ask cam: guilty and big hearted

Today, Guilty and Big Hearted asks Cam how to drop privilege guilt and enjoy her life.

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A photo of pink roses.
Photo by Rikonavt on Unsplash

Dear Cam,

I am a white, queer, Jewish woman living in the US who cares deeply about liberation for all, dismantling oppressive systems, police and prison abolition, and transformative justice. I am also neurodivergent  (ADHD), and am healing from a lot of past trauma and abuse—so I feel  emotions very deeply and have a lot of anxiety around “getting things right” because my life has been a fairly exhausting struggle of trying  to make sure that my existence is not harming or inconveniencing others.

I want to be (and think I am) “doing the work”—that is, struggling alongside those who are most marginalized, using whatever power I have to break down hierarchies and participate in grassroots efforts to build  a world where everyone is truly valued, not just those with the most  money and power. I am an active member in a few community organizations that share these goals. I want all people to have their needs met and live a life full of love, enjoyment, fulfillment, and caring. I recognize that this kind of life is more accessible to those who, under colonialism/capitalism are closest to “the center” (e.g. white, cis, straight, etc) and that there are individuals and groups who are actively perpetuating violent systems by hoarding wealth and resources, and by engaging in surveillance, punishment, and control—ultimately  denying everyone else the right to the beautiful and full lives I believe all humans deserve.

The problem is, I can’t stop feeling so much guilt for the privileges I do have based on my position in an unequal society. Every time I want to rest, to enjoy something that I know has problematic roots, even to make big life decisions like planning a wedding and buying a house, I am paralyzed by negative feelings. I feel like I don’t deserve nice things because not everyone can have nice things. I feel like I am being inauthentic when I show up to organize for change in my community  knowing that I am living comfortably and actively benefiting from the systems I want to dismantle. I feel like I am not doing enough or being radical enough, and therefore I am allowing systemic violence to continue. This is something I have been struggling with more and more as I continue to learn about anti-colonialism, anti-racism, and abolition. I am living in constant fear that my actions, decisions, wants and desires are perpetuating systemic violence. I am constantly afraid of  missteps that could harm those who are more vulnerable to systemic  violence than I am.

I know these fears are not productive at all—it’s affecting my mood  and even making me awkward and nervous around other people because I am afraid of their judgement. At the same time, I often feel like people  like me—white, middle class, with more access to resources—are given a  free pass to absolve ourselves from the consequences of our actions. How  can I cut through this complicated mess of emotion so I can see more  clearly, and show up as fully as I want to for my community? How can I help myself feel okay with the things I want for myself and my family, even if these desires are imperfect and sometimes contradictory? How can I quiet the voice in me that says I constantly must be good, or  therefore my existence will always perpetuate harm? And how can I do all  this while actively fighting for and building a better world?

I truly appreciate and am grateful for your perspective.

-Guilty and Big Hearted

Hi Guilty and Big Hearted,

Thank you for writing in.

I admire your vulnerability and honesty here, I know for certain that you are not alone and that many, many people are struggling and grappling with similar. Sharing what you’ve shared as it is will be a balm to many who want to know others feel the same way as you. So thank you for sharing so intimately.

I want to start by saying that not only are you not alone- I have struggled with this myself, and I still struggle with this.

My answers here are perspectives that bring me comfort and ease- particularly the more I grow and mature, the better I am able to stay grounded through practice and intention, the more these things offer me relief. However I think the nature of your struggles are something that people with big hearts who want to protect and care for others have grappled with as long as there has been injustice in the world. Which is a very, very long time. And so it is deeply human to have feelings like these, and looking at the world truthfully means that we are going to see things that are painful, unfair, and not in our full control. Thus, we’re going to feel sad, desperate to help, and guilty for not struggling in the same way from time to time.

One thing I’d really like you to examine are the different stories attached to this guilt you’re experiencing.

As I mentioned, it’s only natural to feel guilty and sad watching others struggle in ways we are not, but there is also a very particular kind of guilt that I think is unique to those who are enmeshed in toxic social justice culture.

It’s a guilt that stems from being made to feel that the ways we have things easier than others is evidence that there is something inherently bad about us, or that we are choosing to participate in the oppression of others, and this can evoke a kind of guilt that is existential not in that big picture “why is the world so unfair?” type of way, but in a “why was I born bad?” kind of way.

This is one of the things that puts the qualifier “toxic” on “toxic social justice culture.”

Somehow, somewhere along the way, we lost all perspective that we call these issues systemic because they are, indeed- systemic. As in, the system we live in coerces us into participating because our very survival is tied up in it. We cannot opt out, not fully, not without risking our ability to survive capitalism and more than that- to have a life that isn’t constant sorrow and struggle.

I’d like to point out something you wrote to me in your letter. You said that there are systems “denying everyone else the right to the beautiful and full lives I believe all humans deserve.

And as I read this the first question that arose for me was:

Do you believe that you deserve a beautiful and full life?

Do you believe it by right of being a human on this earth?

Or do you believe that you must earn it?

Because if it is the latter, I have some bad news for you: there is no way to earn a full and beautiful life.

If you believe you have to earn it by gaining the approval of others- you will never get it. There will always be people who will disapprove of you. Who will think you should be doing more.

