Hand-Washing in the Search for Absolution

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.”

― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

One of the many things that set humans apart from the rest animal kingdom is the novel ways our minds have evolved to utilizing those old primitive connections and layers in new ways and develop more and more complex societies and cultures. One such fascinating example is the connection between cleanliness and morality purity.

The word clean can be defined as both “free from dirt marks or stains” and “morally uncontaminated; pure; innocent” and multiple studies have found that humans associate both quite literally in the mind.

When we smell or taste food that may have gone bad or rancid, an intense physical reaction follows automatically. We back away quickly, we gag, we wrinkle up our faces; we rinse our mouths out, all of this is to protect us. The same happens when we touch or believe we have come into contact with a contaminate or contagion. We gag, wrinkle our faces, and wash our bodies, but have you ever noticed the same holds true for our encounters with ideas or people we deem immoral or shameful both from without and within.

It’s true. Study after study shows that morally disgusting ideas activate the same regions of the brain as an encounter with an object that is distasteful to any of our physical senses. The phenomenon is so well understood it has a name, “The Macbeth Effect” after the character Lady Macbeth in the Shakespear play Macbeth who obsessively tries to wash imaginary bloodstains from her hands after committing murder.

Cleaning can also calm the mind and rid of us a myriad of bad feelings. If you are feeling anxious or afraid, avoidant or even angry, you may feel the need to clean your house, organize the closets, or fold the laundry. When you lie you may want to brush your teeth and when you commit a crime or other immoral act, you feel the urge to wash the shame from your hands.

“When you’re too religious, you tend to point your finger to judge instead of extending your hand to help.”

― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

This act of washing can leave us with the feeling of achieving a clean moral slate without having to admit our guilt or make amends for our crime. It can also reduce our selflessness. One study conducted by Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist from Northwestern University found that after “recalling an unethical deed of the past reduced the motivation to volunteer, thus indicating that hand washing already restored a suitable moral self-image and, hence, reduced the desire to compensate the unethical deed by voluntary help”. If you already consider yourself morally pure yourself, then there is nothing to pay penance for, nothing left that you owe the world.

Cleansing rituals are common in many religions. Who has not heard the phrase “cleanliness is next to Godliness”? A person must be baptized to “wash away their sins”. A person of the Muslim faith must wash themselves before they can pray. Women are barred from entering temples while menstruating as they are considered “unclean”. Orthodox Judaism forbids even touching a woman who is menstruating, you cannot even touch items she has touched without sullying yourself.

These metaphors between what is considered clean and who is considered good can become so intertwined that people can soon come to look the same as contaminates and contagions and illicit the same visceral disgust and the urge to purify. It’s a red flag when we begin seeing the two interchangeably. When you hear leaders and politicians referring to the problems of the world ills, associating people to bugs, vermin, and disease that infect, the solutions, the way to bring us closer to morality, to purity, is always to begin “cleansing” the nation and the race.

We all carry our little prejudices and biases deep inside but be careful and especially aware whenever you feel fear, aversion, or disgust for another human or group. Examine your motivations whenever the urge to purge yourself of these “vermin” begins to seep into your political opinion.

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!… What, will these hands ne’er be clean?”

― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

So the mind has found a way to make us moral and good by making sure that both are the same as feeling as being clean, pure, or safe, but what do we do when the stains won’t wash out? What do we do when we always feel wrong and dirty?

Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety can wreak havoc on a person’s personal hygiene habits at both ends of the spectrum. For most people, OCD or obsessive-compulsive disorder is one of the first we associate with the connection. The pop-culture understanding of the disorder brings to mind organization and sanitation, but often the compulsive hand washing (just one of many manifestations) is about much more than cleanliness. The obsessive washing can be an attempt to relieve or prevent anxiety or fear.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly resulting from sexual assault, and other forms of anxiety can trigger excessive washing as well to reduce tension and re-establish feelings of cleanliness and safety.

There are just as many people who struggle with these and other types of mental illness and fall on the other end of the spectrum where they struggle to take care of their basic hygienic needs instead. Many report the reason to be fatigue or a simple lack of motivation, but with moral judgment and cleanliness so closely equated in our minds, might part of the reason be connected to the same equation? Might the same mental illnesses or distresses that make us want to wash be just as likely to make us crave the opposite?

