head it always looks like this: say there’s a destructive object that we are all trying to diffuse, a goal we all share in common, and one way to do that is to shoot it at the right spot. Now, if a person holds this object in their hands, wears a bullerproof jacket and asks me to shoot the object, I would still not do it, because I will still be worried about shooting the person. The best way would be to put the object on a more neutral table, and then try and diffuse it. A conversation about complex topics like these feels like this object – when we refuse to address the complexity of it as a given, oversimplifying it or avoiding it because it is complicated – we cannot diffuse it. We cannot diffuse it if we hold it on our bodies, where there is always a fear of getting shot, of it becoming personal. It needs to be put on a neutral table and diffused collectively, where the differences in our approaches to doing that might just bring us closer as a whole to doing that. But if we don’t diffuse it, it is going to blow in our faves. I don’t even know if we will ever diffuse it entirely, but isn’t that still a fight worth having?
The issue on the dinner table was never resolved fully, but it could have been much worse. For me though, that conversation feels like a reminder of hope – hope that it might be possible to somehow engage in these conversations more deeply and empathetically, learning through them, that some people in this debate might still be on the same side, and perhaps, by accepting the fears and feelings, all of which are very real, and acknowledging the complexity of everything that we are all fighting for, we might at least begin to start working together. Without this hope, I wouldn’t know how to proceed in the world that we see around us lately.
A shameless plug to end this: A hope that lays at the center of the “Library of Perspectives”. To get started on this, I am currently working on an experiment in feminism, and the sides to it. Get in touch if interested. More on this experiment, soon.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the edu-documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” (which, by the way, if you haven’t seen already, you absolutely must), a teacher trying out something new in a classroom is having a meeting with some of his students to talk about the new pedagogy he has introduced in class. Pedagogy that is intended help the students “learn” rather than just prepare them to ace tests. Some of the students (mostly the high-performing ones) are hesitant about these new methods he’s brought in. “Is it more important for you to learn or to do well in the tests?”, he asks, cautious hope in his eyes. “Do well in tests,” one student immediately responds. The others chime in almost instantly, agreeing. The look of confusion and concern that he has on his face after that summarises what a lot of us feel about our education system.
It got me to think about my own early experiences as a student. I wasn’t a bad student. I got decent grades, my teachers would call me a sincere student. Yet, despite the fact that I loved learning, studying (for exams – which I found out later wasn’t necessarily the same as learning) was hard. Even after I managed to find healthier educational opportunities, the same struggles followed me into the real world. My questions, stemming out of genuine curiosity, were often met with well-intentioned advice of “don’t complicate your life too much”.
In the past year, being encouraged to “complexify” my life, I have come to think about how we are taught about the “real world”. When a wiser person tells us there’s a certain way the real world works and certain ways that it doesn’t, our learnt default response is to believe in that, because experience is true, and if that were really how the “real world”- which is in any case too overwhelmingly massive and intricate for one person to fully understand – works, we don’t want to risk being on the wrong side of.
Our education system, I have come to believe, is one such system that is formed around such assumptions about what the real world need and values. Our schools and colleges work so hard to prepare us to do well in a system that we all know is messed up. Whether or not they succeed in doing even that is a whole other conversation.
These assumptions have been around for a while, and with history. At the risk of hyper-simplifying its nuances, the well-known story goes mostly like this:
Years ago, with the Industrial Revolution showing us dreams of a fancy new society, an era of moving from our agrarian/ artisan culture to that of professionalism, our metrics for measuring success changed. We now thought of productivity through the lens of efficiency – how much more can you produce in a shorter period of time, how fewer mistakes can you make while doing that, and can you be trusted to be consistently as accurate – measures that we inherited from the machines we created. Mass-production of goods led to a culture of mass-production of people and their skills – what we (currently) know as our educational system centered around exams and standardised tests. What was meant to measure learning became what learning focused towards. Our systems came to be designed so that we would memorise to prove our competencies – static knowledge of facts and procedures to do well in the industrialised marketplace, with rights and wrongs to be handed down by teachers who are considered authority. In industries, the employee was individually involved in a very small part of making the product, was easily replaceable and was thus supposed to be detached from the product – and slowly, these values came to also structure the qualities we hold as valuable in people. Values that are represented in our education system. Certainty, consistency, order and uniformity. Words that sound like music to the industrial companies.
