With the exception of a few, short-term roommate situations over the years, I’ve always lived alone. I am sure it’s partly due to personality—as gregarious as I am in public, I’m essentially an introvert—but it also has to do with having control over the aesthetic quality of my space. Over the years it’s become obvious to me that my wellbeing is significantly impacted by my physical environment. When I am in a visually disordered/disjointed space, I can’t relax. My body rejects chaotic space like it would reject a mismatched organ transplant.
I know I am not alone. A lot of creative people are similarly afflicted. But my need goes deeper than a desire for aesthetically pleasing spaces. My sense of safety depends on having spaces that I can lean into for support, spaces that provide shapes to which I feel comfortable conforming. To understand better what I’m talking about, imagine yourself as a modern dancer.
Think of all of the ways that you can move your body on a stage. The space is wide open. It’s all yours. How will you carve it up with your movement? What metaphor will you embody? What emotion? What combination of movements feels right to you? Now, imagine that your space is filled with dancers. When other people occupy the same space, the shapes they take and how they transition through space over time adds layers of structure to your own dance by eliminating as well as providing new opportunities for movement. If everyone is dancing the same choreographed piece, then everyone has a place in the same plan. If everyone is improvising, however, things can get chaotic quickly. People respond to chaos differently, so there isn’t any predictable pattern that will emerge from a situation like this. It all depends on who is dancing.
Now, back to the real world. Only some of us are emotionally sensitive to the shape of our physical space, but the vast majority of us are highly emotionally sensitive to the shape of our social spaces. Social space is like a stage where dancers interact, and social norms are like choreography that tells us what our role is, when we need to be in this or that space, which spaces are ok to inhabit, which are off limits, and how we should position ourselves to accommodate the actions of others. (Note: I take moral norms to be different in kind than social norms, so what I say about social norms does not apply to moral norms.)
It’s impossible to enumerate all of the social norms we have in contemporary American society. For those of us familiar with social justices issues, the norms that come most readily to mind are those that govern race, gender, ethnicity, religious or political affiliation, sexual orientation, etc. But there are social norms that govern every nook and cranny of our social space. Most of us behave in ways that are not governed by a single set of norms. Rather, the shape that we make of ourselves consists in subsets of lots of norms that may not have anything in common except the person they govern. So, for instance, I immediately identified Mayim Bialik’s controversial remarks about Weinstein as a product of her adherence to an Othrodox Jewish norm of modesty. It’s a norm that not only governs the clothing and behavior choices of Orthodox Jews in the U.S., it’s part of the fabric of Israeli society. At various points in my life (both in an out of Israel), I embraced this norm because my life went better for me when I did. Not because adherence imparts magical benefit. It does not. Rather, adherence allows you access to certain benefits of Jewish community that were worth having.
We tend to adhere to the unique sub-sets of norms that we do because either a.) the benefits of adherence are worth having (action grounded in a prudential decision), or b.) something bad will happen to us if we don’t (action grounded in coercion). Many people are really comfortable with, and derive great benefit from, adhering to all (or most) of the norms that govern are certain religious affiliation, profession, gender, etc. I envy these people. I think that they probably have higher levels of wellbeing (with respect to some specific dimensions of wellbeing) than those of us who can’t just put on a pre-determined normative structure like slipping into a favorite bathrobe. However, I do not think that the good life (simpliciter) depends on living in a way that is completely shaped by the norms that govern one’s profession, religion, gender, etc. In fact, I think there is great reward in being picky about which norms you embrace and which ones you discard.
Here’s a fact about me (I blame my upbringing): I very much despise some of the of the norms of rabid professionalization that govern academia and the kind of people they attract. This is why I have chosen to leave academia as soon as I finish my PhD (I made this decision last Spring, a few months after I passed my qualifying exams). I do, however, very much love to learn, develop theories, collaborate, critique, and develop new skill sets. In other words, I love all of the things that the academy offers when you put toxic narcissism dressed up in the guise of professionalization to the side. It’s hard to do academic things if you stay completely away from academia, which is why I won’t. But I won’t be seeking an academic position. Why does any of this matter? I’ll tell you why.
I am building my life in a way that first, and foremost, gives me safe and creative spaces in which to flourish. This means avoiding people who are governed by norms that I find dangerous and discomforting and that I personally reject. I choose my friends carefully because I am sensitive to the way that they shape my social (and thus: emotional) space. The one thing that my dearest people have in common is this: kindness. It’s that simple.
I am not saying that I expect to have a conflict free life when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Sometimes it takes tension or conflict to realize that some part of you is still twisted into the shape of a norm you rejected long ago. When you find problems in your architecture, you fix them (and you help other people see and fix their gappy places too). Relational tension arises naturally in life, and it is often an extremely effective way to diagnose structural weaknesses and I am grateful for it. Tension is not the same thing as violence, however. Violence is never, ever, ever acceptable in interpersonal relationships. Ever. Unfortunately, academia can be a very violent place. I know what kind of life I want to build for myself and I know what norms I cannot embrace and anyone who tries to actively force me into the shape of a norm that they can’t live without is not a safe person for me. Clearly, people like this have great difficulty discerning between self and other. I avoid them at all costs and I strongly encourage others to do the same.
Why am I this way? Well, I suppose you’ll just have to tune in later this week to read Part II of my story about loss.