Monday, May 1, 2017

on being happy and guilty

2017. I've had such a beautiful, blessed, sprawling life so far: twenty-three privileged years of being white and wealthy and loved and safe. 

There was public school in suburbia. A Bachelor's degree. An apartment with a hot tub.

Parents who came to all my guitar recitals and poetry readings and choir concerts and who showed up for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Timberline Middle School six nights in a row when I was playing Potiphar's Sexy Maid in 8th grade. Parents who read Faulkner and Steinbeck and Brontë and Dickens and Le Guin. Parents who took me to church on Sundays and picked me up from Kaitlyn's house late at night and drove me all over Utah County. Parents who fed me whole wheat bread and never smoked crack cocaine or whatever.

A big rock house in the middle of an old naturalist artist's community from the 1970s surrounded by woods and weeds and sunflowers and sage brush. A romping, rolling fairy wildlife as my childhood: deer and raccoons and scrub jays, the dirty foothills behind the house, a hot black trampoline in the summer. Air-conditioning. Land Rovers and Jeeps and Jimmys. Rescuing little hurt baby things from the rough wildnerness of my neighborhood: premature kittens and a squirrel with a broken leg and a pair of tiny, raw-looking starlings that rode from California to Utah in the hood of an old John Deere tractor and died after a few days. My dad drawing cartoons in his wood-smelling studio and watching Bonanza and Gunsmoke at lunchtime. My mom making big, cheeky, panoramic art quilts and winning blue ribbons for them. My dad showing me Harryhausen films and The X-Files and The Twilight Zone and Raising Arizona. My brother coming in dirty from soccer, or tennis, or whatever. My mom baking elaborate loaves of bread and sketching in a notebook when she got bored at church. My dad playing Scarborough Fair on the guitar downstairs when I was falling asleep at night. My brother reading Garth Nix and Hellboy and Brandon Sanderson. My mom playing Carol King loudly when she cleaned.

I, like, skied as a kid. I had a family where everyone just went to college like it was no problem. Everyone loves each other so, so much. We all call each other just to talk. My mom always buys the Girl Scout Cookie cupcakes I like on my birthday. My dad is working on Curious George. Me and Dylan are both writing novels. My sister-in-law just directed a production of The Jungle Book. Everyone is happy, and weird, and wonderful.

So I'm bragging about my sunny, pastoral life ad nauseam. The thing I'm attempting to convey is less gloating and more bewilderment. More bafflement. More astonished, astounded, eye-blinking/eye-rubbing, dazed wandering through the halcyon sunbeam of everything that has essentially just been handed over to me randomly and reasonlessly. I was basically just plonked unceremoniously into a dreamscape with all the lovely, wonderful things I could've ever needed or wanted. I can't even believe my own buck-wild luckiness.

I'm graduating from college with a Film degree (eye-roll) and a Creative Writing minor (eye-roll) and a Women's Studies minor (mm, I'm not eye-rolling this one). I spend every single day with Hunter Phillips, who is ambitious and easygoing and gracious and brilliant.

Here's Hunter: tall, leggy, left-handed, an American citizen, a Mormon convert. A movie-watcher. A dog owner. Currently reading Flanner O'Connor. Full of political/global angst. Lover of The West. Honest and upstanding and sexy in a vaguely cartoony way. A feminist. Hunter Phillips has promised me a Boston Terrier. Dating Hunter is like dating Abraham Lincoln. I wish we were all dating Hunter.

I'm healthy and young and basically graduated from college. Nothing scary under my bed. I'm neurotic and anxious and moody and full of venom -- I've been heartbroken and depressed and scared and self-conscious and a lot of other unhappy things -- but my life is essentially good.

I don't believe that I've ever done anything to deserve the life I have more than someone else. I truly think this was all bonkers, stupid luck -- and that stresses me out so much. There are better people than me living in worse conditions, in unhappier circumstances, and in tragedy.

I want to talk about the weird guilt of being #blessed.

I think it's important to note that I'm not just talking about pure, simple happiness in this post, I'm talking broadly about happiness + privilege. Being able to live so freely and with so few social dangers is a product of being born white and upper middle class in Utah. There are certain luxuries, liberties, and securities that I get to take advantage of simply because I'm not part of a marginalized minority -- and let me make it explicitly clear that the privileges that I have because I'm straight and white and cisgender and have wealthy American parents are unfair and the fact that my quality of life is better because of this privilege is wrong and sinister and it is a giant problem that the entire world is facing right now.

