“Radical Self-Reliance” Is Killing People.
It almost killed me this last week.
Trigger warning: frank discussion of suicide
Ok. I’ve been sitting on these feelings for a long time, and some of my dear readers have probably heard me rant about this in person, but I have a bone to pick with some of the catchphrases/attitudes I hear winging around the Bay Area. Really, I have a bone to pick with five that I think actively damage communities we care about and hurt people we love.
And sometimes, I really honestly think it kills them. It would have killed me, more than once. It still might. I’m not out of the woods yet. I’m still buzzing from an overdose not a week past.
I look over my Facebook, my Twitter, my emails, and I just have to say. If so many people I care about are on the verge of a suicidal meltdown, there is something fundamentally wrong with how we’re communicating and caring for each other and it’s about damn time we examined ourselves. Just put the fucking bongs and the dildos and the Tinder profiles down and listen for a second, ok?
Hold on, this is going to be an uncomfortable and bumpy ride.
First, let’s introduce the main perpetrators, in my opinion, encouraging this “individualism” thing like it’s not actually another word for selfishness.
“Where the establishment emphasized humility, prudence, lineage, meritocracy celebrates ambition, achievement, brains and self-betterment.”
-Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites
We live in a time where we culturally know the American Dream is a lie, yet we still secretly hold onto the hope that maybe we’ll be the success that’s the exception to the rule. We hold ourselves to expectations of pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, even if we never had boots to begin with. Discussions of how privilege entwines with success are seen as being “overly sensitive” or reflective of jealousy. Even being able to begin to compete in a meritocracy requires technology, time, and often education, none of which come cheap. If we spend our time networking, we wonder if we should have been buckling down and learning things… and if we studied hard we wonder if we needed to talk to more people. Never mind that school (whether university, or graduate school, or trade schools, or even skill set classes) costs money, so in order to go and sustain going, you need to have enough expendable income, or go into debt. Even then, a woman making perfect grades will earn the same as a man with a 2.0 GPA, and being a graduate doesn’t protect you from employment racism when you’re black, so it can feel pretty hopeless to bother.
In a meritocracy, everyone’s a hustler, and your success or failure is dependent on how well you can hustle. This can create a lot of shame and humiliation when no matter how hard you hustle you can’t survive and have to ask for help from your community. Mental health issues, various disabilities, and a lack of access to the funds in order to “spend money to make money” can leave marginalized people behind, and often does. Yet people often feel their need for help is not reflective of systematic issues, but personal failings. Some don’t reach out, or wait until things are at crisis level to ask, because they’re afraid of looking bad and further damaging the possibility of future meritocracy-based success.
“The word “We” is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it, and that which is white and that which is black are lost equally in the grey of it. It is the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages. What is my joy if all hands, even the unclean, can reach into it? What is my wisdom, if even the fools can dictate to me? What is my freedom, if all creatures, even the botched and impotent, are my masters? What is my life, if I am but to bow, to agree and to obey?”
-Ayn Rand, Anthem
Individualism proponents are also often fans of the construct of meritocracy, from what I’ve seen. They want to believe that they’re successful, not because of privilege, but because of hard work (and, while they might phrase it differently, they’re also often quite proud of the methods they’ve learned to cheat the system). A lot of these people are US-type capitalist libertarians who want government out of education or healthcare, believing big business would be better at handing these things. I personally cannot think of anything worse than living in a society even more run by private interests, namely because of the lack of understanding around privilege that permeates such discussions, but the idea is growing in popularity. They don’t want to share what they have, because they’ve earned it, and if other people are lacking, they just haven’t tried hard enough.
Yet the best players on the individualist field play both sides. Wall Street, for example, deifies the individualist capitalist and enjoys a reputation of being for risk takers while simultaneously taking advantage of terrified graduates by offering them structure. I don’t think it’s terribly surprising that finance would be the best at this, especially considering these are the banks that are shutting down resources for sex workers, some of the most marginalized people in our society today, right and left. We’re living in terribly anxious times. I’m watching my Facebook wall as friend after friend posts about needing to find a new place to live, as everyone with a flat in SF is apparently trying to sell it.
This links very neatly into the next ideal I have an issue with…
“Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”
People who talk the loudest about radical self-reliance, in my experience, like using a good number of things they have not made themselves. Cars. Gas. Roads. Most of them aren’t off the grid, making their own power. Many of them are above the poverty line, able to pay for insurance, a decent education, public transport or a vehicle. This point is made in an article by a self-described member of the 1%, Dustin Moskovitz, who goes to Burning Man. While I like many things about his piece, I have to admit when he says “if you want to go, you should just go!”, he displays a woeful ignorance of just how expensive Burning Man is. It’s not a place for starving artists anymore, much like San Francisco itself is becoming.
