Divide and conquer.
It's a phrase that has existed, in some variation or another, for well over two thousand years, and an idea that has existed seemingly forever. As a strategy, it is as brilliant as it is perverse - keep the people fighting amongst themselves, and they will be too weak, too fractured, to fight you - and it has worked far more often than not.
It's not hard to understand why this strategy is so successful; humans are hardwired to desire an authority figure and to be suspicious of those we see as "different". Any particularly ambitious and immoral person can exploit the latter to become the former. But to maintain that power, to increase that power, that takes some real work. It is easy to remind people of tensions that have always existed - to poke the bears with names like Right, Left, Race, Religion, and Sex. It is a guarantee that there will always be stereotypes, there will always be bigots, there will always be clashing ideologies, and anyone clever enough to manipulate that fact will always have a good chance of grabbing a little power. It's easy to keep hot buttons hot. Real power, real influence, however, comes when you can create conflict between those who once saw themselves as being on the same team. It's easy to start a fight between a left-winger and a right-winger, for example, but what if you could get two lefties to declare themselves enemies? What if you could get historically oppressed people to fight - often viciously - amongst themselves? What if you could get generally privileged people to pick petty arguments between one another? How much easier would it be to control things then?
Way easier. That was a rhetorical question. It would obviously be way easier. Better even yet would it be if that in-fighting happened organically, and I fear that's where we are heading. It no longer requires any real effort on the part of the powers-that-be to create conflict between allies. We now happily, willingly, righteously, throw ourselves into battle with anyone who disagrees with us even slightly. Feminists hate feminists. MRAs hate MRAs. Liberals hate liberals and conservatives hate conservatives. Black activists disagree with black activists, LGBTs fight with LGBTs, Christians battle other Christians. And, on some level, that's a good thing. I do not believe it is healthy to develop a hive-mind, to launch oneself into an echo chamber, and to never duke it out amongst ourselves. It is infinitely valuable to hear different perspectives on the same topic or ideology. When it becomes problematic is when we make a foe out of anyone who does not agree with 100% of what we believe. When we reject would-be allies due to a single difference of opinion. When we begin to see vibrant colours as the fence-sitters in a black and white world. When we are comfortable making enemies and bigots of those who are neither. And that seems to be, if not where we are just yet, the road we are on. It's not a road I am happy to be traveling.
Don't get me wrong - I vehemently believe we must be honest and unflinching in what we truly care about. I do not expect anyone to stand down or compromise on significant, passionate issues. What I do expect is some cooperation. I expect humans to recognize one another as humans, and to acknowledge and respect the fact that we will never be in perfect agreement. I expect us to wake up to the fact that the more divided we are, the easier we are to conquer. That the more importance we place on petty differences, the less likely we are to accomplish anything. I expect us to view the society we live in as a direct reflection of ourselves, and to act accordingly.
Divide and conquer. It is as brilliant as it is perverse. And it works because we let it.
Liberal. Men's Rights Activist. Atheist. Gender-queer. Conservative. Muslim. Feminist.
I'm willing to bet all the change in my pocket that at least one of those labels made you a little itchy. At least one of them caused you, maybe even involuntarily, to raise an eyebrow or get your fightin' words ready. We all do it; we all have our biases and are often eager to see those biases confirmed. We assign these labels to others, or they apply them to themselves, and we immediately begin forming a response. An argument. A desire to tell them that they are wrong, and we are right. We hear these labels and we form an image in our minds, and that image is rarely pretty.
And that's a problem. That's a really, really big problem, in fact. As soon as that image takes form, we begin to see them as the "other". We begin to separate us from them. They become caricatures to us, rather than other real, feeling human beings with genuine concerns of their own. It becomes very easy to see others as the enemy, and to dismiss their worries, and their humanity.
