”Keep your chin up – it will pass”
”You just need to dig deep and work hard”
”Being too tired, too busy, too poor – these are all just excuses. Stop making excuses”
”I put myself first. You need to put yourself first too”
How many times have you heard a variation of these phrases? 10 times? 100 times? More?
I have this theory. My theory is that the more privilege you have, the more likely you are to both hear these words and to say them yourself. God knows I have said these things more often than I’d like to admit over the years, most often in my youthful and self-assured days where I was invested in acting like I had all of life figured out. And my life filled mostly with middle class, light skinned friends seems filled to the brim with these kinds of sentiments.
I know I’m being pretty hard on you right now. After all, you realize that these platitudes skip over some of the nuances of people’s lived experiences. But you say them because there is still enough truth that they make sense. And your intentions are good too. It’s not like you say them maliciously, to put people down or to just make yourself feel better.
Ok, maybe you don’t want to admit it (I know I hate to admit this) but let’s cut the BS, shall we. We DO say them because they make us feel better.
The thing about these platitudes is that not only are they simply NOT TRUE for most people, but they aren’t really about helping someone else either. Not really. They are phrased to make us feel like they are about the person we are talking to. “I want to encourage him! No one wants to hear ‘yeah, this sucks and it’s probably going to suck for awhile’. “I want people to experience the same happiness and success I have, and the only way for that to happen is if I tell them how I got to where I am today!”. “Look, I know you want to find some hidden evil in everything, but I really just care about her enough to give her the tough love she needs’.
Even writing that is a painful echo of my own self-justifications. But that’s all they are. My own “reasons” (read: excuses) that I give so I can keep telling the world how in control we all are, how in control I am.
Because that is what we are saying, at the core.
“Keep your chin up- it will pass”: YOU can get through this, you just have to wait it out long enough. Your self-determination and my self-determination are more powerful than anything that can happen to us. Bad things don’t outlast us if we don’t let them.
“You just need to dig deep and work hard”: Hard work is the answer, and we get to decide how hard we work. In fact, I am where I am because of how hard I worked. Sure, there were other factors, but I was the deciding factor. And you can be your deciding factor too.
“Being too tired, too busy, too poor – these are all just excuses. Stop making excuses”: I used to make excuses too. But I decided one day that excuses wouldn’t cut it anymore. And dammit, when I made that choice, everything changed and I TOOK CONTROL of my life. Because we are all in control at the end of it. We get to decide how we deal with life. We get to decide to have a can-do spirit and a positive attitude. We get to define our own success. If you are feeling stuck that’s on you. Stop making excuses: I did and look at how much control I have now. It’s all me baby.
“I put myself first. You need to put yourself first too”: At the end of the day, we need to take back some selfishness, invest in ourselves, gives ourselves permission to put ourselves first. It may not seem like an option but believe me – it always is. You have the power to decide to look after you.
Did I lose you yet? Was it hard to read that? It was hard to write it. The defensive voices in my head have been screaming since paragraph 3.
We like to feel like we are in control. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. It’s… human. We want to feel like our feet are firmly planted on the ground and the only person who can take them out from under us is us. And when something comes and knocks us over, our first instinct is to try to get back up. Back on our feet. Back where we are deciding when we will and will not stand.
So it’s not your fault that you want to feel in control and you want to use every opportunity to remind yourself and the world around you that you are. It’s what we like to do, us humans. But it’s not real. And knowing that it isn’t, it’s your responsibility to do better.
Control in our world is largely (as much as control is a possibility) a product of various forms of privilege. Wealth allows us to determine where we live and when: we choose the houses that suit us, the mortgages that give us the most flexibility, the neighbourhoods with the best schools and the most convenient proximity to work, and we move when it works for us. Skin colour allows us to be blind because we can walk into any store and not be followed by the staff, never fear for our lives just because we got pulled over for speeding (or for no reason at all), and have the best assumptions made about who we are, our education and our intentions based solely on the fact that we woke up light skinned. And if you happen to be male, you most likely won’t get asked in an interview if you are done having kids yet or how you’ll manage to balance work and a family, and your job prospects won’t depend on having a calculated answer. You’ll never have to worry about hiding your pregnancy so that you don’t get fired before you qualify for maternity leave.
These are just the big and obvious ways that privilege gives us control. Privilege that has little to do with our behaviour and a lot to do with the things we are born with and into. And the more ways we hold privilege, the more control we have both in reality and appearance.
But where we go wrong is in what we attribute our control to. We think we are in control because of the choices we made to get ourselves there. We tell ourselves the reason for our successes is our choices. We both intentionally and unintentionally ignore all of the ways in which things we have no control over at all have gotten us to where we are.
When you don’t have the default control of being white and middle class, it’s harder to make the mistake of thinking your choices give you more power than they do. Every day you are confronted with the reality that no amount of keeping your chin up will erase the overt and systemic racism that works against you every time your dark skin is seen. Digging deep and working hard seems laughable, when your parent’s have each worked 3 jobs for your entire life but they still couldn’t afford daycare or a college education so you don’t even have the base opportunities to get the kind of work that will get you out of your “bad” neighbourhood. You want to scream at the people that tell you your exhaustion and busyness and poverty are just excuses while they spend 3 hours a day on social media working on their iPads from their overpriced coffee shops while you serve them their 11am daily fix of caffeine working your second of 3 minimum wage shifts for the day trying to pay off the debt you incurred when your wife left you with 4 kids and a high school diploma. And putting yourself first isn’t an option – not because you don’t care enough about you but because there is literally no one else around who can take of everything long enough for you to have a time out. No one to share the burden, but a million people willing to tell you you need a break.
It feels good to tell someone they have some control, because then we feel like we have some control too. Some of us believe it more readily than others: I suspect most of us recognize on some deep and terrifying level that most of our control is really a facade.
But who wants to be the one to say “it sucks right now, and it may keep being awful. This might not get better”.
The thing is, if that’s all we say, we are still missing the most important part of all this. Realizing we aren’t really in control of much of our lives is step 1. Realizing we say these things to help ourselves feel better as much as to help other people feel better is step 2. And step 3? Step 3 is recognizing we don’t get to be in control. We just get to be out of control together.
‘It sucks right now, amd it may keep being awful for a long time. But I promise, I won’t leave you alone in this.”
It’s easier to tell the other person they are in control because then we don’t have any responsibility. We let ourselves off the hook for each other’s well-being by saying it ultimately comes down to each man choosing for himself. But that’s not reality. Reality is we aren’t in control of very much of what happens to us. We aren’t in control of most of our successes. We aren’t even in control of many of our failures.
But it we are too often in control of the failures we let other people endure. We too often are in control of allowing someone’s failures to consume them, to stack one on top of the other as we sit back and watch and think to ourselves “they need to start taking responsibility for their choices. Tsk tsk.”
We need to start taking responsibility for our choices. Not because we control our outcomes, but because one of the few things we have the power to control is whether we are going to let our brothers or sisters be alone in this uncontrollable world. We can’t stop their bad choices, or the things that lead to them. But we get to decide how we are going to be with them in the midst of their pain and hardship.
Next time you you see someone suffering, try something new.
“I don’t know why this is happening to you, and why it isn’t happening to me. I am not more deserving or wise just because things have worked out in my life. I don’t know if or when the pain will stop. All I can promise is that I will do my best to stand with you in it. I won’t leave you alone.”