Knowing How We Know

Pleasant Progressive1There’s something about the experience of being in my own body that does not translate into being able to figure out what I look like. It’s an odd thing to say, but it’s my lived experience. I suppose that most of the time, I have a pretty good sense of how others see me. I hear feedback about how a dress looks or what friends think of certain jeans. I look at photos or I ask questions. Sometimes, though, I’m completely out of whack despite these inputs.

To be perfectly honest, it’s really just anxiety about my weight. I can’t figure out if I’m twenty pounds heavier than I was last month or only four. If I go on a long run, I am decidedly seven pounds lighter. If I eat Doritos and M&Ms, well, it’s Fatty McGhee for me. Again, clothes fitting any which way doesn’t help, nor does a mirror. I’ve got a skewed self-perception that translates into inconsistency in my own sense of my physical presence. It’s an odd mental block that means I’m challenged in being able to figure out what me looks like through my own eyes.

Understandably, everyone is talking nonstop about Syria. Obama said he wants to respond decisively but needs Congressional approval, and Congress said it’s not yet sure and needs more time on cable news to discuss. Pundits are weighing in, too. Maureen Dowd wrote an interesting piece last weekend about the problem of Syria, where she argued that we’re making a decision about whether to engage in the shadow of Bush’s Iraq war. It’s a pretty simple observation, but an important one in trying to figure out why certain progressive voices are supporting the president and some allies of the Department of Defense are uncharacteristically holding back.

The whole situation feels strange to me because we’re trying to decide the correct course of action while also facing questions about our identity that seem incongruent with how we perceive ourselves as Americans. It’s not abnormal for our leaders to ignore America’s own issues of poverty, hunger, and lack of access over the concerns of a country most of us can’t find on a map. It is odd that they’re talking about what it means to be a superpower, how the world will perceive us, or whether the decision to engage is based on conscience and morals or other, more nefarious incentives.

Perhaps thanks to Bush (!), Americans are less willing to sign off on WMDs meaning a military invasion regardless of the cost or consequence. But if it doesn’t correlate anymore, are we still the greatest country in the world? Are we dependable? Who are we to the rest of the world? More importantly, who are we to ourselves?

I listened to an older episode of This American Life last week that they re-broadcasted for Labor Day weekend as a sort of summer finale. The entire show was a series of stories the reporters put together after spending a few days at a highway rest stop interviewing the staff, people on their way to vacations, etc.—it’s a great show if you have the time.

Toward the end of the hour, Nancy’s Updike’s interview with a middle-aged guy named Dan touched me deeply. Dan was on his way home from spending time with his sons post-divorce and Nancy prodded him to talk about how things had changed for him and his family. At one point in the story, Dan says this about his ex-wife:

She didn’t want me to go to the house to pick the boys up. And then, you know, one week we’re having a good conversation and the next week something like that comes up, and you’re like [GASP]. You have the thing, you want to call that person and yell at them, and talk to them about it, but you don’t have that relationship anymore.

Something about Dan’s last sentiment—about how relationships change so that intimacy and closeness just disappears—it struck a nerve with me. Everyone knows things change, but sometimes you’re not ready for the coldness of the realization because it drains any hope you’d been storing up that things could be different.

Pivots in how we know someone else or even in how we know ourselves aren’t easy. We have to be able to see things accurately, or at least know when our perceptions are colored. Perhaps we can even identify why there’s a hue on our glasses in the first place. We have to be able to answer difficult questions about what change means for our future. And we have to learn to be content with the process itself, whatever the outcome.

With love,
The Pleasant Progressive

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