Expect Nothing

 A photo of a silhouette of two hands holding up something heart-shaped (the common Valentine's Day-style heart icon, not like the shape of a human heart, in case you needed the clarification) in front of a sunset. The heart is aligned with the sun, so the sunbeams and color gradation appear to be radiating from the heart. The white serif font says, "Do everything with a good heart and expect nothing in return and you will never be disappointed." The source is "Power of Positivity."
 A photo of a silhouette of two hands holding up something heart-shaped (the common Valentine’s Day-style heart icon, not like the shape of a human heart, in case you needed the clarification) in front of a sunset. The heart is aligned with the sun, so the sunbeams and color gradation appear to be radiating from the heart. The white serif font says, “Do everything with a good heart and expect nothing in return and you will never be disappointed.” The source is “Power of Positivity.”

Did you ever read The Giving Tree?

It’s the story of a tree that is happy to become a useless stump after a little boy has used up all its resources without ever reciprocating her kindness or apologizing for the impact of his actions.

The tree doesn’t feel disappointment or regret about all the apples it could have produced, because that would mean that it expected something in return from the person who stripped it of its vitality, and that would mean that the tree couldn’t really have been good-hearted!

We need the tree to be good-hearted in order to want it to be happy, because happiness should only belong to those who we think deserve it, right?

People who insist on interpreting that lovely little story as “unhealthy” just have bad, bitter hearts.

The message in this macro suggests that ultimately, it’s your motives that really matter more than your actions.  If your heart feels good when you do something, that is 100% of the battle.

Also, your (lack of) expectations should really outweigh other people’s actual responses to what you’ve done with all your good-heartedness.

Your expectation of no reciprocation or acknowledgment is more important than the possibility that the person/people you’re doing goodness at might want to a) do something nice for you in return or b) express dissatisfaction with what you so well-meaningly chose to do in the first place.

Why should their feelings matter? We’re talking about your inner peace!

At any rate, the real end game here is avoiding disappointment. Disappointment is the worst! You don’t want to have any more of that in your life than absolutely necessary, am I right?

Expectations lead to disappointment, which is bad, so don’t expect things.

Not having to learn how to deal productively with disappointment is an important part of becoming a well-rounded and responsible person.

While originally working on this post, I had the vague sense of having read that Shel Silverstein himself was kind of ambivalent about The Giving Tree. I thought that he may have viewed it as sad, or at least didn’t necessarily see it as the easy-breezy life advice it’s often taken for.

This New York Times article is the best I could come up with to validate my fuzzy semi-recollection, and the only relevant Silverstein quote it provides is simply that the book was “about a relationship between two people; one gives and the other takes.”

Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the tree’s caring nature, but also not a condemnation of the boy. 

It’s not ethical to speculatively diagnose people with mental illnesses (particularly dead people (and even more particularly dead people I never met)) and yet I would not be shocked if Silverstein struggled with depression.

His child-directed work typically counterbalances its fundamental darkness with humor, hope, and whimsy, but that darkness is pervasive.  Even his simplest pieces often have multiple layers, and the overall ethos of his poetry collections feels subversive in a way that is unlikely to have stemmed from a life of persistent contentment. 

My reason for bringing up his background is that the person behind the creation of The Giving Tree, a book that is famously used to reinforce the message from this macro, probably didn’t view it as a saccharine or straightforward text.

The fact that people tend to view the book as either sweet or wholly unsavory  just demonstrates our cultural tendency to disengage from nuance.

We can’t know his thoughts for sure, but it seems unlikely that The Giving Tree was just a weirdly earnest exception to his characteristically winking jadedness.

The poignancy of the ending isn’t because the tree always did the right thing or because the boy-turned-old-man learned a valuable lesson.

It’s sad because it’s an honest, descriptive representation of a common and bittersweet dynamic. 

The tree is a metaphor (gasp!) but the literal story rings true. Givers are at risk of giving themselves to death to takers who never questioned their own right to have.

It seems to me that the moral of the story is not to lionize either character, but to question them both. You don’t really want to be the dead, devoted stump or the oblivious ingrate. 

(Note: I actually don’t have a copy available for reference, so I’m relying on my memory. I don’t think there’s a message on the last page that says something direct like, “the moral of the story is…” but if there is, I grant that this would affect my interpretation.)

A few years ago, I revisited another short Silverstein favorite from my childhood: The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.

I cried a lot more than I expected to (which had been “not at all”).  

To summarize:

The Missing Piece is a little sentient triangular wedge that doesn’t know where it fits in. The world around it is populated by rolling Pac-Man-like circles. The eponymous Piece hopes to complete one of these circles by fitting perfectly into its empty slice-of-pie space. Once that happens, it will know where it belongs. There is always some reason why it’s not a good fit with the available options, though. At one point, the Missing Piece is picked up by a rolling Pac-Man with a gap that complements its shape. Together, they create a perfectly round circle and enjoy rolling happily along.

But that’s not the end.

Unexpectedly, the Missing Piece begins to grow. It no longer fits into what it thought was its intended place. Both Piece and Pac-Man are disgruntled. They had expected everything to stay the same, but once that becomes unsustainable, they go their separate ways. Or rather, the Pac-Man goes its own way, because the Missing Piece is shaped like a doorstop and has limited mobility. Then the Big O rolls by. It’s already a perfect circle with no evident gaps or missing bits. They get to talking, and the Missing Piece is drawn to the Big O, but there doesn’t appear to be a place for it to fit. The Big O is already complete and self-sufficient. The Piece asks if it can come along anyway, and the O simply states that they’re not currently able to move in the same way at the same pace. It’s matter-of-fact rather than condescending or discouraging. The O notes it would be nice to meet again some day, and then goes on its way. The Missing Piece proceeds to pull its angular body up until it flops over, time and again, and as it moves forward its pointy edges begin to wear off. It’s awkward and difficult and it takes some time, but the Missing Piece becomes a circle capable of rolling on its own. It no longer needs to wait for a perfectly complementary Pac-Man to pick it up and carry it around, and in this way, it’s able to rejoin the Big O. 