Often, after a traumatic experience or stressful or painful situation, we can be left feeling soiled. We might even feel that is us who are the source of moral impurity and a lack of personal hygiene could be a way to validate the way we feel about ourselves inside.

If a person’s feelings of being inherently immoral, bad, disgusting, dirty, and even infectious, become too big, and it seems there is no amount of soap or water in Neptune’s ocean to make you clean again perhaps it might feel better to finally cease scrubbing at it and accept the stains as immutable reality. The dirt, the smell, the disgust, can also be a sign of what a person feels they deserve or a signal to others to keep away by provoking that visceral response of revulsion.

“There are surely limits to the absolution afforded by a bar of soap.”

— Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist

Humans, it appears, can associate too closely our personal judgments about what is clean and healthy physically and what is clean and good morally or socially on both sides of the coin. We can obsessively try to scrub away our own moral failings and shame, and we can cruelly try to purge others we deem different and therefore disgusting. We can interchange one for the other thinking a hand placed on someone “unclean” damns us and the simple act of hand-washing can absolve us of our sins. We can let that association go too far into and decide that what is unclean can never be made pure again and what is dirty is now contagious and must be eradicated, even if what is unclean is us.

There are limits to what soap and water, or the lack thereof, can do, and at some point, we have to move past metaphor to reality. People are not disgusting, they are not vermin, or bugs, or parasites, nothing a person is and nothing that a person has been through can be infectious and no one can be saved or made pure by the extermination of another. This applies not just to those others we would judge of lower moral caliber, but to ourselves as well.

You cannot simply or so easily wash your hands or your past or of who you are and no matter how soiled you feel or unpalatable you make yourself you cannot alter the most basic truth. The two are not equal and your hands can always be clean and you can always be pure, and good, and innocent, and righteous again and no amount of soap or water is required.


This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 6: Hand

Photo by Amaury Salas on Unsplash

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My Life as Measured From Street to Street

My mother has always told the story of our lives in chapters named after the streets we’ve lived on, and now that is how I remember everything too. Holly, Garfield, Birch, Louisiana, Spruce, and more. Telling it this way sounds better. It organizes the chaos and gives the impression we were traversing whole countries and cultures instead of just fleeing debt from one side of the city to the other. Each time we move I’m promised this house will be different and each street will be our final address, but each time I am disappointed. There is always another street to move too, enough to measure out my life.

Holly
Technically, this was my first home, though I never really did live there. Holly is where my mother grew up and where I began my life when her body was still my home. All of her pain begins here and ends with her shunned and banished after giving birth to her first child, me, a mixed-race girl. Though she leaves, it isn’t really for good. I will remember us returning to it time and time again. I will remember her mother who smiles and waves hello, and her father who never speaks and insists we stay in the car parked in the driveway while my mother goes in.

Garfield
This is the street that will never leave me. My grandmother’s home where the rapidly growing brood of grandchildren come while their young parents are off working, partying, drinking, drugging, and cheating. This is a place of happiness and innocence by day and disfunction and abuse by night. I am ignored entirely most of the time, or left in the care of those with malevolent motives but there are moments of memory with my grandmother where I felt truly loved and safe though I would learn later she was one half the equation that equaled the generational trauma I’d be fighting my whole life.

Virginia
I do not remember the name of the street we lived on, and my mother never says its name. This chapter is just called Virginia for the state instead. I remember the way the street looked though, quiet with lots of trees and lined with neat townhomes, each standing tall and bright next to its neighbor. I remember playing in the backyard, being careful not to go too close to the thick woods at the bottom of the hill. I remember my parents being in love, and I remember watching that love slowly turn into hate.

Gilpin
My mother calls this time “Warren Village” for the low-income apartment complex we lived in, but I remember that it was on Gilpin Street. I remember it as the first place we lived without my father (my mother would tell me stories about him with chapters named after his many wives). Things were confusing and sad, but I remember playing in the hallways of the building with other kids whose faces still adorn our family photo album but whose names I cannot remember.

Birch
This is the first place we lived with a man who is not my father, beyond that there is little to set the place apart in my memory. I remember we had both a dog and a backyard for the first time. We had something that looked like a real home, but it felt empty inside. I have so few memories of the place I can barely remember the layout and I have no idea how long we were there though my gut tell me the stay was even shorter than most.

