Michelle Anya Anjirbag

Scholar, writer, editor

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On Learning Gentleness

I have a really hard time allowing myself space to breathe. I’ve operated for years thinking that the ultimate goal of anything was to consistently prove my resilience, my capacity to be resilient in any circumstance. Over the last few years, for reasons both personal and related to the Larger Scheme of Things, I’ve begun to realize that, perhaps, I have been very wrong in my approach to life.

Part of this reckoning has come from a number of good mentors who have appeared in my life, and part from becoming better able to listen to advice from respected friends and family members that though I’ve heard it often, I was never at a place where I could understand it. A good deal of being ready to reconsider things has come about simply because this is a year of milestones for me: a decade crossed, a degree finished, a new stage of life entered, and such change lends one to reflection. It did not come about overnight, rather, several years of building a set of habits centered around my mental and emotional wellbeing, including therapy, yoga, exercise, and designated work and rest times, has slowly made me more aware of how long I have lived in a paradigm that does not value gentleness – and how I need to apply that value, actively, every day to how I choose to exist in the world.

We do not exist in a global society that emphasizes or values gentleness, care, or protecting those who might not have a potential commercial value in some way, and so we do not learn to apply that lens of care to ourselves. While there have been recently published books on the importance of sleep or rest in the context of this kind of world, these are ideas always framed in the context of increasing productivity: work less to make more. At their hearts, these books, these ideas do not actually allow us to be gentle with ourselves, and understand our mental, physical, and emotional needs, but rather, are still about some kind of optimization.

I no longer want to optimize. I no longer want to be valued because of my capacity to produce, or withstand. I no longer want to feel defined by some kind of resilience.

I no longer feel like I have to, and it is such a gift to let go of that pressure to be more, rather than to simply be. I already do enough. I am not competing; there is nothing to be won by becoming more busy. Being busy or busy-seeming, or constantly engaged has nothing in actuality to do with my ambitions. In this year, I have finally found to some small extent the ability to give myself permission to stop, and only worry about where I am, not where someone else expects me to be.

In the face of two major life milestones in the same month, and a confusion of not exactly feelings, but the awareness that some feelings should maybe be there, beyond the current spate of sleeplessness and mild panic at the State of Things, a good friend keeps telling me that whatever I am feeling in this moment is probably valid. That, I don’t have to be feeling immense amounts of excitement or anticipation, and the pragmatism I’m facing the world with right now doesn’t change how I feel about the bigger contexts of things happening or what they signify, ultimately. Other friends are ready to be excited for me, while I muddle through the messiness a little while longer, holding on to my planning and organizing, and continuing to make contingency plans for everything that has to come afterwards. On one hand, I’m grateful to have people in my life like this; on the other hand, I do have to question why I keep waiting for permission to be kind to myself in whatever moment I find myself in.

It’s not just about knowing when not to run, or when to take a day off because one is sick, though those things are important. It is about learning the little signs of one’s whole self trying to alert you to the fact that part of you needs to stop, and while you might be able to push through, well, what is the point of such a push? It’s about recognizing needs before they become desperate, and then not punishing oneself for having those needs in the first place, no matter how they might disrupt other plans.

I think that learning gentleness, truly, will require a letting go of expectations more fully, especially of those I hold for myself. It means being okay with passing on opportunities or deadlines, on not being able to do everything I want for everyone I want to do it for at all times. It means letting myself breath, and not being down on myself because the intention to start the day with a couple hours of yoga became sleeping in and engaging in thirty minutes of breathing exercises instead. It means being okay with not being an optimized machine, with sometimes not being able to execute logistical plans, and with asking for help. Because as hard as all these things and more are for me to balance conceptually with my lived reality, I also know that if I don’t learn to be gentle with myself, no one else is going to extend that gentleness to me. And if I cannot learn to do this for myself, how do I help to build a world where gentleness, not optimization, becomes more normalized? After all, as Alex Soojung-Kim Pang notes in Rest, when Malcom Gladwell wrote about the 10,000 hours it takes to reach a certain degree of proficiency in any thing, Gladwell focused on the hours of work only, and glossed over the greater proportion of time spent in deliberate rest, and the even greater proportion of time spent sleeping. Imagine how the paradigm of discourse around success might have been different if such glossing had not happened. Could the insight touted from that book shifted the gears towards a far more different world than the one we live in now?