It’s possible to read this as a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative, but as with The Giving Tree, I think that’s too simplistic.

It would also be possible to read this as a suggestion to adapt yourself until you’ve become more palatable for someone you like, but that also misses the point.

This story is about co-dependence, self-determination, and agency.

Unspoken expectations also come into play. Part of the reason that the Piece is consistently disappointed with its own loneliness is that it isn’t really communicating its expectation of completion to the various Pac-Men it meets. The Piece expects them to complete it just as much as it completes them, which is a pretty big ask.

The Piece has presumably never seen wholeness and self-sufficiency represented as a viable option before, so it’s not entirely the Piece’s fault for concluding that it must have been incomplete.

The character of the Big O demonstrates the necessity of representation.

Once the Piece sees that it’s actually possible to travel around without having the perfect partner, that’s the choice it makes.

Its physical changes aren’t superfluous cosmetic accommodations as much as they are the practical consequences of changed behavior. 

So what does The Missing Piece have to do with The Giving Tree and this message of benevolent subservience?

Expectations, communication, and complexity.

Whether the author intended it or not, the absence of real, honest communication is one of the quiet little tragedies in The Giving Tree

Suggesting that “The tree made her choices, so if she didn’t want to be used up and hollowed out, she should have said so” is the kind of rationalization used by people who have been unreasonably demanding.

The boy never had to experience disappointment in his relationship with the tree because his requests were always indulged.

What if he had checked in on the tree more often? What if he had declined to accept something that she offered? It’s the fact that he isn’t shown to communicate any kind of awareness of the needs of others that leaves many readers cold. 

At the same time, it’s possible to interrogate the patterns of seemingly kind choices made by some people (or anthropomorphic trees) and call attention to the ways that they aren’t really all that helpful or supportive.

As always, context matters.

The tree never deflected by saying anything like, “I’d love to help you, but this isn’t a good time for me right now” or “I like to feel useful and needed, so it’s easy for me to say ‘yes’ to things that might actually overextend the resources I need to take care of myself.” 

She may well have been disappointed and felt abandoned if the boy didn’t ask such significant favors of her.

The macro message suggests that you should behave in ways that will help you avoid the disappointment of unmet expectations.

And it’s true that there can be value in lowering expectations, because maintaining unreasonably high or unspecified expectations can be incredibly frustrating and disappointing.

But disappointment is part of life. You can’t avoid it forever.

It happens, and then you need to move on.

The Giving Tree is often (mis)used as advice for avoiding disappointment.

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O is about moving forward after it happens.

And both stories are about the things we don’t say that might be better off said.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The More Chances You Give

Content note: animated gifs

A black square with a large block of text in a white serif font. Centered at the top is the single line, "This shit deep." Then there is a space, and the rest of the message: "The more chances you give someone the less respect they'll start to have for you. They'll begin to ignore the standards that you've set because they'll know another chance will always be given. They're not afraid to lose you because they know no matter what you won't walk away. They get comfortable with depending on your forgiveness. Never let a person get comfortable disrespecting you." At the bottom, the source is attributed as 3 AM Thoughts, with the word "Thoughts" in a red font.
A black square with a large block of text in a white serif font. Centered at the top is the single line, “This shit deep.” Then there is a space, and the rest of the message: “The more chances you give someone the less respect they’ll start to have for you. They’ll begin to ignore the standards that you’ve set because they’ll know another chance will always be given. They’re not afraid to lose you because they know no matter what you won’t walk away. They get comfortable with depending on your forgiveness. Never let a person get comfortable disrespecting you.” At the bottom, the source is attributed as 3 AM Thoughts, with the word “Thoughts” in a red font.

Reading this macro made me think of the character Sir Didymus from Jim Henson’s Labyrinth

Animated gif of the dog muppet character Sir Didymus from the film Labyrinth, gesturing grandly with the words “The air is sweet… and fragrant” in white text across the bottom

You know, the aggressively confident guardian of unspecified values that he’d die to defend? 

The chivalrous gentleman who overcompensates for his diminutive stature by constantly asserting his dominance?

The scrappy li’l fella with no qualms about starting any beef with anyone at any time?     

Yep, that’s the one.

This post is for that hairy little Muppet. 

If you’re not familiar with the story of Labyrinth, it’s not entirely unlike The Wizard of Oz.

A plucky young lady goes on a magical journey of self-discovery, along the way gathering various supportive companions who are actually personifications of her inner struggles and desires.

In Oz, Dorothy’s motley trio perceive themselves as cowardly, foolish, and heartless, but later reveal themselves to be respectively brave, clever, and compassionate.

Henson’s then-contemporary fairy tale is a bit darker and a bit more introspective.

Whether it was intentional or not, heroine Sarah’s companions appear to be a trio of maladaptive coping mechanisms. 

Even at their worst, Sarah treats her neurotic friends with empathy and understanding, and she stays patient with them when they lean on problematic behaviors under pressure.  

Before it’s all said and done, our teenage protagonist needs a one-on-one sexually-charged power struggle with David Bowie*, but we’ll keep the focus on her little band of misfits. Each of them is able to achieve some kind of closure in the prelude to the big dance party at the end.

Hoggle represents self-doubt. He doesn’t think he has any real value, so his vulnerable and genuine offer to help if he’s needed – with the implicit understanding that he’s worth being needed, and that he can show up for his friends – demonstrates considerable growth.   

