Before the Boston post on Tuesday, the past two weeks of posts — the first regular posts since April — felt different than the ones that came before. I don’t know if anyone else noticed. I talked to Erik about it and he said these posts felt like “pieces,” not just journal entries, which is how they felt to me too. It’s counterintuitive but they were actually easier and faster to write than the photo-heavy travelogue-type posts (like Tuesday’s), probably because they originated in a single idea and flowed logically from there, whereas the travelogue posts are constructed as I go from a combination of images and my scattered thoughts. But the more “piece”-like posts are scarier to publish. When I write about food we’ve eaten and places we’ve been, that’s easy, that’s not a big deal. On the other hand, the recent posts detailed thoughts that feel very close to me, and as such I’m much more apprehensive about how they’ll be received. They’re more than simple observations; they’re my beliefs. Which means criticism will be more painful…
…or so I thought. Actually, speaking from my core has had an unexpectedly strengthening effect. It’s like what I wrote in my post about Let Your Life Speak, about embracing all of me instead of feeling that I have to hide my weaknesses at all costs. To my surprise and pleasure, writing more honestly turns out to make me feel less vulnerable, rather than more, because I’m no longer guarding against the possibility of someone finding out what I really think! Moreover, since I’m saying what I think of my own volition and in my own way, it’s no longer something someone else can do to me. (This reminds me of Principal Figgins on Glee, when Sue Sylvester threatens to post his embarrassing video on YouTube: “Sue, I put it on YouTube myself and it only got two hits.”) And what’s more, instead of being rejected as I secretly feared, I’ve received a lot of positive feedback on those recent posts. I think, contrary to what we often fear, people are willing to support us when we are brave enough to say what we really think.*
So what is different about these recent posts, anyway? After all, it’s not that I never wrote about serious subjects before, but still they feel different to me. First, I had options to write about “easier” things (art, travel) and I deliberately chose the scarier path. That’s a departure from choices I’ve made in the past. Second, I wrote about topics that I’ve previously shied away from discussing in public, usually because of some combination of social, cultural, and familial conditioning. Death, for example, is almost a taboo subject in Chinese conversation, as evidenced by its many euphemisms and the superstitions surrounding its mention.** It’s also not very much done to talk about being sad (or angry, or other “negative” emotions); in the West, too, women (more than men) are expected to smile and appear upbeat. As I’ve said before, I’ve decided it’s dishonest and unethical to hide these kinds of feelings — especially in the Facebook era, where everyone self-presents in the best light possible — because when everyone pretends everything’s great, it only worsens the loneliness and despair of the not-so-great days.
In the past I’ve been cagey about openly critiquing others (keep in mind that critique = constructive, as opposed to criticism which is harmful and sometimes even meant to be so), because I’ve internalized that it’s ungrateful or presumptuous or unkind to speak up against others. Well, I call BS on that too. When people (especially people in power) are misbehaving, we have a responsibility to speak out, and even when people aren’t misbehaving, we can all benefit from a little empathetic feedback. It’s only our egos that want to subsist on an unvarying diet of “you’re awesome!” and “everything you do is fantastic!”; our more mature selves know we need more critical commentary. And so, even when it’s scary, I’m starting to feel less timid about offering thoughtful critiques on, say, Lean In — or society, or the government, or everything.
Oh, and then there’s sex! That’s another one I’ve been mostly silent about, publicly, though I talk and think about it a lot in my offline life. Sex still feels pretty private to me — I dislike PDA, for instance — but whereas some people assume I’m a prude, I am not (as close friends know). But I just don’t talk about it much, on record. And I don’t think I should have to — but I don’t think I should have to go out of my way to avoid mentioning it, either, just because it might make some people uncomfortable. (Hi, my parents.) This is what I mean by speaking my truth: not necessarily speaking all of it all the time, but not refraining from speaking it if it feels appropriate. Sex is like mortality and difficult emotions; it’s not going to go away just because we don’t want to discuss it. So why not discuss it?***
This isn’t just a shift in my writing or blogging, I’ve noticed. Lately I’ve really had to acknowledge how necessary discomfort is to growth, which makes me less quick to run away from it. And controversy is so subjective that I find myself unable to even explain what it means. Does it just mean something that people disagree on? Because wouldn’t that be, oh, everything? If we imagine there exist subjects about which there is no controversy, we delude ourselves. There is no escaping divergence of opinion, so why not just say — carefully, mindfully — what we really think? Tied up in my Asianness and my femaleness are deep desires to not rock the boat, and to be liked, but I think I’m moving beyond that now — at least sometimes.