Gentleness is a muscle to be stretched, a skill to be learned much like napping or playing piano. You cannot progress at anyone’s pace but your own, but regular practice makes things easier. Being gentle with others is often easier than being gentle with oneself, and sometimes a better place to start. Gentleness, in this paradigm, is not this same as forgiveness: the latter implies that there has been an error or a failure. In fact, in these moments it is more necessary for me to realize I have not actually done anything wrong nor have I somehow failed; in essence, there is nothing to forgive. I am slowly learning this; I wish I had started much earlier.

This month is full of big moments for me, and this year is full of milestones and change. I don’t always act with the grace I should, but I am going to try to learn to extend a little more of it to myself. I have nothing left to prove to anyone, including myself, so I might as well allow myself the space, the breathing room, to learn to live and enjoy my life fully. I write this after a day of deliberate rest, at least my version of it. I baked biscotti and challah for one set of gifts. I prepped cookie dough for a gift waiting to be made and gifted later this week. And then I sat and read a book like I had not read in years. It was not for work; it was not for anything but pleasure, and I devoured it in almost a single sitting, interrupted only by an oven timer every so often. For the first time in a long time, I did not begrudge myself doing things for my soul, because they made me feel more me than anything else. I am not tallying work not done to make up for it tomorrow. And to do this with any degree of success for one day, is what I am right now calling enough. And maybe another day will follow, or it won’t. But I can hold on to this day, knowing that when I am ready it will happen again as I slowly continue to learn to be gentle with my whole self.

Your childhood faves are probably problematic – and we can learn from that

A few months ago, I made one of my normal screaming-into-the-void posts somewhere on social media about how, in light of a certain author of a certain Wizarding World’s TERFy statements, I was personally okay with being done with those products as a source of comfort (except for a vested interest in close reading them academically or as a cultural critic). It provoked some strong responses, both from people currently affected by the recent intolerance, and those who had reasons for why the author’s statements did not bother them. I was reminded again how art and cultural, and study and response to them, are not neutral, and how much individual positionality matters in media consumption and criticism.

As a child I rarely fell into liking things because they were popular. If not for my fiancé’s family’s insistence at the first Christmas I spent with them, I probably would have gone my whole life having never watched a single Star Wars film. Loving the Harry Potter books happened gradually. I was given the second as a birthday gift when I was in elementary school, and by the time the films were coming out, was swept up in both the cultural moment and what became a family tradition of enjoying these stories together. But the idea that Hogwarts was my “home” too, or somehow open to people like me? That never quite rang true. You see, when you’re young and you’re used to not seeing yourself represented in books or on screens, when you’re aware of the stereotypes deployed for not only your own kind of otherness, but other kinds as well, you become quietly aware of the absences. You swallow them – what else are you going to do? But that bitter taste never quite fades, nor does the subtle sadness of other peoples’ failure to see that absence. In my case, as with many, you put it aside, justify it, and try to celebrate the bigger, broader messages of hope and inclusion with the rest. But its a conscious choice. And at a certain point, we have to stop making that choice to hurt ourselves through exclusion, to accept the bad justifications for how we are written out of existence. Making that choice often means looking back at beloved things and saying, yes, I loved this. But yes, it is also wrong or harmful in many ways. I am convinced, in my paltry thirty years on the planet, that this is the only way that we can learn to build better art, culture, literature, or anything else.

