The Last Rallying Cry of 2016
Ella Dawson

Mediocre Men and Me

Keeping a journal is a surefire way to astonish yourself. Not immediately, while the ink still glistens wet. Not over the next few days, when you flip through still-crisp pages. But when you look back on months’ worth of writing, months of heartache missives and whiny catharses, you start to see patterns. Themes.

The theme of my 2016, upon first glance, would seem to be “men are disappointing.” Like the chorus of a catchy pop song, the utter and unreasonable mediocrity of men in my life played in my ears over and over. Whenever I thought I’d heard the last of it, it blared its broken chords once more.

There was the boy who asked me on a Valentine’s Day dinner date and then smashed my hopeful heart with a simple “I don’t think we should date” over burgers and fries. There was the fuckbuddy who warned me not to “catch feels” when he knew full well I already had. There was the boyfriend who inexplicably pursued me, an outspoken feminist sex writer, despite finding both sex and feminism (as it turned out) abhorrent. There was the beau who lied to me about being polyamorous, making me nonconsensually complicit in his cheating on his girlfriend. There were the male professors who made no effort to accommodate for my mental health struggles (and the female professor whose compassion saved my life). There was the friend-with-benefits who, I found out, had abused several of his past partners and lied to me about it. There were the internet trolls who emerged from under their bridges to yell at me for being a feminist woman, a sexual woman, a chubby woman, a woman.

I love men; I want to love men. But while one dog biting you is a misfortune, and two is a coincidence, upwards of a dozen in one year starts to feel like a vendetta. You start to wonder if there is something wrong with you. You start to think, “Maybe I should stay away from dogs for a while.”

Now, though, I have let my experiences simmer. I have read and re-read my journals from 2016 with the benefit of distance from those experiences. And I have come to a conclusion. Men are often disappointing, yes, but they disappoint me because I crave certain things from them: love, joy, fulfillment. And I expect these things from men because I have not yet learned how to give these things to myself.

My 2016 was a classic case of learning lessons “the hard way.” All my life, I’ve been told — mostly by women I respect — that a romantic partnership would not complete a fractured heart, that a person who doubts herself cannot heal by imbibing romance. I knew this, intellectually. I did not know it emotionally, somatically, in the marrow of my bones and the pit of my gut. Those parts of me still pined for the lie of love that will save you, love that will keep misery at bay, love that will render you ecstatic evermore.

Searching for that love — thirsting for it, like a delirious vagrant in a desert — led me into one awful decision after the next in 2016. When there’s cracks between your tiles but you’re out of grout, the sensible thing to do is wait until you have more grout; instead, I tried Silly Putty, sunscreen, raspberry jam. Nothing quite worked. I hunted for the life-solving validation and joy I thought a relationship would bring. I rounded each 0.6 up to 1. I kept papering over men’s flaws til they looked like features. As a dating strategy, it was untenable.

So, yes: in 2017, I resolve to want less from men. But I also resolve to expect better from men — and from myself. Too often, I let male romantic interests get away with hurting me, lying to me, heaping their stresses onto me while I can barely shoulder my own. When you believe someone knows the password to your happiness, you’ll put up with a lot from them. But in learning my own password — being kinder to myself, giving myself the love I most crave — maybe I can also learn to hold the men in my life to a higher standard. It’s one thing to rely on a friend in a time of need; it’s quite another to drain your frustrations and aggravations onto her because she’s a woman and women are compliant dumping grounds for such things in your eyes. I aspire to be a good friend, a loving presence, but not a doormat. Never that.

I hope, when I look back on my journals from 2017, I see some altogether different themes than I saw this past year. Strength. Self-sufficiency. Sovereign contentment. If men appear, I hope it’s mostly in the margins.

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