This morning, I made the bed. I walked back and forth, around the bottom of the bed to the other side. I didn’ t count how many times; but enough to straighten the sheet and the duvet, fluff the pillows, and place the extra blankets. Maybe you do this every morning, or maybe you’ re someone who doesn’ t like to or have to make your own bed. It’ s probably not something that you think of as a privilege. A year ago, making the bed, I stood in one place, in pain, and pulled at linens, leaned on things, stretched – anything to decrease the walking from one side to another.
Each motion planned, each amount of pain anticipated and dreaded, all to have the normal experience of a made bed. As soon as I made it, I was tired enough to crawl back into it. Then, it was a chore. This morning it was a privilege – something I could take for granted. Losing privilege is part of life. At different stages, for different people, it means different things, in much the same way that privilege evidences differently for each individual.
The privileges I feel the loss of most acutely are those we never think of as privileges, not the ones that disappeared because of the changes in the way others viewed me or treated me as a result of my gender, ability, or age. The biggest losses are the small things that add up to creating the day: ease in motion, things going smoothly, being able to go with the flow when a plan falls apart, taking things for granted, and the ability to be flexible physically and behaviorally. Spontaneity.
As a teenager, I was pretty stuck in my head. I had insomnia (which probably had to do with my Diet Coke addiction) and my brain would spin feverishly all night long. Despite my myriad activities like the school newspaper, dance classes, French Club, acting, directing and producing shows, I still felt captive inside the constant analytical motions of my brain.
My endless activities were an attempt to escape home, which was not a safe space for me. My retreat into my brain was adaptive, as well. It was easier to be mired in dread and confusion than to make the wrong move or say the wrong thing, for fear of inciting rage, repercussion, punishment, and humiliation. This kept me from authentic interactions, not only at home, where it could bring about damaging results, but everywhere. I formed a protective habit around too much thought and not enough action.
Freshman year at Columbia, I was part of an experimental theatre group studying Spolin Technique. Many of Viola Spolin’ s theatre games are based on stimulus –response. You are given a situation, a “point of concentration” and perhaps one other factor. For example, you might be at an airport trying to get on a plane, but there is a problem with your ticket, and you and the other participant can only speak in gibberish. In this scenario, the entire situation must be resolved without words. There was no right or wrong inherent in the exercises; they were all about process. The anxiety I experienced in and around this workshop, which met three times a week for 3-4 hours, was incredible. I was sure I was going to do it wrong, but in truth, I kinda didn’ t want to do it at all.
The fear of being wrong met the fear of taking action in a beautiful storm. Our facilitator, Peter B. Cucich, would “side-coach” us — politely, or not so politely, remind us of our POC, our situation and try to invoke even one genuine, in the moment, response. It must have been frustrating to try to get this group of intellectual and overly intellectual late teen and early twenty-somethings out of their own heads, but he tried with gusto at every meeting. By the time I got what we were trying to do in the Experimental Theatre Workshop, I had left Columbia, transferred to NYU, gotten a degree – well, you get the picture. It took forever to assimilate the ideas that we were exploring into my body. It took more dance, more acting, directing training, heartache, life lessons, yoga, meditation, being a Deadhead, and years of indie film production.
It took my ‘ Year of Yes,’ during which I said yes to every offer to go somewhere or do something that anyone made – even if it was something I was sure I didn’t or wouldn’t like. From all these experiences, I clicked with what it feels like to be in the moment, to respond from the place of pure being, to let go in the ways that allow true spontaneity.
It’ s such a great place! I really loved it there. I could stop taking things personally. I could stop worrying about the outcome. I could just be and then act from that place of being, instead of reacting. In this state, it’ s easy to experience joy; it’ s simple to be inside creative flow, it’ s lovely to welcome other people.
Though it might not be so, it feels that as soon as I got there, I got kicked out. I’ m not trying to be biblical here, although that whole Eden story might be worth reconsidering from this perspective. A cascade of not very beneficial events led me to the place of being physically injured, traumatized, without income, and exhausted. In this state, everything is a big deal and worry is a constant. Joy vanished, and I got sucked back into my teenage mind, the one that couldn’t make a decision on even the smallest things for fear of reprisal or disaster, only now, the consequences were deep and real.
A friend once said to me that responsibility is just our ability to respond. Maybe this seems obvious, but when I heard it, it was a little revelation.When we lose privilege –through disability, through gender, through class, age, or otherwise – we are subtly or not so subtly losing our ability to respond.
Yet, the more I encounter the doors that unstable income, injury, trauma, gender, and age close, the more I realize how wrong we’ ve gotten it. It’ s not about independence. It’ s not about dependence. It’ s about interdependence. We can fight this truth, to our collective detriment, but it won’ t change reality.
My favorite Twilight Zone episode is the one where Burgess Meredith, a misanthrope, finds himself alone, post-apocalypse, amidst a library of books. All he’ s ever wanted is to be alone and read, but people and life always got in the way. Now, there isn’ t a soul in sight and almost every book ever written –he’ s euphoric. Until – SPOILERS – he breaks his eyeglasses, leaving him unable to read, and alone, forever. It’ s an awful life lesson he gets, that we simply cannot do without each other. No one is independent, yet we keep operating as if this were true. Building an interdependent world would mean acknowledging some basic truths about the condition of being human, that no one’ s privilege lies beyond the fallibility of the human body, and no one is exempt from times of grief, sadness, suffering, illness, and mortality.
It would mean compensating for each other in times of woe, without judgement, without quid pro quo, and without force. The musical chairs model of life, where there are never enough seats, and someone is always left out, seems outdated. We know there are enough seats. We know how to make more. We know that everyone has a tribe. We know we are all interconnected. It’ s a small shift to acknowledge this, and behave accordingly.
Yet it remains the domain of privilege to keep othering those who are not just like us, while simultaneously espousing our own uniqueness, our specialness, our not like anybody else-ness. When you have lost privilege, you meet different people. You hear different stories. You get your heart broken every day – not by your own troubles, but by the troubles of those you encounter on the path.
In that moment in life of being least effective, you want to harness all your powers for good and for positive change. You want to help. You are completely unable to do so. The world of those who can help, those who are privileged, is oceans away. They are making or not making their beds, joyfully or joylessly taking the task for granted. They can’ t even see where their ease, their plenty, and their energy would be so welcome.
More Radical Reads: Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Well-Intentioned People
The dilemma of privilege seems to be that we cannot see it in ourselves. The dilemma of losing privilege is that it makes us invisible.
Somehow, these two worlds need to see each other, see for each other.
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[Feature Image: A black and white image of a light-skin person staring at their reflection in the mirror. The person is wearing a polka dot scarf with bark brown hair falling at their temple. ]