We didn’t used to need someone to tell us what needed to be done. We looked around. A neighbor needed a new barn, we showed up to raise that barn. We didn’t wait for permission, we didn’t look to a county permit regulator to say it was all okay. Those houses and barns built 200 years ago with no reference to the 20-volume building code are still standing, too. Why are we waiting for permission to do some good in our communities?
One of the programs that emerged from the Great Depression was the Works Program Administration (WPA). The Government set wages at the local average and paid the long-term unemployed to build projects for the community: schools, parks, bridges, museums, libraries. Infrastructure that still supports civic life today. Infrastructure that major corporations, which are taxed at a minuscule rate, benefit from.
Respectability politics is a term most commonly used in or in reference to African-American interactions with society at large. It proposes that there would be less racism in America if black men wore belts. Or if black women didn’t have children without the benefit of a marriage licence. It puts responsibility for external attitudes on the individual. This is problematic in a lot of ways… hoodie-wearing should not be a death sentence in the case of Trayvon Martin. The problem in that case was George Zimmerman, not Trayvon Martin. Respectability politics suggests that Trayvon could have controlled Zimmerman’s reaction to him by wearing a suit and tie. Respectability politics is society’s equivalent of an abused spouse internalizing and owning the abuser’s assertion that the spouse is only subject to a black eye because they know better than to disagree with the abuser. If you didn’t piss me off, I wouldn’t have to beat the shit out of you.
My head is so full of what ifs. What if I fail. What if I suck. What if they find out I’m not really qualified to sit at the grown-up table for Thanksgiving.
Seriously, that last one is a big concern. Give me another 20 years and I think I’ll still feel that way.
Anyway. All of these what ifs. The funny thing is that every what if I’ve ever taken out and shown to someone else has elicited this exact result: me too! And here’s how I came to the radical notion of absolute acceptance. While I read it in a bunch of books and intellectualized it, it took having raw conversations with trusted friends about the most frightening of my boogeymen to discover that even when the boogeymen didn’t overlap, no one pointed a finger at me and laughed. I had to get dirty with the concept to really get it on a kinetic level.
I don’t know that I’ve arrived just yet, but I’m close enough to see how incredibly beautiful the people in my life are. Not just physically, but in all the things they do to bridge the gap between who they are and who they want to be. How badly they want to be able to give the whole world to their kids, to their loves. How hard they will work to make everything alright for someone else.
Really, just try to walk around with a hyper-awareness of how much energy it takes for all of us to get out of bed some days. It starts to hurt, all that beauty. I only get to witness it when I stop obsessing about how I fall so short of everything that I think I should be. So maybe it’s selfish, this radical acceptance thing, because what it gets me is the room to see what I think most people miss.
Still, I have those what ifs. I don’t think they will ever go away and that’s okay. I’ve just added some new what ifs to my list for when they gang up on me. Call this my list of spies and traitors seeded in with the enemy:
- What if no one is looking?
- What if no one is keeping score?
- What if the voice that keeps telling me I’m not good enough is a dirty rotten liar?
- What if I don’t need permission?
- What if showing up is the only standard that matters?
- What if good enough isn’t even part of the measure?
- What if things just are?
- What if I judge good and bad by useful and gets in the way?
- What if I don’t have to deserve love to be on the receiving end of it?
- What if I go with what I’m sure of instead of what I’m afraid of?
- What if I let go of what happened and start with where I am?
- What if everything behind me is okay because I was doing the best I could with what I had?
- What if I give myself permission, even if it is just for five minutes a day, to be where I am and not be angry at myself for not being further along?
I read a book called Working on Your Marriage Doesn’t Work when I was in the midst of my divorce. It didn’t save my marriage, but it helped. From the book, I got the following maxim:
what you resist, persists.
In other words, the harder you fight something, the more energy you give it, and the bigger it gets. So, for example. If you’re obsessed with losing weight and the inner dialogue goes like “I really should give up cheese,” or “I’m not going to eat sweets,” you’re keeping both cheese and sweets in the forefront of your mind. And then, because you’ve been thinking about them and resisting the want, when you’re confronted with them, you put them in your mouth anyway because you’re so sick of fighting. Well, the truth is that there was neither cheese nor sugar at your desk, but you spent all that time when the problem wasn’t even in front of you to solve fighting, and fighting valiantly No wonder you’re tired when you get to the temptation. You’ve committed all of your energy to those two objects which, had you been focused on something else, you might have never noticed.
There was a Fiona Apple interview on NPR when she says, and I paraphrase: I’ve given up. Not the bad kind of giving up, but the good kind. I’ve given up on expectations, on being mad when things don’t turn out the way I wanted them to.
So, to myself as much as to anyone else, I offer the following benediction: you have permission to give up. You have permission to quit fighting. Let those demons do their own thing unsupervised while you start doing what you can from where you are. Let’s face it. The demons are only there because you pay attention to them. Like your intuition, if you ignore them for long enough, they’ll go away.
About a year ago, I read Seth Godin’s Lynchpin. In it, he talked about permission. The anecdote was Richard Branson getting stuck in an airport and, instead of sitting around helplessly, he found out how much it would cost to charter a plane, then put up a sign advertising seats to the destination of the plane that had been cancelled. People bought seats and off he went to his destination.
I know my backside wouldn’t have done it. I would have been thinking that I didn’t have the permission to put up a sign, it might be perceived as weird, or that there was some rule written down somewhere that explicitly said that I was not allowed to do such a profoundly sensible thing.
Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about permission. Who is qualified to give me permission? What can I do that doesn’t require permission? What permissions are mine to give myself? If habits are the key to everything, then I might be making progress. I now habitually ask myself what I can do that doesn’t require permission.
Next, I just need to work on doing that thing more consistently.