--And this is the part where I have to write a disclaimer, because that's where the world is right now. No, I'm not about to tell you that you have to just smile and nod at that aunt who always drops the N-bomb at Christmas dinner or that you should respect a Nazi's opinion. Bigotry does not ever, at all, have to be tolerated. Period.--
When we allow ourselves to see these labels as tiny little boxes that most definitely contain things we hate and fear, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and society in general. We are saying we are okay with prejudice. We are saying we are comfortable in our ignorance. We are admitting we are hypocrites, but not willing to do anything about it. We are saying we would rather hate than talk. We are saying that our own personal beliefs trump the very basic needs of every other human being on Earth. That we are okay with people suffering, so long as we can stay righteous in our ideology. And, worst of all, we are often entirely wrong about these people in the first place. We form our opinions on a foundation of their loudest and most awful. When we think of feminists, we don't think of the people worldwide who are fighting to give women equal rights, we think of white Western women on Tumblr complaining about manspreading. When we think of Muslims, we don't think of people forming prayer circles around Christians, we think of terrorists and western invasions. We think of liberals as hypocrites and conservatives as bigots and MRAs as misogynists and atheists as immoral and gay people as degenerates. We choose to see everyone different from us as somehow worse than us, and our society reflects that.
While we're busy coming up with clever memes about "libtards" and new insults against Trump, nearly two million Americans are sleeping on the streets. While we bitch about Trudeau attending a Pride Parade and come up with new and awful things to call Muslims, the fentanyl crisis is killing Canadians. Both countries have serious problems, from crime rates to housing shortages to healthcare accessibility, and we are either ignoring them entirely or blaming them on our favourite scapegoat. And it is largely due to our insistence on absolutely refusing to work together - to put aside our biases and realize that we all live here, that we all need the same basic needs met, that pointing fingers accomplishes nothing. It is that itchy feeling we get when we hear labels that trigger our intolerance that guarantees no real issues will ever be addressed, as we've decided that it's "their" fault. That "they" created this mess. That "they" are distracting us from the real issues. We don't see "them" as real human beings with feelings, with genuine concerns, with something to contribute. No, no, we see them as the problem, the reason things keep getting, in our minds, worse.
And so, I must ask you all a question. How has your calling people "libtards" improved the healthcare system? How many homeless and crisis centres have been built on the foundation of you calling people misogynists? How many women worldwide have you advocated for by chanting "feminism is cancer"? How much safer is your neighbourhood now that you've posted a meme about Muslims planning to invade the western world? Did your bills get easier to pay after you called Justin Trudeau an idiot? Did the housing shortage get solved that time you posted a meme calling conservatives bigots? Has this us vs. them, hate everyone who doesn't think like me, insult people on Facebook approach solved a single problem that you are concerned about? No? Then stop it. Please.
Feminists, MRAs, conservatives, liberals, LGBT people, Muslims, Christians, atheists, are all, for the most part, just ordinary people living ordinary lives. They aren't the enemy, they aren't evil, they aren't immoral, they just have slightly different concerns than you do. They have beliefs you do not share, and yes, that can be scary or maddening or concerning, but I'm willing to bet that if we all set our biases aside, if we all ditched the hyperbolic, childish, extreme rhetoric and had an actual conversation with these folks, we'd find an awful lot of common ground. And we'd sure as hell have a better chance of changing things for the better.
I certainly can't tell you what to do. I can't demand that you stop posting stupid memes and misinformed news stories on Facebook, or that you suddenly become tolerant to views you abhor. I can, however, ask you to, at the very least, stop for a moment and ask yourself if your biases reflect reality in any way whatsoever. If you genuinely believe that "they", whoever that is to you, are truly the awful people you think they are. I can ask you to take a moment out of your day to ask yourself if hating them is improving things at all, for anyone. I can ask you, ask myself, ask everyone, to put their money where their mouth is, and start actively working for what we claim to believe so dearly in.
Most years, I begin the year with a post entitled "The Obligatory New Year's Eve Post". I opted not to this year, because said obligatory post is usually just a cheeky, one-off comment on how last year went and where I figure this year will go. 2017 seemed deserving of a bit more depth.
A lot of us are entering this year with some trepidation. 2016 took a lot of our childhood idols (raise your hand if you're still mourning David Bowie and Prince). Our pop-culture took a brutal beating. Our economies left us nervous. Tragedies and travesties in Syria, the Philippines, Germany, France, India, and the U.S. - just to name a few - left us reeling. The American election gained worldwide attention, disappointment, and suspicion. And it ended with Donald F***ing Trump becoming the president-elect. We've seen a resurgence of bigotry, of bitterness, and yes, of hatred. How do we walk, head up, into this year, from a place of love when everything seems so...well...terrible?