This is all somewhat related to a conversation I had with Dov about a year ago, as we were walking one evening along Avenue Rapp in Paris. He asked what I think is the purpose of art, and I waffled and then said something about elements of my experience resonating with elements in others’ experience so we can all feel less alone. It wasn’t a very well-thought-out answer. Then he asked, “But what about shock; what do you think is the purpose of that?” My immediate reaction was to want to say, “Oh, I don’t like that stuff!” which made me feel horrendously bourgeois. In the year since then, though, I’ve thought about this a lot — not just shock art but “extreme” positions in general — and I’ve realized that shockingness is relative. As I’ve said before, my family and friends run many gamuts, and what’s totally normal in some of my circles is practically unspeakable in others. I’ve even seen this range within myself, over time: views I thought “extreme” a few years ago I now take for granted, and that’s without even trying to change my perspective. Everything evolves, and while I personally still don’t enjoy shock for the sake of shock, I do think it has its place and is maybe even necessary to push everyone forward.
All this is just to say, it doesn’t bother me as much anymore to think I might become That Person, the one who talks about tricky subjects or says what she really thinks. Anyway, what’s “forthright” for me is downright mild by most standards. I do not think I’m capable (at least not at the moment!) of truly being the provocateur. I hope I will always be reasoned, open-minded, and compassionate — not because I think everyone has to be, but because that’s what feels most right to me. And I’m going to keep on trying to speak my truth.
*Not to be naïve about this, ie, “speak your truth and people will love you!” In some places you can still be killed for speaking your truth, and I don’t forget that. I still think it’s true that people will support you for having the courage to speak your truth… but sometimes those people are far away and/or unable to save you from deadly consequences to your truth-speaking. Speaking truth is a privilege not everyone has — which is partly why I feel so compelled to do it.
**For instance, the number four has an unlucky connotation, because in some dialects the word “four” is a homonym for the word for death or dying.
***I’m always horrified when I read about stricter regulations on sexual content in the media (TV, movies, etc) than violent content. I remember back in the day, the majority of parents in a poll said they would rather let their kids watch The Sopranos than Sex and the City. Seriously? You think it’s better for kids to watch a straight-up strangulation scene than some simulated orgasms? I don’t think kids should be watching either one, but if I had to choose, I’m not sure I’d go with the mob.
Mmmm…so thought provoking, as usual. And as a recovering people pleaser, I can totally relate to so much of what you’re saying. Thanks for being so open and honest about your process!
Thank you, Mo! I was writing in my journal this morning and I almost left out something I wouldn’t particularly want my descendants to read (assuming anyone ever is going to wade through my journals)… but I decided I need to be honest with myself first, so I made myself write it down. I think part of being open in public is just acknowledging a lot of this stuff to myself, too. Thank you for reading/listening. 🙂
It is very nice to visit another person’s mind. Precious, really since most of us love to parrot a universal chant and keep what we think under key or weight. I know what you mean by ” writing more honestly turns out to make me feel less vulnerable, rather than more, because I’m no longer guarding against the possibility of someone finding out what I really think!” and I also understand what you mean by criticism. Thanks to my photography class, I learn that people will always have an opinion and it is nice to listen with at least one ear, sometimes I find that their advice is essential and helps improve my work, but at other times I find it is best to say thank you and toss it somewhere. As we’re often better acquainted with our own selves and we know better the kind of message we like to send out, and the kind of people we hope to attract it is easier to ignore society’s ‘musts’ when we’re true to ourselves. About the matter on the woman’s smile and all the cliches that tell us why it ought to be so, I don’t buy into it either. There is no need for the woman to wear the face of the crown. I have often witness serious facial expressions, such as sadness, anger, disgust, dreamy…and found in them more beauty, more human than lying nervous smiles that always pretend all is always well. All is not always well. There are days for laughing and days for crying. And it is very okay to cry. I really enjoyed reading this, Lisa. Thank you for sharing.