Ludo is a people-pleaser. He gets his sense of self-worth from being helpful to others, so it’s important for him to be able to hang back and not take on the burden of Sarah’s conflict. (His character is actually far less problematic than the other two, but I shoehorned him into this analysis for consistency. Also, wouldn’t it make sense for a people-pleaser to fade into the background in the presence of more assertive personalities?)

And Sir Didymus? 

He’s pure ego, and he learns to back the fuck off. 

Didymus would never hesitate to swoop in to save the day. But in his final scene, he recognizes that he can’t. It’s more heroic for him to stand aside, and he does this admirably (if regretfully). 


Again, Didymus, this post is for you.

(Please note that the therapist voice below is used for comedic effect, and so some instances that sound condescending in this ostensibly entertaining parody would not be appropriate in real life.)

I can tell how sincere you are when you say, “Never let a person get comfortable disrespecting you.” You have always upheld this value tenaciously, haven’t you?

I wonder what might happen, though, if we reconsidered some of your language choices.

I’d like to know whether you define “disrespect” as an inner feeling that you have, like a sense of a lack of deference, or if you define “disrespect” as a behavior or action that someone else does, like looking at you the wrong way.

If “disrespecting you” is an action, then I understand how you might feel compelled to reciprocate with action. 

One available action is certainly screaming wildly and charging at your antagonists with a lance.

You’ve made a lot of points that way, haven’t you?

I wonder if you might have some concerns about porous boundaries, because those can turn into poor boundaries, and then everyone feels like they can just traipse through your bog willy-nilly.

So let’s agree that it’s reasonable to be protective of your space.

But I’d like to propose another framing. If you never let anyone get comfortable making mistakes around you, they’re never going to get comfortable around you, period. Because everyone makes mistakes.

And if people feel defensive because they’re afraid they might get attacked, their behavior might be more likely to come across as disrespectful to you.

So maybe we can be open to the possibility that everyone isn’t always trying to disrespect you.

I know you’re brave enough to handle that. 

If by “disrespecting you,” you simply mean a feeling that someone might have about you (like, say, Ambrosius), maybe we can examine the difference between what you can control and what you can’t.

I’m afraid that you can’t control whether people feel respect for you or not.

That’s hard, fuzzy buddy.

That isn’t because you did anything wrong or didn’t try hard enough. I can see how hard you’re always trying, every day. 

Your own behavior does play a role in others’ perception of you, but their reactions to your behavior are affected by a lot of things that you simply can’t fight off.

I want to let you know that you’re so strong for sitting with your discomfort without yelling or barking. I heard a little growl, and that’s okay, too.

Before we finish today, I’d like to consider your idea that offering second chances is a sign of weakness, and that people are bound to disrespect you and take advantage of you if you forgive them. 

Can we really examine the implications of that?

“They get comfortable depending on your forgiveness.”

Is comfort really so bad, Didymus?

Should everyone be expected to agonize over the prospect of your displeasure? 

I remember how you went after sweet old Ludo just as hard as you went after that horde of goblins. But all Ludo was trying to do was cross a bridge to help his friend, while the goblins were really planning to hurt you.

I’d say that I understand why Ludo and Sarah might have been unhappy with you. And I also think that you appreciated having their forgiveness. 

Have you been hurt by someone before, Didymus?

You don’t have to answer that right now. Just think about it when you can.

I know how much you love being a good guy, I really do.

But what’s “good” in some situations isn’t necessarily always “good.”  

And what’s toxic in some situations isn’t necessarily always toxic.

I mean, you literally live in a toxic swamp. And you love it, and that’s okay.

I understand how it can be comforting to have control over the definition of whose behavior is really toxic, so you be fully confident in asserting your own authority and telling them that their chances are up.

Sometimes people have ignored your firmly established boundaries. And some people might expect an unreasonable amount of accommodation from you. 

But we still have consider another very challenging possibility here, Diddy: your behavior can be toxic, too.

Be honest: do you think you give Ambrosius enough space to express his feelings?

Does he really have to be afraid in order for you to feel secure? 

You don’t have answer that out loud, either. 

That’s a lot of big questions for one day. You’ve been so patient and so strong. 

It’s okay if you need to fight off a few goblins when you get home. 

And it might be even more brave to remember to say “thank you” to your friends who gave you a second chance.

*Please let this be what happens to us all when we die

Your Enemies Can’t Swim

A photo of mostly dark gray cloudy sky, with a turbulent sea at the bottom. White sans serif text reads, “I asked God, ‘Why are you taking me through troubled water?’ He replied, ‘Because your enemies can’t swim.’” The sharing source is “Purpose of Life.”
A photo of mostly dark gray cloudy sky, with a turbulent sea at the bottom. White sans serif text reads, “I asked God, ‘Why are you taking me through troubled water?’ He replied, ‘Because your enemies can’t swim.’” The sharing source is “Purpose of Life.”

Holy shit.

I’ve never loved that “Footsteps in the Sand” poem, but…

* spoiler for the Jordan Peele movie Us*

…but this macro is like encountering the twisted subterranean soul twin of “Footsteps in the Sand,” and then realizing that it was mainstream American Christianity all along.

A black and white photo of a shipwreck on a beach at high tide. The ship is in the bottom third of the image, and the rest is mostly cloudy sky. In the sky space, there is black serif text that says, "Ships don't sink because of the water around them; ships sink because of the water that gets in them. Don't let what's happening around you get inside you and weigh you down." The source is "Power of Positivity."
A black and white photo of a shipwreck on a beach at high tide. The ship is in the bottom third of the image, and the rest is mostly cloudy sky. In the sky space, there is black serif text that says, “Ships don’t sink because of the water around them; ships sink because of the water that gets in them. Don’t let what’s happening around you get inside you and weigh you down.” The source is “Power of Positivity.”

