|Duty, Guilting, and Revolution
||[Mar. 8th, 2009|04:32 pm]
In my early years, a lot of people wanted me to be other than I am...I was too loud, too tall, too smart, too athletic for many teachers, for instance, who persisted in trying to make me into the appropriate 1950s girl: soft-spoken, shorter than any of the boys, "sweet," domestic, not smarter than the boys, and certainly not tomboyish. Other complaints were related to the family situation I could not help ("child of divorce," "latchkey child," working mother), my inability to grab and remember faces easily (girls were supposed to be able to), my need for glasses, my clumsiness (I was strong and fast, but clumsy, result probably of the encephalitis that nearly killed me--certainly my left side was weak for a long time and my left leg sometimes just gave way. My knees were always skinned up.) I developed acne in adolescence ("Can't you do something about your face?") and had (post encephalitis) a type of hair not described in the fashion magazines: fine and curly. My nose was too long (said the magazines) and instead of the lush hourglass figure most praised, I grew into a beanpole. My mother's friends were always after her to "do something" about my hair, my skin, my very insufficient fashion sense. Since her friends came from several different cultural groups, their idea of what a proper young girl should wear did not match--there was no way I could dress, or stand, or be that satisfied even five of them, let alone all.
I grew up along the Texas-Mexico border, where my coloring (dark hair and eyes and tanned easily as did most of us) confused newcomers (but not the locals) about my "race." We had three main ones, along with multiple social classes within each: "Spanish," "Indio," and "Anglo." The Japanese family was often lumped in with Anglo, because they sure weren't Spanish or Indio. The African-American families (two) were hardly seen until the schools were integrated. The Lebanese, being extremely fluent in Spanish, devout Catholics, and dark-haired, were usually lumped with the Spanish-Indio group (to the annoyance of one of my Lebanese schoolmates.) The town's social classes were based very largely on money, though within the Spanish-Indio group, the Spanish looked down on the Indios (um...for those not familiar--these were people who came from Native American stock in Mexico--not anything north of us) even if they had made money. Typical of the time/place there was no bias against "trade" as a source of wealth--it was the amount of wealth that determined social position, though coming from a family that had had money before the Depression got you out of the gutter if you had retained any of the finer values. My grandfather had made money with his hardware stores, though it was mostly gone by then, so my mother's position wavered between "divorcee, = scarlet woman" and "Ed J-'s daughter." Monetarily we were well down the scale (the highest paid women in town were teachers), but my grandfather's friends invited her (and later, me) to various social events we would otherwise not have known existed. Or I wouldn't, anyway.
So I was well-taught that I did not measure up, and no amount of good behavior, high grades, high test scores ever convinced some of my teachers (and others--including, some of the time, me) that I would make it out of the pit of degradation. I wasn't supposed to be able to "find" a husband, and if I did manage to marry, I was certain to be divorced, and if I had children I would be a bad parent. (Because, of course, girls without a father in the home are doomed. So are boys, but differently. Oddly enough, a widow did not doom her children--even boys--as much as a divorced parent.) I wanted out of this trap (and out of poverty, for that matter, though we weren't starving) and headed for college determined to prove a lot of people wrong.
When I got to college, it was at a time when affluent and middle-class white kids (they didn't like being called Anglos) were diving headlong into their own guilt pools, and I was immediately accused of things I had never done (and never had the opportunity to do, for that matter.) The gap in experience became visible with two incidents. One of the top department stores in Houston recruited coeds for a style show...I was talked into it (being the tall skinny one that fit the wedding dress) and then discovered that we volunteer models were being urged to buy, at a discount, the dresses we modeled (in my case, the other dress, a mini.) The classmate organizing this could not believe that I couldn't afford the dress--"But it's a really good deal" she kept saying. And it was, and the dress looked good on me and I would've enjoyed it--but I didn't have the money. The same person, on another occasion, was explaining how she was learning to live like a poor person--very proud of herself that she had bought a pair of shoes and a sweater in Neiman-Marcus's basement instead of buying them upstairs, as she had before. I couldn't afford to shop Neiman's basement and regarded this with an unsympathetic attitude (as unsympathetic as hers for my not buying the dress.)