Of course, there are several ways that this is changing with the advent of the Internet era; there is much that the Googles of the world are changing in the work marketplace and there are several schools, colleges and non-institutional settings that are doing phenomenal work to change that. Yet, we are largely still functioning in the same way; these versions of learning are being passed on across generations, setting the boundaries of what we call success even if we decide to challenge the ways we learn/ work for it. The square pegs-round hole analogy has in my head always been about cookies – the cookie boxes are round, so all our cookies need to be cut with round cookie-cutters, and the square ones need to be chipped off the edges to fit the boxes. Individuality then gets restricted to how many colours you can make these round cookies in, which is easier than changing the shape of the boxes to fit all kinds of cookies, including the ones that don’t have a perfect shape. Add to that the very real problems of lack of equal access and resources, and we have a nice little vicious cycle, a whole machine of faulty systemic gears. A cycle that continues to perpetuate, because those who come into power, very often if not always (thank god!), do so because of this system, and by the time they get power, might not have sufficient motivation and credibility to really change it as substantially as it deserves to be.
There are several people asking questions about this and finding fascinating ways to shift these gears – a task that, as you can well imagine, is rather tricky given that you need to change multiple gears while the machine is still in motion. But here’s the question that keeps me up at night – what can I, as an individual, subject to the risks that come with not “following this system”, do to change it?
Although far from having an answer, I do have a hypothesis that I am testing out right now. (I must state at this point that I fully recognise the privilege that underlies my ability to say this – the privilege that comes from having encouraging teachers, professional mentors, like-minded peers and supportive family along with access to opportunities that allows me to venture on this experiment). It was a thought that was planted in my head by a very enthusiastic Alfie Kohn dancing around our classroom stage, as he spoke about the “BGUTI culture” i.e. the “Better Get Used To It” culture that we are slowly hammered into. The culture of being told “that’s how the real world works, better get used to it” every time we question something that does not make sense. The culture where we are told that questioning and challenging and changing are privileges reserved for the “already successful” club, and we need to be successful within the system before we start to change it. A culture of keeping our head down, take only calculated risks, and continuing to believe that it is only a dog-eats-dog world out there, and the only way to survive it is to learn to be a part of it. I have no credibility to say that that is not true. I am just not sure that that is the only truth.
I have been wondering about the versions of the “real world” that we come to believe as true, and that has made me conscious of what my own versions are that I use to build my life in, and what I pass on and contribute to through the choices I make. Trying out what happens when I ask good questions, questions that come from a place of genuine curiosity, when something doesn’t make sense to me. Not rebelling, not challenging blindly, not being idealistic/ unrealistic, but questioning to understand, so I can know why and how I make choices, and thus make better ones.
So far, it’s served me well. It’s opened up opportunities and space for conversations. Conversations like the one I had with one of my professors when I spoke to him about my learning in his class. What I wanted to gain from that class was different from what the class’ learning goals were – and having a conversation asking him what his learning goals were and why, and defining the same for my goals, led to him helping me get to my goal, so long as I respected the criteria of the class in the assignments I submitted. This discussion itself brought to the forefront the learning that was happening from the class and gave me better focus, rather than the bitterness that I had begun to develop. Conversations like the ones I have with new people I meet when we realise that we are mutually baffled with small talk, and thus don’t need to work so hard at trying to do that at all – this one in fact has made parties so much more bearable for me. It’s not always been yay-ish, I haven’t always received answers, sometimes I found
It’s not always been yay-ish, I haven’t always received answers, sometimes I found good reason why things worked the way they did rather than the way I thought they should – and all of this allowed me to contribute better. There have been several days that not asking felt a lot more convenient and comfortable. Yet, the times that I did muster up the courage to ask questions, I have felt more empowered, as though I had more information on the map that I navigated through my world. I felt more a part of how things worked, than just an object to assumptions of it. It’s opened up space for more possibilities, opening me up from the binds of only one version of them. Kinda like the time someone said, wait a second, why did you say women can’t have the right to vote again?