Ships sink because they let themselves sink.

The Edmund Fitzgerald just wasn’t trying hard enough.

And don’t even get me started on the Titanic. 

Boo-hoo, poor me, my hulls are all breached!” 

But did it really think about the signals it was sending when that iceberg starting hitting on it? I think maybe somebody wanted to become synonymous with catastrophic hubris.

A Strong Woman

A narrow wooden boardwalk runs through the center of a grassy plain. There are hills or small mountains in the distance. The sky is foggy and gray, and a person in jeans and a red coat is walking on the boardwalk, away from the camera. The black serif font reads, "A strong woman knows she has strength enough for the journey, but a woman of strength knows it is in the journey where she will become strong." The source is "Power of Positivity."
A narrow wooden boardwalk runs through the center of a grassy plain. There are hills or small mountains in the distance. The sky is foggy and gray, and a person in jeans and a red coat is walking on the boardwalk, away from the camera. The black serif font reads, “A strong woman knows she has strength enough for the journey, but a woman of strength knows it is in the journey where she will become strong.” The source is “Power of Positivity.”

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.**

An Instagram post with a black square featuring white handwriting font. The font alternates between script and print. Before the quotation is the tag @peacefulmindpeacefullife. The quote says, "Behind every strong woman is a story that gave her no other choice." -Nakeia Homer
An Instagram post with a black square featuring white handwriting font. The font alternates between script and print. Before the quotation is the tag @peacefulmindpeacefullife. The quote says, “Behind every strong woman is a story that gave her no other choice.” -Nakeia Homer

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.

And yet.

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.

This post about “Survivorship Bias” really rocked my world.

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. 

Amirite, ladies?!?

*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.

**Yes, I am.

Rejected from Something Good

A black and white photograph of a staircase with the top brightly lit enough that it obscures whatever is there, with a human figure, possibly wearing a backpack, standing near the top. The black serif text reads, "As I look back on my life, I realize that every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being re-directed to something better." The source is "Positive Energy."
A black and white photograph of a staircase with the top brightly lit enough that it obscures whatever is there, with a human figure, possibly wearing a backpack, standing near the top. The black serif text reads, “As I look back on my life, I realize that every time I thought I was being rejected from something good, I was actually being re-directed to something better.” The source is “Positive Energy.”

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.”

“The Shining.”

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.

Fuck those grapes.

Enjoy Every Moment

serif text says, "Time is like a river. You can't touch the same water twice, because the flow that has been passed will never pass again. Enjoy everyone moment in your life." Credit is given to "LifeLearnedFeelings" at the bottom.

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.

Throw Out Your Trash

Trigger warning: reference to food restriction

 A dark photo taken from hanging out of the back window of a car, showing the front door and side windows of the car as it drives along a foggy, tree-lined road. The driver\'s side window is rolled down, and an arm clad in a burnt orange jacket and bent up at the elbow is extended out the window. The hand is giving a peace sign. The white serif font says, "Throw out your trash before 2020!!!" There is a list underneath, without bullet points or commas. Commas are added here for clarity: "Fake friend, fake family, exes, grudges, bad habits, anything toxic, doubts." The sharer has been removed because it was unlikely that they were the creator, and no original source was listed.
 A dark photo taken from hanging out of the back window of a car, showing the front door and side windows of the car as it drives along a foggy, tree-lined road. The driver\’s side window is rolled down, and an arm clad in a burnt orange jacket and bent up at the elbow is extended out the window. The hand is giving a peace sign. The white serif font says, “Throw out your trash before 2020!!!” There is a list underneath, without bullet points or commas. Commas are added here for clarity: “Fake friend, fake family, exes, grudges, bad habits, anything toxic, doubts.” The sharer has been removed because it was unlikely that they were the creator, and no original source was listed.

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.

  • Doubts

Opening with “doubts” highlights the unearned confidence behind the rest of these resolutions.

Resolution paraphrase:

“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.

  • Anything toxic

I debated about using the words “Toxic Positivity” on this blog because a lot of “Toxic [X]” discourse has become, well, toxic.

Resolution paraphrase:

“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.

  • Bad habits

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.

Resolution paraphrase:

“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.”

  • Grudges

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.”

Resolution paraphrase:

“Trash your grudges by trashing all the humans who have ever wronged you according to your own underspecified criteria!”

  • Exes

You know what, I think this one helps clarify the working definition of “grudge” here. 

Resolution paraphrase:

“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.

  • Fake family

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.

Animated gif of the character Sol from the show Grace and Frankie, wearing a patterned shirt and looking confused and/or emotional. It turns out most of the Sol gifs out there also feature other characters, and I’m not creating my own.

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.)

Resolution paraphrase:

“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!”

  • Fake friend

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.

Resolution paraphrase:

“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.

Learn to F.L.Y

Content Note: animated gif

The source is credited as "Spiritual Energy Healing." There is a light purple background behind an image of a sandy beach with footprints. The plum-colored serif text says, "If you want to soar in life, you must learn to F.L.Y [sic] (First Love Yourself)." -Mark Sterling
The source is credited as “Spiritual Energy Healing.” There is a light purple background behind an image of a sandy beach with footprints. The plum-colored serif text says, “If you want to soar in life, you must learn to F.L.Y [sic] (First Love Yourself).” -Mark Sterling

I admit I’m biased in favor of RuPaul’s framing.

[animated gif of RuPaul Charles in drag saying, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”]

The underlying idea is the same, and I agree that it’s important.

