Tending the Spiral
I need to begin with this image, which is of an oracle card from Mary Elizabeth Evans’s Vessel deck. It shows a 5-pointed star with five eyes. Two of those eyes have tears coming out of them and all are looking up, as if focusing on the spiral shape above them. The star has a big frown and its two blue arms dangle down below it. The caption is “defeat.”
I need to start here because I’ve tried multiple times to write this newsletter. If I don’t acknowledge that feeling of sad defeat, the focus on the spiral in my mind, then I don’t think that I’ll ever get this newsletter written.
No, I’m not here to say that something big has happened to me, or that I’m making some change in how I show up in this space. Nothing like that at all. I’ve just, like this sad star, been focused on the spiral in my mind. The spiral has two main components that keep going around and around to no resolution, so they end up being like one of those magnetic stirrers in a chemistry lab:
(1) Nobody should ever suffer.
(2) I have not suffered enough to be a real, authentic person.
Those two components have a result that is like the conclusion to a syllogism:
(3) Because I do not suffer, and do not stop the suffering of others, I am a bad person.
And being a bad person is it, the end. Just throw your hands up, give up on ever doing anything and making change, because being a bad person is an incurable condition.
Of course none of this makes sense. If suffering is what makes people authentic, then how could it be entirely bad? If nobody should ever suffer, then how could suffering make them real authentic people? But this isn’t an actual syllogism, and internalized beliefs don’t need to actually make logical sense to feel like the truth. The sources of these internalized beliefs are many. Some of them come from my particular culture or upbringing, some have to do with the collective moment we’re in right now as well as the place I’m at in my life right now.
Let me name this syllogism what it is: rumination. I define rumination here as obsessive thinking about my own flaws and problems. When I am ruminating, all roads lead to the same place: self-hatred. During episodes of depression, I ruminate constantly about why I am bad, flawed, and broken. Over the past few weeks, I don’t think that I have been experiencing depression, but I’ve been driven deep into a sense of unworthiness by two things happening simultaneously: lots of things going bad in the world and lots of things going well in my life. Oof.
So I’m inviting my little spiral, my little fucked-up syllogism, out to play.
Hey! I see you. I see you working overtime there, like a magnetic stirrer, like a computer that’s running hot. I know you’re trying to figure it out, trying to square your compassion with the state of the world, trying to understand why some people suffer and others don’t. I see you too frozen with fear to help others who are suffering. I see you afraid to suffer because even though you think it’s virtuous you don’t like it.
I don’t know if this newsletter caught you at a good moment or not, Reader. It may strike you as self-indulgent, or you may find a glimmer of recognition in yourself. The potential for both things is there. I’m writing this, not because my story is more important than anyone else’s, but because it’s so easy to talk myself into shutting up. And if I talk myself into shutting up, then I won’t be serving myself or anyone else.
So here are two thoughts that are forming within me as I try to calm that little spiral:
(1) My calling is to serve people who get frozen with fear and over-analysis when it comes to making change in the world. I know it has to be my calling because it’s the thing I struggle with most. That’s why I am called to do the Work That Reconnects, because it’s a way of melting the rigidity and fear. Knowing that rigidity and fear in myself, I can tend to it in other people.
(2) I am not the first person to say this, but wow, we really need to move away from social justice models that operate at an intellectual level and center on personal guilt. In saying this, I’m speaking from the perspective of a person of privilege. Two of many explorations of alternate models I have appreciated are Resmaa Menakem’s inimitable book My Grandmother’s Hands and this episode of Zoë’s podcast What a Body Can Do called There is no such thing as Ideology. I wonder about all of the time that I might have spent actually doing good things in the world if I hadn’t internalized the belief that I am a bad person because of the systems of privilege that I was born into. I used to think that white guilt wasn’t something that I should admit to having, or that was useful. I have now begun to think that white people wanting to bring about racial justice really need to dig seriously into white guilt, to understand that it can’t be transcended at the level of intellect, and that while it might not be useful, it certainly cannot be ignored. White guilt is actually the seat of our racial trauma; it’s the trauma that comes from inflicting harm on others or witnessing that harm being inflicted. While the guilt itself is often counter-productive, feeling bad about injustice that was/is done in our name is a sign that we’re human, we’re connected, and that we care about others.
The two other cards that I pulled from Vessel at the same time as “defeat” were “truth” and “it gets better.” They flank the defeat card, supporting it. Because the sadness, the spiral, the rumination needs my support, not my anger, nor my continued participation. Let me get grounded again in my truth and make things better from there.