One of the more insidious aspects of American culture is rooted in its Puritanical equation of production with goodness, work ethic with value. Good people work hard, produce things, participate in capitalism, and receive benefits from it commensurate with their perceived goodness and value. That’s one of the reasons that we, as a community, are still totally okay with tens of millions of us living without access to healthcare: If you were a better person, if you just worked harder, then you would have a job at a company that was excellent at capitalism and could afford to pay for your capitalist-defined health insurance premiums. So if you don’t have excellent healthcare benefits, that says more about you and your value within the system than it says about the system, okay?
For the first time since the late 1990s, I’ve spent the last month not working, not going to school, not engaged in some grand enterprise. At first, it was a relief: After juggling so many plates for so long, just being able to take a beat and breathe wasn’t necessarily a choice. I mean, I was/am lucky enough that I could do it. The vast majority of people on this planet don’t have that same luxury. So I recognize that there is an immense amount of privilege at the foundation of my current experience.
But it only took a couple of weeks for The Shoulding Side to show up: Kat, you should be producing something. Look at all of the trials + tribulations others contend with and they’re okay — who says you should get to take a break? You should be making more money and you should be showing up better and you should be more reliable and and and should should should.
So many shoulds that I was reminded one afternoon how, whenever I would say “should” to Kay all those years ago, she would immediately freeze, turn, fix me with steely pupils, curl her lips, and then say SHOULD???? with such intense disdain that I couldn’t help but laugh. So the Shoulding Side always speaks in that tone.
The work that I am doing now is work that I would have been thrilled to be doing 10 years ago. After fifteen years of writing product and marketing copy ultimately designed to sell more crap, focusing on arts-based small businesses and non-profits is an ideal evolution. Yet I was so burned out — putting that in past tense seems a bit disingenuous — that I couldn’t bring myself to perform even the most basic of writing tasks. Every morning, I should’d my way through the day, shaming myself that I should want to do this work, that the work was valuable, that so many people would love to do this work and I should be grateful … and I should’d myself right into a breakdown.
The Shoulding Side is so intimately associated with shame that it can build and build and build to a point that they seem interchangeable. But where does that shame come from? I am not a religious person, and the only “sin” I believe in, per se, is one of intentional malice toward another living being, but still: Shame shows up in its tattered white dress, chipped fingernails, and crooked smile, reminding me that there is an external value system by which I should be measuring myself, and my failure to do so is just one more piece of data that demonstrates how bad/inept/wrong/unnecessary/inconvenient/worthless I am. That the only value I have is in the creation of misc. capitalist trappings and if I’m not doing that, then what the fuck am I doing?
Because there is a shame element, I can’t help but track it back to Puritanical Christianity — heck, even the Mormon Christianity that I was raised in for over a decade — and its penchant for behavior modification and crowd control. Living in the US right now, with a radicalized Christian minority doing whatever they can to limit the behavior of the wider community, there is an element of PTSD at play here. We recently drove through rural Ohio and saw sign after sign decrying SOCIALISM, and how all of the programs of community care that we currently have — Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, SNAP, community college — were listed as examples of the slippery slope we were on, rapidly sliding into EVIL — a.k.a. communism. And while I can’t be certain, I’d place very good odds that if you asked any of those folks posting up those signs in their farm fields about their religious persuasion, they would most likely claim Christian.
It feels like a superfantastic game of corrupted Telephone when we consider the small amount of information we have about the person on which Christianity is based and compare it with the way it is currently being practiced. And given that I don’t believe in either Christianity or capitalism, it feels even more ridiculous that I should be measuring myself by the tenets of either ideology.
Ain’t enculturation a bitch?
So I find myself trying to parse my Shoulding Side, unraveling the strands of loose change and Jesus, performative guilt and “passion projects,” trying to weed through it all and locate what is actually meaningful to me. I know that engaging in a community of care is core to who I am, I’m just not sure how I will/can/want/am able to do that.
My partner said to me yesterday that they wanted to learn how to transform their feelings of fear into feelings of curiosity. If only it was as simple as find-and-replace, no? But it does seem like the warped infrastructure that has created our current cultural context is so degraded, it might just disintegrate under challenge.
Admittedly, there’s a considerable amount of sheer excitement in the prospect of reconfiguring these constructs, even though I have really no idea where such a reformation might lead. In fact, it’s such poorly tread territory, The Shoulding Side doesn’t even know where to begin.
And that’s probably how it should be.