Love yourself.


But this Mark Sterling version does more to emphasize the challenging flip-side that could hypothetically occur to people already struggling with depression and self-loathing: namely, since your own failure to sufficiently love yourself is what’s preventing you from soaring, you might as well give up on that goal of extrinsic accomplishment because it’s meaningless in the absence of the kind of self-love you can never hope to achieve because you’re such a failure anyway.

Hypothetically. Because who really has those kinds of thoughts, right?!? Gross.

This macro falls into the category of macros that basically say “You Have To Personally Do Something That Could Very Difficult But Will Be Presented As Deceptively Simple Before You Can Even Begin To Think About the Possibility of Confronting Structural And Systemic Oppression.”

Broadly, people do not struggle to love themselves entirely of their own volition.

People learn from their environments. People struggle to love themselves because they’ve been systemically oppressed, because they’ve been traumatized, because they’ve been neglected, because they’ve been abused, because they’ve been misled, and a whole host of other reasons that start with other people.

Perhaps it’s time to re-examine the significance we ascribe to personal responsibility, and de-center individual confidence as a metric for success.

Then again, we could just keep shaming people for developing coping mechanisms with predictably adverse long-term effects, and reinforce the message that the way they experience feelings has been the real problem all along.

I think that shoe-horning the message into the “FLY” acronym creates some ambiguity about the scope of “first.”

Is it ordinal or imperative?

Like, 1) Love Yourself 2) Soar 3) Profit?

Or is it like, “Put yourself first, before others, in order to succeed”?

I know I’m splitting hairs here, but this is pretty hefty advice, so I want to make sure I’m following it right.

I also think that the wordplay with F.L.Y seems a little shaky, and that making SOAR into an acronym could offer more stability by way of parallelism.

Subject Others to Ardent Ramblings?

Superciliously Orate At Randos?

Succeed Over Aggravating Rumination?

Stop Overthinking And Ranting?

Generally, I acknowledge that it’s petty and irrelevant to pick at grammatical and mechanical issues instead of engaging with content.

But I’m already being petty here.

So why isn’t there a period after the Y? Is the missing period contributing meaningfully to the word play? Was there a deadline?

“This macro has to go live RIGHT NOW or the internet will never know its power! NO TIME FOR PROOFING!”

I’m also kind of fascinated by the image choice here.

I would have guessed that this photo’s only purpose would be to serve as a backdrop for that “Footsteps in the Sand” poem about how Jesus will give you a piggyback ride when you get tired from too much beach strolling.

What is God Trying to Show Me?

Content note: Cancer

The background image is a pink and purple-tinged sunset with a cloudy sky above, reflected in a still lake below. The bold sans serif dark font (possibly navy blue, possibly black) says, "When you replace 'why is this happening to me' with 'what is God trying to show me' everything changes." The attribution at the bottom says "Liftable."
The background image is a pink and purple-tinged sunset with a cloudy sky above, reflected in a still lake below. The bold sans serif dark font (possibly navy blue, possibly black) says, “When you replace ‘why is this happening to me’ with ‘what is God trying to show me’ everything changes.” The attribution at the bottom says “Liftable.”

For a while I tried to avoid macros that used sunsets as backgrounds. They are pervasive, but not in a particularly funny way.

Frankly, a sunset seems like a solid choice for making a quote feel more substantial when you haven’t really examined the implications of what you’re saying but it seems deep af.

There are just too many pithy quotes that have gone the sunset route, though, and I concluded that it’s more challenging to avoid them than to accept them.

I tried to come up with a pithy* shorthand quip to simultaneously acknowledge and dismiss the cliché, and it was surprisingly difficult. Here’s what I ended up with:

“Nice sunset, asshole.”

When my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I didn’t find myself wondering, “Why did this happen to me?” nearly as much as I wondered, “Why did this happen to him?”

There’s a slight, strange comfort in the agony of asking that unknowable question.

I appreciate the short answer that there is no simple, single reason, beyond that he was a human, and humans die.

It’s more like the comfort of bracing one’s back against a cold wind, rather than the comfort of retreating into a warm shelter for some hot cocoa.

Shortly after Dad died, a person in my small hometown offered me condolences and said, with no other preamble, “It’s really a blessing, though, isn’t?”

I understand that they meant well, and were struggling (as we all do) to offer appropriate words for unspeakable pain.

But the direct leap from “I’m sorry for your loss” to “It’s really a blessing” stands out in my memory as the worst** thing anyone said directly to me during that time (though there are certainly other close contenders).

The unwillingness to sit with the discomfort of ambiguity forces an even more uncomfortable narrative of intentionality.

This kind of dismissal of grief seems like at least one outcome of replacing “why is this happening” with “what is god trying to show me.”

Reframing is a skill, and there’s nothing wrong with looking for growth opportunities in difficult circumstances.

But that’s not a reason to stop asking “why” questions.

There may not ever be any grand, universal answer as to why a specific terrible thing happened to a specific person, but there are likely structural and systemic reasons that identifiably contribute to any given tragedy.

I trust that religious folx are able to create beautiful, substantive, and thoughtful things.

Art, architecture, arguments, image macros, and more.


This kind of unselfconscious self-centeredness, which underlies so much of contemporary American Christianity, creates fertile soil for powerful institutions to deflect attention from themselves through victim-blaming and rationalization.

Of course your perspective changes when you stop trying to understand how things work.

It’s way easier to say “God is showing me things that are good for me to see” than it is to accept, “Many support systems are so fundamentally biased that some groups people are bound to suffer severe negative consequences” or “This is one of many possible outcomes of a confluence of circumstances, and it may not have happened for any grand ‘reason’ at all.”

