[Spiral Galaxy M81 image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona]
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What’s Done After
My wife has an expression: “Dogs do what they’ve done before.”
She means it literally. Dogs are creatures of habit; they are most comfortable doing what they’ve done before. Our own dog has a routine — for example, we call her into the kitchen, give her pills wrapped in cheese, feed her, then let her outside — and if we break this chain of routine, say by trying to give her the pills in a different room, she gets confused. Uncomfortable. In the end, we go to the kitchen like usual.
Humans are, perhaps, more complicated than dogs. Still, for many, the default setting is to do what we’ve done before. It’s certainly comforting; we long for home when we’re away too long, we settle into routines that provide a familiar background to our lives. We do what we’ve done before.
But that can be a trap. It can provide an illusion that unchanging is good, that any change is unsettling, and that we should return to the good old days.
But look at what we’ve done in the past, what we’ve done before. Before, we had slaves. Before, some people ruled by a claimed divine right. Before, women were at best second-class citizens. At worst they’re objects, less-than-men. Before, a man attracted to a man was weird, ridiculed, emasculated. For these, and many other situations you can easily think of, before is still now.
As with most people, my own life has been sculpted by this push and pull. I was raised in a very homogenized (white, middle class) environment where many categories of people (black, gay, Asian, what-have-you) were other, and where women were objects of desire, pursued as a means of status; rewards for, simply, being a man.
That was the environment in which I was raised, where my formative years were spent. And, I am ashamed to admit, I was sculpted by them more profoundly than I knew. It was easy to live in that environment; I was a middle-class white man, supported and surrounded by others like me. I went along.
And society rewarded me for this. I got jobs, had opportunities, was afforded advantages that others who didn’t have my skin color or sex or sexual orientation did not. And if you had asked me, I would have certainly defended this as the way things were. If those others were not getting such opportunities, it must have been their fault somehow. They weren’t trying hard enough. It was easy to deflect any blame, to ignore my own advantages. My privilege.
I knew people who didn’t feel this way, of course. They were there, and they were trying to influence me, but I didn’t listen to them. I was too wrapped up in my own world, too self-centered to recognize that what they were saying — that the system was unfair, that the attitudes of so many others were small-minded, that the societal norms were rigged against too many — but it was easy, and to my advantage, to let these ideas bounce off me unabsorbed. I continued to coast through life.
My own change was slow. Looking back, I see it was agonizingly so. With the perspective of time, I can see that I was well into my late 20s before any noticeable growth in myself would have occurred. And even into my 30s I was still hugely influenced by that privilege I had enjoyed, my own self-awareness still stunted.
It’s hard to say exactly what it was that showed me how narcissistic I was. I can certainly look to my wife, who somehow saw through my bluster to see what I could be, what possibilities I had. She was strong enough, confident enough, smart enough, experienced enough, and most importantly patient enough to guide me through this. She knew when I wouldn’t listen and when I would, and pressed her views when she could.
It was a slow process. But it was helped by many others. Friends, mostly women, who showed by example the sort of strength and agency I had ignored for so long in my life. I realized that the system really was bad, that being a white man had isolated me from the flaws, and I had willingly shaken hands on that bargain.
I was ashamed. I am ashamed.
I’m still learning. I have a long way to go. But I’m going. And the going is difficult; shaking up long-held beliefs, spelunking memories dimly recalled but strongly influential, and unflinchingly gazing into the mirror to see a naked reflection of my past. It’s embarrassing and painful and so, so necessary.
Sliding through life in a gilded groove is comforting to some part of our brain, but we are more than that. We do not have to do what we’ve done before. To be human is to grow, to change, to understand that what was once need not always be.
And once we have made that change, at last, we can start to look ahead to what needs to be done after.
[Postscript: I’d like to encourage a conversation about this, so I’ve opened up commenting for everyone on this issue. If you have thoughts, please feel free to write something. But note that given the nature of the topic I urge people to be polite and to follow Wheaton’s Law, and also that I reserve the right to delete comments if they don’t adhere to that request.]
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