On remaining open-hearted
I’m writing this at 3.25am because I can’t sleep and my heart is pounding and I’m shaking and I always seem to write easiest in moments of despair. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks engaging with a discussion around a comic book cover that’s left me feeling hopeless and unheard and disrespected many times over. This has impacted heavily on my mental and emotional health, and now it’s time to process and move forward.
The reason I can’t sleep is the same that affected me so much during this discussion. In the thread, the main points I returned to were about the necessity of acknowledging and understanding the power dynamics and imbalances that we all face. That context matters for any conversation, interaction, creation, debate. Nothing occurs in a vacuum. For me, the discussion rarely went deeper than surface-level — and went in circles repeatedly — because these issues were crudely debated, misread, or straight up ignored.
By the end of the thread, despite my exhaustion and sadness, I’d hoped that maybe these concepts had been made clearer for some or that people who don’t already pay attention to their positions in different power dynamics, might start to now. After the thread got posted on Twitter, I instead saw the same attitudes as at the beginning of the conversation, the same refusal or inability to actively listen to the people hurt by the comic. The same brushing-off of the power structures we all live in, that many people are complicit in perpetuating.
It hurts, to continuously and consistently be told by people in relative power over me, that my reality is unreal or that it doesn’t matter or that it’s somehow separate to the rest of my existence. It hurts to explain, over and over and over, how people with power can help marginalised people feel heard and respected, only for them to debate the validity of that help, to argue and kick and scream, or to quietly and gently say, no.
It hurts because this doesn’t end at a conversation about a comic book cover. These attitudes are indicative of the wider behaviours of people with relative power. If you can’t (or won’t, when it’s explained to you) see the importance and influence of context and power in a piece of art, how can you recognise context and power elsewhere? In the bar, on the street, in your home?
So, I’m writing. I’m writing because I feel hopeless. I don’t know what else I can do. I put myself through emotional hell to make the same points over and over (because I frequently end up a living, breathing search engine in these conversations) to explain differently each time, to try to encourage understanding, to encourage growth, and I find that some folk simply don’t get it. And how can we make things better when those with power don’t want to see their own power? How can we enact positive change when we don’t approach difficult conversations with nuance or complexity? When we don’t see the full picture, we just focus on the frame?
This isn’t about knowing all this stuff from the start but about being willing to learn and grow. It’s always about growth. From birth, I’ve been around people who don’t — or won’t — grow. In this particular discussion, it looked like wild extrapolation from any given criticism of the cover, and it looked like people with relative power asking drained and heartbroken marginalised people for education, and it looked like points being entirely ignored so that the same extrapolations or misunderstandings could be perpetuated.
In other discussions, it’s been jumping from one real world issue to the next in order to discuss theory and philosophy with no purpose beyond tickling someone’s brain. It’s been my patience and calm explanations met with stubborn bigotry. It’s been the absolute dismissal of emotion. It’s been abuse and threats and violence. It’s been asking me, how can I be better, then remaining exactly the same.
This is not a moral judgement. Some people refuse to grow because they like to harm others whilst others seem unable to grow because the way they view the world is finite and concrete. Some people just grow in their own way and maybe it’s too slow for me or just unrecognisable. This is not about whether growth can make you a good person.
This is about what I need.
I believe that anyone is capable of personal, emotional, and mental growth. I’ve also seen that just because someone is capable does not mean that they do the thing. I have a tendency to give people many, many opportunities to show me they are learning, that they are working on being kinder, in the many different ways that that can look.
And from that, I’ve found that some people either just don’t grow or they can’t evolve in a way that makes them safe for me.
I am lucky. I’ve found many people in the last few years who strive to be better people, always. Growth is hard work. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it makes you unsure of yourself, especially if — like me — you have all that baggage to deal with along the way. Many people shy away from this kind of work. It’s thankless, it’s relentless, it’s forever.
It also means understanding that you’re going to fuck up. Everyone does. But it’s not the mistake that determines growth, it’s your response. It’s how you take your fuck-up and make positive changes from it. It’s being able to swallow the guilt and pain and, if someone else needs to tell you that you fucked up, the self-righteousness.
Growth is about understanding where to draw a line with your ego. We cannot solely live for others without damaging ourselves, but to live only marginally for others causes damage too. It hurts people, it hurts our world, and it can hurt ourselves. The people I’ve known who struggle to grow are also the loneliest and the most tortured.
And the people I know who have made an active decision to grow, to be kinder, to help the people who need it most — these people sometimes hurt the most but they also see more. I’ve learnt from discussions with these people, I have changed how I think about things, I have become more open-minded, because we are able to have more nuanced conversations. We can finally dig deeper than surface-level theory and basic, repetitive explanations.
This is the type of person I need. These relationships are the ones that help. They remind me of who I am and who I want to be, and what I can do to make a difference. They are empowering instead of smothering. They remind me to extend compassion to myself because the world can feel desperate and lonely and miserable, and I struggle to survive every single day.
Sometimes I place my trust and love in people who can’t grow, or not in a way that’s compatible with me. That’s OK. I’ll continue to do this because I believe in the possibility for better. I believe in the capability of everyone to prioritise community and the individuals within.
And I’m learning my lines, and I’m learning to respect them. In the same way that I know that conversation with Nazis and misogynists is almost always futile because they don’t see me as entirely human, I’m getting better at seeing when someone doesn’t entirely see me because of their ego or way of processing the world.
These conversations drain me. They are a constant reminder that I have to fight just to exist. I am already well aware of this, because I come up against it every day. Sometimes, I just want to watch a bunch of Nicolas Cage films in a row and eat pizza, instead. Sometimes, I want my oppression to feel like something I can laugh about. And I can only feel those things with safe people, with the people who have my back, because they see me, including all the difficult and uncomfortable bits like my trauma and the fact that I could have acid thrown in my face tomorrow or maybe I’ll get assaulted on my way home or maybe I’ll struggle to earn as much, succeed as much, be allowed to speak as much as them.
If there is a throughline in the people who are no longer in my life, it’s this: we grew differently. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is. It’s part of life. Sometimes, someone is complicit in my oppression and it simply hurts me too much to remain around them. Sometimes, I want more, so much more than they do, and I’m moving too fast for them. Sometimes, we find different focuses and we no longer have anything to talk about.
We cannot wait for people to grow with us. I have re-connected with some people because we grew back onto parallel paths. Others have waved at me and I’ve gladly waved back and then found out that they’re too distant for anything more. It’s OK.
I feel lonely a lot. Some people believe they can ignore the power imbalances, the difference in privilege, the way their casual words or actions hurt others. Some people believe this is enough for a relationship and then they are outraged or confused or indignant when I say, please stop hurting me. Some people want me to make them comfortable, even at my own expense, and they call this “friendship” or “romance.”
But I see the people who work for positive change, with their words and actions, with their art and community, with their compassion and bruised hearts and aching bones and the fear and anger and blinding, beautiful hope. I am lucky, because some of those people are in my life.
For me, growth means learning to protect myself and it means remaining open-hearted. I don’t harbour negative feelings for any of the people who grew differently to me. I’m glad to have met every single one, because I have learned from each relationship and I’ve grown. I am also grateful for leaving these people, for loving myself enough to do that.
And I know that to move forward, I must leave some behind and keep my heart open and bleeding. For me personally, this is vital, because it’s the only way to find those who can grow with me, who can teach me, who will make our world kinder. And it’s the only way I will find those who grow differently, who will strengthen me, and remind me to get back up every time.
(Originally written for my newsletter.)