The advice in this macro is to not focus on yourself so much, and yet you accomplish that by “realizing” (not “choosing to believe”) that an omnipotent, omniscient deity manipulated the world around you specifically with the hope of teaching you a valuable lesson.

That way, it’s your responsibility to accept that you have failed to discern the divine purpose behind your own suffering, and as a bonus you won’t even have time to question your government for allowing humans to die as punishment for not having hoarded enough dollars.

Sure, sometimes weak rationalizations look better in front of a sunset.

And sometimes the reasons “why something is happening to you” are nonexistent, and sometimes they’re utter crap, and it’s okay to feel unhappy when you notice that.

*Yes, yes, I see the irony.

Also, I am still figuring out the best way to handle footnotes in WordPress. For now, I am literally just using asterisks, and I hope to make it better in the future.

**Specifically, this was an unpleasant thing to hear from a person with a presumably Christian background (it is a very small town). In the lovely Jewish practice of saying “May their memory be a blessing” to mourners, it comes through clearly that the person’s memory is the blessing and not their actual death.

I’m Sorry, but No (Special Bonus Rant: TED Talk Edition)

Once upon a time, a little article about a TED Talk showed up in my recommendations.

I had some thoughts.

I’m leaving in the identifiable information about the speaker, with the reasoning that anyone who has given a TED Talk understands that one downside of the platform is that it can lead unexpected new strangers to disagree with what you chose to say.

And, because I sometimes consider it appropriate to lead with caveats in an attempt to circumvent irrelevant and time-wasting challenges and “what abouts,” I’ll add my standard caveat that although I am discussing an individual person, my goal is to critique the ways in which her advice supports potentially harmful ideologies. It gets a little bit trickier with a TED Talk than it is with a totally decontextualized quote on an image macro, because obviously the person giving their own argument isn’t entirely separable from… themselves.

In some cases, I research the people behind pithy quotes in order to learn more about the context they came from, but I won’t do that here. I don’t know any more about this speaker’s work than what is available in the italic text below, because I am not interested in picking apart her overall scholarship or career. Just the arguments in this TED Talk. Whatever direction she has taken since giving this talk, her life is an active and evolving thing that has intrinsic value irrespective of my frustration with some conclusions she arrived at and presented on a stage in 2019.

That being said, the tone of this post gets caustic, and I am not sorry.

The speaker paints gender with broad strokes, and I tend to respond in kind. I would love to see the response to this talk that focuses entirely on gender essentialism, and that was not the direction I took here.

I’ve included both the content of the article (in italics below) and a link to the  summary of the TED Talk “How Apologies Kill Our Confidence” by Maja Jovanovic.

Let’s do this.

“Think about all the times you use the word “sorry” in a typical day. There are the necessary “sorry”s — when you bump into someone, when you need to cancel plans with a friend. But what about the unnecessary “sorry”s? The “sorry, this may be an obvious idea” at a meeting, the “sorry to cause trouble” when rescheduling a haircut, the “sorry, there’s a spill in the dairy aisle” at the supermarket.”

It’s not necessary to efficiently acknowledge your awareness of the fact that something is mildly inconvenient by using a common word capable of serving exactly that purpose.

This is because words can actually only have one fixed meaning and function at a time, and “sorry” is definitely not used in contemporary American English with a broad range of complex and situationally dependent nuances.

“Unnecessary” sorries (you know, the “embarrassed lady” ones) can only ever convey “I am ashamed of my own existence, and frankly I expect you to shame me for having called attention to the fact that I experience that shame in the first place.”

“Canadian sociologist Maja Jovanovic believes the “sorry”s we sprinkle through our days hurt us. They make us appear smaller and more timid than we really are, and they can undercut our confidence.

Jovanovic, who teaches at McMaster University and Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, became interested in this topic when she attended a conference four years ago. The four women on a panel were, she says, “experts in their chosen fields. Among them, they had published hundreds of academic articles, dozens of books. All they had to do was introduce themselves. The first woman takes a microphone and she goes, ‘I don’t know what I could possibly add to this discussion’ … The second woman takes the microphone and says, ‘Oh my gosh, I thought they sent the email to the wrong person. I’m just so humbled to be here.’” The third and fourth women did the same thing.

During the 25 panels at that week-long conference, recalls Jovanovic, “not once did I hear a man take that microphone and discount his accomplishments or minimize his experience. Yet every single time a woman took a microphone, an apologetic tone was sure to follow.” She adds, “I found it enraging; I also found it heartbreaking.””

How about:

Canadian sociologist Maja Jovanovic believes that the word “sorry” is harmful to women because she interprets its phatic function as limited to the reinforcement of outdated dichotomous pragmatic expectations about gender performance. Furthermore, the lady version of those outdated dichotomous pragmatic expectations about gender performance is clearly the wrong version (out of the two options).

She frames her assumption that people who frequently apologize appear small, timid, and unconfident as universal. She is a scientist, after all, so her claim is completely objective and free from embarrassing caveats.

Many men, and also the smartest of women, do not like to hear apologies that they deem unnecessary, and therefore those apologies should be eradicated rather than re-evaluated.

Once when Jovanovic attended a conference, she completely failed to try to interpret the introductory apologies of her female colleagues as normal or functional, so instead of paying attention to their scholarly contributions, she focused on judging the fundamental wrongness of the inferior ways they chose to start talking.

Then she gave a TED Talk about how it was their fault that she didn’t listen to them more closely.

She was angry and sad when she noticed that some women did not communicate like some men. That’s what feminism was for.

It’s not like her whole argument is based on internalized patriarchal standards that are like Ayn Rand, in which efforts at communicative accommodation are like The Communist Manifesto.