Radical self-reliance is easy to talk about when you’ve got money.
Humans are pack creatures, and we do tend to need each other in varying degrees to survive and thrive. When radical self-reliance is a community ideal, I find that in practice this means many feel pressured not to ask for help when they need it. And this has consequences, often consequences we, as a community, bemoan. Yet what are we doing to challenge it? How are we actively taking care of each other?
Don’t Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
-Don Miguel Ruiz, Four Agreements
So now we come to here, which is that after you’ve pranced about completely focused on yourself and your ego, you can pull out the Four Agreements in order to evade accountability. “I’m not benefitting from systematic oppression!” you can say. “And if you’re upset at my refusal to engage with that critique, well, that’s just a projection of your reality! Upset that I don’t care about you/your feelings/your experiences? Nothing others do is because of me!”
I have for real heard this kind of comment and it blows my fucking mind. Of COURSE you affect how other people act/react to you. OF COURSE your behaviour influences the behaviours of others. Maybe if you’re doing things that hurt other people, you SHOULD suffer a little while you reflect on how to do things better. If anything, I think the attitude that other people are entirely responsible for managing their own emotions and you have nothing to do with it is pretty selfish, as well as just lacking understanding of how human interactions work. I don’t want to just not be the victim of needless suffering myself, but avoid putting other people in that position as well.
“No one is responsible for anyone else’s emotions or meeting anyone else’s needs. There is no more co-dependence. There is interdependence, on a voluntary basis. Each member is an autonomous, free individual, who can come or go as she or he pleases. Our love is earned, not expected.”
I need to write a whole fucking article about this, but I’m going to start with a mention here. I feel like there is a specific, side genre of poly (not ALL poly folks, but a really toxic side line) that has embraced Ayn Rand whole heartedly (yes, poly libertarians exist, god help us all) and it is not a cute look. I mean ok I shouldn’t yuck other people’s yum, but frankly? The attitude that everyone is an emotional island and that no one’s behaviour affects anyone else, that we can all completely manage our own needs independently, that taking care of other people is at best a hassle and at worst a threat, is fucking bullshit. It’s emotionally abusive and it actively hurts people. It pits partners against each other.
Having to continually feel like I have to earn my partner’s love by being “good, giving and game”, which so often means not having boundaries (or having the “right” boundaries) puts me in a situation of constantly second guessing myself. How far am I willing to push myself before breaking up is the only option? Am I just being jealous and I should challenge myself, or am I actually needing to trust my gut? Is this a question of us having our freedom and independence, or is this a question of just blatant disrespect? Whose needs are being met, and at whose expense?
I found myself asking these questions while I sobbed, alone, my partner ignoring my pleas to even acknowledge that I was unsafe, because at the end of the day, a sex party was more important and I hadn’t earned his attention or love. Poly libertarianism, y’all.
The worst part is? It’s not really his fault. He’s rewarded for it. We reward poly libertarianism, we espouse it in our literature. We need to wipe the wool from our fucking eyes and have some serious talks about who brings the sexual capital and who brings the emotional labour and what impact that has in these spaces and who is getting drained dry before we talk bullshit about “sex is nice and pleasure is good for you”.
So why do these things disappoint me so much?
Let me tell you a story about suicide.
October 2012 I was alone in an incall apartment I was renting. My fiance had broken things off. I had been told that I needed to move out of the flat. I had put out a message of goodbye on my social media, feeling like I had had enough of struggling, of feeling lonely. I didn’t want people to wonder why. I packed a bag with klonopin and booze, made hints about the Golden Gate Bridge, then went in the opposite direction. I had been suicidal before, I knew the way it worked. I knew I couldn’t go to the ER, because I couldn’t afford it. If I was going to kill myself I needed to be sure, and thorough. Because to fail would be to commit the greatest crime — “being dramatic”, my pain being a cry for attention, not “real”. The only way for it to be real was to succeed. I think about that now, a week after 2 overdoses and a failed hanging, and I wonder, even as I get support, if some of the people who are silent in my “community” are actually just disappointed in me, even disgusted by my flailing.
What I don’t think people realized then, and maybe don’t know now, is I am *always* thinking about suicide on some level. It sits in my gut, hand in hand with my financial anxiety and existential depression and yes, my love of My Little Pony and social justice anger. I think once you have given yourself over to it as an option, it’s always there, like a door you can’t really close once it’s open. But you pretend, and everyone around you pretends, and as long as you can maintain, you might just make it another year.
