For years now I have been fighting with various degrees of depression, dejection, loneliness, ennui, and existential terror. I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think my experience is unordinary. On the contrary, I think most people are lonely; most people are dejected; most people feel an intense lack of purpose in their lives; most people are just worn threadbare and wishing for a break from the unceasing trudgery. In the last three years I’ve made impressive progress in managing my various distresses and I’d like to share them with you.
The idea for a bartering community came about as a result of my increasing suspicion that the Capitalist Economy was no longer serving its purpose of bringing increasing wealth and prosperity to all its members. More and more I was seeing examples of perfectly capable human beings becoming homeless, hungry or otherwise impoverished because the economy didn’t value their skills. When going shopping, it seemed that I could spend more time searching for the right product on the market than it would take me to build the thing I wanted from scratch, or from bits and pieces of things I had lying about. The final clincher was my realization that money itself destroys the Stuff which humans thrive on — interdependence, intimacy, vulnerability and community. All of these problems simply vanish if we have as people a means to coordinate our activities that is independent of political jostling, deceptive marketing, and an increasingly tenuous network of anonymous actors, each one motivated only as far as his paycheck will stretch, who collectively form the labor force and supply us with all that we consume.
Holy shit! I know why habits are so goddamn hard to break!
Did you ever stop to think, “why is everything in my life so goddamn difficult?” Of course you have.
Have you ever stopped to think, “could it be that there’s nothing wrong with me, but that perhaps everything around me is fucked?” If you haven’t, I want you to take a moment to think about that right now.
And then I want you to take a moment and think about the worst habit of yours you’re trying to break. If you’ve been diagnosed with OCD, don’t stress it, just pick the latest one you’re trying to break. Are you ready to hear something powerful?
All animals are habit forming and the more complex the animal, the more complex the habits they can form. Habits can happen spontaneously as a result of some circumstances. If one day you lay down to sleep and there’s a spider on your pillow that scares the shit out of you, you may develop a habit of flipping your pillow once or twice before you go to bed for the rest of your life. Why does the act of flipping your pillow once as a result of a frightening experience become an ingrained habit? Because coded into our ancient DNA is a learning mechanism that operates on the instinctual level. If flipping the pillow once saved you from getting bit by a poisonous spider, continually flipping that pillow might save you again. It’s that simple.
The reason why habits are hard to break is because they are designed to help us adapt to environmental circumstances we may not fully understand. Consider a tribe of humans living in the Amazon and sharing a habitat with the dreaded banana spider (more venomous than a black widow, and it jumps). If some humans died after gathering bananas, and others who shook the leaves of the banana plant before reaching in for the bananas didn’t die, then even if you don’t understand how spider venom works to kill a person, or how shaking the leaves makes the bananas safe to pick, you can go right on ahead and shake those leaves and you’ll be safe from at least one type of horrible Amazonian death. The cool part about the habits is that the ones that didn’t help to protect us from the spiders, well, they die with human.
In other words, habits are a kind of knowledge that’s built directly into our muscles and our nervous system. They override the slow and faulty cognition of the brain and motivate us directly through anxiety and the relief of that anxiety that the performance of the habit brings.
So, next time you find yourself fighting against some nasty habit, ask yourself, “what is it about my environment that this habit is trying to protect me from? Why am I so anxious in this situation?” Instead of trying to overcome your habit through sheer force of will, you might have more success simply removing yourself from the environment that triggers it. Over time as it is not exercised, your nerves will overlay new more efficient pathways over the old habits and your compulsion will weaken, though it may never disappear entirely.
This public service announcement brought to you by Konrad Lorenz and his many feathered friends.
I used to be a Christian. This morning, having run out of positivity on the Internet to accompany my morning coffee, I turned to my friend, Reverend Beverly Dale, who helped me process the joint loss of my marriage and my religion five years ago, to see what was up in the world of sex positive Christianity.
Reverend Dale, or “Rev Bev” as she was affectionately nicknamed by her students back at Penn, is a magnificent woman. A sufferer of emotional, physical and sexual abuse throughout her childhood, she never lost hold of her Christian faith and now uses her experience and her triumph over the injury and the shame to guide others on a path of joy and freedom never before experienced inside the walls of modern Churchdom.