Lousiana
I begin to feel like I belong somewhere. We’ve been in this apartment for over a year now. My mom is working and though there is a lot on me at home at school, I am free. I have friends, close friends, best friends. Friends who ride the bus with me and friends whose houses I can go to after school. I have teachers I’ve known for two grades now. On the day before the last of school, we will lose our apartment and I won’t get to say goodbye to those teachers or those friends. I hear from any of them again until I am an adult and they find me on Facebook.

Dayton
We live on the top floor of the complex and I am fascinated that a two-story apartment can exist. My brother is born here, and with time I make friends again. We get to live here for three years, my entire middle school career. I should have been elated, but the psychological toll of so many homes and work of beginning over and over again anew leaves my expectations low. It will be many years before I let myself feel at home again. I make some friends, but I keep them at arm’s length. I am perpetually sullen, and my grades suffer.

Kipling
One day, in the middle of my 8th-grade year, I come home to find my father has come to take me to live with him. Once again, I don’t even get to say goodbye. All the years I wished for him to come and get me, but I never meant like this with so much shame and sadness. My mother assures me this can be a new start for me, but I don’t know how to tell her that is the last thing that I need. It is the one thing I have had too much of. What she doesn’t understand is that no place is ever a fresh start, most of all this one. I am the same here as I was there, and after so a year or two of stubborn sameness, I am sent away again.

Spruce
I’m back with my mother, back at a new school, making the same old filler friends and waiting for the cycle to repeat. Both of us are filled with anger and try as we might, home is a word I neither of us can define anymore. The truth is all these streets have begun to look the same. The same schools, the same teachers, the same kids, and the same old problems again and again. After a while, I can’t take it. I’m the only one I trust to find or keep a home, and I leave for the last time to do so.

Sable
This is the first place I live without either of my parents and where I begin to understand what a home could be, though I understand this one could never be mine. I’m staying with an aunt and her two daughters near the same age as me. They become like sisters and show me what it means to be a normal teenager. This must be the “fresh start” my mom was always talking about. She never said, or maybe never knew, that a fresh start has to mean letting go of the last place and establishing a new thought pattern and allowing a new dynamic. A feat too large for us to accomplish together.

Potomac and Quinten
Two streets, the distance between which I walk every day to see my girlfriend. On Potomac, I share an apartment with my father. This is not my home, but just the place where I keep my things. Paradoxically, on Quinten street, the townhome at the end of the row in what used to be an old military base, where none of my things are, becomes the place where I feel safe and warm. I spend more and more time there and years later when the city tears the row down to make room for a medical complex I will mourn its absence.

16th
I did not live here, but I spent so much time in the area and with the people that did, I felt as though it were my home. This place is not on the street, but instead is the street itself. I may have a warm place to sleep at night but I do not have a home and for that, I feel an affinity for the homeless kids I meet wandering the streets. I leave the apartment I share with five other roommates every morning and come down here instead to be with them. To smoke and drink with them and to hear their stories that sound so much like mine.

Dayton
My girlfriend and I have been living together for a couple of years now, but this is our first real place together, just the two of us. The first place I can call my own. We have a balcony and a pool across the street. We have an elevator and we add a garage spot to the lease. We buy new furniture. We decorate. We learn how to cook for each other. We get our first pet and we start having our first fights. We get our first real jobs and begin to feel like our own little family. It’s safe. It’s stable. It’s a place I can finally start to grow up.

[Redacted]
I’ve lived on this quiet street that dead ends to nowhere now longer than I have lived anywhere else in my life. The street is lined with other quiet homes that look just like mine and together are filled with the perfect mix of families of all different cultures and sizes. Everyone here has a dog. Everyone here waves hello when they see you. No one plays their music too loud, and if you ever need to borrow some tools, they will always help you out. These past few years property values have skyrocketed and houses around the neighborhoods are starting to flip, but on this little street tucked away from the main roads, everybody has stayed. Every house here is a home to someone and as I watch as the kids around us grow up and my wife and I think maybe we can settle down and start growing old.


This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 4: Street

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Life’s a Bitch

“Don’t always think you’re wrong when you’re right
They’ll always try to change your mind
Darling, just do whatever feels right
Your life is there to be designed

I’m struggling to make it out on my own.

