And only the truly BEST women* understand that contrived comparisons designed to enable self-superior back-patting by devaluing other women for failing to reach arbitrary benchmarks recently created by internet randos are in fact the STRONGEST of all contrived comparisons.
What is the point of this weird hair-splitting between “women of strength” and “strong women” in the first place?
I mean, aside from encouraging strong women to second-guess the merit of one of their defining assets and instead shift their focus to petty trait-based competition with other women.
Also that boardwalk looks a little more like a “path” to me than a “journey,” but I’m not here to nitpick.**
Usually I pick on these inspirational macros for framing everything in the world as a choice, so you’d think I’d be happy to see a different spin on that message, but of course I’m never happy about anything (on account of how I choose to be angry and sad all of the time).
“I choose to be happy.”
“I choose to be successful.”
“I choose to be healthy.”
“It’s not like there are any systems in place that disproportionately favor the success and stability of people with my particular demographic characteristics! Nope, I am just really good at making the right choices.”
I resist the lie at the heart of the emphasis on choice (in this context) because it’s usually just denial and/or rationalization.
Among other things, people want to believe that society is fundamentally just, and that those who do the “right” things will be rewarded and that those who do “wrong” will be held accountable. Safe people want to believe that they are safe for a reason.
This enables the denial of structural inequality, which is kind of a theme on this blog.
On the surface, this quote isn’t quite playing the “success is a personal choice” game.
It should be an acknowledgement of feminine resilience, right?
In principle, I understand how I should feel both inspired by the women and angry at the unspoken circumstances.
With this framing, I get the sense that strong women did not, in fact, choose to become strong.
It just kind of happened.
Which feels just as problematic as the idea that poverty “just happens” because those people made poor choices.
Can something that is almost unavoidably dictated by circumstance be intentional? Is “the only choice” really a choice, at that point?
It’s almost like this quote reverses the typical roles of personal agency and the influence of circumstance that we often see in the “they made their choices” trope.
Like, “the cards were so stacked against this person that they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t truly exceptional.”
I looked up the person that the quote itself is attributed to, and I want to give her the benefit of the doubt. I’m still a little suspicious of some of her messaging, but I’m also suspicious of messages in general, and in the end she is just living her life and doing her job.
For now I’ll just acknowledge that this quote is decontextualized, and it could very well be part of a more cohesive point.
So to review: instead of emphasizing the centrality of free will and choice, this message (that has presumably been isolated from its original context) accepts the existence of situations in which choice is not the only important factor, but to the extent that circumstance occludes choice.
The blog / podcast You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney explores the psychology behind common fallacies and cognitive distortions, so naturally I’m into it.
The basic fallacy is the belief that “You should focus on the successful if you wish to become successful.” However, “When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.”
McRaney relates a story about fighter planes in WWII.
The American military was looking to improve the design of these planes so that more of them would make safe returns. Engineers were examining the damage to planes that had safely made it back to base, but it was the statisticians who recommended that they would learn more from the planes they didn’t have access to: that is, the planes that had been shot down in action.
The engineers had noted that the returned-but-damaged planes had sustained a lot of damage around the wings, and they were hoping to reinforce that area, but the stats folx pointed out that those planes had been able to make the journey in spite of heavy wing damage. The wings were fine.
By focusing their attention on the success stories, they were creating a misleading narrative. The salient information was in the failures. What had caused them to go down? That’s where they would learn to prevent more crashes.
“Behind every strong woman is a story that gave her no other choice.”
Only success is represented here.
(With the reading that at least on some level, the quote suggests that success = strength and implies that failure = weakness.)
However weakness and failure are defined in this situation is invisible, and that’s a problem because un-strong women apparently did have some options available.
So even though this quote appears to reverse the framing of “choice,” the outcome is more or less the same old refrain:
Non-success stories were chosen by those who did not choose success.
Failure was an option, and yet success was not exactly a choice.