The linked video is of her sermon “A Veiled Gospel Truth: God as Erotic Passion.” In it she references St. Augustine as the father of modern Christian body shame and sex negativity. Saint Augustine was a notorious misogynist. What struck me was her claim that he fathered not only the anti sex and anti body philsophy that governs modern Christian thought, but that he also fathered the anti-woman ideology that pervades our society.
The typical Story goes like this. Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden*, an eternal paradise where they would want for nothing. In order to remain in the garden they needed to obey only one rule: Eat not the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. I like this part because it can be translated to “the conditions to living in paradise are only that one must not know the difference between good and evil, only to be.” Woman, however, was weak of mind and became tricked by the Serpant. She ate of the tree and then in her shame made Man to eat as well, thus orchestrating his fall from grace. Woman, therefore is the cause of Man’s sin. If you can control the woman, you can control the sin and thus regain your righteousness.
It makes sense to me that to truly have freedom in our life we must learn to love completely and without restraint. I think the male hatred of the female is actually an extension of the male hatred of his own body and his inability to control his impulses. The reason why our society hates the feminine so much is then because the feminine becomes a representation of everything society hates about itself. But the male and the female exist in balance, harmony and perfection. We were created that way, to complement each other, with each one being completed and made greater by the other. To deny the feminine is to deny the part of one’s self that is passionate, warm, flowing, and creatively powerful. These qualities are indeed difficult to control and in our control oriented society they become faults. However, a world without passion, a world without creativity, a world in which we are afraid to dive into the luscious depths of our very existence is a world not worth living in.
Paradise is living without the ability to distinguish between good and evil. It is the place in our hearts where we accept ourselves without caveat or criticism. It is a place where love flows freely. Of course we all want entrance to this place. We all want to be loved freely and without caveat. The first step on the path to paradise then is to accept and love our selves — the male and the female within us — for if we do not know how to love our selves, how can we know how to love another? Or what it feels like to be loved? We run the risk of walking right into paradise, and then back out again because we don’t know how to recognize it when we see it.
*According to Sex at Dawn, they were actually thrown into a garden, but that’s a different discussion.
Why is it so difficult to make connections with other people?
I have fought with this problem for many years. The last time I can remember having people with whom I really felt comfortable — truly, self conciouslessly comfortable — was when I was twelve years old.
I was in sixth grade and I wore baggy shorts and oversized band T-shirts. I sat on walls, hacked computers and bantered with the smartass boys in school. I was a dancer, but I wasn’t friends with the dancers. They were always too popular for me, spending their time wearing makeup and having boyfriends. I had a best friend then, too.
My best friend was much, much richer than I was. She collected San Rio stationary and we would practice trying to draw our own versions that were as cute as the original characters. I got somewhat decent at a Pochako. In science class we would massage each other’s palms to pass the time and stay awake. I think for me it went extremely far in keeping me out of fights with the teacher. He was dimwitted and boring. Taught out of a textbook, but did it so poorly that we couldn’t cover half of the material in one year. Instead of frogs, we dissected raw chicken wings in class. He wouldn’t let me participate because I had forgotten to get a note from my mom saying it was ok. So I sat in the corner and ate the friend chicken wings I had brought for lunch, making sure to pull apart each muscle group and lay it out on the table before eating. I thought he was a moron.
When middle school ended I went to high school. Some of my friends went with me to the special arts school I got admitted to, but my mom pulled me out soon after that because the school’s curriculum was so intense that it was destroying my health. I went to two more high schools after that and in my junior and senior year, I had gone from having something around two dozen humans that I was moderately to extremely comfortable with, down to knowing no one. Of course I tried to make friends, but I remember very distinctly that I spent the majority of my high school years watching other people having friends, studying how they interacted, learning about their relationships like a scientist watching insects through a magnifying glass.