I left my mother’s house, the place of her anger and of my resentment, over a year ago, and she left the state just after. I’m not sure it’s better, but it’s different and that gives me hope. I wrestle with the blame for my situation. Was I the bad daughter who had to leave for the good of the family? Or maybe it wasn’t my fault I turned out like this? Maybe it wasn’t up to me how I turned out.

Maybe it doesn’t matter either way. I’m alone, but it doesn’t hurt anymore. I’m alone but I always have been and at least this time I am free. I’m coming alive again and the future is an open road, a bright horizon, an unknown country. There is a place where I belong. There is someone I am supposed to be. I’m setting out to find her and when I do we can finally start making it all right. We can make something like a life, maybe?

“It’s both a blessing and a curse
To feel everything so deeply like you do girl, I know
There’s been more times that it hurts
But who said love was never easy, girl?

I feel something new growing in me. I think it’s a kind of happiness. Maybe it’s pride? Maybe it’s potential.

I got my GED, a job, and, soon, my I’ll have my own place. I’m in love and working hard to be worthy of receiving it in return. That old pain is fading, I think. That deep sadness is lifting too, I feel. I’m starting to see the more clearly the trajectory my life has been on. I can see the cause and the effect and every time I travel back through my memories, back and back through time, to change something, to save myself from something, I see that there is nothing that could be and still come to this happiness I have found.

So much bad had to happen in order to find the good, it seems. Or maybe the universe doesn’t measure one against the other and it’s only the human mind that sees anything as simply as right and wrong. Perhaps everything happened just as it had to. No one could have changed a second of it. I was always going to be who I turned out to be, and nothing at all was earned or deserved. There is nothing to regret or be grateful for or be envious of. I am this person and I have this life and neither is so bad, really.

I can put one foot in front of the other knowing that.

“Oh, it’s easier said than done
But don’t you worry about those little things and bigger
What a fine revelation
When you realise there’s no voices in your head, girl

I’m remembering more and more that I had once forgotten.

Being the oldest daughter is hard in any family is hard but in mine it meant being a parent before I even hit puberty. I learned early how to care very much, and under the weight of responsibility my heart grew rather than crushed. My siblings were my life, and I bore the work admirably. Mixing bottles, changing diapers, getting my sister from school, cooking dinner.

The stress and the loneliness, I understand now, perhaps got to be a little too much. I tell my mom I am beginning to hear faint voices. I hear my name being called faintly when there is no one around. Her reaction makes me believe I have done something wrong and when the doctors start asking questions, I tell them the voices have gone away. They haven’t but they have changed. Now I hear my own voice, and I hear more than just my name.

I’m barely hanging on some days and life grows easier for everyone but me. The old pain and deep sadness have never gone away. They been reborn into grown up versions called anxiety and depression and grown to powerful and unwieldy inside of me. The voices become intrusive thoughts and negative and critical commentary in my head. The voices are only me and they are always with me, repeating back to me everything I’d ever been told.

“Life’s a bitch and then you die
La, la, la, la, la, la

With hard work, things were getting better. Then, one day, I suddenly realized that eventually I would die. My mortality had never occurred, let alone mattered, to me before, but I’m happier now. I have things to lose now and that realization begins to keep me up every night, shaking and short of breath.

I count all the years I statistically have left and wonder which ailment or accident, statistically, will be the cause. I’m looking at the cause and effect of my life again and wondering which parts were my responsibility and which ones weren’t. I’m collecting regrets and resentments and grasping for gratitude.

I roll over and wake my wife from peace, the one who has loved me since I left my mother so many years ago, and without asking she knows what I need. I lay on her chest and match my breath to hers. My heart beat follows suit. I speak to her there in the dark as if I am already dead. I need her to know I love (loved) her. I need her to know I have (had) a good life with her. That I am (was) happy and if I could do it all again, I would.

I don’t tell her my hope. I hope I do get to do it all again, even all the bad stuff, even the parts I still have nightmares about, even the stuff that left me with this hole in my heart. I hope, against everything I know and (tell myself I) believe, that I will get to do it all again. I smile and drift off to sleep with the image of and my life lived again and again stretching back from infinity and forward just as far. I imagine an infinite number of Lisa’s lying in the dark with this same fear and this hope and this heartbeat.

“When the world really gets you down
Don’t be scared, don’t be scared, no
All the little things you’re worried ’bout
Ain’t really there, really there, no

The death anxiety lasts a couple of years and fades as fast as it came on. I have other fears now, some old and some new, some small, some huge.