Here's what I think is the closest thing you can get to Making Up For It: freakin' spreading the wealth and sacrificing hard for those who aren't as arbitrarily lucky as you. It's not settling into the charmed, cheerful goodness of being safe and prosperous and healthy and just watching it pan out before you greedily, accumulating more and more privilege to the point where you can't identify with or really even recognize those who are in the midst of The Struggle. And I'm not just talking about donating to women's shelters or the WWF or putting in long hours at the local food bank -- although these things are all wonderful and noble and necessary, and we do need to be serving in these capacities. But I'm talking about just the regular scope of your everyday life. You on Twitter. You in statistics class. You at the mall. There's a certain way to weaponize your own privilege against privilege. Learn to engage in productive discussions about privilege/disadvantage and speak up against problematic behaviors and ideologies; learn to step aside when it's time for someone else -- someone who doesn't have the same built-in entitlement that you do -- to enter a space of success or authority that maybe doesn't include you for once. Maybe it isn't our ("our" meaning those of us who are wealthy and straight and white and whatever else) time to harvest wildly and overwhelmingly anymore. What we're hoping is that the millennium-long tyranny of Straight White Males can finally end and that women, PoC, the LGBT+ community, everyone that didn't have it so easy, can finally be in a position to experience the kind of freedom and safety and general quality of life that we've been taking advantage of for so, so long. It isn't about reversing the oppression dynamic so that all straight white people will be oppressed the way minorities have been for centuries -- it's about fixing the oppression dynamics altogether so that antiquated systems of hate and degradation and bias won't have to exist at all.

So it's about moving aside and not taking all the easiest routes every time. It's about letting other people have some of what you have, and not hoarding every good thing for yourself. It's about not getting everything first and best and only

One thing that I feel very strongly is that there is enough bounty, enough delight, enough joy to go around, but the world has been taught to be selfish. I don't think that sacrificing and working for other people is a means of letting go of the gifts and pleasures that you already have, it's more of a way to broaden and expand them, and to let other people fit inside your privileged circle of safety and good fortune.

I live in luxury and abundance, gluttony even. The thing that I'm trying to better is to make it so other people don't have to have such a hard time because my good, easy life.

"My head cocked toward the sky, I cannot get off the ground." (James Tate)
-Avery Jalaine


  1. Anonymous17.5.17

    Hey, it’s me again. I’m not trying to be combative, I promise. I just like challenging people who I think are smart. I mostly want to talk about the implications of what you’re saying as it pertains to economic inequality, as opposed to the social problems facing minorities defined by other factors you also mentioned.
    If I correctly understand the gist of what you’re saying it’s that it’s ok and possible to enjoy the privileges exclusive to us fortunate ones, so long was we try to better the situations of others. This is the best solution to living with that scary uneasy feeling in your gut when you think about the inherent injustice of, well, everything. That sounds good, I guess. At least, it sounds better than any reasonable alternative. Living in perpetual anguish because of your own privilege seems almost disrespectful to poor people. If I were starving to death I suspect I’d probably have less patience for the well-nourished SJW writing white guilt thinkpieces than even the most ardent Trump supporter. Besides that, I guess there’s the option of choosing poverty like some kind of monk, but that doesn’t really pass the utilitarian test, because rich people’s wealth is the best tool in alleviating the suffering of the poor, right? Or maybe not, I don’t know. The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think your point of view is any worse from the rest.
    The thing I’m more interested in is questioning the real implications of privilege. Before I say anything else, let me be clear: this is different than questioning the existence of privilege. Any sane person acknowledges the depressing reality of economic, social, and racial inequality. I’m down for all those causes, I promise. I just think privilege kinda has its own issues. I’m not convinced that rich, privileged people are often that happy. In fact, I think there’s a decent amount of literature that would indicate the opposite; studies that say suicide is a privilege most commonly enjoyed by the rich, that depression rates are highest among high-income countries, you know what I’m saying. If I’m permitted to be a little more anecdotal, you’d surely concede that one would be hard-pressed to find a low income high school with more suicides in the last decade than Lone Peak, a high school that is anything but low income.
    Let me just reiterate the questioning the happiness of rich people is not the same as questioning the plight of the poor. I am most definitely not questioning the plight of the poor. I have almost no idea what it’s like. That hopelessness, frustration, all the things I’m told about what poverty feels like, I’ll never know them, but I’m thoroughly convinced they’re terrible. I’m just also wary of esteeming the Western liberal rich ideal as the best way to experience life because I know so many deeply sad rich liberal people. Sometimes I feel like education is directly correlated with existential dread. Is that crazy to say? I mean, if ignorance is bliss, what’s the opposite?
    You’re a David Foster Wallace fan, right? I’m sure you’ve seen that video of his commencement address at Kenyon College, “This is Water”. If you haven’t, it’s basically a guide on how to be a better person through increased mindfulness of the conditions of those around us. His words are much more eloquent and inspiring because, you know, he’s David Fucking Foster Wallace. When you watch it though, you can’t help but be reminded of the sad irony the remarks have been tinged with since his suicide in 2008. Here is maybe the most mindful, aware guy the world has ever seen, and eventually he succumbed under the weight of the intellect that made it possible. Do you see what I’m trying to say? In some ways, life has to be a little easier for the comparatively ignorant.

  2. Anonymous17.5.17

    The bottom line is, even if it’s possible to absolve ourselves of individual responsibility for global suffering (a daunting task on its own) does that really mean anything, considering the scope of it all? The world is at this point more or less designed to make a few people rich and to comparatively fuck over most everybody. What’s worse, this beta is the best version in history by far! Never has there been a better time to be poor. And the suffering is still unimaginable. This fact is inescapable. And while I think it’s necessary and noble for all of us to try to alleviate that suffering as much as we can, just as you do, I think it’s more comforting in the scheme of things to consider that us rich people might be the saddest of them all, at least in some ways. That’s the closest thing to cosmic justice you’ll find.
    (whatever that means)


Oh thanks. You're pretty.