College was a similar story as high school. I transferred into Yale University as a sophomore. I immediately went in search of my people, who I thought would be hanging out at the campus Christian clubs, but they weren’t there. A devout Christian my whole life, only intensifying when I passed through puberty and into young adulthood, I fully expected to be loved and accepted if not because that’s what Christians are supposed to do, but at least because the other people who were there would be like me. What I realized, however, was that the people who were there weren’t so much like me as they were busy being Christians. That meant that they were busy praying, busy quoting the Bible, busy seeing His Work all around, busying having faith and busy being reborn and stuff. What they weren’t doing was loving, experiencing the moment in which their whole lives were occurring, or seeing me for the whole, complete, raw and vulnerable human that I was.
I remember the moment I quit organized Christianity. I was sitting with the campus Christian group one evening. It had been a rough day for me mostly because I was still adjusting to all the newness that college life, specifically college life at an elite Ivy League university which was isolated from the outside world and far away from home. I remember I said the word “shit” in a sentence expressing my frustration over something. Actually, it wasn’t even frustration. It wasn’t even that important. I just like using cuss words. And this one girl, a black girl with an evangelical streak, looks me in the eye and says, “how can you call yourself a Christian when you use language like that?” It was then that I realized that Christians, whether or not their beliefs were aligned with any kind of universal Truth, were not my People. The strangest part of the entire scene was that I didn’t get angry at her. I simply got up and left. I didn’t make a scene, I didn’t argue, and frankly I didn’t even feel compelled to. It was like a switch had turned and a window had opened and I could see it clearly as the bright morning sun: These are not my people.
I’ve been searching for my people ever since. They are not the dancers. They are not the Christians. They are not the type A studious over achievers. They are not the academics. They are not the rock climbers (though there was a time when I was sure they were). They are not the hippies, (though there was a time when I was pretty sure they were, too).
When I came to Japan I left everything I had behind me. The only things of value I brought were my weasels and my bikes. Everything else that came with me was purely out of utility: having it would be easier than having to buy it all fresh when I got here. I brought no friends, no family, no lover, and I had none waiting for me. I thought to myself that in order to be Free, I couldn’t let the fact that these things were not here prevent me from taking a chance, going on an adventure and perhaps finding the People that I had lost twenty years ago. I determined that I would find my people no matter what, and if I couldn’t find them, I would make them.
I found some people when I got here. They were fellow mountain bikers and at first I was sure they would be my People. I poured my heart into loving them. I made myself available for any chance there was to hang out, to help them, or to have them play with me. I went so far as to rearrange my work schedule to coordinate our days off in the vain hope that that would mean we might get to spend time together as friends. When they upset me, even though it was against my habits, I made sure to tell them because if you never fight it only means that you don’t love each other enough to want to fight. No one gets along all the time.
But in the end I realized that these people, too, were not my People. I think in the beginning I believed they were my people because the times when we couldn’t hang out, when they couldn’t pay me attention, or I otherwise didn’t feel wholly comfortable around them, I had an excuse to explain it away. In the beginning it was language. Then my language got better, but my relationships didn’t. Then I thought that it was the work schedules. They were busy overworked Japanese and so I moved my commitments around so that the time was available, should they want it, but no invitations to dinner or to ride ever came in. I wondered to myself if maybe the distance was propriety: a customer cannot have a close relationship with staff. I asked for a job (for no pay) in the hopes that becoming staff would both ease their schedules and make me part of the group that was allowed to have close relationships, but I was turned down with no explanation. Out of ideas and out of explanations, I finally had to conclude that I had been pouring my heart into a receptacle that simply drained it out again onto the dusty dry ground underneath.
Why is it so hard to build connections with other people? My ex husband used to say that if everyone around you seems to have a problem, the most likely explanation is that the problem is you. I tried believing that for a while. No doubt that kind of thinking is what led me to drain myself so thoroughly trying to establish a meaningful connection with people who do not love me. Other people like to say that if you have to work so hard at a relationship, it’s not a relationship worth having, or that the other person doesn’t deserve you. I don’t like to talk about what people do and do not deserve. None of us asked to be on this earth, so since we’re here, why should we not all deserve to be loved? I don’t think desert is a very useful concept for understanding people. No, the people who I wanted desperately to be mine did not fail to deserve me, they simply do not love me.