I’ve built a predictable life of steady routine. I’ve had the same job for over 10 years. I come in for the same hours and on the same days, week after week. I work in the same location, with the same coworkers, the same kids, year after year after year. Any deviation from this steady, beat, beat, beat, of my life triggers a visceral and primitive response. Any change in schedule or expectation signals danger. Everything unknown is to be avoided.

I used to be able to take public transportation. I left my apartment and travelled by impulse without fear. I changed jobs like people change clothes. I walked around at night. I never felt fear. I never felt anything.

Now I can’t make a phone call, send an email, I can’t drive or go places on my own, or imagine my life any different than what it has become and I still can’t sleep. I worry about my mother’s health. I worry about my siblings, my nieces and nephews. I worry about my dad. If he is sad. I worry about my grandmother, if she is alone. I worry about my wife and reach out in the dark again to feel her breathing, to feel her heart, and reassure myself she is alive. I worry and I wish. I wish everything about me was different.

I tell myself my worries are stupid and when that doesn’t work I tell myself my worries are wasting my life. That doesn’t work either.

“Been talking to yourself at night
I’ve been thinking you should take that flight
Let it go if it don’t feel right, yeah, said
So won’t you come and put your phone down?
You know you gotta leave that thing alone
You know it’s real bad for you
Take a walk outside

Nothing’s changed, and everything has changed. I’m still that same sad girl and that same scared adult, but I’m becoming something else entirely too. My life may be simple, but the peace and warmth is more than I imagined I would ever have. Now that I’ve had had time to bask in it to relax and to know safety and stability I finally feel like I can begin to ask a little more, expect a little more, work and earn a little more.

I’ve returned to writing, starting with the journal pages written anytime of day I need, just like when I was a teenager. I’ve returned to reading too, broad and ferocious. I’m seeing new perspectives and learning more about the mind. I’m exploring childhood development and the impact of poverty, stress, trauma, and disfunction on the childhood mind. I’m learning about free will and determinism. I’m learning about boundaries, coping skills, and acceptance.

Life’s been a real bitch and I have no doubt that will ever change but I have a feeling I will go on changing all the time only from now on I want a say in how it happens. From now on I want to think about why things are the way they are and why I am the way I am. I want to decide when to change and decide what to be. I want to do things because I want something more than I’m afraid of it. From now on, I am taking back the control I never had.

From now on I won’t worry about regrets or resentments. I won’t count the days that are left or the days I never really got to live. I’m going to get on with the art of dying rather spending my nights afraid of it and spending my days paralyzed by it. It’ll take time but I have a feeling that’s the whole point.

‘Cause life’s a bitch and then you die
And then you die
And then you die.
And then you die

Life’s a Bitch // Radiant Children

This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 3: Song

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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Open and Be Opened

“What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.”

― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

I remember feeling as a child that all the adults around were very closed off. My presence seemed to have very little effect on them, and any expression of love or need from me seemed to do little good to change that. There were not many open arms or open conversations. I was not encouraged to be open, and very little experiences were opened for me.

I could not understand why grown-ups left so little of themselves exposed to me while I felt nothing but desire to open myself to them. It left me feeling sad and lonely, though I didn’t realize it then.

I was a sensitive girl and as I got older; I retained that vulnerability far longer than most people do and like hitting any other milestone late in life, I sensed something must be wrong with me. When the other kids started to become so complicated, I stayed quite simple. It got harder to make friends and to feel close to anyone. I recognized the same walls forming in them that adults had, but I did not feel the same walls building in me. I saw them being wrapped in a kind of protection against the world. They grew independent, self-sufficient, and closed off to me too. 

I did try over the years to protect myself. I accepted my deficiencies and opted to at least emulate what I could not naturally comprehend or perceive myself. I constructed haphazard defenses and broad boundaries that were never quite right. I was always either too closed off or I was opening up too much or too quickly. My reactions to a breach were always wrong, too. I reacted too harshly, and then I forgave too easily. I was hurt again and again, but I never could manage to grow those protective calluses. I could never stop being that vulnerable girl. I still can’t. I am still soft. I am still too open.

Now that I am an adult, I can at least understand the danger, though I am no better at defending against it. The danger is other people and when you leave yourself open those other people get inside and, sometimes; they fill you up with all of their painful needs. They go for the softest parts of you, and that is where they hurt you the most. The only defense is to fortify your walls, and put bars and bolts on all the doors. You have to obscure the entrances and construct the corridors in such a way that no one can find their way inside, not even you. 

