Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Anxiety, insecurity and the importance of being studiously uncool

A post under development: This is a blogging experiment. This long post will sit here at the top for a while. I will visit it and make improvements from time to time. If it works, I'll keep blogging this way some or all of the time.

Somewhere, I can remember, I read someone who characterized anxiety as the thing you feel when you don't have the courage to have an actual emotion. I think that's a deep and true observation.

By way of contrast consider resentment. It is one of the lower emotions. No one admires resentment. But it also makes a certain amount of sense. If someone you can't retaliate against, say your boss or your girlfriend, humiliates you, you resent it. It's all you can do. Yes, you have to move on and yes it will only do you harm to nurture and maintain that resentment. The correct response is to get over it and quietly begin looking for a new job or a new girlfriend.

But resentment is often the right emotion to have. It is a rational response to the world in that it identifies the cause of your suffering. You might identify the wrong target—for much of my adolescence I resented my father because I, like most boys, had a hard time being honestly critical of my mother. But resentment, like all emotions, can also be absolutely right and justified. Most times it is. The problem is that we feel resentment rather than anger because we are incapable, or at least feel we are incapable, of challenging the person or persons whom we resent.

Not so with anxiety or insecurity. Those feelings, they don't rise to the level of an emotion, have no target. They are vague, but often intense, fears of we know-not-what.

A few years ago, I had an experience where I got to see into the anxiety of others. I got to see the sort of sexual anxiety that plagues many women. Not surprisingly, the experience left me a little smug. But it also gave me insight into my own anxieties and a sense of how they worked on me. It was a life-changing moment. Like all such moments, I'd been building up to it for years and it took several years after that to put what I'd learned into practice. It would be to credit too much to say that everything changed in a flash. It would be fair to say, however, that a basic truth that I had long been working on was suddenly revealed. It was a moral epiphany.

In those days, we had an unfixed male dog. Unfixed because the breeder had reserved the right to later breed him. There was one other such dog in the neighbourhood and I and the dog were walking up the street on which this other dog lived. We made slow progress. My dog had to find every spot this other dog had marked and then replace that marking with his own urine. This required him to methodically sniff over the entire area pee on the identified spots and then return to sniff again to make sure he had obliterated all trace of his rival.

Going so slowly, I had the time to catch all of an interesting human drama that took place ahead of me. A man was waiting in a parked BMW sports car. The woman he was waiting for came out of a house and down to the car. She was something else. You could tell because she was dressed in her club clothes. She'd put on ankle boots and a light cropped jacket  that were meant to get her from the house to the car and from the car to the club and weren't any good for any more than that. She was beautiful and very fit, you could see that she spent a lot of time in the gym. She was also Japanese. I wouldn't normally bring that up but, as you will see, it's important to the story.

The guy got out of the car and held the door for her. He didn't kiss her. They were going out on a date but they were not yet a couple. There was something charming and innocent about it all.

And then it all went wrong. The guy got back behind the wheel and promptly got stuck in the snow bank. I think he knew better than to do what he tried to do but he felt so much anxiety because he was taking this amazing woman out on a date and now this car, this expensive car, which he saw as an extension of his manhood, was stuck in the snow. He pinned the gas pedal, down, put the steering wheel way over and polished up the ice real good.

My dog and I meandered towards them. I could see this guy getting more and more frustrated. It was sort of funny only I knew how he felt. I'd never been in exactly his situation but I knew, I imagine most guys do, what it felt like to go from everything going well in a situation where you feel lots of anxiety and insecurity to having it all fall apart.

Seeing him losing it, the woman got out and went back to push the car. She was strong enough, I suspect stronger than most petite women but she was still petite. And she wasn't dressed for it. So I tied my dog to a post and suggested that she let me do the pushing and spare her clothes. I went around the side and, as gently as I could, suggested the guy straighten out the front wheels. I felt for him; I could see that flash of self-hatred we all get when someone has to remind us of something we already knew and stupidly forgot. I braced my self between the car and the snowbank and pushed it out.

The woman had that gift that some, but not all, women have of being able to turn her smile onto full wattage and she bathed me in that warmth and thanked me in polite but formal terms. She was speaking to a man 25 years older then her and she addressed me the way school kids used to talk to teachers and, I suspect, the way a lot of Japanese children still do. English was clearly her second language but she spoke it well, albeit in that very formal way that second-language speakers do. It was very pleasant to be on the receiving end of. I would have enjoyed prolonging it, and her politeness wouldn't allow her to just turn and run but I could see her looking nervously behind her and could tell she was concerned for the feelings of the man who was not a stranger old enough to be her father but her date so I did my best to match her politeness and formality and let her go her way.