As an economist I am trained to look at systems. Most specifically, I am trained to look at the systems built by people that form the environment in which we operate. I look around me and I see people doing similar things and being in the same places, even wanting the same things, but it is as if each and every one of us lives our life inside a sphere of isolation. We pass each other on the street and perhaps we give a nod to the other’s existence, but do we really see that person? Could we start a conversation with them if we wanted to, and what would we say? We each do our jobs and then we go home to our cages where our entire world shrinks to the size of the house we live in. Those of us who are lucky enough to have found a family by the time they reach adulthood can go home to theirs. The rest of us? We have to build a reason to see anyone, talk to anyone, touch anyone. And the reasons, so many of them are impolite, inappropriate or shameful.
I want to be touched. I want you to touch me. Please, just touch me.
I want to see you, just you. I don’t really mind what we are doing, I just want you to be around.
Please, let me show you my heart. Let me show you my fears and my desires. I want you to help me carry them.
I want to show you my joy. I want you to smile and celebrate what I have. Please, be happy for me.
I want to swim in your glory. I want to know you down to the synapses of your nerves. I promise I will be kind. Won’t you share yourself with me?
Humans were never intended to live alone, be independent, or survive without touch. The evidence is written all over our bodies and even our brains. Yet, the world that we live in, it builds walls between us. Glass walls. Touch screen walls. Walls through which you can see but never touch. Our world makes it incredibly difficult to build connections with people.
I often wonder to myself, am I the only one who suffers the pain of this isolation? Do the others around me, shuffling glassy-eyed down the street, do they not desire to touch another human? I think they do. What baffles me is that if we all crave the same thing, and it is such a simple thing, why is it that we all live our lives starved for it?
Why in my own life do I feel like I will suffocate from loneliness?
Is there a word for when one becomes comfortable in discomfort?
Yesterday I ate lunch with my favorite professor of economics. He is a beautiful Japanese man somewhere nearing his sixties I guess. Tall with strikingly chiseled features and a sincere smile that is framed, rather than depleted, by many deep laugh lines. He and the former chair of our department and I ate in the university dining hall and discussed the recent suicide on the shinkansen.
I only heard about the suicide because the professor told me. A man doused himself with gasoline and set it alight on a moving train, taking another woman down with him through the fumes and the chaos. Apparently he had attempted to warn people to run away from him, but such an event is so shocking that I’m sure many people failed to comprehend. The Japanese are now in discussion of whether they should add airport style security to the bullet trains and the professors were very eager to make their claims that it would be a silly thing to do.
I sat there at the table listening, practicing listening and hearing what they and my heart had to say, when I offered the insight, “This is not a man who just wanted to die. Fire is among the most painful ways to go and he chose public fire, no less. What was this man’s purpose? Does anyone know”
They said he must be irrational. I said, “No, people who commit suicide are often very intentional about it. Depression robs them of their ability to feel their own emotions, and such a painful suicide may have been this man’s last, desperate attempt at feeling. Moreover, people who are depressed are better able to perceive the world and their place in the world and their actual ability to control the outcomes of things than those who are not depressed. This man was not acting irrationally, he had a purpose.”
My favorite professor then started to argue with me. What is rationality if you can say that anything is rational? Some things have to be irrational for rationality to be meaningful. I suggested to him he is merely posing the fundamental question of empirical content that defines the field of decision theory and that there are many good answers. Consistency is the primary rule of separating rational from irrational, where consistency means that choices can conform to a particular axiomatization that we may then judge as plausible or not. He didn’t like that. So then I suggested to him that my claim about depression was based on work by a famous psychology professor at Penn (Seligman) and that it was well established and relevant. He didn’t like that either. He became suddenly quiet and divorced from the topic.
It occurred to me that the suggestion that suicidal people are rational choosers of their own death was not a claim that he was comfortable with. Whether he did not like the idea that people need their emotions to live, or he didn’t like the idea that there are times when suicide is in fact the best option available to some people, he plainly did not like that my takeaway from the incident was to empathize with the perpetrator.