Now that I am an adult, I also understand there was never anything different or wrong about me at all. I know now that all that time I was getting it wrong everyone else was getting it wrong too. Some people are better are balancing boundaries with their need for acceptance and to be sure I am a little stunted in my emotional development, but I know now that all of us are excessively needing and loving and soft at our core. I know now that when we are closed off, we are only pretending. 

“So many people are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them.”

― Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts

I know too that this pretending is an awful and exhausting way to live and many of us are living it every day. We are each is living with parts of ourselves heavily booby-trapped and guarded so well no one can even get close. We leave our childhood with painful lessons so persistent we can’t imagine ourselves whole again, but like me, every human still has that longing. Two things seem to hold us back.

For one, we insist on seeing the vulnerabilities of others exposed first. None of us wants to reveal their weak spots without assurances. None of us wants to be to blame for their own pain by inviting the threat in, and everyone not open to us is a potential threat.

Two, we have lived so long hating what is soft inside of us that seeing it in others elicits acute and consuming disgust. We are repulsed by people who are too open. Something isn’t right with them. Something went wrong in their development, and we don’t want any of it to rub off on us. We don’t want to be caught defenseless along with them.

But sometimes, if we are lucky, we meet the right person, or people, that can open us back up to the world. People we never had when we were younger and the world in us had to close up to keep safe. We call these people soulmates and to us, they can be like keys but that isn’t really true. People are not keys, and should never be treated as such. Instead, people are more like places where we feel safe to finally begin picking open the locks we’ve placed on ourselves. 

It doesn’t happen all at once, this opening, and there are real keys to find. 

The first and most important key is time, time that is given for the guard to relax and time that is taken to open the locks and crack the codes the right way. Too many of us are so desperate, so afraid really, that we rush and smash our way into other people so we can find love while keeping our own walls up. We break so much in others on our way in that soon the alarms start sounding and the people we love close up and close off to us. Then the next time you try to worm your way in its harder, and the next time harder still, and for the next person near impossible. Yes, it is an awful and exhausting existence.

Another key is honestly. The doors are to guard against deception and lies, people who would breach our walls only to consume or destroy us. As you unlock the doors in others and find a way through their defenses, you must unlock parts of yourself too. You must be brave and risk yourself what you as others to risk for you.

Love is the ultimate key, and love between any two people will do. Love between spouses, between friends, between siblings and even between strangers can open us up. Love for ourselves can do it too. What I needed as a soft and vulnerable child was love. What I did instead of hiding or stifling that love was to love back even harder. I know now that what I did was more courageous, and I see now that the mere survival of my heart is a miracle. 

Sometimes I can feel myself closing up too. I get exhausted trying so hard to connect with others and I get scared too. I’m afraid of the old rejection, of seeing again that it is me who is different, exposed, and in danger. I’m afraid of being hurt again or of hurting others in my ignorance and It’s an old habit cultivated so long it’s often automatic. I try, whenever I feel that way, to remember that I only have one life to live and to live it constructing elaborate locks to keep people out is a lonely and painful way to spend it. 

Now I am lucky enough to be able to love and be loved back. I am surrounded by people who offer me space and time, who are honest with me and risk themselves right back so that I can finally be open to them, to the world, and to myself. I can be needing and loving shame. I can be that sensitive and open little girl forever.

I want that for everyone. I want us all to feel safe enough, strong enough, loved enough to be open too. It has to start with love, and it can start with any kind of love at all. If you were never given that space or time or shown trust or honesty, you can begin with yourself.

Open at least to yourself.


This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 2: Open

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A Joke Has Power

An old friend and I used to argue about whether or not a joke could ever go too far. His view was that comedy was a kind of sacred art that put comedians and the work they produced beyond criticism. He thought those who did criticize the art of comedy were either too sensitive or too stupid or simply unenlightened. They just “didn’t get the joke”. His view was that, as an artist, a comedian should never have to feel bad for their expression. It was, after all, beyond their control how their “expression” parsed and understood by the public, right?

