You know how sometimes when someone is giving you advice, it’s obvious that they really ought to be starting with the (wo)man in the mirror? Well there’s absolutely no attempt at subterfuge here, because I don’t mind telling you that I just had to say the above sentence out loud to myself, and I say what follows to Pia as much as I say it to you.
All together now: I am not my circumstances.
I presently find myself in a transitional period that I’m trying to work through with less anxiety and fewer headaches. As a result of certain life events that I could not have predicted, I’m not exactly living where I would like to be. I’m not talking about a metaphorical emotional “place,” I mean that my living situation changed and I had to move quickly, and I literally don’t like the place I’m in. I’ve moved more times than I can count on both hands, including across the country and back eight times over the past fifteen years, and I’m making a choice to not just pick up and move immediately once again. I’m choosing to stay where I am and face it with a new outlook.
And holy shit is it difficult.
A new outlook can get real old real fast when tainted by old ways of thinking and destructive emotional habits. I can wake up and say a prayer and do breathing exercises and greet the day with deliberate healthy intention, and one episode of street harassment or a particularly funky subway ride will have me seeing red and spitting fire. Whatever positive mojo I’d summoned can dissipate so easily when it’s built on shaky ground to begin with, or alternately when it is indeed solid, but being blocked by an equally solid undercurrent of personal judgement and self-doubt.
I’m living in a less-than-desirable spot in a neighborhood so rough it’s a daily pop culture punchline, and more than the geography, I’m pissed at myself for….for what, exactly?
For renting the best apartment I could find on short notice? For not being a homeowner yet? For living a life that doesn’t look the way I once thought it would? That’s a heavily lubricated slope down to the valley of the shadow of all sorts of ways that I stop myself from living my best life. “I should have [X, Y, and Z] by now” is a self-destructive thought that I work every day to discard.
When we feel negatively about our circumstances, we often feel negatively about ourselves as well, when it would actually serve us far better to make a clear distinction between what we can and cannot control, and let go of that self-blame. It’s one thing to take responsibility for our behavior and our choices, and it’s another thing to weaponize that responsibility and use it against ourselves.
In my case, I made a choice to aim for something that didn’t work out, necessitating a speedy move to where I’m living, despite it falling far short of being my dream home in my dream locale. I’m going to use this time, the present, to regroup and restart. Many of us who are introspective and self-aware can easily identify our role in our choices, which is a great, but then we use then use them against ourselves, which only does harm.
Let’s say you’re in financial dire straits. You might have been irresponsible with money. You might have been born into poverty. Maybe you weren’t, but you’re going through undue financial strain, or maybe you’re one of the millions of people living paycheck to paycheck who suddenly lost one. Despite much of society’s insistence to the contrary, describing your monetary circumstances is not describing you.
Every one of us has countless skills, strengths, personality traits, and weaknesses that have nothing to do with our bank accounts. When we feel excessive and undue blame, we’re more likely to spend our emotional energy addressing that than we are to expend it in practical applications of changing our circumstances for the better.
When I was a young girl, I often had to step in and pay household bills or balance my mother’s checkbook, due to her frequent hospitalizations and additional temperamental financial irresponsibility. I dealt with bill collectors starting at about 12 years old, and they either didn't know or didn't care that they were dealing with a child; I would often just say "yes" when they called and asked for her; I was my only option and lying to keep the lights on seemed the better option than waiting for my mother's lucidity or release.
The bill collectors would shout. They would yell. They would remain quiet but make threats. The psychology of fear is one of the things that keeps the poor poor, too busy trying to exist and often working hard to look at ends that don't meet, while being called things like "lazy" or "loser" by people who believe in the proverbial bootstraps we hear so much about.
I would listen to grown adults on the other end of the line berating me or making light of my life without really knowing it. Certain collectors default to fear tactics because their job is to get that payment, not care about a human on the other end of the line, let alone a scared little girl.
"Oh, so you just don't want electricity, is that what you're saying?"
"If we cut it off we might not be able to turn it on again."
“What if you go without the McDonald’s or KFC for a few days?”
They make the grossest of assumptions based on one thing about your circumstances. And in those times, I did feel like a loser. We did owe them money, and I never once questioned being spoken to that way during what should have been a business call from a stranger.
I was recently walking in my neighborhood and I saw a group huddled around two cars in the immediate aftermath of a fender-bender. A physically imposing man was screaming right into the face of a diminutive young woman, who appeared to be in her early 20s. He was calling her vicious names and cursing a blue streak, saying things like "How could you hit my car, you stupid bitch!" and "You worthless, dumb bitch!" and so on.
His own family members were trying to physically pull him back, so brutal was his behavior. Even if one gave him the benefit of the doubt, imagining that perhaps he was on his way to do something that would save someone's life or some other such mortally urgent situation that I couldn't ascertain from the sidelines, no one deserves to be spoken to like that.
The damage to both cars, though visible, was minimal, and while he can't be held accountable for his differences in physique, and I don't expect some random man to have a zen-like reaction to rear bumper damage, his behavior was savage and the young lady was just standing there with her head bowed, taking in his words.
Being someone who hit a car does not make her worthless. And although some might shrug off his words as situational anger, some of us grew up conflating accidents or poor choices with emptiness or poor character. Bad situations are translated to make someone out to be a bad person, particularly in cases where one has done harm or gotten into trouble, and punishment or consequences are appropriate. Still, life will go on, and that life has value.
It's taken me a long time to even begin to understand that, and now I go hard for people’s humanity because I wasn't raised to recognize my own. Instead, it was a discovery that came very recently, and I aim to spread the good word rather than beat myself up for learning "too late" that I matter. I'm looking at that self-judgement and saying not today.
Whether it's a stranger in an isolated incident or an abuser in the most intimate of positions; someone that we love or hate or any combination of the two, no one has the right to reduce us to something externally affecting us or any one thing we've done, even when that thing is bad and true.
By the way, you are not your circumstances when those circumstances are good, either. As I escaped into and succeeded at being a performer, that message got lost in delivery as well. I am not measured by the applause I'm able to get when on a stage, and external markers of success don't make up the content of your being. Just ask any "successful" entertainer who abuses drugs and alcohol to fill the void when the spotlight goes out.
Some of this might seem obvious, but I needed to hear it today, so maybe someone else did as well. We deserve love respect regardless of our living situation or bank account balance, or what we can do for others.
Did this lesson come "too late" for you too? I hope we can focus less on a timeline and more on loving and honoring ourselves and our fellow humans. That feeling is always right on time.