And you used to speak so easy
I have been listening to “Wounded” by Third Eye Blind and considering what would happen if that song came out now. A group of white men recorded a song about how the speaker would like to be intimate with a survivor, and how he wishes she could come back from the dark place she is in. The feminist critiques that spring to mind are numerous, but all revolve around the same principle – centering the white male gaze in the story of a woman who has been the victim of sexual abuse. Is it fair to say that’s what the song is about? Is that even the right question, is it fair.. does this explanation meet the guidelines of what the normative imaginary finds comfortable? Is that how you ask, “what does this song mean?”
I found this big nerd when I was looking up the lyrics to the song (because it sucks when you write a whole long thing on the basis of lyrics you completely misheard, right?), and he argues that we can expand this notion of relating to a victim to relating to the victim aspect in all people, up to and including the ways in which we are victimized or even victimize ourselves.
You’re afraid to talk to me.
Mirroring this rejection of acceptability politics (whatever the fuck) is a different, more fragile idea. I have an instinctive feeling that despite the elegance of the argument about the white male gaze, there is something fundamentally dishonest about dismissing the experience of being proximal to pain. Not only because of the emotional labor that a person does in the presence of pain, but rather because we are all in pain, and near as we are to each other, we are nearest to ourselves.
It seems to me that we live with two contradictory truths. The first is that pain is a temporary handicap that quarantines a person from serious personhood for its duration. We accommodate people in pain until they are “on their feet again,” and in return we know that when we are suffering, we have that same network to fall back on.
The second truth is that there’s nothing temporary, nor selective about living with pain; we are all doing it all of the time. We must consider people seriously even as we accommodate them without any end point in sight, outside of death itself.
The confusing tangle this contradiction makes of what we think we might be, and the relationship of that to what we claim to be, is at the center of being in the world. I have a feeling you know what I mean, that like me, you have at least some dim awareness that there may be parts of us that we ourselves have to meet. Call it the divine notion of a soul, call it the Kantian idea of things as-they-are vs. things-as-we-see-them, call it marketing psychology, call it individuation. We try calling it a lot of things, but there’s something lost in the systematization of self-encounter.
Specifically, in the quest for the freest will, a kind of control that is naturally beyond the scope of what we are capable, but which we are assured is our right and the thing most worth fighting for, we lose the ability to recognize pain we do not want because its very presence indicates a lack of control. Perhaps it’s better to say, we refuse to recognize pain we did not make. Perhaps it’s best to say we are afraid to face reflective pain – the existential pain that reflects back from the plain of our souls, like sunshine on snow.
It’s like walking with the wounded
The point is precisely that it is a matter of course, of every day happening, that we meet each other and ourselves amidst pain. It is difficult to countenance and yet brutally true that even the best public dialog has an obscuring property, something that is left in the dark in order to highlight something else. Right now our society is dominated by conversations about power and equality and these are important ideas. What they obscure, by definition, is the socially indiscriminate — those phenomena which do not privilege anyone, cannot have anything to do with political equality or anything man made at all. Existential pain is one such thing, there is no human structure that can prevent it, and no institution that can ensure it is doled out equally.
When confronted with public debates about political privilege, I fail myself and everyone else when I do not raise the point that to not take into consideration the pain that is not created by us is to fail all of us. I don’t bring it up in part because it’s difficult to say without sounding like an utter cliche. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Carrying that weight way too far, concrete pulled you down so hard
It seems as though a significant percentage of Americans in post-X generations take as an assumption that political justice speaks to or solves the personal struggle of being in an unjust world. To which we have to face two different and difficult truths: the first is that the injustice in experience — when something bad happens to you or something feels bad for reasons that are not or mostly not your fault — cannot be solved by just systems, because the injustice is endemic to nature. Justice is a human notion. Older religions seemed to acknowledge this: they valued people who were clever, or survivors, over the virtuous and the kind. It may even be true that religious notions which downplay these traits were originally politically motivated to engender subservience. That is, not that some divine will wants people to be subservient, but rather the political machinations of man made religious institutions might want that. Either way, this leads to the second, more devastating truth: whatever conditions are responsible for the logic that social justice is the same as personal well being deprive us of what leads to genuine well being, human connection. Let me be clear: the logic of social justice works against the emotional sense of homecoming and home-being that arises from feeling close to other people. It’s not necessarily intentional because the work of social justice often involves the deconstruction of comfort, but it can be intentional. To wit, any time anyone suggests that you should endeavor to remain actively angry all of the time, that is a rather obvious incitement to be unhappy.