…is it?

Or maybe the men didn’t “discount their accomplishments” or “minimize their experience” because they have to be assertive and right all the time or the whole system falls apart.

The repercussions of talking like a lady include being treated like a lady, and we all know that we don’t want that!

No one listens to ladies.

“Jovanovic found the outside world not so different: “Apologies have become our habitual way of communicating,” she says. Since then, she’s collected needless apologies from her colleagues and students. One stand-out? “My research assistant said ‘Sorry’ to the pizza delivery guy for his being late to her house,” says Jovanovic. “She said, ‘Oh my gosh, we live in a new subdevelopment. I’m so sorry. Did you have trouble finding this place?’”

To paraphrase: “Our habitual communication strategies are habitual,” and for shame!

Also, never apologize to service people. They don’t merit your empathy. Who cares if they had a hard time and you are aware of a likely explanation that simultaneously permits them to save face and alleviate their very real concern that they might not be tipped and/or might be reported to their manager? That jerk of a delivery person should be reprimanded, if anything, or they’ll never learn better!

“We can eliminate the “sorry”s from our sentences — and still be considerate. “The next time you bump into someone,” Jovanovic says, “you could say, ‘Go ahead,’ ‘After you’ or ‘Pardon me.’” Similarly, during a meeting, Jovanovic says, “instead of saying, ‘Sorry to interrupt you,’ why not try ‘How about,’ ‘I have an idea,’ ‘I’d like to add’ or ‘Why don’t we try this.’” The idea is to be polite while not minimizing yourself.”

It turns out that there is a solution to this problem we didn’t know we had until someone told us they had a problem with it: just use different (therefore better) words to fulfill the same basic function!

Just be considerate without being apologetic. Understand? It’s obvious, if you’re smart. And you are smart, aren’t you?

It’s true that the functional distinction between “I’m sorry” and “Pardon me” as a response to physically bumping into another person is a little lost on me, but I also recognize that by acknowledging my own uncertainty, I’ve invalidated my perspective and should therefore be treated like an adorable little field mouse squeaking futilely into a microphone.

If anything, “Pardon me” is slightly less polite because it makes an additional request of the bumpee – “I beg that you grant me the favor of your pardon.” Whereas “I’m sorry,” or its colloquial variant “My bad,” more directly acknowledges and accepts personal responsibility. “I totally own up to having done that, and it’s not your job to absolve me.” (Assuming that the apology is clearly coming from the original bumper, or that the origin of the bumping was ambiguous enough for either party to safely assume responsibility.)

I’m also not sure that “Go ahead” or “After you” really comes across as polite in the context of me running my body into someone else’s body.

At best, it seems like a weird attempt to appear magnanimous in spite of having created the circumstances under which that magnanimity became necessary. At worst, it seems like a shady attempt to shift accountability to the bumpee: “Clearly, you were in such a hurry that you weren’t bothered to watch out for where my body was with respect to yours. Take all the space you need, bitch.”

This is getting complicated. If only a single, simple, widely accepted word or phrase existed to bypass all this nonsense. Does a word with such a function exist? I am sorry for admitting my ignorance, and also for apologizing for my awareness of my inferiority, but please remember that my self-confidence has the upper body strength of a newborn kitten.

Anyway, being considerate without being apologetic. That’s where this was going all along.

Jovanovic does not specify the nature of the interruption taking place when she suggests, “I’d like to add” as an alternative to “Sorry to interrupt.”

Is this script meant to happen in the middle of someone else’s words (like a literal interruption) or at a point of transition between speakers? Because describing the apology as “unnecessary” might be appropriate for the latter circumstance, but not so much the former.

SPEAKER 1: “My second point is that -”

SPEAKER 2: “I’d like to add to your first point! How about [x]?”

SPEAKER 1: “[x] was actually my second point. That was super helpful how you inserted it before I could sound like I understood my own argument. Your impatience is an asset to us all.”

The salient point here is that SPEAKER 2 never minimized themselves. They were also considerate, and SPEAKER 1 is really not the focus of this illustration.

“The “sorry”s that fill our written interactions also need to be noticed — and banished. For emails, Jovanovic says, “There’s a Google Chrome plug-in called ‘just not sorry’ that will alert you to all the needless apologies.” With texts, she points out, “Every single one of us has responded to a text you got when you weren’t able to respond right away. What did you say? ‘Sorry.’” She says, “Don’t apologize — say, ‘I was working,’ ‘I was reading,’ ‘I was driving, ‘I was trying to put on Spanx.’ Whatever it is, it’s all good. You don’t have to apologize.”

*Due to space constraints, discussion of the ‘just not sorry’ plug-in will be tabled for the time being, but please help yourself to Deborah Cameron’s perspective*

Jovanovic’s advice implies that she always assumes the most negative possible reading of those everyday “sorries.” Communication isn’t a constant act of negotiation and clarification, after all – if you think you know what someone else means, then you probably do!

Condescendingly insisting that “you don’t have to apologize” serves to demonstrate how deeply she misses the point of these “unnecessary” apologies.

“I interpreted your accommodation attempt as an invitation for your own dismissal, and so I summarily dismissed you. After correcting you.”

It’s exactly like at the conference. Jovanich is so distracted by feeling mad about the “sorries” that she completely ignores the purpose of the words that happen around the “sorry.”

And again, she frames her own act of dismissal as the other speakers’ fault rather than owning it as her choice.

If they would just stop apologizing, then of course she would listen.

These people are texting to communicate why they were late: “I’m sorry, I was trying to put on Spanx” is not a literal apology for the misdeed of trying to put on Spanx. The apology is for the lateness, and the Spanx struggle is a reason.

