the Author

Social Distancing Journal: Power

Posted in writing.

The first thing I want to say is: I love Michelle Obama. After her speech, when Eva Longoria said, “This is what we missed”, she spoke for me.

Over the past four years a lot of people have asked me, when others are going so low does going high still really work? My answer…

Going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehu­man­izing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out every­thing else.

She goes on to say that going high doesn’t mean that we smile and make nice when we see injus­tice, when we see wrong, because going high doesn’t mean closing our eyes.

The reason Michelle Obama — who hates poli­tics — has always given stellar speeches is that… she’s not just giving a speech. Any of the speeches I’ve heard her give, in front of audi­ences of any size, could be given… in a living room, with an audi­ence she cannot see but trusts is there, regard­less. She opens up her heart. She is … herself.

Her speech was perhaps the first time I truly remem­bered that Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats are all Amer­ican. That they occupy the same country. Is she happy with the state of the US right now? No. And she makes that clear. But she makes it clear without stig­ma­tizing the people who have brought us to this junc­ture. Except for one.

She asks us to do, but it’s not a conde­scending ask. She’s reminding us that we have agency, that we can exer­cise the agency we do have. Even if we’re not billion­aires or, in our own minds, powerful.

***

I want to talk a bit about power.

No, I want to talk about the percep­tion of power.

Every single one of us has had expe­ri­ence with feeling power­less. Every one of us. As chil­dren, we have no power. The power we might have is lent us by the power our parents possess, and for the most part, our early lives are not lived in a tiny democ­racy.

Our parents make the rules. Some­times – not always – they follow the rules them­selves. But we have no say in the rules they make, espe­cially when we’re younger. We follow their rules.

These rules can be as simple as what we eat or can’t eat, and when. But they continue: how long are we allowed to stay awake? How much play-time are we given? When are we given it? How many chores do we have to do? How much time can we spend with our friends? With our signif­i­cant others if we’re even allowed to have them? What can we wear? Etc. Etc. Etc.

We have no say in whether or not we have siblings; we have no say in whether or not our parents divorce – or remarry.

We are all raised in condi­tions that are not demo­c­ratic; lack of democ­racy in the context we feel as young chil­dren is, in fact, our first expe­ri­ence with power struc­tures.

So: none of us start with personal power. We can, in some cases, call in the power our parents have in their social context when we enter the wider world (school), but that’s later.

None of us feel powerful. All of our context is small; our parents are the powers.

Many chil­dren feel this lack of power most strongly when they want some­thing and they are told they cannot have it.

Sibling inter­ac­tions can compli­cate this, because there is often compar­ison, and there is a strong sense in chil­dren of zero sum game: either they are loved more or… they are not loved.

These play out inter­nally. Parents have some­thing that we want, and they won’t give it to us. Also: Parents should love their kids equally and treat them equally – treat them the same.

Again, this is some­thing that the chil­dren them­selves have no say over, and the conflict of contexts between parents — who need to work and pay bills and keep the house­hold running — and the context of chil­dren who do not have to do these things can build a lot of misun­der­standing.

And it’s true: chil­dren are not respon­sible for them­selves. They are, espe­cially when young, entirely the respon­si­bility of their parents. Their resent­ments for unequal treat­ment are built on that lack of respon­si­bility, because they have no expe­ri­ence with respon­si­bility. Their parents do.

I won’t devolve into the ques­tion of abusive parenting, because abusive parents are still the people who have all the power.

***

With power comes respon­si­bility. We’ve heard that before. But in this micro­cosm, we can see the truth of it clearly: our parents have both the power and the respon­si­bility for us. The roof over our heads. The food on our table. The clothing on our backs. The shoes on our feet.

We do not clearly see the respon­si­bil­i­ties as chil­dren. We have grown up in a world in which all of these neces­si­ties are… just there. As if by magic. We can see what our friends have that we don’t have – and some can really resent it because we do not see the weight and the burden of the respon­si­bil­i­ties our parents carry. Not when we’re four. Or five.