I would like to invite you to try your own adventure of curiosity with some faith in the good in this world. Next time you find yourself craving into believing that the real world works in a certain way only, maybe stop and ask what proof you have of that, and if there are other possibilities you might imagine. Maybe, if you feel particularly daring, seek out and test out some of those possibilities. For the few times that they work out, let people know those possibilities can happen. And maybe, just maybe, we will all be able to put those possibilities together and create better versions of the “real world” we live in. If you do embark on this journey, I would love to know about what you learn so that I can add it to my repertoire of “tested assumptions of the real world”.
We take our circumstances and beliefs, and find our choices within.
You, to the best of your ability, slightly enchanted by your needs of the moment.
Me, to the best of mine, finding my way amidst the sea of my wishes.
We, dancing our moves through this stage full of improvisers, occasionally swinging together.
Organising our circumstances into stories.
Somehow, through it all, orchestrating the rhythm that tunes our shared circumstance.
My bookshelves, they are like carriers of large parts of my history. Organised in patches of memories from my life, they are reflections of my meaning systems.
When you come home, spend a few minutes looking at my shelf, taking in the titles of my books; some faded, some shiny new, and you will know all you have to about me.
You will know that I love second-hand books. And that when I am feeling sad, I go scavenging for them. I especially like the ones that have a disappearing name on its first page, the ones with things underlined (with pencil, always with pencils). My favourites are the ones with scribbles in the margins, or the ones that had been gifted with personal notes. It makes me feel intimate with the previous owner, because I now know what matters to them.
These books, they will tell you of how I have evolved, because books cannot be deleted. They will tell you that I was a Meg Cabot fan, and that I once owned a Chetan Bhagat book before I became more elitist about the literature I devoured. That I still have some books that I would never publicly mention enjoying, but bookshelves don’t lie. It’s an honesty the kindle can never provide.
Open these books and you will be privy to my thoughts. You will see little stars and smiley faces, exclamation marks and circled question marks as well as some epiphanies doodled in the margins. You will see outlines of the tears I cried while reading them and the pages that have had bookmarks in them for real long.
The bookmarks, they are a story of their own. You will see the shady but wonderful ones my sister made for me when she was a child. The quotes I turned into page markers. Plane tickets and coffee house stubs. Like the remnants of my time with them.
I like taking my books on vacation, like a companion for all places. These books, often become conversation starters, and their covers are all you need. I can write a whole series of conversations I have had when I was reading The wisdom of whores by Elizabeth Pisani. The kindles will never hold that mystery, or the joy of being so open about what it is that fascinates you at that moment.
Some books, they hold hints to my intimate moments too. The Murakami, Norwegian Wood, as my companion in one of the tough phases of my life, has all kinds of stains from being in my purse for too long. Flip open my copy of Bridge Across Forever and you will see lines of hope a friend’s father wrote to him before he gifted him this book, the wishes that the friend carried forward when he gifted it to me, and then some notes from a screenplay a friend and I tried to write inspired by it. These books, they have seen me through as much as my closest friends, and you will stumble across these stories when browsing through them.
I will let you borrow these books if you wish. And for me, that would be like sharing a piece of my soul. It will be our shared memory and not just a common pdf. I will warn you not to use pen marks on them, but I will let you leave me little pieces of your heart in it when you return them. And years later, if you have forgotten about the book, I will remind you to return it because there is a paragraph in that book that I want to find. It will be an extra reason to reconnect, should that ever be needed.
When finding these paragraphs, as I turn the pages, I will relive my time with the books, perhaps stopping to read some of my favourite parts. Not as efficient as your Kindle’s search, but bliss cannot always be rushed.
So, next time you are home, stop by my bookshelf. And smell it. It has centuries of stories in them, the joys of holding them, and real shelves of my love. Their brightness may not be adjustable, but they can be held. Hugged. And they light up my soul instead.