In turn, the function of the common responses, “You don’t have to apologize” or “It’s all good,” is not to say, “I condone your efforts with your Spanx.” The function is to say, “I do not begrudge you your minor delay.”

Or “I accept the legitimacy of the reason you gave for your lateness.”

The obtuse emphasis on the presence of “sorry” negatively affects the interpretation of the rest of the exchange.

If I texted a friend, “Sorry, I was [doing a thing],” and they texted back, “It’s all good,” I would feel reassured that my friend was understanding about my delay. But her explanation of the function of the response “it’s all good” seems different.

It seems more like when she says “It’s all good,” she actually doesn’t mean, “I accept the validity of your reasons, whatever they are,” (read: reassurance) but rather, “I don’t care about your reasons, full stop – why are you telling me this?” (read: impatience).

Now, it may seem that saying words capable of implying that you accept the validity of people’s reasons also kind of entails your implicit acceptance of the ways they chose to explain those reasons.

And therefore, it may seem like Jovanovic is arguing for exactly the same end game as those “unnecessary” sorries, but with fewer words.

“And, in some of the instances when we’d typically throw in a “sorry,” we could just use the two magic words: “thank you.”

Jovanovic tells of the moment when she realized the effectiveness of gratitude. She says, “Four of us were at a restaurant for a work meeting, and we’re waiting for number five to arrive … I put my sociological cap on, and I thought, ‘What would he say? How many apologies will he give?’ I could barely stand the anticipation. He arrives at the restaurant, and you know what he says? ‘Hey, thanks for waiting.’ … The rest of us said, “Yeah, you’re welcome,” and we all just opened our menus and ordered. Life went on, and everything was fine.””

That late man is a true inspiration. We have so much to learn from him and how his confidence makes him so adept at conveying meaning.

Context doesn’t matter, after all.

Whether he’s habitually late is immaterial. Whether his lateness genuinely impacted anyone else’s schedule, or if it was just a minor and temporary inconvenience, does not need to be part of the non-apology picture here.

“Another time when “thank you” can work better than “sorry”? When you’re with a friend and you realize you’ve been doing all the talking. Jovanovic says, “instead of saying, ‘Sorry for complaining’ or ‘Sorry for venting,’ you could just say, ‘Thank you for listening,’ ‘Thank you for being there’ or ‘Thank you for being my friend.’”

That is, “I am assuming your consistent goodwill so that accounting for its occasional situational absence becomes your job to handle on your own time, rather than it being my responsibility to pay attention to predictable reasons why you might get legitimately annoyed with me. Thanks for all the work that I’m passive aggressively reminding you that I expect from you, and remember that if you express any irritation about my venting now, you’re really being kind of an asshole for not graciously accepting my gratitude.”

That expression of gratitude is really a solid strategic diversion to take your friend’s focus away from your own lack of consideration.

That is, what they might wrongly perceive as your lack of consideration.

Because you don’t have to be sorry for talking over everyone all the time, ever. Hashtag girlboss.

If you do actually feel sorry for dominating a conversation with a colleague or friend, for god’s sake, don’t say so. Using words that accurately convey your real inner feelings is not the way to get ahead in life.

“Besides removing them from our own communications, we should tell other people when they’re overdoing their “sorry”s, suggests Jovanovic. You can start with your family and friends — and if you’d like, go beyond them. She says, “I have been interrupting these apologies for three years now. I’ll do it everywhere. I’ll do it in the parking lot, I’ll do it to total strangers at the grocery store, in line somewhere. One hundred percent of the time when I interrupt another woman and I say, ‘Why did you just say sorry for that?’ she’ll say to me, ‘I don’t know.’”

It’s a good thing that she knows a woman when she sees one. That’s definitely a cool way to navigate the world when your career is knowing things about people and how they are. 

“Without accounting for the weirdness or inappropriateness of my own imposition, I literally interrupt strangers from accomplishing whatever routine thing they were trying to do without the assistance of my opinion, and use the natural confusion and discomfort apparent in their most common response (“I don’t know”) to shame them in my data for first communicating wrong and then not understanding how fundamentally they had been failing at communicating. With an aggressive stranger. By using language in a way that came to them naturally.”

This llama pausing in mid-chew to give some serious side-eye, as though it had been minding its own business until it was interrupted by unsolicited advice, is exactly how I imagine my face looked when I read that original paragraph.

“Why did you just say sorry for that?”

Because it’s a common fucking script and I sometimes want to let other humans know that I’ve acknowledged their existence even though I’m more busy with living my own damn life. Sorry if you didn’t want to hear one of the words that my brain came up with just now, stranger.

Snark mode off (or at least significantly dimmed):

In some cases, my responses above are just as problematically reductive as the original argument, but this blog is also a space where I hope to demonstrate the necessity of complexity and nuance by artificially removing them.

I agree that careful reconsideration of unquestioned language practices is often valuable and sometimes necessary.

Situations exist where alternatives to “sorry” (including “thank you”) can be genuinely useful, and it’s fair to reflect on why some people seem to feel compelled to basically apologize for their existence.

There are some interesting questions to explore with respect to the frequency and distribution of some kinds of “sorries” and whether that correlates with gender (but actually, like, all the genders, and I don’t think we have access to many accurately-coded data sets to assess that).  

The blanket advice that people whose voices are often silenced are responsible for modifying their already adaptive language habits in order to “earn” the right to be respectfully heard is a bullshit argument put forth by people who don’t want to bother to listen.

Sorry, but my self-aware and elective apologies are not going anywhere just to make pedants feel less compelled to correct me. If you go around worrying about whether people’s “sorries” seem unnecessary, it might not hurt to ask yourself whether your opinion is all that necessary to them.