above: In the Right Place, 2017, ©️Stephanie Cosby
I am watching the landscape change as the light shifts. Right now, shadows on the snow are delicate blue where they reflect the mesh of empty oak bows and dark dimples where they define footprints. Yesterday it was overcast; dead reeds and dry grasses glowed tawny and gold in the delicate light.
“New Chapters,” the theme of this issue, seems a fitting one for this time of year, when the expanding edges of light on each side of the day promise the reinvention that comes with spring. But one can’t talk about new beginnings without acknowledging what came before. There is no spring without winter. The lengthening light is thrilling because of its contrast with the long dark. The death and decay of one season’s leaves nourishes new life in the next.
It is easy to appreciate these sorts of relationships – dark and light, death and life – in the natural world, and to see the inherent beauty in wintry times. Sometimes, this perspective lends itself readily to the rest of life: difficult experiences have the greatest potential to enrichen us with compassion, understanding, or resolve; it’s from hard times that beautiful growth and change are born.
But sometimes the metaphor is not so straight forward. Not all hardship, not all difficulty, is created equal.
The MeToo movement of recent months – particularly the honest sharing, by so many women, of the sexual or sexually-infused experiences that hurt or haunt them – has affected me in unexpected ways. It was a revelation, for me, to learn how many women felt shame about their role in their stories; how many women felt, for example, that they should have responded at the time with more indignation, disgust, or outraged self-defense. I had not realized before how many others felt that they too had failed, by their own estimation, to act with sufficient self-respect, and therefor were at least partially responsible for what happened to them. This hash self judgement – a sort of low self-esteem for not having enough self-esteem – led to isolating silence and often the repetition of experiences that further corrode self-regard.
Hearing others’ stories has me thinking about the concept of self value. For so many of us, it’s been a need of affirmation, acceptance, or approval from others that renders us vulnerable or makes us agents of our own injury. For many, self-doubt or a faltering sense of self-worth is linked in a perpetuating cycle with experiences of abuse or compromise. These, then, are not the sort of difficulties that forge strong and wise adults. So many of the experiences tallied in the MeToo count are – to extend the metaphor – dark cold times that just lead to more of the same.
My daughter is one and a half years old. She is pure and powerful, and completely at ease in herself. She does not question her desires, and is unflinching in her demands. She does not apologize for her appetites, her moods, or her boogers. She is, in every state, as inherently perfect as any other wild ecosystem.
Of course I want her to go through the challenges that will hone her into a compassionate, understanding adult. I want her to wrestle with failure, work hard for rewards, and experience, in due time, the griefs, disappointments, and discomforts that foster depth of character. I want her to become a person of understanding and empathy. But I never want her to question her essential, core, worth.
We must not settle for a culture that pushes all the responsibility to evolve – to endure, to improve, to grow stronger from hard times – exclusively on its individuals. The MeToo stories illuminate some ugly social architecture that allows power to prey on powerless, and in this harsh light, facing truths, is our opportunity for collective – cultural – reinvention.
We want our children to experience hardships that will make them mature adults; for this to be true, it’s on us to make sure that even when they are in their coldest and darkest hour, the guidance they turn to is as wise and fair and compassionate as we hope they themselves become. What might this look like? It would mean that conventional practice would be to listen believingly to those who are vulnerable, to hold those who are in power accountable to the highest standards of leadership, and to remind our children, and ourselves, of that basic worthiness that, when we are toddlers, we never question.
The stories others courageously shared lit the landscape of my own past in new way. I experienced a self forgiveness I had not known I was lacking, and a great tenderness for the many other people I know, now more surely than before, are caught in cycles of self-judgment and self-punishment. But it also ignited a resolve. For the sake of my daughter, and others’ daughters and sons, I will be part of forging a new chapter in my country and community – one where pain and sadness were not for naught, but helped us grow stronger and wiser, and better.