Updated: May 2
When people are jerks, do we increase our own suffering with our own layered mis/interpretations?
“If you put that picture of me on the Internet I’ll call my lawyer!” So of course that’s exactly where it wound up. Read the funny story behind this photo by Thomas Hawk on Flickr
I read many of stories about crappy male and/or white behavior, some threatening, some anger-provoking, some seemingly banal like the woman who was stopped by a creepy guy who wanted her to see his cute puppy.
I guess it would have made more impact if she’d been, like, twelve, but she was a grown-up in no danger. Some days you just don’t have much to write about!
Another pedestrian story detailed a woman accosted in a largely non-threatening manner by middle-aged drunk guys on a subway. They got off at her stop and followed her for a bit, catcalling and in general being obnoxious boors as drunk people are wont to do.
She shut down the comments for being vile and hateful, as you might expect, although it looked as though at least a few of her critics simply called her out for overreacting and overgeneralizing, which is what I wanted to comment, with less snark.
Not because she felt unsafe and took precautions to ward off what might turn violent, but I did wonder why she wouldn’t ever wear that same dress again (they never touched her), or why she interpreted it as a personal assault on herself and everything she’d accomplished in life, how it meant nothing now.
A few drunken assholes on a subway sitting opposite a pretty woman showing a little cleavage acted thoughtlessly in the moment, not mounting a full-on patriarchal assault on female workplace success and progress.
She’s thinking, “Everything I’ve ever worked for means nothing. They’ve reduced me down to a mere object and completely dehumanized me. They’re threatened by everything I stand for and they clearly hate women. It’s just another example of how entitled male privilege works together to keep women oppressed and in their place as convenient sperm receptacles.”
And they’re thinking, “Yeah! Tits!”
Incidents like this happen to women all the time, and sometimes they sound genuinely threatening. Other times it reads like a slow morning on Medium.
They’ve happened to me too. But I can’t remember most of them.
Unless they were particularly memorable or threatening, I pretty much forget about them. I’m not thinking They’re dehumanizing me! as much as The world is full of assholes seeking to make someone’s life miserable today. Hey, Nicole, here you are, you’ll do!
I’m quite sure I’ve experienced a lot more street harassment than the few incidents I can recount. It’s entirely possible I missed a lot of them. I don’t pay much attention to others around me, to the point where I almost got hit by a bus when I first moved to Toronto.
When I’m on the subway I read.
Zen feminist koan: If a man ogles a woman and she doesn’t notice, has she been harassed?
I wonder if any of my ghost harassers hoped to intimidate me and I disappointed by not even noticing their existence.
Once I looked up to find a man staring directly at me. He didn’t, as many Toronto men do, look away immediately, terrified they’ll be subjected to a feminist rant. I went back to my book and gave him no further thought.
Well, maybe one.
He was from one of those countries and hadn’t yet learned you can’t treat women in Canada the way you do back home.
But I didn’t care enough to say anything. He wasn’t worthy of my attention. My book engrossed me.
I suppose another woman would have gone home in high dudgeon and posted an angry Facebook rant or, if she felt especially like being abused by anonymous misogynists, on Twitter.
Or she might have felt genuinely threatened and hurried home, heart pounding. I can’t fault her. My life, and my world aren’t as traumatized as other women’s have been. The ogler posed no threat to me, and I don’t know why he stared. Likely he was some random clueless noob who didn’t know any better, or maybe he hoped to intimidate me, or see if he could get away with more (making me wonder what he might have done had I acted scared or nervous under his gaze — i.e., a potential victim).
Last summer someone told me they’d seen me walk down the street many times and men’s heads turned to watch. I never noticed. I’m usually staring at the sidewalk, lost in thought or, more pointlessly, worrying about silly crap. Now that I know it happens — I still don’t look around to see who might be ogling me, as I have a lot of pointless worrying to do. Or I might be laser-focused on feeding the ducks in the park.
Is it harassment if you don’t notice?
Sometimes we find ways to make incidents worse. We layer our own interpretations and narratives on top of it. We especially do this when we mentally impugn someone’s character or imagine we can read their minds and intentions, like with subway drunks.
How did mildly lecherous assholes turn into a Patriarchal Hit Squad?
What would I have done?
Depending on my mood, I might have engaged with them a bit. “So, you boys look like you were out having fun tonight. Where did you go?”
I’d have had my nose in the book. Might have looked up, said, “Hey, I’ve had a long night too, I want to read my book, ‘kay, guys?”
Maybe they would have continued being unpleasant and I too would have hurried off the car and done my best to disappear into the night.
But, I would have arrived home mildly annoyed and I might, at most, post a funny Facebook rant about drunken idjits on the subway.
I’d have forgotten about it by the weekend.