The people who stepped up back then were on the verge themselves, which I understand, completely. I know I can count on one hand the people I’d contact in an emergency, however many followers I have on Twitter or friends I have on Facebook. I would like to see more uses of care calendars to help people BEFORE they hit bottom, and to help them rebuild after, for months. If we split these things up amongst ourselves, we can make an actual, sustainable difference.
Too many people I love are close to breaking. We live, far too often, out of spoons, trading that one last spork to each other, hoping we’ll all be able to hang on.
So, ok, what does this have to do with radical self-reliance, or meritocracy?
Over and over again, I see waves of desperation and loneliness crash against the shore. I recognize it because I’ve been sitting on that beach for a long time. And I see communities who are ill equipped to help take care of each other, depending on a few to be responsible. We don’t always have social programs to help us. We have people dealing with intense shit trying to push that aside to care for other people while simultaneously trying to take care of themselves. I didn’t feel like I could ask people for help because my problems were not as serious as other people’s problems, because I’m the rock. “Be self-reliant”, I told myself, until I collapsed under the pressure. From my observations, that’s happening to a lot of people.
I said about helping Eden Alexander several years back that we’re all drowning. It’s because so many people I know are. We rely on crowdfunding to make up the difference where social programs fail the most marginalized around us, and those crowdfunding programs are sadly often more successful for murderous cops and abusive men than they are for sex workers and trans women. I am sad every time someone I know, or a friend of a friend, commits suicide but I can’t really say it comes as a shock to me. Sometimes, I’m ashamed to say, I am jealous.
It doesn’t always feel terribly worthwhile to try to change the world. But while I know to put on my oxygen mask first, I also don’t know how to stop trying to organize, to build something better. I don’t know how to walk away from someone hurting and I will try to pull out of my ass the strength I need to do something. I know the system is fucked and I want to put something better in place, to inspire me and to give hope to others. I’ve been accused of being a martyr. I feel like that just makes me human.
Most of the time, I’m not actively suicidal because I feel there’s something terrible about me, or that the world would be better off or anything. It’s worse than that, really, and probably why I have so much compassion for others hitting bottom. I know how it feels to have a flurry of care when you’re at the end of your rope, but then finding yourself just as alone as you start to try to climb back up. I know how exhausting it is to keep trying to push through, to find your way through a complicated and inaccessible health care system. I know how it feels to feel like you’re burning through people and you know that no matter how hard they try it isn’t really going to get better. That no matter what they do, you’re still not going to be valued by the community, and even if you can push through another 6 months, you’ll burn out again and the process will start fresh. And I know how hard it is to help someone through it, especially when you’re not doing great yourself. Boundaries are vital, I just think we need to be careful not to hide behind them to avoid doing real, painful work. It can’t be left to a few because it’s really really hurting them. We need everyone we can get on board.
If you ask me? We need to band together to create better systems of care for each other. We need the word “community” to actually mean something. We need to be gentle with each other, to apologize for feelings hurt rather than be defensive. We need to speak the fuck up when our friends and family members are slutshamed for being sex workers and defend them so they don’t feel death is their only way out. I can see with the success of things like Patreon that we can redistribute wealth in practical, sustainable ways (though frankly, and I’m editing my piece thanks to Tiara pointing this out, for that to work Patreon needs to signal boost marginalized people AS MUCH AS if not more so than people like Amanda Palmer, if I’m honest). I can see with the love outpoured for Eden that we *can* organize and make a real difference. So what is holding us back? What are we afraid of?
I actually have hope that we can wake up out of our individualism. I don’t know if any of what I’m saying makes sense or is just a lot of rambling, but goddamn it, something has to give and I truly believe we can be better to each other.
We need to make time for what we care about.
I just hope that’s community instead of goddamn getting laid and feeling popular. Because I know better. I know we all feel lonely as hell. I’ve talked to a good number of you. It’s not working, the way we do “community” and “family”. Can’t we do something different? I’m trying this radical vulnerability thing even though it’s frankly embarrassing and probably alienating because I don’t know what else to do.
Because otherwise, one day, guys, it’s going to be me splattered on the side of a BART train and I swear to fucking god if one person acts like they’re shocked I will find some way to fucking haunt you.
But You Don’t LOOK Sick: Spoon Theory
Care Calendar for scheduling visits, house cleaning, meals, etc
Do you have a resource you’ve found useful either for self care or in caring for others? Share it!
Like my work? Support me on Patreon!