Despair is the First Step Toward Liberation

My last post here chronicled some of the bizarre difficulties we’ve had trying to sell our house, but only as a means to explore to how hyper-competitive our culture has become. The need to dominate, to win, to succeed, and to see the world as balanced on these very simple extremes—if you are not a winner, you are a loser—is a terrible way to live, but is also so deeply a part of the way most of us see ourselves, it is difficult to imagine a different world. It is also a culture of violence, to be sure, and a culture of male violence, which is not to say that women are not violent or that all men are, of course, but that this particular kind of violence, a violence done to others in order to dominate them, is much more common in men. I know plenty of evolutionary psychologists claim male violence is an inherent trait, that the male warrior is a role we are born to, that it’s part of our biology. But the research does not bear out that conclusion at all; I prefer the explanation that the domestication of agriculture and large herd animals, which require more upper body strength to manage, was the start of males dominating females, since they no longer had to rely on women for gathering food. Also, men with greater upper body strength could, in theory, grow more food, and thus stockpile more food, and become more wealthy than their neighbors, and boom, patriarchy.

In the last 20 or 30 years, gender roles have shifted somewhat, but not so much away from the masculine competitive archetype as towards encouraging women to be competitive and aggressive in the same way. The more recent move toward understanding gender as a spectrum, acknowledging the much wider (and more granular) variety of gender possibilities that exist, is welcome, but does not yet seem to have made a lot of headway in terms of changing the dominant paradigm, unless you think things like white supremacy marches and men’s rights movements are indicators that a shift is taking place, and people are clinging more violently to old ways of being. And that may be the case, or it could be that gradual acceptance of different genders will lead, as it has with women, to other genders also being “allowed” into the aggressive, competitive masculine world, which mass media and commodification make far more likely than I want to believe.

When I was a child at adult gatherings, I would inevitably gravitate to the room where the women gathered, as the men and women inevitably gathered in different rooms. The conversation among women was always more interesting, more wide ranging, and to my mind, less rife with preening and displays of dominance. The men were simply more boring and predictable, and while that could be because I was also male and so was more familiar with how males work, I was—and still am—baffled to a great degree by both genders, or at least by anyone who tries to embody a stereotypical gender role, who acts the way they think a man or woman should act because that’s the way men and women act. If I knew the word “tautology” when I was 8, I would have been even more obnoxious than I already was.

Eventually, I would also grow tired of the women’s room, for just that reason: their behavior became too predicable, too stereotypical. And so I would go off by myself, and feel something that I know now to call despair. Despair is a kind of hopelessness, but what I felt, and continue to feel, regularly, is more recognition that the world does not need to be this way, and my hopelessness arise from my inability to get every human being on the planet to feel this truth. We do not have to follow the gender roles available to us, we do not have to try and dominate other people, we do not have to keep hurting ourselves and others, there does not need to be so much pain and so much anguish. We can decide, we can be critical participants in our own lives, and the fact that this part scares so many people is what causes me despair today. I used to think that most people were not very self-reflective, or imaginative, or were overly sheltered and so did not have as much access to other ideas, and that was how people ended up living an unexamined life. Lately, I have changed that view, and think that almost everyone is aware of the possibility inherent to existence, to the incredible potential each of us has for making our selves, and that most of us choose the well trodden path instead because we are scared, because making that choice means taking responsibility for the self and the life that comes from our choices. That is what Sartre meant when he wrote “we are left alone without excuse,” and I understand more now how terrifying it can be to contemplate. I guess the despair I describe is very similar to existential despair, and the fact that I (and many others) arrived at the same conclusion without first reading existentialism makes me think they were on to something.

I am grateful for the despair that I felt, and continue to feel, even as it is almost incapacitating at times. This despair is the first step toward liberation, toward sorting through the “[…] historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, [the] system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms” that constitute culture, as Clifford Geertz put it, and thus that constitute us, who we are and how we choose to live. Despair is right, never mind the incredible volume of industries devoted to making us not feel it, because it is the correct thing to feel when confronted with the state of the world, and it is the first step toward being able to choose something different, to see that there is a different path available. And the next step is to choose, and then, to be responsible for the choices one makes. It’s a hard point hard to remember when depair rides you hard and nothing seems worth doing because it’s all such a mess, but that’s all it is, a step toward something else, not a end in itself.