For a while recently I spent a lot of time thinking about the question ‘What do I do when I am challenged?’
I’ve been exploring what triggers defensiveness, and how I can stay open to criticism, to let it change me.
Now I am asking the question ‘What do I do when I challenge?’.
When we critique and challenge on social networking websites, we leave a trail. There has been much said about the problems of having complex, charged debates online but I won’t talk about that. I am interested in the opportunity that indelible trace gives us to reflect.
So what do I do when I challenge?
My heart beats really loud in my chest. My skin feels simultaneously hypersensitive and slightly numb. I feel a little bit sick and dizzy and blood rushes to my face. I know I have to act but I really don’t want to.
That feeling is anger, but the most powerful, uncomfortable feeling is responsibility. That heavy feeling I get when I realise that my opinion needs to make itself known to the world whether I feel anywhere close to comfortable or not. Acting from a cocktail of anger and responsibility is a complex thing. We are not supposed to act while angry. Anger is supposed to limit our judgement, make us irrational. While true in some ways, I find that way of framing emotion troubling. Many a damaging thing has been done in the name of rationality, and my anger has given me strength I never knew I had. But I am still questioning that space in which I speak with a pounding heart, when my body is busy.
“Of course some public expressions of hurt can close spaces down. So too, of course, can public expressions of what some might call reason. It is collective work to keep spaces open especially when we are talking about histories that hurt” Sara Ahmed
That feeling of responsibility carries with it a sense of urgency. Because silence means allowing things to continue. But what if something isn’t actively continuing? I think the sense of urgency I feel sometimes is the fear of knowing I am complicit.
“If we realize there is a problem and refuse to participate in its solution, we will become accomplices from that point forward, even if we did not cause it.” Louis E Romero
In those moments, I need to ask what will change if I speak, what will change if I wait.
One of the things that will change if I wait long enough is my heart rate. The physicality of my anger will subside. This might make me more rational, but I will have less energy, less passion. I will have more compassion for the people I am challenging and less empathy for those I am defending (which may or may not include myself).
In anger, I make mistakes. In calm, compassionate rationality I make mistakes. One of the hardest lessons I am trying to teach myself at the moment is to hold my mistakes. If my mistakes take me spinning into anxiety and defensiveness, I will fear my own voice and only hear the harm it can do. I will mistrust my anger, and never present anyone with a challenge. I will be complicit.
When I was a child, I was taught never to say sorry unless I understood what I had done wrong and could honestly say I would change my behaviour as a result of that new understanding. Like many lessons learnt young, I keep that one close to my heart, but it is difficult the more complex my wrongs are. I can never say sorry for my internalised misogyny, or the infinite ways I use my white privilege to navigate and gain from racist society.
I recently said sorry after writing something that challenged. I said sorry because I had said previously that I didn’t have enough information to contribute to the discussion, but after getting only slightly more information I wrote what I thought. I think that apology was in part motivated by my strong desire to apologise for my challenge. Like I said, I really don’t like doing it. I don’t like the fear of losing friends, respect, losing that veneer of rationality and unconditional compassion. I’ve read it over and over and even without a pounding heart I am not sorry for the words I wrote; they are what I think and what I feel. I can’t say sorry for that, but I am still fearful of its power to hurt, divide. There is so much more to say on this, but I haven’t got the words yet.
“The key to get out of this vicious cycle is to take responsibility for solving the problem, not necessarily the problem itself.” Louis E Romero
I can’t say sorry for my complicity in intersecting webs of oppression.
I won’t say sorry for my heartfelt, flawed challenges to the intersecting threads in that web.
I will take responsibility for both, and make change accordingly. No matter how hard my heart pounds.
*”Bad feelings are creative responses to histories that are unfinished. They are not the only responses. And we are not finished.” Sara Ahmed