Leaving the Comfort Zone

I regret more my mistakes of timidity than those of recklessness; actions undone more than actions done. That’s certainly been true in relationships. Regrets have never come from following my heart into or out of intimacy, no matter the pain involved, but when, because of fear, I didn’t enter or leave when I should have. Regrets have come when fear kept me from my heart. This is true not just with women, but everything.

Although I’ve always loved high jumping, I was too afraid to jump competitively until I was a sophomore in college. That year, the coach discovered me messing around on the pit and convinced me to compete. I eventually broke the school record and won the conference championship, but then graduated and ran out of time. Because I’d been too fearful to begin jumping sooner, I’ll never know how good I could have been. I vowed to not allow that to happen with my life: when I run out of time, I want to have done what I wanted, and what I could.

I sometimes think timidity is destroying the planet as surely as are greed, militarism, and hatred; I now see them as two aspects of the same problem. Those in power couldn’t commit routine atrocities if the rest of us hadn’t already been trained to submit. The planet is being killed, and when it comes time for me to die, I don’t want to look back and wish I’d done more, been more radical, more militant in its defense. I want to live my life as if it really matters, to live my life as though I’m alive, to live my life as if it’s real.

Lately I’ve been thinking about all of this, interestingly enough, in relation to pornography, because of a story someone told me about risk and safety. A woman lived with a man who paid her decreasing attention. He often left their bedroom to go to his study to work. Or so she thought, until one day she followed him, and saw him looking at pornography. The woman on the screen, she said, “Looked a lot like me. But I couldn’t compete with her, because she was silent.” She ended what was left of the relationship.

To understand that story I started visiting porn sites. The part that most interested me were the counters showing the number of visitors: some sites had ten million hits. Why, I wondered, would anyone prefer, as my friend’s ex seemed to, the company of photographs to that of flesh-and-blood human beings?

When I think back on my relationships, what I remember most are the particular characteristics of each woman, qualities I could neither have predicted nor projected. The way one woman’s voice fell when I called in the middle of the night to tell her I’d been in a terrible car wreck. The self-conscious smile of another—unused to receiving praise—when I gave her a compliment. The way a third’s breathing subtly changed when she focused her thinking. These characteristics, and the memory of them, even those unpleasant or painful—the way one woman bit her lower lip, looked to the side, and nodded each time before she picked yet another fight—are, it seems to me, the essence of relationship. This notion—that relationship consists of attending to the particular—is true whether the relationships are with lovers, friends, family, animals, rivers, rocks, or trees.

P>ornography is about anything but the particulars. Lost not only is any question of relationship with the particular woman in the photograph, but lost also is her skin’s texture, her smell, her taste. The thing that disturbs me most about pornography—more than the fact that many photos cut women into pieces; more than the poses reinforcing the myth of dominant males and submissive females; more even than the degrading prose often attached to photographs—is that photographs are empty; they’re abstractions. No matter how I pretend I’m sitting across from a beautiful, intelligent, babe with whom I’ve had a long, delicious conversation about what it would take to knock out the infrastructure of Las Vegas, the truth is that I’m alone. Looking at the pictures, I’m more sad than aroused.

And as I look at the splayed limbs, fake smiles, and artificial passion, it becomes clear that the attraction of pornography, though superficially sexual, has more to do with fear than desire. When you don’t know how to connect, when connection frightens you so much, I suppose this simulation is better than nothing. Isn’t it better to watch nature programs than to never see nature at all?

Maybe not. Maybe this parody of connection feeds us just enough that we stay in stasis, too frightened to attempt to connect with another yet not quite miserable enough to attempt to relate differently, not quite miserable enough to know we’re miserable and lonely. I understand now the attraction of pornography. It’s safe. There’s no messy contact with another. No disappointment. Nothing but silence, flatness, a photograph. We’re substituting imaginary experiences with the images of things for experiences with the things themselves, having already substituted the experience of things for the possibility of relationship with other beings.