As I walked back to my office, I reflected on our lunch. We had never butted heads before and I was surprised with myself. I respect him and he is older than I am and capable of influencing my career in economics*, but I found that I could not hold back what I truly believed. Moreover, it occurred to me that I make other people uncomfortable by the very fact that I am comfortable discussing these subjects. Sex and bodies do not make me uncomfortable either, but I have been in many a situation where my frank and open relationship to my body has made others very squirmy. Neither am I uncomfortable acknowledging that there are differences in people based on their race. I was almost expelled from high school because I dared claim that a particular idealogy was Jewish (historically speaking, it was, as was the teacher trying to expel me).
The irony with discomfort is that you would think people would like to be immune to it, but the only way to become resilient to discomfort is to spend time in it. Me? Yeah. I’ve spent a lot of time in discomfort. I’d like to say I’m used to it. Endurance sports are all about discomfort. You learn with practice that you can endure the discomfort. With more practice, you begin to understand it and learn from it. Discomfort is not a uniform sensation and its shapes and movements can guide you to becoming a stronger being. Eventually you become so accustomed to the discomfort that you actually become comfortable in it. Maybe familiar is the better word.
I love sports metaphors. The only way to grow as an athlete is to take your body, repeatedly, beyond its edge of comfort. Push until it hurts, or it strains, or you become aware that you are approaching your body’s limitations. Spend time at that edge, feeling where you can be in control and where the boundaries are still firm. As you spend time at the edge of your physical abilities, you will notice your ability to sustain your effort will begin to drop off. When that happens, you simply come back from the edge to a place of comfort again. It is critical to allow your body recovery time. Edges are uncomfortable because they are dangerous and require us to become more than what we are, which takes time. However, once you push and return and recover, your next push will take you further.
Matters of the heart and matters of the body are no different. Many truths of this world are incredibly uncomfortable, but perhaps that is because we have wrapped our hearts in a protective cast of manners and media. Exposing a raw and unsupported heart to the piercing nature of truth can be very painful and frightening. The weak heart threatens to break. Like a muscle, however, our hearts can grow stronger. Instead of avoiding the discomfort, which will leave us perpetually crippled, we should control our exposure to it. Giving ourselves the right amount of discomfort will cause us to grow. Like training our bodies, however, it is critical that we then return to a place of safety and nourishment. Repeated exposure with no respite will simply tear us down.
As for myself, I tend towards overtraining. I overtrain my body and my heart. When I have my wits about me I can balance the two, using training of my body as a recovery period for training of my heart. Right now I definitely feel as if I have spent too much time at the edge of my heart’s capacity to hope and to love. I would like to provide it with a rest, but I must admit that I don’t know how. It’s been a long time since I have felt that I have a safe place for my heart to rest. Frankly I don’t know what that would even look like in my life today.
Well, that’s a lie. My heart sings for speed! Mountains make my heart alive.
Admittedly, I have a serious lag between the time my emotions happen and the time I realize what emotions are happening to me. The motivation for this post is an incident that occurred last week while I was waiting for my chance to sort things out with my friend.
A professor from my university, strange, extremely tall white guy with a white guy name that might as well be Bob, strolls into my bike shop. I’m startled at first, because to me my bike life and my work life are completely nonintersecting spheres of my existence. However, this guy, Bob, likes to bike and he’s done some serious touring in his life. Shisho was there, too. Since Shisho has drunk the majority (like, at least 90%) of the coffee that Bob procured for me through his other really white old guy contact who might actually be named Bob, I decided to introduce them.
First impression: Bob speaks awful Japanese and is zero self conscious about it. He doesn’t even seem to know his Japanese is incomprehensible and I had to translate his Japanese into Japanese for Shisho to be able to talk to him. Second impression: Bob does not do “in the moment.”
While we were talking, we got on the subject of maps and hidden mountain trails. Bob and I both know the security guard at my university who loves bicycles and knows all kinds of mountain bike-able trails hidden in the mountains west of where I live. I brought this guy up and Bob says to me, “Oh, YJsan is a serious biker, you know. He rode blah blah and such and thus and he has all these yaddieyaddie things.” I politely wait for him to finish before informing him that yes, I know, because I met him and if I didn’t know how much he liked bikes, how would I know about his secret map of hidden West Tokyo mountain trails?