But we can see our parents struggle when money is tight. We can see the choices they make. The seed of under­standing is planted by the actions of our parents, because what our parents do seems “normal” to us. It seems like the way the world just works. Do we always become our parents? No. But kids learn what they see far more easily than they learn what they’re told, at least in my expe­ri­ence.

We come to our truest under­standing of our parents when we have those respon­si­bil­i­ties ourselves. We begin to under­stand some of the weight our parents carried because we our now carrying it ourselves. The things that seemed the Most Impor­tant Thing in the world when we were thir­teen lose power to drive our behav­iour because the anxi­eties of those things are replaced by other anxi­eties: work (or trying desper­ately to find work), among others.

There are some people who somehow manage to never see the respon­si­bility. They resent their parents for… not having as much money as the parents of their friends. They are angry that their parents didn’t make better choices.

…in fact, they blame where they are and their own choices entirely on their parents (which may or may not be fair), and that expe­ri­ence even­tu­ally trans­lates outward, to others. Their parents were terrible. Their teachers were terrible. Their boss was terrible. Their next boss was terrible. Their co-workers were terrible. In all of this, the only person who was not terrible was… them.

It’s as if they are not adults, have not become adults; they still retain that kernel of lack of agency. And there’s truth in the root of it: when they were chil­dren, they had no power.

But on some visceral level, they rely on that kernel; they navi­gate their world without any sense of their own conse­quence because if some­thing is not their fault, it is also not their respon­si­bility. They do not feel as if they have any power.

Even when they do.

***

I have tried for years, because I have two sons, to pinpoint the moment when they crossed the barrier of child­hood. (My younger son feels the need to remind me, when I’m worrying or fussing, that he is not a child anymore. I have made clear to him that he is correct – but that regard­less of our ages, he will always by my child. And then, when he looks skep­tical, I point out my mother, and he surren­ders.)

I have tried to see, ulti­mately, what might have moved them to become the people they are now. They can take hits from life, and then get back on their feet, dust off their knees, and keep moving. They under­stand that they can’t control every­thing – so they focus, instead, on what they can do.

They’re not worried about not fitting in or of being alone; they have things they’re inter­ested in doing and they do those things. They exist as them­selves in the spaces they occupy. They are not loved by everyone – and that’s okay with them, because ratio­nally, that’s what they would expect given obser­va­tion of the social world in general; they know liter­ally no one in real life who is loved by everyone. They don’t assume it can happen.

They don’t focus on the wrongs done them (and of course they’ve expe­ri­enced those; we all have); they focus on them­selves. On what they can do. They have no control over what other people do.

And they pitch in at home, they help out.

They under­stand that, in our house, we’re all in this together.

***

Michelle Obama under­stands, in the end, that we are all in this together.

And for today, having listened to her speech again (I did watch it as the DNC was streaming), I am reminded of this as well. There’s not a lot a Cana­dian can do. I have been donating the money I make from the short stories that are other­wise free to food banks. I cannot vote in the US elec­tions.

I remem­bered this when a candi­date I know only from twitter was asking for dona­tions because he has decided to run for congress. I did not follow him for this reason of course; he was an openly muslim voice who answered ques­tions – even angry ones – calmly and with a hint of humor. He talked about his life, his son, movies, and the diffi­cul­ties that people like him encounter, and I found his lack of open rage and his will­ing­ness to connect with people – even those who were on the edge of offen­sive – helpful.

So: I clicked through to donate to him when he decided to run. I could not figure out why the donate button remained greyed-out.

…yes, I know. I am a foreigner. There are entire laws about foreign contri­bu­tions to US campaigns and because I’ve seen his posts on twitter for a long time, because he’s part of my feed, I had forgotten. I thought he would be a great rep, given the work he has done pro bono — and, well.

