“When we women offer our experiences as truth, as human truth, all the maps change.”
Ursula K Le Guin has a point that’s pertinent as January bears down on us, demanding that we resolve to do life better, amplifying the toxicity of our overculture. But life doesn’t need to be improved; it needs to be shared. We don’t need resolutions or betterment. We need truth.
Women have been calling for it, for sure. We want our suffering at the hands of others to be outed, but what about the suffering we impose on ourselves? While our culture of comparison and competition puts our public lives under constant scrutiny, cultivating an image of perfection (or being seen to strive for it) becomes our first line of defence. Meanwhile our private lives remain stoically and safely hidden away.
If a woman’s work is to create harmony for others, we pay no mind to our own disharmony. Often the people around us define us (wife, mother) as we tend to their comfort and happiness, leaving little room for our un
happiness. All because female feelings
threaten the social order, earn us the crazy label.
A simple heartfelt declaration that we no longer accept this social order could undermine it more swiftly than any grand-scale revolution. That’s why we’re shamed for sharing the truth of our experience. Over Christmas, for example, I noticed my embarrassment whenever I let down my guard around the male members of my family.
The festive period demands more of the female caregiver and caretaker. But, as our emotional labour ramps up, we can use it to see more clearly the ways we’ve internalised this need for perfection – to keep ourselves under wraps in order to keep the peace.
So, by way of recovery, I indulged in another pilgrimage to Rome
where I took in an exhibition documenting 100 years of photography with the Leica. The poster outside the gallery offered up a monochrome glamourpuss sipping espresso. Perfect, I thought; how wrong I was. It was all wars and whores, dead bodies and naked ladies, glossed over by that glamourpuss doing her woman’s work.
I took in about two thirds of the exhibit before making a break for the exit, blinking into the sun. I wanted to shake it off, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this central truth of our lives. Sex and war serve as mechanisms of control, just like the expectation that women cultivate harmony for all, while remaining resolutely harmonious themselves. It’s simply too shameful to be seen as anything else.
But if we throw out our neuroses, we also throw out our wisdom. Systematic denial that something is wrong perpetrates the problem. Believe me, I’ve tried just about everything over the years to avoid facing the truth of my life, indulging all the self-help fads
, always bettering, burying. I even ran away to India, the promise land of ashrams and enlightenment, where I thought I could transcend all the shit.
But enlightenment, says Marianne Williamson, is the unlearning of the thought system that dominates the planet. And you can’t unlearn something you’re not willing to face up to. Sidestepping it screws with our frame of self-reference since we’ve no way of knowing the women we are beyond this overculture. We’ve no way of knowing how much we’ve internalised it.
Luckily, however, while trying to check out of myself, I checked into an eastern philosophy that helped me with the unlearning. It said we have two selves, an individual and a shared, which I’ll reframe here as the personal and the cultural. One is who we really are and the other is who we’ve been told we should be.
They each provide a point of comparison, helping us to separate what’s true from what’s learnt, helping us to wrench the personal free from the cultural. And this is where the sharing comes in, you see, since it helps us understand how tangled the two have become.
Let me explain.
I’m prone to deep self-analysis – call it a hangover from my self-helping days, call it internalised misogyny
– and I can get stuck in a story about a situation that has no foundation in truth (my embarrassment at Christmas, say). But if I share that story with someone who responds with empathy, it dies.
It’s far harder to kill a phantom than a reality, so said Virginia Woolf, and if we keep things to ourselves they become phantoms. That’s why, while feeling tender after fleeing the exhibition, I phoned a friend. We’d not spoken in two months since she, like me, leans towards analysis. Things can get pretty heavy going when we’re together with all that loaded silence.
But I needed to reach out and tell her how I was feeling about our friendship, and life, and I wanted her to reciprocate, which she did. We outed all those misconstrued inferences, imagined judgements, unfounded fears and phantoms. It felt vulnerable, yes, but all kinds of courageous too.
We’ve never before had a conversation like this despite nearly two decades of friendship. And it will now serve as a control. We can keep coming back to it to measure how far we’ve strayed from the truth. Truth can make life more visceral, but this enhances rather than diminishes it.
Whatever your story, it’s not for any of us to judge since it’s judgement that got us here in the first place. Instead we discover, through honest sharing, how our individual experiences of the overall map merge (a #metoo reprise). More than that, we see how we’ve been complicit in the mapmaking all along.
So if you really need a resolution, resolve to speak your truth this year. Don’t shoulder the shit for everyone else. Kill your phantoms so we can change this reality. And share your feelings without shame, since a world without women’s shame is a dangerous place for patriarchy. Happy New Mapping, my loves.