And they drove off.

Now you might well think that no one present could have been more unhappy than this young man. You'd be wrong about that.

At some point my liberal, feminist fried S had come along with her dog and she had stood watching the last part of this play out while the two dogs sniffed one another over. When I turned to  talk to her, she was a blustering mass of insecurity. She kept repeating things the woman had said over and over again in a mocking tone. She seemed to feel that I should be deeply embarrassed to have received this few seconds of positive attention from a young woman.

I walked home and promptly forgot about it.

The next afternoon I went to the dog park and S was there along with a number of other dog walkers. The second she saw me, she was again reduced to a blustering mass of insecurities. She immediately launched into the tale of what had happened in the same mocking tone she'd used the night before as if I had something to be ashamed of. That I wasn't ashamed clearly made it worse.

And then S added a detail to the story that only existed in her imagination. She reported in mocking tones to all the other women present that the woman, whom neither of us had identified as Japanese, had supposedly said, "You certainly are strong sir." Sometime since the night before, S had transformed an articulate, well-spoken and poised young woman into a crude, racist stereotype.

It gets worse.

All the other women, who'd been listening somewhat dubiously up until then, started to join S in laughing and mocking this woman. As long as she was only, as S had made very clear to them, a hot college girl dressed up to go out, they'd had no problems with her. There are plenty such women in this neighbourhood as we are located near a campus. The second she was identified as oriental, and so identified by crude caricature, they all got threatened.

I understand the fear. Some, but not all or even the majority, young Japanese women put a lot of effort into being women. Some, but not all, Western women don't and consider it a point of pride that they don't. Right up to the moment they encounter a very fit and attractive young Oriental woman who puts a lot of effort into being neat and feminine. Then they, like the young man whose car is stuck in the snow, they are reduced to helpless rage. The problem is that their feminism, like the sports car, is an outward expression of a sense of self worth they don't really believe in.

What they feel is anxiety and insecurity and it cannot rise to the level of an emotion because it can't be directed at a specific target. Emotions have to be targeted or else they cannot exist. To be in love is to love someone. Love cannot not exist otherwise. Likewise to be jealous is to be jealous of some person or situation and so on through every real emotion. To suffer anxiety or insecurity is just to have a feeling of foreboding that some undefined threat is out there somewhere; you don't know what, you don't know where from, but you just feel it.

What prevented S from seeing that she was insecure was her feminism and liberalism. She couldn't blame the woman directly for failing to be sisterly and be as uncaring about being feminine as S was because feminists never blame the woman. That was amplified  by the fact that the woman was of another race. S tried to transfer her shame to me, it was her only choice, but she could hardly make that stick as all I had done was to silently enjoy some polite attention I had received. I'd had my back to S throughout the encounter, in any case, so anything she thought she saw was her own projection and it was that projection that was full of anxiety and insecurity.

Why? Because appearance really matters to S. You can be sure of that even if you don't know her as well as I do because study after study has shown that, from age nine up, women of all cultures evaluate their self worth in terms of appearance. Not surprisingly, this can be a tremendous burden. Burden or not, it's unavoidable. We could wish it otherwise but all women evaluate themselves in these terms. If it was just in the west, we could dismiss it as a perversity of the culture but it's everywhere.

But there is something that is peculiar  to the west and that is the desire to solve the problem by being cool about it: that is the desire to make the problem go away by putting some ironic distance between yourself and the thing that defines you. That is what stops us from being able to cultivate a proper emotional response to the things that challenge us.

The most pronounced form of this irony is the desire to deny our sexuality by reducing it to "gender". Faced with the challenge of being good at being a woman or being good at being a man, we prefer to act as if we have infinite variety of choices to be what we want. We don't. You are a woman or you are a man or , extremely unlikely, you might be a hermaphrodite. (Ironically, while many in the west have tried to blur or minimize basic genetic differences between men and women, the definition of what it is to be hermaphrodite has gotten more and more specific and exclusive in recent years.) Whichever genetic group you fall into, your only real choice is to be as good at being a woman or a man as you can. We can have an argument about what makes a good woman or what makes a good man and there is a wide variety of possibilities within those two categories, but there are no real choices outside them.

Faced with the issue, many women like S have chosen to be feminine on their own terms and when they feel like it instead of making it a life-long moral project to become the best woman they can be. That sounds daunting, and it is, but it shouldn't be threatening. To be the best woman you can be is to judge yourself against yourself and that is liberating. To refuse to do so, is to surrender to the opinions of others and to live a life where you are always subject to the judgments others are making of you or, worse, the ones you imagine they might be making. All the brave bluster of the independence S imagines she has from what she believes to be merely cultural norms of womanhood vanished when she saw that beautiful Japanese woman.