That isn’t to say that social justice is meaningless or that working towards a more just society is futile, or will make everyone unhappy. Rather, it is to say that the work towards social justice is not the same as the work towards feeling at home in yourself and the world. The latter is accomplished through the familiar human connection of companionship and camaraderie. Acts of friendship as opposed to activism. If you try to turn your own personal struggles into the structures of social justice, you will do yourself a grave injustice. Give yourself permission to love across the boundaries of partisanship. I specifically mention friendship here because it is the most universal kind of love that is still particular in each instance — no two friendships are the same, and people who are very different from each other can develop close friendships. Friendship is to homecoming what partisanship is to representing. Right? So your political views speak to what you represent, and your friendships speak to the home you build yourself in the society where you are.
It’s easy to silo this distinction — we get personal satisfaction from friends and societal well being from politics — and call it a day, but that is to overlook an extremely important point, which is that existential pain is mixed up in both struggles, the one for belonging and the one for justice. It might seem like it should follow that a just society relieves existential pain by literally making it easier to exist. But ease is not the axis upon which we tend to value our existential being. How we do measure that value is complex but what is unquestionably true is that it it is bound up with the feeling that we are, personally, recognized — that we are known — and simultaneously that we can recognize, that we can know others. This kind of personal connection cannot be replaced with political solidarity, and when we try to do so, we build into the fabric of our society a tendency towards carrying pain around that we are not allowed to claim because it would be “unjust.”
For example, it is unjust for the speaker in “Wounded” to center his own desire to be close to a woman who has been victimized instead of centering her needs. That is the political read, the personal one will seem intuitively obvious to us: he was close to someone who was hurt badly and whose relationship with him has been hurt as a result, and that sucks for him, too. Both of these reads highlight something important about experience, both are methods for approaching pain. It seems as though it is taken as an assumption that personal happiness is secondary to, or less important than, social justice. This view offers us a false dichotomy, it is not one or the other, it cannot be. Achieving justice is important. Achieving happiness, where happiness is defined as a sense of belonging and comfort with oneself, is not the same thing and often requires us to see past narratives of political privilege and power, to validate the battle each person is fighting.
Out there with the wounded, we’re missing you.
Having established, I hope, that it’s okay to be in pain, it’s okay to recognize that pain, and it’s okay to recognize each other’s pain, regardless of any kind of question of justice, I think there is something offered here that can be taken as a comfort. I mention this because I understand that stepping back and saying, hey hold on a minute, this pain of being is endemic to my experience, it is not going to go away when we achieve political equality, is, in a way, a little bit crap. Maybe it’s not ideal that pain is something we carry around all the time, and maybe it sucks that it turns out the answer isn’t solidarity, or worse, that there may not be an “answer.” Not countering, but possibly altering our perspective on the notion of unavoidable, unending pain — that is a condition of existential being — is an idea I have that we naturally seek and share our existential concerns as a way of building intimacy between each other. Even though there is an aspect of homecoming that is coming home to the pain that perhaps was obfuscated or avoided via the rhetoric of politics, that same pain can be the catalyst to its opposite, the feeling that you are, without a doubt, exactly where you’re supposed to be.
It resonates with my experiences and understanding of the world to say that there is a way in which covering up or not acknowledging that kind of personal pain not only makes you lonelier but actually contributes to a general sense of fragmentation among the people you come into contact with. To wit, when you first realize that there are certain things you can’t say or believe, certain ways you cannot be, if you want to be loved in any situation, it’s going to be alienating. Sometimes that’s unavoidable, because every person really does have their boundaries, of course, but there’s a particular interaction in which it is clear that one person has bought into a set of ideas that he or she is repping — not a case of personal discomfort but rather a form of apologetics, “I refuse to meet you where you are because I have to justify my political ideology.” This moment is fraught intellectually as the focal question arises: why are we attempting to replace the personal experience of homecoming with the political experience of solidarity? But it’s also fraught in the basic, emotional way that a rejection is always fraught: “you can’t come in, you’re not welcome here” is a message that leaves the people who receive it more alone in their battles. Again, sometimes this rejection is necessary, and when that is the case, it is ultimately for the good, but where it is because we are rejecting emotional honesty as a whole, it only creates more fragmentation, more alienation, more loneliness. And we notice, whether we realize it or not, and we miss those potential connections that never had a chance to be.
Well I never claimed to understand what happens after dark
But my fingers catch the sparks at the thought of touching you
When you’re wounded
We are all in the dark, we are all wounded, we are all reaching for each other.