I borrowed an epiphany from my brother when I was visiting him for Thanksgiving. Roy and Idil were giving me a tour of their house when I noticed Half the Sky on one of their bookshelves (I tend to focus on people’s books during house tours).
“I tried to read that, but it was too depressing,” I said.
“Huh,” Idil mused. “I thought it was supposed to be really empowering.”
“Oh. I didn’t get very far. I just really hate reading over and over again about all the ways women are abused throughout the world. But…maybe I’ll just skip to the empowering parts.”
Roy laughed. “That’s an interesting idea,” he said. “Why should we force ourselves to re-experience something we know is bad? We have the right to give ourselves a break and just get to the good news.”
“Yes,” I said fiercely, absolutely confident in my two-seconds-old opinion. “That is 100% correct.”
A few months ago, I forced myself to read exactly 22 pages of Pornland, which only got me through the preface. It’s a book about how our pornography-saturated culture is creating generations of men who are learning to associate sexual pleasure with increasingly violent actions against women, and the explicit examples Dines describes are sickening. Much like Half the Sky, it was painful to read, and despite my desire to be knowledgeable on this subject, I had to stop.
The thing is, it’s easy for me to get into a negative headspace. And when I’m focusing on all the ways in which the world is awful, my inclination is toward helplessness, not toward the sort of righteous indignation that will inspire change. Forcing myself to spend enormous amounts of time reading depressing books (however necessary and useful they are) feels like purposefully holding my head underwater, forcing myself to drown.
Instead, what I want is to straddle the line between knowing the world is seriously broken and hoping that people can change. Exactly what that looks like can change from day to day, and right now that means I cannot read books like Half the Sky and Pornland unless I’m going to skip to the parts where good things start happening.
I can already hear someone saying, “But what about Greece? How do you expect to help women who have been trafficked if you want to skip to the good parts?”
Good question, anxiously self-conscious part of my brain. The answer encompasses my passion for counseling in general, and my interest in House of Damaris specifically.
Counseling is all about straddling that line. The entire process is all about acknowledging the worst that someone has experienced, but in a context of change and growth. Counseling is about speaking the evil you fear over and over again in a safe space, repeating your horror until it loses power. You relive the evil while in the process of changing, in the act of hope, so experiencing the evil is not meaningless or purposeless.
That’s not to say I always find the balance in counseling. There are certain topics that are especially triggering for me (physical disorders, animal abuse) that send me spiraling into hopelessness. But in general, I find I am way more capable of handling the worst of life within a counseling setting.
Maybe this is all nuance, but so is life. The important thing, I think, is knowing your limits. I think it’s valuable to know the heights and depths of humanity, but if you can’t handle one or the other, be kind to yourself. Don’t force yourself to dwell on the worst things possible. And at the same time, don’t force yourself to focus on the best of life if it’s just going to make you feel bad in comparison. Find your boundaries hour by hour, day by day, and be nice to your emotions.