We just fucking do, (sorry Mom) that's how. We insist on it. We demand it of ourselves. If 2016 was anything, it was a year in which we all had to face hatred and sadness head-on, and keep on keeping on in spite of it. We all got a good lesson on the fact that bigotry is alive and well, that justice is rare, that hatred often does, sadly, win, and that our heroes are humans, just like the rest of us. Some will take those lessons as instructions on how to build a wall, how to put up defences, how to return hatred with hatred. But the rest of us, those of us who have bigger goals in mind, will take those lessons as instructions on how to love harder. We will - we must - hold ourselves to a higher standard than we ever have, and hold steady in our love for this world, for our fellow humans, for existence itself. We must resist the urge to declare enemies. We must take some responsibility and claim some power and put ourselves in charge of the revolution. We must - and this is the hard part - not stoop to the level of our opponents.
I almost finished that paragraph by saying "in fact, we must not see them as opponents at all", but that's not quite right. We do need to acknowledge that people with opposing views often do seek to harm one another in some way. It would be silly and dangerous to sugarcoat or ignore that fact. But we also must acknowledge that some of what we read as hatred is actually just fear in disguise. We must keep in mind that where we see our morals and ideals under attack, our polar opposites do too. And, most importantly, we must realize that no minds have ever been changed, no fears have ever been assuaged, by being declared an enemy. If we choose to cut off all communication to those with opposing views, if we choose to offer knee-jerk responses and accusations of bigotry to anyone who sees things differently than we do, we may as well just volunteer to dig their heels in for them.
To love in an era of hatred is to choose to both speak up loudly and listen quietly. It is to look for solutions that do not just serve us, but serve our "enemies" as well. It is to stop seeing them as enemies, and start trying to see them as fellow humans with fears of their own. And, when that is not possible, when it becomes obvious that they really are enemies, to oppose them, to fight them, with dignity and self-respect rather than with an equal disdain and desire to see them suffer. To love in an era of hatred is, quite simply, to consciously refuse to hate, even where it may be deserved.
I've kept pretty quiet on the election results, for many, many reasons. To name the top few: I am not American; I do however have a large American family; said American family is diverse in their politics; I think I understand what just happened, and don't think either side really wants to hear it. That said, my grandparents both recommend a 72 hour mourning period before one launches themselves forward, and that hour has come.
First and foremost, I am upset too. Let's get that straight right away. A Trump presidency is frightening and angering in a lot of ways. He's a buffoon - a hotheaded ball of chaos with his fingers on the literal button. He's a demagogue, an arrogant, ego-driven, reckless man with nothing to lose. The idea of a man like that being the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth is nothing short of horrifying.
I'm scared for my gay friends. I'm scared for my - let's just be honest here - anything but white friends. I'm scared for my female friends. Not of Trump, directly, but of what his win represents. I'm frightened by the idea that such a significant portion of the population voted for a person, and a party, that so unabashedly disrespects social and equal rights. I'm furious that their concerns about vague threats outweighed their compassion for their fellow human. I'm deeply concerned that Mike Fucking Pence has been offered even the slightest taste of power (if Trump is your real worry, you haven't been paying attention, I assure you). I'm saddened that people I know and love proudly and loudly voted for a party that will persecute other people we know and love. I've seen families literally split by this election, and as much as it breaks my heart, it seems rather unavoidable - how can one's gay, or immigrant, or Muslim, or disabled loved one look you in the eye with love, knowing you voted for a party that would happily mock them and strip them of their basic rights? The anger and devastation is palpable, and it's justified.
But let's get real, here: this isn't about Trump. Captain Cheeto didn't create this situation out of thin air. His success is the direct result of an angry, fearful, disenfranchised population. He tapped into an already brewing atmosphere - he read the crowd, and he did it well. He knew that people were fed-up, annoyed, put-off, and shunned. And, I'm really, really sorry, but it's partly our fault. By "our", I mean we, the allegedly progressive. The socially engaged. The so-called liberals. We had a hand in this, like it or not. The regressive left, in particular, pushed and pushed and pushed until it was inevitable that they would be pushed back, and hard. This is, at least partially, the result of accusing everyone who disagrees with you even slightly of being racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or xenophobic. Many on the left have spent years collecting enemies rather than building alliances, and are just now seeing the result of that. This is a push-back, have no doubt about it.