That’s what I love about your blog, too, Jane — visiting your mind. 🙂 (And also your eye!) I like what you’ve said about sometimes taking people’s advice with a thanks and then tossing it somewhere. One of my realizations lately is that sometimes we have to do that even with people we respect and admire; just because someone is an expert or is someone we like, doesn’t always mean we can use their advice. Similarly, advice seems to be heavily dependent on timing, so sometimes rather than tossing someone’s advice away, we can just store it to return to in future when we are more ready to hear it. 🙂 Thank you so much for reading and writing and thinking with me. 🙂
I love this. It’s so very you. You, without the everyday – what you ate, where you went. I really appreciate these kinds of thoughts. They’re so very close to ideas I have in my head at times but often don’t get fully formed. I don’t think I have so many deep thoughts on death and life as you, but I always have struggled with the expectations of being polite and well-mannered. I know that being polite doesn’t mean giving in to what people want, but it’s so hard to say no. I can’t even tell someone at the carwash that I don’t want the upgrade. Not that I get it, but I can’t outright say no. I listen politely while they tell me about their product and then tell them “I’ll think about it” even though I have no intention of considering what they’re offering. I’m trying to fix that though. I’ve at least gotten to the point where I can say “Sorry, not today” to the people outside of the grocery store, asking for money for charities. -_- It sounds like such a ridiculous thing to some/most but it’s baby steps for me!
Anyway I got side-tracked. But thanks for always knowing what to say and how to say it. When you look at our backgrounds we’re basically the same person (hehe) so we’re bound to have similar thoughts. 🙂 It takes me a long time to sort out my thoughts on my own and even more time to put it into words so it’s nice to have someone do it for me, and them some. 😉 And I’m proud of you for going out of your comfort zone. And if anyone has any issues with what you post, they can stop reading. But hopefully instead they’ll get food for thought and learn to open their minds to different perspectives.
Aw, thank you!!! It always means an extra lot to me to know that I’ve expressed something that you or Al or our parents think about, I think partly because all of you have contributed so much to my own thoughts and outlook. Your remark on the carwash upgrade made me laugh, not at you, but because I know exactly what you mean! I’m getting better now at telling people no when they offer me something or ask for something… but it’s taken three decades. ;b
By the way, I was thinking that this is one of the joys of Sherlock: watching a character be totally without filter in social situations. Even though sometimes it’s awful (like the Christmas party episode), there’s still a vicarious glee about it, at least for me. Plus you know how I feel about Mr Cumberbatch. 😉
Thank you for always reading and engaging, even when I’m experimental or going out of my comfort zone! ❤
Honest, Lisa. “… how necessary discomfort is to growth” That kind of uneasiness makes us so aware of our vulnerability as artists––in my case, as writer–still I know that when I feel this way, the outcome is good. At that point, it matters not what the criticism or feedback is, but what I get out of it. For starters, I get to own my truth whether it is popular or not, and I can live with that.
I don’t get to read all of the blogs to which I subscribe, mostly because I have selfishly prioritized my own writing, but I am glad I stopped by to read this one. 🙂
Write away as only you can!
Thank you, Empress! I totally understand your “selfish” prioritizing of your own writing. 🙂 Write as only you can, as well!
The purpose of art ? I’ve always said that it’s aim should be to make people see the (their) world a different way. At least that’s where I started my argument. As for Shock, it has it’s place but shock for shock’s sake is lazy art. The Chapman Brothers for instance – done it once, keep on doing it = lazy. Banksy is one of the most profound artists around and he constantly makes us notice the world in a different way.
I’m with you on the sex and violence thing. A sensual sexual scene in a movie /tv show is often censored over a violent one. (What’s the point if online porn is so easily available? Better to show the loving side of sex, right? )
And on the subject of tv violence, I have been particularly struck lately by the number of vulnerable victims in dramas who are women. Perhaps it has always been the case but somehow it seems hightened
Enjoyable post, Lisa.
Thanks, Alan! Ouf, I haven’t noticed violence against women in TV, but then we don’t watch much TV and what we do watch is very selective (current obsession: Sherlock). But I have noticed a lot of racist attitudes around the web and in the news lately, so I know what you mean about such things seeming somehow heightened lately. I’m young enough that I can never safely say whether things are any better or worse than they always were, but it’s always disturbing to notice things more and wonder what that means… and what we can do about it.
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