When Nice Is a Dirty Word
When I was 6, my mother’s friend
showed me his genitals
and told me to show him mine
so I did
When I was 8, my step-grandfather
kissed me with a slimy tongue
and patted my bottom
as I walked up the stairs
When I was 22, my stepfather
showed me pornographic photographs
on his computer
Three gratuitous men affirmed what I already knew: The container of my self—body, being, personhood—is not an inherent boundary to the wants of others. Unwittingly, I internalized and perpetuated this perversion. Maybe you did, too. After all, we’re supposed to be “nice.”
At 49, I’ve only recently begun to unravel the barbed rules of altruism wound tight around my psyche. These high-tensile wires are strong: The ultimate human goal is selflessness; to be evolved is to serve; to serve is to put one’s own needs aside in the face of others’. Mother Teresa didn’t run around satisfying her personal desires—nor did Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Gandhi, or Pope John Paul II; nor does the Dalai Lama. If our paragons of virtue, service, righteousness, and love are largely free of self-gratification, surely the rest of us should strive for those ideals too, however imperfectly.
My mother taught me the supremacy of selflessness. In our version, selflessness meant self-abnegation. By both example and maternal lecture, my mother instilled in me the lessons of her own family, her generation, and the culture we shared. Rudeness was a serious offense I had to avoid if I wanted to dwell in the safety of my mother’s warmth. “Rude” was a broad brush that liberally encompassed noncompliance, particularly when interacting with the outside world. A request from another person was inherently more legitimate than my feelings about that request.
I imprinted acquiescence. At 30, freshly divorced, I moved to a town with an outpatient behavioral health facility named Boundaries, its name embossed in gold italics on a tasteful wood sign. Each time I drove by this building I scratched my head. Boundaries? Wasn’t the point of therapy to dissolve one’s boundaries? To be more engaged, more available, less avoidant? I couldn’t understand why a therapy center would encourage separateness from the world.
This is how unformed, and uninformed, I still was. Slowly, with intention, I began to understand the meaning of boundaries and why a person with healthy boundaries is not fundamentally an asshole.
I knew I had questionable boundaries around physical intimacy. Some women have casual sex to satisfy their sex drive. They don’t feel used by a one-off or occasional encounter because they’re horny co-users. I am not one of those women. I’m envious of their physical empowerment. But I’ve never desired physical intimacy with someone I didn’t have good feelings about—and I need interpersonal context in order to know how I feel.
But here’s where my story falls apart. Because on too many occasions I’ve been intimate (attentionally, emotionally, physically) with people I don’t even like. I can’t understand it when it’s happening, and I can’t understand it afterward.
As a writer, I can be opportunistic in going with the flow simply for the experience and possible material; the story itself. But that’s not sufficient to explain why I gave myself to people I didn’t really like when I didn’t have to. I believe I could have freely and safely left any of those interactions. But I didn’t. If those people chipped away at my sense of self and personhood, I’d handed them the chisel and hammer.
Today, on the first anniversary of #metoo, I simmer in rage over Brett Kavanaugh. I rage that too few people in power care about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s demonstrably credible allegations. I rage because the man in the White House is a raving misogynist who exemplifies and celebrates rape culture, racism, xenophobia, violence, self-interest, and hatred. I rage because honesty, kindness, empathy, and love—core tenets of humanity—are not only ignored by the president and his supporters but mocked as weaknesses.
I rage because I have given myself away. And each time I did, I wordlessly said: “It’s okay for me to give you my [attention, time, person, body] even though I don’t feel good about doing so, because it’s a thing that you want, and I don’t know how to extract myself gracefully.” My inability to stand up for myself enabled the very paradigm I rail against. I buried my truth.
This rage is palpable inside my body. I don’t know what to do with it, but I need to do something. Tweeting at senators, making donations, joining protest marches, hanging signs in my windows—these things are important, but often feel ineffectual.
Mind the Gap
This rage is shared by many. Otherwise peaceful folk—both men and women—are bug-eyed, angry witnesses to the cultural moment. We don’t know how to get back to where we thought we were going. We’re driving with a shared GPS that at every turn blares “Recalculating!” and sends us back the other way. How do we navigate this nightmarish terrain?
In the way that all politics are said to be local, we need to start close to home. Perhaps this scenario is familiar: You’re working at your favorite café and an acquaintance stops to talk. You politely remove your earbuds and greet him warmly. He launches into a detailed exposition of his import business. This is not a topic that interests you. The minutes drag on and you try not to think about your work window ebbing away. Discomfort rises in your chest. At what point can you politely interrupt the monologue and get back to work? You can’t get a word in edgewise. With dismay, you realize that a full 20 minutes of your life have elapsed.
Don’t let this be you. Give the acquaintance a two-minute chat and then—you can smile when you interrupt, if it helps—tell him you need to get back to work. Don’t apologize. The discomfort you feel in exercising your boundaries is far less damaging than dishonoring yourself. When you don’t say no, you tacitly say yes. It doesn’t matter if you’re at a coffee shop or naked in bed. If you don’t feel comfortable, or if you don’t know how you feel, it’s time to excuse yourself. In practicing boundaries with consistency, we teach the world that we are not a buffet for the taking. In practicing our boundaries, we stand in support of sexual assault victims whose boundaries were run roughshod with a tractor. We stand with the girls, boys, women, and men who didn’t have the opportunity to say no, or whose nos were ignored. Exercise your boundaries for their sake, as well as your own.
Exercise your boundaries for Dr. Ford.
Stop giving yourself away in the name of courtesy. Stop giving yourself away in the name of conflict-aversion. Stop giving yourself away in the name of wanting someone to like you. Like yourself more.
Let us fit into the curve of a collective left hook as it lands hard against the jawbone of our societal dysfunction.
To disappoint no one is to be no one. Be you.