Trump isn't actually that scary - the man is a life-long classic liberal. What is scary is what his nomination represents, though perhaps not in the way most think. What's scary is that you, America, has become so divided that half of you voted for a reality-TV star to be your leader, and the other half of you are literally questioning democracy because of it. What's scary is that white supremacy has become fashionable again. What's scary is that giddily, and vocally, waiting for my parents' generation to die is considered an acceptable response. What's scary, from afar, is watching your divide get deeper and deeper with every passing moment.
If there is anything I've learned in my 36 years on Earth, it's that hatred does not conquer hatred. I understand why the right is riled. I understand why the left is horrified. I understand that vast numbers of people on all sides of the spectrum are fed-up, disappointed, frustrated, and angry. What I do not, and refuse to, understand is making enemies of one another. I refuse to accept the idea that most people hate most other people. I do not believe that is true, and this election doesn't change anything for me in that regard. I do not believe that most Trump "supporters" are racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic. I believe they are fed-up with the status quo, and took a gamble, partly because they are sick of being called all the aforementioned names for having different concerns. I do not believe that most Clinton "supporters" are war-mongers, rad-fems, misandrists, or sell-outs. I believe they are fed-up with anti-feminist sentiments, legitimacy being given to bigotry, and unbridled, irresponsible knee-jerking.
Neither Clinton nor Trump were truly popular candidates, and for good reason. Few could truly get behind their messages, few could really take them seriously. And that, right there, proves that you have more in common than you think. You are all fed-up. You are all frustrated. You are all disappointed. You all want better. And so, I ask you, I beg you, I implore you - please, please, please, demand better. Do not make enemies of yourselves, build alliances. Recognize that the rights you want for yourselves absolutely have to translate to rights you want for others as well. You cannot claim to be pro-freedom while actively trying to deny your fellow citizens their right to pursue happiness. You cannot claim to be pro-democracy while shaming people for voting their conscience. You cannot claim to be pro-life while advocating people's deaths.
The choice is yours, America. You can hate, or you can build.
Nothing was half-assed this year. From peaceful activism to violent terrorism, mass shootings to mass prayer circles, blizzards in Australia to droughts on the West Coast, no one and nothing was all that subtle. Donald Trump became a thing again. Bill Cosby became a thing again. Star Wars became a thing again. Legends departed and legends were reborn.
In my own little world, babies seemed to drop out of the sky at every turn, and death wasn't any less insistent. Decades-spanning governments were dumped abruptly and unapologetically. Friends changed names, addresses, genders, and careers, seemingly quite suddenly. Old flames were reignited and lifelong friendships were buried in silence.
Sure, these things happen every year, but for some reason, 2015 seemed a bit more...intense. A little more extreme. Perhaps it was the many political campaigns across the globe, perhaps it was the moment when Facebook memes became an accepted form of communication, perhaps it was the whole terrorism thing. I don't know. I just know that all around me, people are lamenting, celebrating, cursing, and rejoicing 2015 in a way they did not in previous years.
For me, the year was one of waiting and watching - a far cry from what it seemed to be for everyone else. Nice things happened and shitty things happened and I was good to myself sometimes and bad for myself at other times and I did some things and I didn't do some things, but most of this year was sitting still, for better or worse. I'd be lying if I said I didn't regret my lack of action this year, but I'd also be lying if I said that stillness was in vain. I gained an understanding and appreciation for humanity, even when it's at its worst. I learned that even the most despicable and disappointing views can be, if not empathized with, at least understood. I allowed myself to stand strong in my stillness, refusing to sway. I got a little bit better at being honest while still being kind. I took a micro-step toward balance.
And that, dear everyone, is what I wish for you this coming year. I wish you understanding. I wish you kindness, both given and received. I wish you wisdom. I wish you stillness.
Mostly, though, I wish for everyone to take a breath and count to ten. I wish that we would stop and listen just a little more often. Or, you know, a lot more often. I wish for us to accept and understand that those with views different from ours likely aren't as terrible as we believe they are. That everyone has a reason for believing what they do, and that most of us are capable of changing our minds. I wish us a bit more patience, and a lot more empathy. I wish that when our knee-jerk reaction is to ban and silence, we consciously choose to instead engage and challenge. I wish we reached for the middle more often. I wish we feared less and embraced more. I wish that we judged less and appreciated more. I wish us all more strength and honesty, more tolerance and acceptance, more willingness to understand.
