Today I remembered an incident that occurred during my first semester of graduate school. I had taken a ten-year break between undergraduate and graduate school, and in that time I had worked at Jane magazine and for the photographer Bruce Weber. It was during my time working for Weber that I picked up David Levi Strauss’s Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. I sensed a magnetic pull toward a life course that I had avoided since graduating college. This life course had defined my undergraduate purview, where I studied literature and theory. As much as my ego liked a life of travel and glamour, my heart missed being in an intellectual environment. So despite my nice career, I decided to go back to school to study with Strauss, and continue a modality of thinking I had put on the back burner—one which felt like a truer expression of my core identity.
In my first semester, I took a writing class that was based on reviewing art shows. I did not go to an MFA program to learn how to review art shows, but it was a new form of writing for me, and going to art exhibitions was new for me, so I decided to give in to the experience and try my hand at it. A few classes in, we were workshopping one of my pieces, and I found the teacher and another student enjoying my work—a piece of writing that was negatively critical of a show. They hadn’t liked my work previously, and while I was skeptical of their standards for “good writing,” I felt pleased to be getting some praise. Their comments fell along the lines of, “Oooh, your writing really clarifies when you let your claws out,” and “I like seeing your fangs.”
At the time, I thought: hmmm, maybe they are right. Maybe I’m a better writer when I dislike something. I held this thought with me for a long time, and never questioned it.
Now I’m questioning it. We live in a world defined by rage, vengeance, anger and petty cruelty. This is the lingua franca of our times, and if you address people in this voice, you are guaranteed to find yourself with a rapt and generous audience. We constantly speak and act in vicious ways. We compete with, conspire against, and belittle people in our interpersonal relationships—our erstwhile "friends"—and are then surprised when our leadership mirrors our own spiteful acts of social violence. We live in a world that is asleep to the suffering it causes others—one that can only care about winning a fight.
Spiritual teachers like Teal Swan and Byron Katie have espoused the notion that “the only way to end the war in the world is to end the war within yourself.” Truer words have never been spoken. I have been the worst offender in putting people down and competing with people—being jealous and insecure and allowing my own psychic wounds to wreak havoc on my relationships. This is as common in New York as it is anywhere. I have done things and thought in ways that I am ashamed of now. But I won’t do it anymore. I won’t hate others and I won’t hate myself. I won’t say and I especially won’t write mean things just to garner the approval of others—it’s too easy, and it means nothing and fixes nothing. This world is overrun with negative “criticism” in the cloak of political dissent or social unity—we need to find points of both dissent and unity beyond this archaic realm. We also need to explore a unity with those who hold opposing views. When the people of this world learn that their judgments do not compose their true identity, we will be a step closer to understanding true unity.
We also need to question the importance of our chosen community when it demands that one stop evolving, and prevents one from stepping outside the confines of prescribed identities and ideals. True leaders emerge when individuals are allowed and encouraged to break from their social roles and discover their own voice. False leaders emerge when bottom feeders pander to the lowest common denominator, and scrounge for the most “likes” by arousing society’s worst impulses. It’s far too easy to fire off a bitchy, political remark and get people to cheer for you. It is much more difficult to risk being ostracized for presenting a view that questions or confronts the dominant discourse of your community. Like personality and judgment, community can be a prison. And what we are desperately in need of at this moment in time are leaders who can rise above the social mores of their community to be actual leaders. What we don't need is more community, particularly when it serves to stunt the growth of its potential leaders through unspoken demands of social compliance.
I believe in peace and social justice, and I believe this is something we could have right now, globally, if we truly wanted it. But we need to do the work of looking inside ourselves first. True unity isn’t supposed to happen one day out of every year. True unity can and should and WILL occur every day, when we make it our mission to treat EVERYONE with radical compassion—most especially our own selves. That is not Pollyanna thinking—this is the proven logic of changing a discourse to change a situation. And I won’t engage with the world in any other way.