*When the word “women” (or its variants) is used without any additional commentary on this blog, it means all women, without having to specify trans women as a subcategory of women, because trans women are women, full stop. HOWEVER I am still including explanatory footnotes because plenty of sites also use unqualified sex and gender terms to indicate their acceptance of a binary understanding of sex and gender. And that sucks.
If you’re not familiar, Aesop’s Fables is a collection of short moralistic stories that have had a surprisingly strong influence over idioms in the English language.
Sort of pre-macro pithy advice, really.
“The Fox and the Grapes” is the tale of a very hungry (wait for it) fox who simply cannot reach the enticing grapes on a nearby grapevine.
So he gives up and says, “Pshhh, I didn’t really want those sour-ass grapes anyway.”
And hence we have the expression “sour grapes.”
This macro reminds me of that fox who determined that the unattainable grapes must be shitty.
Clearly, the moral is to devalue what you can’t obtain, because you’ll be happier if you don’t have to experience regret.
Gimme an A for Aesop!
This image choice feels strange for an inspirational quote. It’s a little on the eerie side.
I don’t have to stretch to imagine this as a poster for a horror movie, if it were just paired with an appropriately tattered or blood-drippy font.
“The Thing at the Top of the Stairs.”
Or even just, “The Stairs.”
But not that one.
Or, okay, I even could see it being that one.
And then again, in the end, isn’t this actually kind of a horrifying message?
Let’s examine that idea.
In a symbolic sense, it’s not hard to see how a long staircase represents the idea of being re-directed to something better.
But why is what’s at the top of the stairs assumed to be “better” than whatever is at the bottom?
Just as it can feel like you’ve conquered something scary when you achieve a desirable goal (i.e. getting to the top of the stairs), it can feel like you’ve chickened out or failed if your sights were set on an aspiration that you aren’t quite able to reach (i.e. staying at the bottom or turning around halfway through).
The fact that a person had to walk a long way to get to a destination does not make that destination any different, let alone better, than it would have been if it was closer.
It’s scary to confront loss and disappointment.
And there’s no doubt that it sucks to be rejected from something good.
But acting like the TOP of the stairs is better than the BOTTOM of the stairs is just rationalizing after the fact to make it feel like that long walk up the mystery stairs was worthwhile.
Who wants to admit that they hauled their ass up all that way for no real reason?
It sounds way more awesome when you’re like, “I committed to climbing these stairs with a purpose that I both achieved and exceeded! Hooray for stairs! Hooray for me!”
Compare that with, “I was probably just fine at the bottom of the stairs, and I wasn’t really sure why I decided to climb them, but I did, and I’m here now instead of there, and I am still fine because both places are equally fine.”
It’s pretty horrifying how the cult of Toxic Positivity pressures us to resist disappointment, ambiguity, and frustration by rejecting, avoiding, and reframing them rather than acknowledging and sitting with them.
This commentary on the limitations of the macro has no bearing on that fable, though.
As long as we don’t get into quantum physics, that time / river analogy holds up.
I just don’t see what it has to do with the imperative to enjoy.
This reads like a syllogism, except there’s no clear relationship between the premises and the conclusion.
“Socrates is a man. All men are mortal. Therefore, have another glass of wine.”
Enjoy every moment in your life just because it’s unique?
Suffering can be exquisitely unique, and I’m not about to start appreciating my pain just because it’s not technically identical to the pain that preceded or is likely to follow it.
Many years ago, I read the short story “Funes the Memorious” by Jorge Luis Borges, and I found it both fascinating and overwhelming. I briefly revisited a summary on Wikipedia to write this post, so that’s where I’m coming from right now.
I’ll offer a spoiler warning for my summary, but the fact that it was first published in 1942 feels like pretty fair notice.
The title character, Funes, is a remarkable youth who experiences each present moment in unfathomable detail. Ever since “the accident,” he can fully recall anything he’s ever seen, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, or learned.
“Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog seen at three fifteen (seen from the front).” (Borges)
He retains memories of literally all of his previous experiences – for instance, he is exceptionally fast at learning languages, and he can carry on linear conversations – but the information stacks up as trillions of individual pieces of knowledge rather than collapsing into categories that erase specificity.
This portrait of Funes is ultimately bittersweet. He dies at a young age shortly after being interviewed by the narrator of the story (a lightly fictionalized version of the real author).
This narrator’s perception of Funes is both reverent and patronizing. He keeps talking about the tragic youth’s incredible mind and amazing gift, while sadly pondering about the lost potential of that unique mind having been tethered to such a limited existence.
It certainly offers a different perspective on the message of “every moment in your life.”
I think the macro is ultimately meant to be read as a “seize the day” kind of thing.
Borges, on the other hand, seems a little more like an “engage in melancholic reflection on the astounding breadth of possibilities that dissipate to nothingness with each passing moment of each day” kind of vibe. To each their own.
This main message isn’t really the issue I have with the macro, anyway.
Plenty of profound philosophical reflection has been dedicated to the human experience of the passage of time.
The issue I’m picking at here is the disconnect between the evidence (“time is like a river”) and the conclusion (“enjoy every moment”).
It can’t simply be profound to notice that no two moments of your lived experience have been identical – it has to be enjoyable.
This is where Funes comes in. Borges’ work hardly embodies Toxic Positivity.
Borges’ story entertains an extremely literal interpretation of the idea that every moment is unique (again, excluding technical consideration of subatomic particles, which I am severely under-equipped to unpack in a meaningful way).
Funes does not have a great time in his life. The character exists to be a tragic thought experiment.
I suppose the opposite of Funes might be something like that episode of Star Trek with the culture whose language is entirely comprised of metaphors. In that case, it’s necessary to understand the historical, cultural, and contextual application of every reference, so abstract conceptual generalizations are even more important than usual.
The macro is an active imperative to enjoy the exquisite ephemerality of every moment.
Unlike Borges, the unnamed creator of this image for LifeLearnedFeelings was probably not interested in contemplating the tragedy of squandered potential or the hierarchical structure of meaning.
Frankly, I would prefer to read Borges quotes superimposed over sunsets than most of the words that end up there:
“To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god.”
“I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the hunger of my heart, I am trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.”
And, aptly, on the subject of time and rivers:
“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river the sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”
Also, I cannot buy that those are river ripples. That moon is clearly rising over either a lake or an ocean.
This was originally published between 2019 and 2020, but I’m repurposing it for 2021-2022.
I’m sure I could find the same prose with the current year listed if I really cared to try, but I don’t. The introduction is new, and some of the commentary has been updated accordingly.
After being diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 38, I became aware of how often I unconsciously outsource my motivation to circumstance.
That is, I rely on the necessity of situational urgency to force myself into action.
That is, I procrastinate.
Like most things that people do, procrastination isn’t intrinsically bad. It can lead to exasperating delays, unfinished tasks, and a lot of stress. But I think it’s worth recognizing that it’s not entirely maladaptive.
Procrastination can also create a strategic failsafe to balance out overwhelming or competing priorities. While a failsafe should generally be used sparingly, there’s no arguing that it helps create a clear path forward.
Recognizing that I’ve backed myself into a time-sensitive corner can help me accept the reasonable and inevitable limitations of my own work. That is, I can temporarily table perfectionistic paralysis.
I also sometimes struggle with deciding where to allocate my energy, and the relative urgency of deadlines can help me organize my tasks in order of significance and/or manageability.
I tend to take on a lot of things at the same time, and I tend to set ambitious goals based on my knowledge of my what I have been able to accomplish in the past (regardless of how much time, energy, and/or external support I have in the moment). Then I berate myself for not doing all the things to a high standard in a short time.
This pattern is hardly unique to me, and it’s hardly unique to people with ADHD.