I wish for us to value the word "us" a lot more.
In the immediate wake of America's recent Supreme Court decision, my Facebook news feed featured little else than various takes on the story. Most people were celebrating and congratulating. Some were cautiously optimistic, but quick to remind everyone how much farther the U.S. had to go. A few didn't care much one way or the other, and just wanted to know when everyone's profile pictures would go back to normal. And then there was that handful of people who changed their profile picture to Weeping Jesus and informed us the end was nigh.
I get it. I come from a religious family, and understand the belief that every step we as a society take away from Christian values is a step toward Judgement Day. I come from a conservative province, and understand the fear that liberalism is a slippery slope toward moral decay. While I do not agree with them, I do not condemn people for holding those beliefs. That said, when I see people I know to be loving, intelligent individuals cry out in horror and lament what an apparent outrage this decision is, when thinkers I generally respect begin ranting about the Gay Agenda and their noble Pro-Family opponents, when those charged to love and lead turn to hatred and harm, I have to wonder if they're reading from the same Bible, and the same Constitution, I am.
You know what truly upset Jesus? Poverty. Selfishness. Judgement. Greed. Finger-pointing. Dishonesty. Condemnation. He had little to say about romantic relationships. He had little to say about the law lining up with your personal beliefs. He had a whole lot to say about charity, kindness, and selflessness.
You know what really concerned the Founding Fathers? Liberty. Choice. Freedom. They had nothing to say about personal relationships, and made clear the government would not be run on religion. Rather, they spoke of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, the liberty to live as one sees fit.
Jesus and the Founding Fathers spoke passionately and often about these things. They wrote essays and speeches on them. They gathered their followers to hear their words on them. Their emotional and spiritual appeals on them have been immortalized.
Yet, conspicuously missing from my news feed is outrage that the richest nation in the world allowed 3.5 million people to go homeless this year. I've not seen any declarations that the obscene wages and outstanding greed of the top 1% indicate the end is near. Few are invoking the founding fathers when faced with the government spying on its own citizens, cameras on every corner, and an ever-increasing number of supposed freedoms being curbed. I haven't seen a single Weeping Jesus posted in response to the fact that about 16 million kids go hungry each year - in fact, I haven't seen anyone discuss that fact at all.
A lot of people are worryingly eager to express their outrage about homosexual unions, yet are staggeringly silent about greed, hypocrisy, poverty, and judgement. If this is about religion, allow me to remind you that there are over 500 Bible verses condemning greed and the coveting of riches, nearly 100 about charity, several dozen instructing you not to judge others, at least twenty that charge you to focus on your own sins before the sins of others, and...three about homosexuality (two of which are found alongside commandments to not eat shellfish or shave...). There are more verses about divorce than about homosexuality. There are more verses about foods you shouldn't eat than there are about homosexuality. Yet, I do not see anyone lamenting the decay of society because Red Lobster and divorce lawyers exist. If this is about what America was founded on, well, I could write at length about that, but suffice it to say, the founding fathers strongly supported personal liberty, believed the scope of the government should be small, that no one should be forced to live under another's religious beliefs (and nor should anyone be denied the right to worship as they please), and that all people are created equal, deserve equal rights, and are free to pursue happiness.
I cannot stop anyone from opposing homosexuality and gay unions. I cannot prevent anyone from feeling strongly that they are wrong, or even sinful. But I can ask you to be honest. I can ask you to stop pretending that your indignation is truly Christian or patriotic in nature. If it were, you would immediately set it aside, as there is no actual foundation for your outrage. If this were truly about Jesus or about America, you would be too busy feeding the hungry, burning down Wall St., defending your liberties, and removing the log from your own eye to concern yourself with two people who just want to love freely.
I've never been one to surround myself with yes-men. I like conflict, I like debate, I like being exposed to views I might not consider on my own. I'm happy to have friends with completely different opinions to mine, even if I strongly disagree with them. But, if my Facebook feed is any indication, there's something much more sinister creeping into my social circle. Something that goes well beyond a difference in opinion. Namely, vague, sourceless memes and statuses about the many benefits illegal immigrants and refugees get that we born and bred Canadians are decidedly denied. In the last week or so, two in particular have raised my hackles. One, which has apparently been circulated since 2004, details the huge amount of government funding refugees receive (in comparison to the pittance pensioners get), the other kindly informs us (IN ALL CAPS OF COURSE) that illegal immigrants are handed a job, driver's license, and huge sums of money upon crossing the Canadian border.
