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.