The moral binaries that undergird Western European and North American (WENA) societies mean that it is hard to accept the paradigms where both sides of the paradigm can be equally true. After all, a moral binary implies that something must be either good or bad, and once that judgement is determined, then one might go forward with further analysis. But accepting multiple paradigms can lead to different conclusions, and can lead to industry growth rather than so-called culture wars seeded in most cases in this day and age by the far right (or in this specific case, TERFs in the UK who claim to be upholding feminism). Yes, the Wizarding World has been a phenomenon on many counts and people all over the world have found acceptance in this fantasy space when they needed it most. Yes, it simultaneously has always had massive problems with anti-Semetic tropes (the goblins), tokenism and stereotype in how it has handled diverse representation, erasure of LGBTQ representation, embedded misogyny, really twisted depictions of facism on both sides of its moral line, and as it has expanded its internal world to North America, has engaged in serious and damaging fictionalization and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. And yet, criticisms have largely been written off until the present moment, when the author herself through her statements on trans rights and identity has made it impossibly to ignore these embedded biases, and maybe reconsider the arguments that any of these things were simply accidental or oversights. Art and literature cannot be separated from the maker in this case; but there is a lesson to be had in problematizing childhood favorites from this situation.

Often when a work is problematized one of the most bandied about retorts is that it is “of its time” – from the racism of Dr. Seuss to the whitewashing of early Disney, to considerations of Shakespeare’s works and why medieval studies are so consumed by whiteness, to all of the nonsense in Tolkien’s worlds. We cut authors and creators a lot of slack by asserting that in comparison we live in a far more progressive era, and those who came before simply didn’t know better (whether due to the time they lived in or their relative geography i.e. the continued use of and defense of Blackface in Europe). I personally have a very hard time believing that platitude on two counts. First, we have enough historical counter-perspectives to accepted and manipulated hegemonic histories that asserting anything general about any period of history in terms of attitude towards anything like race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. is just lazy and bad praxis. Second, such statements give us in modernity far too much credit: we don’t actually live like we know better today.

The amount of resistance to the idea of needing to revisit things that hold nostalgia for ourselves personally and better come to terms with the fact that just because we ourselves might love them doesn’t mean that they did not also cause harm to others, does not bode well for the creation of a more enlightened, progressive society being built in the current moment. Especially when it comes to works of children’s literature, media, or family-oriented traditions that center on a conception of or focus on childhood, we need to learn to hold both criticism and nostalgia simultaneously.

One of the challenges of this, of course, is that criticism of something that feels formative to us, can also feel like a criticism of ourselves. Especially in academia, we become so good at separating the self from what we choose to analyze and how, that we can lose sight of how much our selves actually impact our work and how we approach different media phenomena. But academics or not, we need to learn to grapple with this challenge, in order to have a better response to someone else saying , ‘hey, this thing you like? it hurts me.’ Fundamentally, “this hurts me” (even if it is not put in those exact words) is a very different statement from “this offends me” or “I don’t like this,” and yet, more often than not, our reactions to criticisms of a beloved, nostalgic thing are much more in line with the latter two statements. We need to be better at stepping outside ourselves and listening, in general, to other peoples’ pain. It is hard but it is necessary.

For example, can we imagine for a moment if, when a Black woman was cast as Hermione in the Cursed Child stage play, in the face of the backlash Rowling’s ret-conning that the character was always meant to be able to be imagined as Black was not accepted as some kind of magnanimous answer. Because the truth is that Hermione had been depicted in sanctioned illustrations for many years prior, and not as a Black child. Such retconning simply allowed Rowling to sidestep the scandal, allowed fans to justify the whitewashing of the Wizarding World (if all your diversity involves token stereotypes including the Irish boy with a penchant for making things go boom, you have created a world that demands problematizing), and lost us an opportunity to push the gatekeepers of the publishing world to do better – and in doing so cause less future harm. The same issue comes to mind regarding the retconning of Dumbledore as gay; every time those of us not directly affected by an instance of stereotype or misrepresentation excuse it, we contribute to causing harm to the people who do feel directly harmed by such representation and the accompanying excuses.