You may have guessed from previous posts of mine that I have zero issue with immigration. I'll even go so far as to say I have zero problem with illegal immigration. I'm not a big fan of claiming ownership and exclusivity over chunks of dirt. But that's not what angers me so much about these viral pseudo-diatribes. As I said earlier, I take no issue with my friends having completely opposing views from my own, even if I find them awful. No, what pisses me off about these is that they are fucking nonsense. Few things make me as irate as the intentional spreading of misinformation, especially when its inevitable result is bigotry against our fellow humans. And don't kid yourself - it is intentional, and it will lead to bigotry. There is no excuse for inciting hatred and mistrust of others using misinformation and outright lies - the only reason one can honestly offer for doing so is that those "facts" support their own personal biases. It takes literal seconds to fact-check; anyone not bothering to do it simply doesn't want to.
But hey, I'm a generous person. Maybe it was an honest mistake. Maybe they were having a bad day. Maybe they swear they read this was true, somewhere, at some point. Maybe they just don't know where to look for the facts. Just in case, I thought I'd do them all a favour and gather the information for them. Here, in no particular order, are the real answers to these allegedly hard-hitting questions about Canadian immigration.
It's not immigrants that pose a threat to this nation. It is misinformation and bigotry. We are going out of our way to pass along non-facts in an effort to diminish the positive aspects of immigration and multiculturalism. We, one of the best educated nations on Earth, are intentionally spreading wrong information. If that isn't threatening, I don't know what is. So, the next time you see one of these posts, the next time your anger at all this unfairness flares, the next time you're tempted to utter the now laughable phrase "they took our jobs!", please, for the love of all that is good, stop. Check your facts. Check the numbers. And check that leftover Chinese takeout sitting in your fridge.
It's hard to know where to begin this post. I've written, deleted, and rewritten the opening line dozens of times, and the clock has not yet struck 6am. I didn't want this post to be about me - it seems tacky and selfish - and yet, it's impossible to ignore the parallels and influence present. I didn't want this post to be about him - there are already tens of thousands of those that all say the same thing - and yet, it's so hard not to launch into a recollection of his greatest achievements. I didn't want this post to be all about depression - his goal was, after all, to make us laugh - and yet, this feels like an opportunity that should not be wasted. And so here I sit, wishing to express so many seemingly unconnected things, and having no idea where to begin.
From the time I was old enough to say my own name, I have thought about Robin Williams, quite literally, every single day. That may seem like an overstatement - who the hell, aside from a deranged fan, thinks about a celebrity every day? Someone that has to say his name numerous times a day, that's who. When you grow up with a celebrity's name, especially an insanely famous, hilarious, and well-loved celebrity, it's impossible not to think about them often. For 30-some years, I've daily gone through the same routine - at the bank, at work, at social functions and interviews. I introduce myself, or hand back my form, or wait for my number to be punched into a computer. Pause. Smirk. Inevitable lame joke. Apology for lame joke. Questioning of my parents love for me. Rinse and repeat.
It dawns on me now that sharing a name with, and being a huge fan of, such an iconic figure has influenced my life more than I might have realized. Even that name you see at the top of this page - Robyn J. Williams - was influenced by him. My legal name is Robin Williams; I swapped the "i" for a "y" and added my middle initial in the hopes that people might not make the connection as quickly or as often (and to ensure I had any hope of securing a domain name). This may go a long way in explaining why, for the first time ever, I feel a genuine sadness at the passing of a celebrity. It's no exaggeration to say that there are few, if any, memories I have in which he played no role - even if that role was often just a bad joke at my expense.