My view was that, though of course everyone everywhere is allowed to say whatever they want, that doesn’t mean that some things, jokes included, aren’t distasteful or even harmful. I thought that if comedy were such a sacred art, it should always be striving to make the message clear and comedians should use their gift for the good of humanity not to hurt its most vulnerable populations. My view was that where comedy did not meet these ideals, it should be criticized, and the artist behind the joke should bear some responsibility for its impact.

We would go back and forth every few days, him saying that if people didn’t like the joke a comedian made, then they should simply leave the club, or turn off the TV rather than criticize and me saying the harm wasn’t with the people who could leave or change the channel, the harm lay with those who would stay and laugh. Those who believed the ugliness being spread below every pun and wisecrack.

He would ask me again and again what kind of jokes I would deem off-limits and I would say the obvious ones were those that made light of sexual assault or abuse and those that reinforced painful stereotypes of race, nationality, sex, gender, disability, religion, or sexual orientation. He would tell jokes that were examples of each and try to explain to me why they were so funny, why they were art. “Because rape is absurd”, he would say, or “because the stereotype is stupid”. After so many rounds, I usually just gave up feeling exhausted and hurt myself.

Looking back on the discussions now I can see that I lacked the language or the syntax to explain that our diverging viewpoints lay in the fact that we had clearly been hearing very different jokes over the course of our lives.

People make fun of each other for a lot of reasons. It’s a good way to bond. It’s a form of communication. A joke can make the truth of something easier to see and easier to swallow. A joke can even be an expression of love. Comedy lifts the spirits and brings us all together. I know that, and I also know that jokes can hurt and those who use them to hurt do so both intentionally and unintentionally.

What I tried to tell this friend was that perhaps he could not empathize with those who were hurting because he was not a part of the many groups being made fun of. He retorted that he himself had been bullied, and he himself had been the butt of jokes his whole life. Who would know better than he? What I couldn’t articulate was that though jokes about an individual person were painful (I know this firsthand too), they were not the same as jokes that reflected the long and widespread hate some people faced and felt hopeless to overcome in their day-to-day lives.

It’s one thing to have a joke thrown at you in anger, but some people have never had a joke thrown at them in disgust. Some people have never been able to see that the truth behind a joke was how much they were hated, not just by the person telling the joke, but by society at large. Some people were never afraid that with each telling of the joke that disgust would grow and put them in danger.

When I was young, my father used to make fun of women in front of me and from a very young age I understood the joke was never that “the stereotype of women being stupid is absurd”. The joke was simply that women were stupid. Those jokes were never directed at me, but later there would be others that were.

Growing up, my father’s side of the family would joke that anything I did that they didn’t like or understand was because of my “white side”. Those jokes hurt, but back then I couldn’t understand why, but I know now it was because it wasn’t a joke about me personally. What made the joke so harmful was it emphasized the place of mixed-race children as in-between and outside of both cultures they were born out of. The joke was about a stereotype of me and people like me, and also about the way the world viewed us then.

These are early and somewhat tame examples from my life, but there would be many more and much worse as I got older. I learned to navigate them, and then I had to learn to stop telling them myself. I learned that many people don’t understand their own jokes, and if asked to explain, they quickly grasp the harm they cause. I learned that many people laugh at jokes simply because others are laughing and that if we speak up, we might find others who will agree that it isn’t a matter of sensitivity, intelligence, enlightenment but of belief and impact.

Looking back, I did agree with my friend on one thing, comedy is a sacred art but where we disagreed was that comedy is beyond reproach. Jokes have power, and like any power, it can be used for good or for evil. They can hurt people as sure as any weapon and laughter is the hardest ammunition to defend against. Jokes have the power to reinforce cruel beliefs, or they can utterly shatter them and lift our consciousness.

I’m not just talking about jokes told on stages or aired on TV specials. I’m talking about the jokes you hear around the office, the memes you share on social media, and the one-liners you get off in a group of close friends. Each one seems so small on its own but take them all together with the ones you’ve uttered and the ones you’ve laughed at and you can see that humor is a big part of everyday human life.

We should ask more and better of such a complex and common medium. We should ask more of every joke and earn each laugh, be in the name of what is good, not what is easy. We should examine why something is funny and whether that makes it right to say. A joke should never be funny because it is hurtful. A joke should never be funny because it belittles, offends, or spreads hate. A joke is never just a joke. A joke, in some ways, is the most serious thing you can tell another person.

A joke has power, and that should never be taken lightly.


This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 1: Joke

Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

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