Children’s and young adult literature and media sometimes feels like it contains the highest stakes regarding this issue, both because it is current and evolving, and because nostalgic feelings run high. Attachment to fictional worlds is strong precisely because when we find one that fits, it can feel that much more real than our own spaces. But it is precisely because this current moment is ripe for evolution, growth, and change, that learning to sit with the discomfort of recognizing that we can both like something, and that that thing might be problematic, becomes that much more important. Understanding that we need to reconsider what we put on pedestals as a society, that we need to interrogate things that become landmarks in the mediascape despite – or in fact because of – popularity will lead to a better mediascape, one that is sorely overdue. If we start to look carefully at the last thirty or fifty odd years of media, there is probably much that needs to be put under a different lens, and handled critically. A lot of old favorites will probably have moments that make us wince or cringe today. And that is okay – so long as we are willing to see those moments and learn how to do better from them, and not brush them aside as we continue to enjoy these things, but rather, continue to confront them.

Why One Educator Tells Bullies And Their Victims To Take It Outside—Way Outside

This post was originally published on GOOD.Is on 2 May 2017.

I learned to teach in a nontraditional classroom. It rarely has a roof or walls, and my students are not always younger than me. My only direct lessons involve tying climbing knots or how to keep people safe in trust-based activities. I observe more than I lecture. Over the course of a day, if I am doing my job well, I listen more than I speak.

For over 20 years now, I have been lucky to be a participant in, and then a facilitator for Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience, or COPE, a program in the Boy Scouts of America. That listening is a full-body activity becomes more apparent when the classroom of the day includes the wind blowing over a lake, redtail hawks soaring overhead, and squirrels chattering.

When participants in COPE programs in Killingworth, Connecticut, leave the school bus or their cars, they walk over a causeway between a lake and a lagoon, and then up the dirt road into the field. Once there, they enter a new space where how they learn is turned on its head. Technically speaking, the methodology is pulled from the theories of John Dewey and Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development—forming, storming, norming, and performing—but it falls under the ever-expanding umbrella of “team building.”

We ask our participants, who range from scouts and school groups to college athletic teams and corporate groups, to be open to new experiences. At a time when 3.2 million kids are bullied every year, we also talk about what discounting—dismissing another person’s thoughts and feelings—means.

Our no discounting policy is strict: Everyone has value and the ability to contribute. Everyone else can teach us something about our world and ourselves, even if we think we have nothing in common. Once we stop discounting and create space where everyone is empowered, we learn that we have far more in common than we might initially think. And then, we walk further into the woods.

We talk about “leave no trace”—the idea that we can leave the outdoor space in a better condition than we found it, and act as good custodians so that the next group of people has the opportunity to enjoy this piece of wilderness. We talk about challenge by choice, and how this not only means that no one will be forced past their own boundaries, but also how their attitude in approaching challenges can determine what activity they might be offered next.

Our activities include obstacle courses and brain teasers that build skills as we move through different sequences. As the degree of difficulty and risk steadily increases, so does the group’s reliance on each other. Reaching the final goal of rock climbing or completing a high ropes course becomes a progressive lesson in learning and practicing communication and reflection skills.

Indeed, after every task, the groups debrief. They might be asked to reflect on something to be celebrated in another member’s efforts, or something they would change about their own. They might be asked to identify how they worked together and what roles they take on in the group, or where the learning moments were. Unlike a multiple-choice exam or a short-answer pop quiz, there are no wrong answers. The students are only building a tool kit that we hope they access after they leave.

But most significantly, as each program closes and our staff comes together for our own debrief, we discuss our highlights—the things that could have gone better, and our own opportunities to learn. I have found that there is an intrinsic empathy necessary to teach students to push outside of their comfort zone, face their fears, and learn to see the world in a different way. The discomfort of not only forcing oneself to live another’s experience in a particular moment, but also to actively search for a way to help is one of the hardest things to overcome. Perhaps, as the needs of classrooms change and the world shifts beyond all of our comfort zones, this lesson is more relevant than ever.

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