But: I am reminded that there are things I can do. Because Michelle Obama’s voice has always resonated so clearly with me. That it’s not just about sit at home and hope and pray; that it’s not about — I think it was Beto who said it — waiting for the cavalry, but becoming the cavalry.

I am reminded that I need to look at what I can do, no matter how little that might be, rather than become para­lyzed about what I can’t do. I can’t vote. I can donate to food banks or the ACLU, but not to polit­ical parties or candi­dates.

And I can write, which has become increas­ingly diffi­cult in the past few months; the anxiety, the edge of despair, have perme­ated almost every­thing I do. I have just gone back over the emails that I keep from people in diffi­cult situ­a­tions who found my books as if they were a life­line. As if it’s permis­sion to consider what I need to do anyway somehow neces­sary, even if it’s not Saving The World.

Because, in an odd way, that’s what Michelle Obama reminds me – or us – of: The weight of the whole world is not on our very singular shoul­ders; it’s a shared burden, and we each contribute what we can. We are all in this together – and we can hate each other, we can hate the people who have put us in this situ­a­tion, we can continue to feel power­less, or we can look at the often small actions we can take and take those actions. One – the most impor­tant action – I cannot do: vote.

But that doesn’t mean that I have nothing to offer, no avenue to somehow help. And I am reminded again (did I mention I love Michelle Obama?) that I can believe in people, and that’s the thing that’s been hardest in isola­tion.

12 Responses to Social Distancing Journal: Power

  1. Adama Hamilton says:

    Thank You so very much for sharing your thoughts so clearly, compas­sion­ately and help­fully! I am inspired by what you write, the person you are and the conscious­ness you share so open-heart­edly.

  2. Natasha Brown says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Michelle, on agency, on power (and the lack thereof), on respon­si­bility, and on taking action. I, too, truly miss Michelle and Barack. I miss logic, passion, honesty and earnest­ness. I miss the pride I felt to have them as leaders. So, in November, I’ll jump in the car with my adult sons and do the one thing you, unfor­tu­nately, cannot do, vote.

  3. Marie Roberts says:

    I’m really sad that you would admire such a person. How soon people forget all the nasti­ness that was performed by that person.

  4. Tchula says:

    I, too, love the authen­ticity and sincerity of Michelle Obama’s voice. It’s clear to me she cares about people. Joe Biden is also someone whom I think most Amer­i­cans, whether or not they agree with him polit­i­cally, feel he is genuine and has compas­sion for real live people.

    I think that empathy has been sorely lacking in our poli­tics and we really could use a healthy dose of it.

    I also think many Amer­i­cans expect too much of a Pres­i­dent. The Pres­i­dent is not a God; they can’t wave a magic wand and fix all of our ills. People often­times forget that once the vote is taken, and the new Admin­is­tra­tion sworn in, that they still have to keep writing their Congress­people, keep pushing, keep partic­i­pating to get the changes they want to see. It’s far too easy to let “others” do that, and unfor­tu­nately those others tend to be big corpo­ra­tions with a lot of and money to spend.

    I am anxious, but hopeful, that we can get our acts together and fix some of the many, many broken things in our society. Health­care and Income inequality are my two biggest prior­i­ties, and although it won’t be an easy fix, even if the Democ­rats take the Senate as well as the pres­i­dency, I am more hopeful than I’ve been in a long time that we’ll finally see some posi­tive steps taken – at least on health­care.

    I plan to vote in person on elec­tion day, wearing a mask and social distancing. My current fear is that people in too many other states may be disen­fran­chised by lack of polling places (due to not having enough volun­teers due to covid fears, as well as outright voter suppres­sion in some states), and that the absentee ballot process may be delib­er­ately damaged by DeJoy, the Post­master General. Talia is away at college and will vote by absentee ballot, and this is a big worry of hers – that her vote won’t be counted in time, even if she receives and mails the ballot back in a timely manner.