A big part of that fear was that the woman was not only fit, well-dressed and feminine but also petite and exotic. S is a normal sized white woman. She has no trouble with her weight and she is more attractive physically than most. She is not petite however and she is not exotic, although she would be if she moved to Japan. If she did that, she'd make Japanese women feel insecure because they could not match this tall, blonde woman. Other people will always be different from us and will always have different strengths and weaknesses. None of that, however, explains why S and the other women had the extreme, almost paranoid, reaction they did have.

What does explain it is that, in the name of freedom, people in the west have given up the only variable we actually have control of. We can disguise other weaknesses, and a huge amount of money is made by selling women clothing and make up that will, they believe, hide their flaws. And that works. To a point. But the most basic choice—to be a good woman or to be a good man—we deny ourselves by refusing to be women and men in the first place. Driven by anxiety and insecurity, we spend our entire life running from fears we are unwilling to be honest enough to label instead of running towards virtues we could be developing.
"Working out to look great may be shallow, but so is wearing makeup, taking selfies, and grooming of any sort. Pick your shallow." Dani Shugart

As a man ...

I've been easy on the guy at the wheel of the car for the simple reason that I know too well what it feels like to be him. Too often, I've gone from feeling masterful to failure and responding by pushing the the accelerator, volume pedal or whatever is hand all the way to the floor even though this only can reduce me to an impotent child.  That happens because the feeling of being masterful was a fraud right from the beginning.

That BMW sports car was a crazy choice for the Canadian winter. It would make a limited kind of sense to have such a car and put it away in storage for the winter, assuming you could afford such a thing, but, otherwise, grow up and drive the sort of sensible car an adult man would drive. If you need a sports car to be a man, you aren't. And yes, I know, it works: there are lots of women who will be fooled by the sports car. But here's the thing, you'll only be getting them by fooling them; you'll always be a fraud and you'll know you're a fraud.

Being masterful, and a man should be masterful, means knowing how to deal with failures and setbacks. To think that nothing should go wrong and that life owes it to you to never go wrong is to act like a child and not a man. That's why the pedal goes down and the feeling of helplessness goes up. If we spend all our time both denying and dreading failure, we will be utterly unable to deal with it when it comes, as it always will.

What he should have done, was to laugh at himself, apologize for the inconvenience and that asked the woman if she would mind getting behind the wheel while he pushes the car out. Any man of my father's generation who wasn't a pimp would have known that without thinking about it. Pushing cars out of snowbanks is a manly responsibility. Men are supposed to be strong. (In this case, it may have been that she was nearly as strong as him but that only shows what a poor job he had been doing of being a man all along.)

I could go on and on ... . I know this guy because I've made the same sort of mistakes myself once upon a time.

But there is something else. One of the big reasons we men stay trapped in our unmanly state is that we fear women. We spend too much time seeing them as the gatekeepers for sex, which we have convinced ourselves we cannot live without. We believe a lot of foolish nonsense about women being morally superior to men, especially about sex. We buy into crap about men being afraid to ask for directions instead of acknowledging that we tend to be, on average, better than women are at navigation.

As a consequence, we regard it as unreasonable to want, not expect or demand but merely think such a thing is desirable, a woman to be womanly. Scared of her, we settle for any woman willing to accept us and give us sex. If she is unwilling to value and cultivate her sexuality after we have committed to her, we act as if we have no right to complain. And we keep this up until the day it comes pouring out in a whiny rage. That, however, is not satisfying because we don't feel we have the right to complain and, in any case, we express our dissatisfaction in such a childish way that we completely undermine ourselves.

That is why seeing S and the other feminist women at the dog park react the way they did was so liberating. I'd spent years feeling guilty for wanting women to be womanly. To see that their confidence was all a facade that collapsed instantly when confronted with the slightest challenge was to see that they were no better than me. And to further see that they were challenged not by any real threat but an imagined one based on a racist stereotype that they harboured (a racist stereotype I'd too often heard women accuse men who said aloud that they found an Asian woman attractive of having) was what sealed it. As I said at the top, this epiphany was a long time coming. I'd been feeling it for a while, all I needed was something to sharpen the image such that I couldn't miss it. The liberating thing was to see, after years of feminist berating, that women are just as bad as men are at all the things men are bad at. The solution, therefore, is not and cannot be feminism. The solution is to grow up and face that we are men and that we should be as good as we can be at being manly men while expecting them to be as good as they can be at being womanly women.

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