But it of course goes deeper than that. Mr. Williams and I didn't just share a name, we share(d) an illness. He made no secret of his struggles with depression and addiction, and knowing that a man who brought so much light to the lives of others couldn't find the light in his own is a hard blow. It serves as a stark reminder that depression knows no boundaries. It does not care about your fame. It does not care how many people adore you, or how many followers you have on Facebook. It doesn't care that you have a good sense of humour, it doesn't care that you're talented. It doesn't care about your scholarship to Juilliard or your HBO special. And it most certainly does not care about your bank account balance. When people ask - and they have, and they will continue to - how a wealthy, successful, beloved man could possibly have anything to be sad about, it tells us that we still have much work to do in educating people about mental illness. It tells us that people still do not understand that depression doesn't have a face. That people can carry their depression in their pockets, laughing and joking and filling the room with positive energy all the while. That it's always the last person we expect. That we never see it coming. If we can manage to pull anything positive out of Robin's suicide, it will be a little more knowledge and a little more awareness. Perhaps, finally, we can begin to understand that this is a real illness that can affect, and even kill, those who seem most immune to its symptoms.
Rest In Peace, dear man.
You're only given one little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it. -Robin Williams
My grade 5 year, 1990/91, I was a chubby, geeky, awkward girl. I didn't have many friends. I wasn't athletic, or popular, or into dolls or cars or make-up or mud. The nerds had rejected me, as I wasn't big on maths, and I thought the A/V club was preferable only to death. I liked books and poems and paintings and music. I spent a lot of time alone. When grade 5 started, I was nervous. I'd already been labelled a "teacher's pet", liked much more by my liberal, hippyish art and language teachers than by my fellow students, and though the label didn't do me many favours, I at least had those teachers to stop my school experience from being completely miserable. But now, standing at the front of the classroom was this old, conservative looking, presumably Christian woman, who I was sure, by those very characteristics, would hate me. I had no idea just how wrong I was.
"Oh, my little poet-to-be, do you think you could pry yourself away long enough to do this equation?" She smiled and winked at me, obviously trying to meet me halfway between enforced curriculum, and my own passions. I'd do the equation, often incorrectly, and she'd calmly walk me through it, undoubtedly knowing it would never sink in. I'd nod in feigned understanding, and go back to my seat to finish whatever it was I'd been writing.
"Robyn, wait," Mrs. Pashuk would say, stopping me on my way out the door. "Hand it over."
I'd pull that day's story or poem out of my binder and give it to her. Her response to it would depend entirely on whether it was about that day's lesson or not. If it was, she would keep it and grade me on it. If it wasn't, I'd get a half-assed lecture on how, even if it was boring, I needed to pay attention in class, as I was a bright kid, and one day, the amount of knowledge I possessed would matter. I think she knew she was fighting a losing battle - that it was highly unlikely I was ever going to pay attention to things that bored me - but that she felt it important to at least try holding my feet to the ground.
Never, however, not even once, did she attempt discouraging my writing. Even when she knew I was ignoring the lesson, even when she knew I wasn't doing what I'd been assigned, even when I would spend the entire day alternating between staring out the window and jotting down lines, never did she tell me not to write. Instead, she'd tailor the lesson to me - she'd challenge me to write a poem or short story about what we were going to learn that day, ensuring that I'd actually pay attention, as I'd want to write a good piece. She'd try relating math to language, as hard as that must have been for her, so that I'd have at least a cursory understanding. She'd play me songs that discussed history (I'll never forget us first laughing at, and then really digging into, Bony M's "Rasputin"), she told me about scientists who were also poets to pique my interest, and she introduced me to painters who were relevant to the lessons we were being taught.
At Halloween, she would make homemade popcorn balls; at Christmas, realizing that our school was highly multicultural, rather than decorating the room in standard Christmas adornments, she'd ask us to research our own culture's winter celebrations, and bring something in to add to the room. Before summer break, she played us songs from Elvis' "Blue Hawaii" - that was, in fact, the only time I saw her as a vulnerable person. A few students mocked her for playing something as ancient and outdated as Elvis was to 90s children, and she actually broke down in tears. All she'd wanted was to share her love of music, and give us something fun and summery to listen to in our last few days before break, and her being laughed at for it apparently hit her hard. I remember being angrier than I'd ever been that day - this woman had showed the same love for the cruel, seemingly heartless bullies as she had for the sweetest and kindest of kids, and here they all were, teaming up to laugh at the silly old lady with her silly old Elvis records. It was that day - despite the fact that it was only a few days before we left her class forever - that the relationship between Mrs. Pashuk, myself, and a couple of other classmates, changed permanently. It was that day that previous alliances were severed, and geeks, bullies, preps, and jocks, joined together, in opposition to those that had formerly been our peers. Some of us were horrified by how some others had treated her that day, and what clique we belonged to had absolutely no bearing on the side we took. It was a day of growing up, and a day of learning to stand our ground. Some of us, who had previously remained silent to damn near everything, loudly proclaimed our distaste for their behaviour. Some of us, who had previously clung tight to our clique, boldly took the side of "the enemy", in solidarity with a woman who had made a sincere attempt to connect with each and every one of us. Some of us grew a little that day, and Mrs. Pashuk, from that point on, fostered in us a belief in ourselves. Not just because we had stuck up for her, but because we had defied our social expectations, and stood up for what we thought was right. And, in her typically fair and bold manner, also (later) defended those who had mocked her, reminding us that they had every right to not like what others liked.