Bob looked at me askew for a moment before attempting yet again to impress upon me how much YJsan is into bikes. At this point, I’m annoyed and ready to close down the conversation. I don’t want to be lectured on how much some security guard likes bikes! I know this! I met him! I want to talk about the subject at hand, which is the actual fucking place he rides those bikes that he loves so goddamn much!!
I arduously wrap up the conversation which was quickly turning into a soliloquy on Bob’s part while Shisho waits politely for my translation and I wait annoyedly for the moment at which Bob will shut up long enough so that I can translate.
On my way to work this morning I remembered this incident and it made my blood pressure rise. It reminded me of so many conversations I had with my aunt, ever since I was a little child, where she would tell me How I Am. She would tell me how I always had to do things for myself and how I would get a sparkle in my eye before causing trouble as a toddler and adolescent. I remember how, when I was older, she told me about how I used to dress in middle school. I went through a phase where I listened to punk and wore oversized men’s cargo shorts with equally oversized band T-shirts. She told me how when I was younger “I covered my body because I didn’t want anyone to see it.” When I heard this, somewhere around twenty years of age, I was like “What?! When the hell did that happen? I just saw an MTV sketch with a girl playing volleyball in men’s board shorts and a bikini top and thought it was hot and wanted to emulate it. Only, I couldn’t figure out what to substitute for the bikini top when not at the beach which is why I went with huge T-shirts. That’s it. End of story. Where do you get your crazy fucking ideas from??”
Now, ten years later, that incident still bothers me. It wasn’t an isolated event so much as a particularly clear example of something that had been eating at me for most of my life. You see, when I was younger I believed my aunt because I respected her and because she seemed to think highly of me. As I grew and matured, particularly as I went through my divorce and came out again as a more authentic human being, I became annoyed at her increasingly inaccurate assessments of my personality. It was annoying not just because she was wrong, but because she insisted that I was wrong about me! Are you shitting me? No one in the whole goddamn world knows better who I am (or who anyone is) than the person whose identity is in question, which in this case is ME!
It’s been nearly six months since my aunt and I had our falling out. She tried to accuse me of being inconsiderate of her feelings, of insulting her and of doing some other stuff that I honestly can’t understand or attach to any particular interaction of ours. When we first tried to talk about it I told her that she had made me feel like a subject of ridicule because of who I am and the life I choose to lead. She said a funny thing to me. She said, “I think it’s telling that you only talk about yourself in your e-mail.” At which point I gave up on my usual tactic of communication and empathy and told her the cold hard truth. “Auntie,” I said, “If you want me to talk about someone’s feelings other than my own, then I can only guess at them because one can really only ever know one’s own experience. So since you want me to say it for you, I’ll say it. You’re reeling because you got punched in the face with the reality that your impression of me has been wrong for over a solid decade and I’ve had it with you telling me how I am. I refused to bow down to your superior assessment of The Way Things Are and you can’t handle it because it means that you, too, have to grow the fuck up.”
I hate when people try to tell me How Things Are. I hate it because I truly believe that we can never know more than our own personal experience, and because when people try to tell me how things are, they are implying that I am not intelligent enough to have figured it out for myself. I think that’s incredibly disrespectful. I do not even do this to my students who, by all measures of objectively reality, really can’t possibly know more than I do. So don’t tell me how it is. Instead, tell me what you see, tell me what you feel, tell me what troubles you and what doesn’t make sense about the facts you have collected. But don’t tell me how it is. Inevitably you are going to off topic at best, and dead wrong at worst.
At the Top
Recently I became friends with the former ice climbing champion of Japan. After years of topping the charts in her particular sport, she decided she needed a hobby and took up mountain biking — trials, specifically. Except for the fact that we both often get mistaken for high school boys and practice the same sports, we are almost perfect yin and yang. I have tried my whole life to be the best at something, but have always fallen short, usually because I get swept away with some other hobby. She decided one day she wanted to be a world class athlete and was successful very quickly, but then spent the rest of her career in a pervasive ennui about professional sports in general. While I love mountains so passionately that my bones quake whenever I look up and see them on the horizon, she could take them or leave them. I am very comfortable in cold; she hates it.