If you believe you have to earn it by making sure that all thriving and suffering on this planet is equal- you will never get it. For one because that is not a job you can tackle alone, and for another because that work is generational work. It is highly likely that we will not see the fruits of our pursuit to a fully free and equitable world in our lifetime.

So if we can mutually accept that this work is a generational pursuit, and that you may live an entire life and leave this earth before you get to see everything you’ve worked towards-

what does it mean to you that you only have one precious life on this planet?

Do you want to spend your days mired in guilt because you can’t do something that is impossible to do? Because you live in circumstances beyond your direct control?

Not long ago, before I had really started to unpack the ways I had internalized toxic social justice culture, I read one of those super out there takes that said that if you can afford Netflix then you should redistribute those funds to someone who has bigger needs. It was absurd to me at first, and then I had a twinge of guilt. It got me because there is a Cam inside of me who has been taught to believe that to be good and to really live up to my values of justice, that I need to suffer and give up any bit of pleasure I get to enjoy in my life.

But I do not regard pleasure and joy as an optional indulgence.

I regard it as a basic human need that all deserve access to.

Because I am a person, I believe in my inherent right to pleasure, and to the same full and beautiful life you believe in.

I remember later talking about it with my good friend Alo (@thetranstherapist ) who pointed out the absurdity of the logic. He played it out to it’s logical conclusion: so everyone who has Netflix redirects that $13 a month towards someone who needs it. Now the people who need it have enough money to buy a Netflix subscription, so they are now too privileged and need to pass it on to someone else.

I laughed because he was so right. It doesn’t really make sense.

That take was one of those takes intended to make people feel guilty. It didn’t actually meaningfully challenge the distribution of wealth.

Because as this person is writing these absurd takes intended to manipulate kind hearted people who want to ease the suffering of others- there are a handful of men who are so obscenely wealthy it is literally unfathomable to the human mind. There are hedge fund managers buying up properties driving up the price of housing and trying to turn the United States into a rental economy so that they can not only own our labor but control our housing and extract our wealth through rents as well.

As people are dying because they can’t afford life saving medications, as people are going hungry, as people are being violently harassed on the streets for the sin of not being able to afford a home and warm bed of their own- there are people who own perfectly habitable homes that are sitting empty. There are people intentionally underpaying thousands to millions of their employees who can count on our government to bail them out should anything threaten their business.

I can promise you- enjoying Netflix, planning a beautiful wedding, enjoying a vacation here and there, using what resources you have to take the best care of your body and mental health you can- none of these things mean that you are not doing enough for others.

You are allowed to take care of you. You are allowed to prioritize your well-being. You are allowed to live that full and beautiful life.

And I wonder how many of those Netflix-type takes you have read and internalized that have caused you to believe that owning your right to pleasure and happiness is a marker of your inherent badness.

The root of the problem has never been that some people get to live a full life and other can’t. That is only a symptom.

The true problem is that we have structured our world unnecessarily in a way that allows a select few access to incredible excess while others are fighting just to survive. That is the injustice.

And we are not striving towards a world where everyone suffers equally.

We are striving towards a world where everyone has the basic necessities they need to survive and live full and meaningful lives.

It is long tradition of revolutionary socialist heritage to embrace pleasure and joy.

It was early 20th century socialist feminists who said:

“The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Rose Schneiderman

and

“If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”

Emma Goldman

Now of course none of this means just to give up and not do your part to make the world a better place.

If you have access to some disposable income, if you have time and energy to give your labor, redistributing that towards people and projects that need it is a crucial part of building networks of mutual aid.

Some of the most meaningful work to me personally is homeless outreach, and it’s something you can easily build into your weekly and daily routine. Spend a little of your time and money during your weekly grocery outing buying water bottles, wet wipes, small packaged snacks and putting them in a baggy with some cash to hand out to homeless people you pass by. Check on your homeless neighbors and do your small part to ensure the survival of those most at risk.

You can also use your time and your labor to support a socialist future where everyone can have access to what they need to thrive and live free of exploitation. That can look a variety of ways from joining a local org, supporting the upcoming October 15th general strike, and supporting efforts to democratize workplaces, neighborhoods and communities. 

You can organize a phone tree for people most at risk of violence and offer some of your time showing up to keep others safe (I’m not sure if this is a big problem where you live but where I live there are a lot of violent hate groups who come around harassing and being violent towards visibly marginalized people).

There are so many ways to incorporate your vision for a better future into your life. And the beauty is that when you come to believe in your own right to thrive, you can put away the guilt and start seeing more clearly where you can have the biggest impact- and start giving from a place a love instead of from a place of shame and guilt.

In my experience, as you start to apply an ethic of the inherent worthiness of every human to yourself, the more clear you become about what your place is in the revolution, and the more fulfilling it is to take action in the ways you can.

And in case you maybe needed someone to tell you this directly, let me say:

You, Guilty and Big Hearted- yes, you specifically- deserve to live a joyful and fulfilling life. You are allowed to drop the guilt. I give you full permission.

Then instead of Guilty and Big Hearted, you can be Big Hearted and Guiltlessly Joyful.

Oh and shana tova, friend. May you find the joy and healing you deserve in the new year.

Best,

Cam

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