Here’s the thing: The world really is full of assholes and you only think you know why they’re being an asshole to you:
They hate wo/men
They hate your race
They hate your (obvious) religious affiliation
You look like their ex-spouse/evil mother/father/asshole boss
They’re having a really bad day but their response is to give some random passing schmuck (hey, it’s your unlucky day!) some extraneous crap rather than go home and watch funny YouTube videos
They suffer from genuine mental health problems
They’re up to their ass in pandemic-related unemployment, depression and stress and their brains aren’t functioning properly.
Assholes come in many varieties. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
None of these are good reasons to give an innocent stranger crap, but their mysterious reason for harassing you could be any of these things, and utterly unrelated to you, your life, or whatever you’ve interpreted it to mean.
There’s uncalled-for suffering, and then there’s cranking up your response worse with cognitive distortions and misinterpretations.
We aren’t mind-readers. We need to remember this.
The writer on the subway was white, as were, I assume, her inebriated fan club. What if she’d been black and they hadn’t said anything specifically racial? She might interpret it as racist nevertheless, which she might not have done if her harassers were black.
It’s why I dislike debates about ‘microaggressions’. Sure, they’re real and they happen — but perhaps not as much as we think.
Another Zen koan: If the other person didn’t intend to ‘microaggress’ against you, and didn’t even know they upset you, were you truly microaggressed?
We take a bad, or a mildly annoying situation, and make it worse speculating what the other person was doing/thinking/believing/seeing.
I wonder if the ‘offense’ we think we incurred is against ourselves.
Our thoughts are real, but our beliefs aren’t. — Tara Brach, Buddhist teacher
I’ve been creating stress and drama for myself obsessing over how much I think I’m screwing up on the job. I work with various clients for a freelance sales agency and I’m forever convinced I’m screwing up, I’m a pain in the ass to everyone, I’m not doing right by the clients, they hate me and think I’m doing an awful job and will ask I be removed forthwith so someone who knows what the hell they’re doing can get some real shit done.
And every damn time I’m in a meeting with the folks who run the business, without my asking like a neurotic insecure mess, they tell me how much the clients love me and how they wish they had more freelancers like me. How they stick me on campaigns someone else got removed from at the client’s request.
Why do I think everyone thinks I do a lousy job? I asked myself.
It didn’t take too long to identify the culprit.
There’s only one person who really thinks I’m an idiot. Imposter Syndrome, big-time.
I create a lot of my own suffering.
I tell myself toxic stories and I believe them. I’ve been at war with myself for at least twenty years, and even before, I was my own worst frenemy. Often I felt good about myself but never too good. Some nasty person in the back of my head told me I suck. I’m an idiot. I’m not worthy.
I tell myself toxic stories about others, too, but less about random strangers. If some guy gives me crap on the street, I shrug it off and throw him in the Asshole container in my brain.
It doesn’t do me any good to take it personally. I can choose not to. I can choose not to add to some uncalled-for drama by telling myself the person was misogynist, or racist, or jealous of me. I sure as shit don’t need to be telling myself they’ve negated everything I’ve ever worked for.
It’s bullshit. It’s oppression I created by myself, for myself.
Even if they do say something misogynist, or racist, or otherwise nasty, I can choose to say The hell with him or her, s/he’s just a stupid misogynist/racist/hater, etc.
The best revenge can be to totally not give a fuck.
I don’t always do it, of course. Sometimes assholes strike a nerve and I react. I get mad. I obsess about it, nagging it like a dog with a bone — and it’s how I make it worse.
S/he accomplished their goal, to make my life worse, with my help.
What I should have said. What I should have done. Woulda-shoulda-coulda.
Sometimes I have to consciously put it behind me and think, “Nicole, you have more important things to do than worry what some jerk said or did. What do you care what s/he thinks?”
Buddhism teacher Tara Brach says, “Our thoughts are real, but our beliefs aren’t.”
Put this on when you’re doing mindless chores. Tara Brach rocks!!!
The lady on the subway’s experience with drunks was real, along with her fearful reaction. What wasn’t was the interpretation she layered over it, increasing her suffering. Really, how did this become a patriarchal commentary on everything she’s accomplished in life?
She made that shit up. Maybe it’s what those guys thought, but I doubt it, and I’m quite certain she’s not a mindreader.
We want to make sense of our environment and why things happen to us. The human brain forever looks for meaning in patterns — in clouds, onion buns, personal interactions. The ancients believed the gods gave them messages via animal entrails, tea dregs, the way the birds flew.
More often than not, it means far less than we think. The grill accidentally created an image of Jesus. The serpent cloud isn’t an evil omen. I’m reading the leaves at the bottom of your cup and prophesying you’re ready for a refill.
The clients don’t think I’m an idiot.
My friends don’t think I’m a loser.
My family doesn’t think I’m not good enough.
Only one person thinks all those toxic thoughts about me, and she’s a real superbitch.
I’ve begun challenging her. I’ve begun stopping her from her favorite thought, “Nicole, you idiot…”
The problem is she’s said it so often, and for so long, I believe her.
Often, the stories we tell in our heads are more indicative of the storyteller than the person who caused our grief.
Who’s the real microaggressor in our lives?
This first appeared on Medium in March 2021.