There are many differences between us, but at the same time both of us share the experience of dedicating our entire lives to the pursuit of a single goal. In her case it was ice climbing. In my case? It was, and still is, answering the questions that arise when common knowledge just doesn’t make sense. Both of us have spent hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours alone, relentlessly chipping away at the wall between where we are and where we feel compelled to be. We are both very intensely aware of how lonely the path to the top truly is.
Over drinks last night I said to her, “When I was young, my mother always warned me that it is lonely at the top.” She paused for a moment and said to me,
“Maybe. But when you actually do get to the top, the scenery is vastly different than anywhere else. You can see things and meet people from the top that you couldn’t if you were just bumbling around mid-pack. For example, you get to meet the other top athletes from around the world. And even musicians. The top climber might have something in common with the top musician even though one is an athlete and the other an artist. So actually, it’s not really that lonely.”
Suddenly I felt criticized. It’s not that she was saying something so very different, or even inconsistent, than what I said. To be at the top is to have gone somewhere that no one else is by definition. But in my friend’s view, being at the top of your own mountain meant being able to wave to everyone else at the top of the other mountains. You can’t see who else is at the top when you’re still down below tree-line and that’s pretty obvious, too. However, I have never gotten to the top of anything. I was never the smartest in math, or the best dancer, or the strongest climber, or the most moving writer. Everywhere I went and everything I did I would excel far beyond the average schmuck, but I would soon find someone excelling even farther than myself. Try as I would to catch up, they would only ever disappear over the horizon, leaving me both alone and stuck in the middle. So while I know the pain of solitary training, I have never seen the beauty of surpassing all of my competition.
As I sat there at the corner table in the dark, twenties speakeasy style whiskey bar, I wondered to myself why this person who I liked so much was making me feel bad about myself by speaking positively of her own experience. Most of the time she is unhappy with her responsibilities as top Japanese athlete. So why would this one moment of positivity disturb me? It occurred to me that she, like so many people alive today, was implying with her language that the scenery at the top is better than what you would see from the middle. While most people would probably think it pretty cool to meet the top violinist in the world, or the top mountain biker, or the top runner, or any other person who had topped their field, people who have never undertaken the long and lonely struggle of getting to the top themselves would probably not appreciate on a personal level all that the other person had accomplished. It would be much like meeting a famous celebrity. We could react with awe, or respect, but we would not be able to connect with that person because we would not be able to share the experience of being at the top.
I thought about some of my own struggles as I sipped a rich brandy out of an extremely large glass. When I was a runner, people would come to me full of excitement saying things like, “did you hear? So-and-so just broke the world record marathon time in Berlin!” My reaction was always, “So? What does that have to do with me?” I was always much more excited to hear that the overweight office lady who just started running last season broke the 4.5 hour barrier, or to find out that a former professor of psychology had quit her job to become a professional endurance athlete. These were things that I could relate to. The professional athlete with the professional team of coaches and the sponsorships and the free medical support breaking the world record was just irrelevant to me. Who knows? If I had all those advantages, maybe I could break a record, too? In essence, I wanted to hear stories of people like me accomplishing things that I would love to be able to accomplish. That way I could hope for my own goals to be one day realized.
I think one of the reasons that I never made it to the top is that to me, being better than other people doesn’t seem to mean much. I like when people cheer for me and praise me. I love it when my friends, people that I truly respect and care about, speak proudly of something I did. If I were a top athlete, news anchors and specialty magazines would say things about how amazing I am, but I would know that it’s their job to say those things, and I would know that the day someone else overtakes me would be the last day that any of those strangers would care. If I ever were to become the best at something I would want it to be because I did something or discovered something that no one else did. I would want it to be a reflection of who I am, not simply an artifact of the relevant competition at the time. To me, the value of making it to the top would be that it would validate all of my effort and all of my uncertainty along the way. I imagine that my friend and her colleagues at the top of their fields are all enjoying a similar type of validation. I imagine that to most of them, being at the top means that they are close to their own potential and that defeating the other competitors isn’t the point at all.