I interpreted cultural values and concepts through the lens of my own experience, and I now represent an idiosyncratically fucked up variant of a combination of many common patterns. Just like everyone else who routinely shames themselves for not accomplishing goals that were unrealistic in the first place!
It’s a lot easier to move forward when procrastination and “failure” are framed as things that do happen, rather than as things that shouldn’t happen.
But it took me 38 years to even encounter that message, let alone embrace it.
Procrastination isn’t necessarily the enemy. It can become a problem, but it’s often a response to some larger problem (including but not limited to unattainable expectations).
The clean slate of a new year is alluring.
People make New Year’s Resolutions.
People give up on them.
People forget about them.
People shame themselves for failing to achieve them.
People shame others for setting for unattainable goals while refraining from establishing intentions of their own.
It’s like the universe is conspiring to force everyone to get their shit together.
The universe and/or corporations eager to exploit shame for profit.
In general, resolutions could stand to be more concrete and more feasible. Shame loves to feed on unrealized potential and curtailed ambition.
On the other hand, resolutions that remain open to abstraction, ambiguity, and gradual progress can encourage real growth. It’s possible to craft lovely, expansive, insightful, and practical resolutions (or non-resolutions), as in these posts from Alok Vaid Menon, Sam Dylan Finch and Dr. Devon Price.
So aspirational goals can be great, and unrealistic expectations can be disappointing, and identifying a personally viable balance between these can be tricky.
And even if that delicate balance is successfully identified, it certainly won’t look good in an Instagram post.
Habitual procrastinators get a lot of shit about their epic last-minute pushes, and yet when late December rolls around, everyone is on board with the implausible gratification of that failsafe reboot.
“New year, new me!”
It’s an inspirational blend of desperation, denial, and self-righteousness that’s captured really well by the image macro at the top of this page.
It was designed to be shared in the last days of one year in order to create momentum and excitement for the next.
“Not only should you aspire to fix everything, you can fix everything if you just want it hard enough and try hard enough!”
I think some of the themes in the above list of TRASH come through more clearly if I address them in reverse order.
Opening with “doubts” highlights the unearned confidence behind the rest of these resolutions.
“Trash those doubts! Absolute confidence is always preferable to uncertainty. Having doubts leads to changing your mind, which leads to being wrong, and being wrong is for losers. Stuff your willingness to change your mind into a big black Hefty bag, along with your willingness to admit that you might not know something and your openness to new perspectives.”
It’s not actually the worst thing in the world to experience doubt. Doubt can motivate us to ask questions. Certainty, on the other hand, can encourage us to fight for the cause of answers that don’t actually exist.
I debated about using the words “Toxic Positivity” on this blog because a lot of “Toxic [X]” discourse has become, well, toxic.
“The recent construct of interpersonal toxicity works best when a strongly opinionated individual is the sole arbiter of what IS and ISN’T fundamentally toxic. ‘Toxic’ is also an inherent, easily-identifiable, and static property. The toxic things in your life aren’t that way because of some kind of complex confluence of unknowable factors. The things that you have decided are ‘toxic’ are transparently bad, irredeemable, and to be avoided. “
I ultimately stuck with “toxic” because I think it’s worth remembering that it’s a modifier.
Most things that can be toxic can also be lots of other things.
Masculinity, for example, can be toxic, healthy, grounded, emotional, respectful, queer, and more. Sometimes two or more of these at the same time. And sometimes none of them.
Even waste isn’t inherently toxic, even though “toxic waste” is a common and accurate expression.
Years ago, a friend of mine (who is an amazing human who moves through the world in a very different way from me) posted on social media that they were “giving up” hitting the snooze button on their alarm for a month.
I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
It’s not that I disbelieved my friend or their commitment to their goals.
It’s just that for me, the idea of “giving up” the snooze button felt as feasible as “giving up” being hungry after missing a meal.