I can't say that, without Mrs. Pashuk, I wouldn't have become a writer. I can't say with any certainty that I wouldn't have published a book or written for websites or started my own business. But I can say with absolute certainty that I would have had to work far harder to learn the necessary lessons, that I would have had to overcome much more doubt, and that I would have had far less confidence. I can say with absolute certainty that the way Mrs. Pashuk approached me forever changed my own approach to learning, to writing, and to communicating. I can say with absolute certainty that her influence made me a stronger, smarter, bolder person. That, after leaving her classroom, I felt more equipped to face the real world, even if I had no idea at that point what it actually was. That her belief that everyone could succeed, that everyone had a passion worthy of following, that her seemingly genuine love for everyone, completely altered the way I viewed my peers, and life itself. That she was the first person, outside of my own family, that sincerely cared whether or not I succeeded.
We love you, Mrs. Bevery Jean Pashuk. May you forever know the good you did in countless lives. May your legacy live on well beyond the 81 years you were given. May you Rest In Peace.
If this blog is anything, it's a collection of contradictions, and this post is no exception - last year, I posted about my no-resolution policy - this year, I am posting my resolution. That's not really a contradiction, however. I still maintain my no-resolution position, for the same reasons. It was just a coincidence of timing this year that I had my latest epiphany just a couple of days before the calendar flips.
I've written about my struggle with weight a couple of times. I've written about my struggle with drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. I've written, rather proudly, about my overcoming of those issues. What I have not ever written, however, is how even overcoming is a temporary thing for me, pretty well always. Yes, I lost 75 pounds. I also gained 30 back. Yes, I quit smoking. Three different times. Yes, I gave up drugs and drink. Right up until I decided staying hammered for a year was an excellent idea. It's ok if you want to judge me for those things - I certainly have - but before you decide to do so, please hear me out.
My resolution this year is quite simply, and most difficultly, to be good to myself. I will not resolve to get skinny. I will not resolve to never drink again. I cannot even promise to never again smoke a cigarette (though I do hope I manage at least that). Hell, I'm drinking a double whisky and staring at a box of chocolates as I write this. It seems to me that my struggle was not ever with weight or with drugs or with alcohol or with cigarettes. I have, in fact, been both genuinely happy and sincerely miserable drunk, sober, thin, fat, smoke-free, and in the throes of a pack-a-day habit. What I was doing was never the issue. Why I was doing it was. I tend to be a woman of extremes. When I was thin, I had a certifiable phobia of food. When I was fat, it was my bestest friend ever. When I'm drunk, I'm really, really drunk. When I'm sober, I recoil in horror at the thought of any adult beverage. And so on, and so on. Whether I'm being "good" or "bad", the underlying issue remains - I'm just not all that good to myself. My sobriety or weight-loss was never a result of sincerely wanting to be healthy, it was the result of hating myself long enough to deny my body any pleasures. Likewise, my weight-gain or drunkenness was never a result of being comfortable with who I am and what I enjoy, but the result of hating myself so much that I just didn't give a shit.
This year has been a rocky one, to say the least. I hit my lowest point professionally and personally, watched helplessly as my dad suffered and recovered from a stroke, and re-adopted several of my worst habits. Rather than being angry with myself or anyone else, however, I have opted to be thankful. I have chosen to see all of this as a learning experience - of a clear declaration of who I was, who I am, and who I want to be. I have chosen to no longer dwell on any rut I may feel I am in, and instead look up at that opening. I have chosen to be good to myself.
Wherein I say
whatever I want.