Saturday, February 15, 2020

Knowing Your Worth

"Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes."
"But they starts with thinking about people as things."
- Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett

Whenever I see things about knowing our worth like we're commodities instead of people, it bugs me. I know that's not how it's meant, but the reality is people often do measure the worth of others in terms of things like income. You can't convince me a trust fund baby has more value than a doctor, nurse, or teacher just because they were born to more wealth than the others earn through service. I'm not saying they have less value, either. It shouldn't be about that in the first place.

Eventually we will all be ash or dust no matter who we are in life, so why make things any worse than they have to be for ourselves and others in the meantime?

I also see a lot of messaging about gratitude, and of course we should be grateful for what we have and mindful of the less fortunate, but the people who need the message the most - the richest and most powerful among us - receive it the least. Instead it's used to keep the masses in our place and discourage us from speaking against things that are wrong simply because they could be worse. 

In terms of material comfort, I had a good childhood. I didn't even know I was 'poor' until college. I went to a so-called party school favored by rich kids from out of state who didn't have the grades for Ivy League. My dorm was nine stories, and late night fire alarms as frat pranks were the norm. Each time we had to evacuate and wait for the fire company to come and check every room on every floor. I remember more than one false alarm some nights, and several during final's week when the rich kids booked hotels to avoid them. 

Room and board was raised mid year to cover the cost of an extra fire truck. I also lost my tuition waiver because I received straight Bs. I didn't share someone's resentment that a girl I went to high school with had received a more lenient waiver. She seemed kind and mature, and someone with her accomplishments should have been granted a full ride. As she wasn't the source of my problems, I never begrudged her anything. I earned a new waiver through my major the following semester, and ultimately graduated with a 3.7 or 3.8 for whatever that's worth.

My first roommate's family pulled some strings for her to switch dorms because she thought our suite mates had it in for her; specifically that they were loud and obnoxious to offend her religious sensibilities, and not because that's just who they were. We didn't exactly get along, either, but I guess I was quiet enough she didn't feel threatened. A resident assistant confided she felt bad I had such a nutty roommate, but I was about to find out what it was like to share space with someone who really does have it in for you.

My new roommate, an early graduate, had an abusive boyfriend within her first week (if alarms didn't wake me up at odd hours, their fights did). She routinely skipped class to sleep in or lay out by the pool at the gym. She didn't care for my unfashionable appearance, or the fact I did work on my computer in our room instead of going to the lab or buying essays online like her (cheating was so bad, I had to show ID for some finals because people paid others to take theirs). Eventually, she had some frat buddies harass and threaten me on the phone and online. 

I only had one toxic friendship. I'd never heard of gas lighting, and I didn't know about the steps he'd taken to isolate me from others. I was sleep deprived, losing weight from under-eating (I'm 5'8" and the one time someone made me weigh myself that year, the scale read 100 lbs), and feeling increasingly disconnected from everything and everyone, including myself, when he tried to take advantage of me. 

I remember thinking a few things in rapid overlapping succession: This isn't happening. The big things don't happen to me. I never should have gotten myself into this mess. It's no worse than anyone thinks I deserveThen another voice cut through the din: I don't care!

In that moment, it didn't matter to me whether or not I had value. I didn't want it. It wasn't happening. I already had my knees against my chest, but now I braced my feet against his stomach, and pushed. He didn't expect it. He knew not to try again. For the first time in a long time, I felt present. This doesn't negate the experiences of those who've been less fortunate. There was a lot of pent up anger behind that push. I was lucky, but I don't feel gratitude for the experiences that contributed to my anger. After all, those experiences left me open to the abuse.

I don't think anger is a useless emotion, either. Nature doesn't work like that. Every emotion plays a role in survival. I've done some of my best writing when I've been angry, and it's taken my stories to some surprising places, even happy endings. Others channel their anger through art or music, or use it to fuel their fight against injustice. It's even a natural part of grieving. 

And once it reminded me I'm here. I exist. That's enough.

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