Yes, there are habits and practices in other areas of life that can help support a smooth wake-up ritual, but the bottom line is that I’m not a morning person. Even when I’m living “well” and making lots of “good” choices, I tend to fall asleep again after the first alarm. That’s why the snooze button exists.
For my friend, the snooze button was a bad habit that they could consciously choose to break.
For me, the snooze button is only a “choice” in that if I don’t choose to use it, I am likely to lose jobs, opportunities, and/or relationships. Fighting against the reality of the snooze button is a losing battle for me if I want to maintain a lifestyle that requires me to be up and ready before 8 AM, short of learning to be an entirely different person who operates in entirely different ways than I have ever successfully functioned before. (I have unsuccessfully attempted this approach for approximately 30 years.)
Like “toxic,” “bad” is a modifier whose definition varies according to context.
This isn’t actually as debatable as people seem to want it to be.
Labeling behaviors as intrinsically “good” or “bad” promotes value judgments more likely to create shame and self-flagellation than sustainable and satisfying progress.
Options that are difficult but manageable choices for some people present unnecessarily exhausting and impractical barriers for others.
Whether something constitutes a “good choice” or a “bad habit” has to be understood according to its context, and even then, lots of common behaviors could reasonably be considered both.
“Here’s a super sustainable expectation to have for yourself: stop doing bad things. Just, you know, any habits you have that are not truly, deeply good. If you still have any remnants of those habits two days from now, you’re trash. Prepare to be kicked to the curb.”
For many years, I wanted to be the “bigger person” across all conflicts, which I understood to mean “never invoke people’s past actions because that means I am automatically worse for holding a grudge.”
But it turns out that “observing patterns” and “holding grudges” are not the same thing!
It turns out that it’s reasonable to notice and remember how people tend to behave and how their actions tend to affect you, and to talk about history when it starts to repeat itself.
That’s a far cry from bringing up a laundry list of unaired or unresolved grievances in every discussion.
I suspect that folx with extensive collections of self-proclaimed toxic shit and fake acquaintances around them that they are desperate to to let go of are also likely to have a tough time letting go of grudges.
So, I’m interested to know where the author of the macro draws the line between “grudges” and “memories about lived experiences.”
“Trash your grudges by trashing all the humans who have ever wronged you according to your own underspecified criteria!”
You know what, I think this one helps clarify the working definition of “grudge” here.
“Exes are inherently and fundamentally trash, period. Amicable breakups are lies. Also, grudges are trash. Those bitches know what they did and why I’m mad.“
I guess it probably is time to ditch those cardboard cutouts of the cast of Grace and Frankie that I set up around the kitchen table.
…can I at least keep Sol around after New Year’s? He’s so understanding.
Like, I get that the resolutions are broadly suggesting that you should surround yourself with people who are authentic. But I’m still a little fuzzy on the interpretation “fake family” here.
If it means “people in your family of origin or chosen family who you believe to be superficial liars based on your own interpretation (see: toxic),” it might be a good resolution to work on understanding and communication before the trashing part.
On account of how people might not know that they are being disposed of due to something that has never been explained.
(This is distinct from situations where good-faith efforts at reasonable negotiation have consistently failed, and/or situations that are openly abusive. The defensive tone of the macro leads me to believe that the creator has not necessarily unpacked their own toxic behavior, but I acknowledge that this is more assumption than fact.)
“Call up your toxic family members out of the blue and confidently tell them that they’re toxic trash and you’re throwing them out!”
At least there’s just the one fake friend to deal with. That’s reassuring.
It’s also reassuring to know that all of those grudges, which have nothing to do with that fake friend and all of that fake family, will be in the big ol’ trash bag on the curb of 2021.
“Be done with drama! Don’t spare any time for that self-centered flouncing that some friends seem to love, because you’re better than that.”
It’s okay to make resolutions and it’s okay to not make resolutions.
But please try, if you can, to think about expectations, and whether or not they are even your own expectations.
Have whatever kind of new year you want to have, whether or not it prioritizes happiness, productivity, or self-improvement.