These substitutions have consequences beyond romantic relationships. I recently saw an article from the U.K. newspaper The Independent describing our culture’s feeble response to global warming. The article states that according to the best estimates of the insurance industry (not a hotbed of environmental extremism), within fifty years “the economic cost of global warming stands to surpass the value of the total world economic output.” This is economic cost, and doesn’t include the death of ice caps, oceans, forests, rivers, coastlines, cultures, or other parts of reality our culture is, it seems, too fearful, too closed off–perhaps by now, as we witness yet fail to perceive the killing of the planet, too heartbroken–to enter into relationship with. The author of the article, Andrew Simms, states, “A basic misunderstanding of our global governors in the IMF, World Trade Organisation and other still-emerging institutions, is to believe that abstract economic theory is more important than the real world.”

This is our culture’s fundamental flaw. I don’t see a tree, I see dollar bills. I don’t see a river, I see kilowatts. I don’t see a woman—this woman—standing in front of me. I don’t see anything, but I project into this space where this woman would be standing, were she to exist, what I’ve been trained to see. I see a temptress, maybe, or a receptacle for my sex. Or maybe I see every woman who hurt me. The ones who said they loved me, then ran away, or the ones who said they loved me, then tried to change me. I cannot give my heart to someone I don’t see, so I give it to no one. I don’t give it to woman, man, salmon, tree, or frog.

When we objectify those around us, be they trees, women, ourselves, or anything else under the sun, we too easily lose sight of them, too easily lose hold of the possibility of actual encounter, that joining of will and grace, as Martin Buber put it. Instead, we find little save our preconceptions, our projections already formed in a culture based on domination. It’s not possible to overestimate the damage this does to relationships. Ask Indians encountered by colonists. Ask Africans enslaved. As we stand amidst the embers of a dying planet, we should ask ourselves what this systematic objectification costs not only others but us.

To confuse an object for a being is sad. That’s why pictures of naked and seemingly inviting women didn’t arouse so much yearning in me as sorrow. Those who become delusional enough in this direction are sometimes put away. But to confuse a being for an object is more dangerous even than sad. And even worse, when we no longer see trees, human beings, a living planet, but dollar bills, workers, resources, we may find ourselves financially well-rewarded.

I don’t think life is supposed to be this difficult. When I think about how to break through my own fear and our culture’s timidity, I wonder what would happen if we learned the power of the word No? No more clearcuts. No more working jobs we don’t love. No more maximizing profits for corporations we don’t believe in. No more big corporations. No more enslaving ourselves to fear.

Or, saying the same thing another way, what if we learned the power of the word Yes? Yes to doing what we love. Yes to living our lives authentically–not as though we’re watching them unfold on a screen before us, nor even as though we’re actors in a movie, doing take after take until we get it right–but yes to living our lives as though they are our lives.

I think often about how it felt to high jump: the best jumps were effortless, because I hurtled myself with all of my being at one goal, running as fast as I could and approaching not only the bar but that ragged edge of control where instinct and euphoria set me free from time and consciousness. The same is true when I write: the work is painful only when I go against my heart. There’s still hard work, of course, but only because so much work goes against our hearts do we COME TO consider work a bad word, something other than play. The same is true of relationships. Only people too frightened of connection—and who perceive themselves as powerless—could find it more pleasurable to interact with an object, or someone they’ve turned into an object, than a being.

Not reaching my potential in high jumping taught me to not let fear stand in my way of living. It taught me something else about fearlessness, too. Every jump was a leap into the impossible. We all know a person can’t jump higher than his head, just as we all know the impossibility of finding love in a culture based on domination, and just as we all know our culture cannot possibly change its deathly trajectory. But if we’re to live lives worth living, we must accept nothing less than this impossibility. The good news, I learned from jumping, and from relationships, is that once we get our fear out of the way, the impossible—jumping far, far over our heads, jumping higher than any human can—is dead easy.

Originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of “Hope.”
Republished in the October 2001 issue, #19, of Black Clad Messenger.
Republished in the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of In the Balance.

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