When we finally left the bar and walked out into the eerily cold night air, I couldn’t help but think to myself: She says you have to get to the top to hang out with the others at the top. But what are we doing right now? All I’ve ever been able to do well in my life is be stupidly happy over the incredibly mundane. And yet I get to spend my Saturday evening sharing drinks with a champion athlete and hearing stories of a world that only a handful of other humans will ever get to see. Somehow, I feel like I might have found a shortcut.
As an active woman with a high sex drive and a very prestigious job, I defy basically all the stereotypes about gender. I’m pretty comfortable defying stereotypes at this point. At 30+ I have plenty of experience being cat called, written off, and misinterpreted and I also spent a good ten or more years trying to fit the typical female mould, too. Many women today call on other women to further defy the stereotypes, “to break out of the mould!” as it were, and achieve unprecedented levels of self actualization. I want to talk about something else. Gender stereotyping is a form of passive discrimination. By assuming all women to be a particular way, we can overlook important ways in which our decisions make women’s lives more difficult. Ignorance, on the other hand, is a deeper form of discrimination that goes beyond passivity into institutional. Ignorance, ignoring the differences, means that not only are we likely to make decisions that are unfairly hurtful to women, but we may do so under the false belief that we are actually offering equal opportunities for all. Sports are one of the easiest places to see gender ignorance.
Women and men are physically different. While no one would deny this basic fact, many people operate as if the differences don’t exist. Products marked as “unisex” and sold as sporting equipment are often products designed for men. Most bicycle seats are too narrow and too flat to support a female pelvis with a vulva. T-shirts given away as finishing prizes at road races are almost invariably cut to fit a male torso — wider and shorter than an appropriate female cut, and often sized for men. The result is that out of half a dozen road races that I’ve run, I only have one finisher’s shirt that actually fits my body. Most are too large because sizing starts at men’s small, and too wide so that they fit me like a tent more than high tech sports apparel. Rental equipment for ice skating, bowling and skiing is also unisex, which we can easily read as “for men”, concluding that the majority of production in the sports industry ignores women.
Gender ignorance in sports is not just a feature of product marketing, but in many cases the entire environment ignores the differences between male and female. I recently left my climbing gym in tears because after climbing there regularly for a year I was still unable to complete half of the monthly routes marked for beginners. Over and over again I see guys join the gym and quickly skyrocket from total noob to intermediate and advanced in a matter of months, but I can never cross that critical first barrier of being able to climb the beginner’s routes. Gym regulars, over 90% men, have tried to comfort me by saying that it is just this gym’s style to label their routes much easier than they really are. It would be comforting to me, I replied, if there was a “pre-beginner” level of monthly routes that were within my ability. However, there are not. But because I have nearly a decade of climbing experience and far more upper body strength than the average female I am confident that it is not my ability which is lacking. On the contrary, the attempts by the regulars to comfort me are actually clear indication of the ignorance: they mistakenly assume that my frustrations will be as short lived as theirs were when they shot past the beginner level years ago. They fail to see that as a female, the level at which physical strength becomes a limiting factor on my progress comes much sooner than for males. My climbing gym is a prime example of an institutionalization of female gender ignorance and it irritates me constantly.
At this point, most people are familiar with the concept of discrimination and are aware that it is not socially acceptable any more to openly discriminate against women. People are also more or less aware that stereotypes can be hurtful and need to be regularly evaluated for accuracy. However ignorance is almost always overlooked by nature. People don’t have words for gender ignorance and can often perpetuate it with misguided attempts to be fair. A road race without gender categories is clearly unfair to women, but if someone said “Prizes to the first three people across the finish line” few people would take note. In my own life I find myself repeatedly having to explain to my friends that their assumptions about what is good and true universally are very hurtful to me because I, as a woman, cannot stand in their position and share their experience. They are good people and they don’t mean to exclude me, but when they say things like “come on, it’s easy!” when I am clearly struggling against my body’s feminine constraints, I can’t help but feel like an outsider.