So, while I had considerable sympathy for the poor of any color, I was annoyed that I was being guilted for having what I had never yet had...and still being labeled as wrong, though this time in a different direction. A classmate from the Northeast, for instance, flatly refused to believe what I tried to tell her about the community I'd grown up in. She was sure I was the kind of Texan she had heard about, and that was it. Joining the military out of college was, in the late '60s, another thing that I did "wrong" in the eyes of everyone from some of my mother's friends to my college classmates. But at that point I was beginning to rebel (OK, maybe not beginning...) against the guilting that everyone (it seemed) wanted to lay on me. I had, I felt, a "me" to be--I was not going to spend my life being someone else's construction. (Though we all do, in one way or another, no woman being an island and all that.) Attempts at guilting me went on, of course. Military personnel during 'Nam got a lot of it, and I was no exception. Later, there were others. The twit in San Antonio who tried to convince me that he and his political party were the reason I had the right to wear blue jeans (I had worn blue jeans as a kid and adolescent...) The mother of a church friend who, after asking and being told my parents were divorced said haughtily "We don't believe in divorce in this family." Neither did my mother, but the rain falls on the just and the unjust.
Over time, and with a bit of therapy, I came to the point where I will not accept any guilting for things I didn't do (I am not, for instance, responsible for the Bush Administration's actions--I spoke, wrote, and voted against them.) If you have a beef with me about something I did, fine: I'll listen to your beef, and then consider my own actions in that light as well as the light in which I acted. I make mistakes. I get angry sometimes and say what I shouldn't. My opinions aren't everyone's opinions, so they're bound to offend someone. When I see that I have caused actual harm, or know that I have been swayed by anger or other negative forces, I own it and apologize, and if it's fixable, will work to fix it. (Some damages cannot be repaired. I've taken some of that kind of damage.)
But if your beef with me is that someone else did something you didn't like...go talk to them, or explain to me personally (not to the world at large) why I should get involved in something that isn't my business, and why you think my intervention would make things better. (Remembering at all times that you call in the Marines when you want something blown up, not when you want things made sweet and pleasant.) Now lots of things I didn't personally do are my business (I think): I have acted, and will act, where I see that my actions can make a difference in redressing a wrong or helping those in need. Sometimes I find out about a wrong and cannot see any way to make a difference--but I can make a difference in a different one. I don't accept guilting for not achieving the impossible, especially not when I have my hands full with one or more possibles I'm working on. I don't feel any need to justify my choices in picking one crisis over another, and I don't expect others to justify their choices of crises should they be different than mine. There are enough problems in the world for everyone to make individual choices in what to do to make things better, should they feel so moved. I don't feel any need to tell anyone (other than the person who shares the bank account and the house) what choices I've made. Bystanders are free to believe what they like. Maybe I'm a lazy coward who's just spouting off. Maybe not.
What I won't do is try to become someone else to satisfy a critic who claims to know what I should do about everything. Or for that matter anything. I have one life to lead: mine. I cannot satisfy everyone and be the person I need to be. (I couldn't satisfy everyone anyway, as years of trying proved.) No one can. There are not enough hours in the day, enough days in a lifetime. I have a duty to myself--to my mind, heart, soul, body, talents--because satisfying that duty gives me the tools to work on the rest of it...to use what I am to build and not destroy, heal and not wound. That's all anyone can do.
The "revolution" part of this is personal (but then, say some, the personal IS political and vice versa.) I have revolted, completely and (probably--never say always) forever against social pressure that attempts to guilt me into doing what someone else thinks I should for their "cause." It doesn't matter, once the guilting starts, whether I think the cause is just or not--I oppose the guilting. I oppose it as a tactic in any discussion or argument. It falls into one of the categories Suzette Hayden Elgin talked about as verbal abuse. I suspect (though without any formal data to support my notion) that a lot of people react as negatively to guilting techniques as I do, If guilting really worked, over the long run, the world would be a far better place--since guilting has been around a very long time. But it's abusive and domineering, and adding abuse to abuse and domineering to domineering cannot heal abuse.