    The fact that Michelle Obama has to tell people to prepare for voting by wearing comfort­able shoes, and packing a bag lunch or dinner in case they must wait in unac­cept­ably long lines makes me furious. Not that she said it, but that in many places (largely in the South, but not entirely) she’s absolutely right. It’s neces­sary. I person­ally, in my 44K person town, have never waited longer than 15 minutes to vote at my polling place. This is how it should be every­where.

    I am hopeful that we’ll see more longterm pushing for vote-by-mail for everyone after this. And I am really, really eager for Nov. 3rd to get here already!

  5. Thank you for sharing your perspec­tive, Michelle. I salute you.

    I have one comment to add.

    I think most people asso­ciate power and control. They’re actu­ally oppo­sites:
    Power Control.

    Those who under­stand and respect their own power have no need to control others. Only those who are unaware of or are afraid of their own power attempt to control every­thing around them. We’ve seen the results of the latter only too often through the millenia. We move forward, together, by being powerful amd honouring the power in those around us… even if they can’t yet see it in them­selves.

    Hugs,
    M&M

  6. Maia says:

    beau­tiful post. .)

  7. Nevada Martinez says:

    This is a beau­ti­fully written (as all your stuff is, IMO) opinion. My opinion is that not once during the Obama pres­i­dency did I feel like we are all in this together. And yes, I agree that Michelle Obama’s prepared speeches, espe­cially those written with Sarah Hurwitz’s help are impas­sioned and moving; her off-the-cuff remarks leave me feeling less hopeful, some­times down-right confused, and other times mad and like I’m somehow to blame for her feel­ings. But, I voted for Obama the first time because I wanted to believe in the pretty words.

    I believe that we should have a basic level of guar­an­teed health care, similar to the guar­an­teed basic level of educa­tion. I know that the educa­tion system is flawed, but it’s also avail­able to be used to maximum effi­ciency by those with the drive to do so. What we received was universal health care for the plebes, which excluded our lead­er­ship; promises were not kept. I used my power for them, they cheated me. My health, my services, my “enti­tle­ments” were placed below those of my duly elected offi­cials. I did not vote in the 2nd Obama pres­i­dency elec­tion.

    I don’t under­stand the atti­tude that some people seem to have that the govern­ment will make every­thing better, or that the govern­ment is respon­sible for fixing their prob­lems. Do these people not read sci-fi? Do they not see the end-game of abro­gating personal respon­si­bility to politi­cians?

    I voted for Trump at the end of Obama’s pres­i­dency, and I will vote Trump again. Not because I like him person­ally or think he’s awesome or what­ever, but because I finally real­ized that my life is what *I* make it, not what govern­ment makes it. And that also means that the person *over there* is also respon­sible for making the most of their life. I believe in helping those who cannot help their­self, but there is a world of differ­ence between those who cannot and those will not. I’m a procras­ti­nator, horribly so, and have been putting off getting my profes­sional licen­sure for various reasons, but that’s no one’s fault but my own. When I get my licen­sure I will get a promo­tion and earn more money, but until I put in the time and effort to better myself, here I am working for less than I could earn. I’m not a victim, I’m not anyone else’s problem, I’m a procras­ti­nator who’s made a bad choice and fixing my life is my respon­si­bility, not yours, and certainly not my govern­ment’s.

  8. michelle says:

    First: I want to apol­o­gize to everyone. I have tried very hard to remain apolit­ical on my blog for a variety of reasons, one of which is my sanity. While this is my blog, and I can in theory write what­ever I like, in prac­tice, I have asked even people I agree with to leave poli­tics out, because there are so so so many places in which poli­tics are prac­ti­cally the only discourse at the moment.

    This was not an apolit­ical post, and it of course engen­ders responses that are like­wise not apolit­ical. I have a very visceral fear of what is happening south of the border — a country I have not felt was person­ally safe enough for me to visit for the past four years.

    I have been torn about this for some years; I believe that people of all polit­ical stripes find things that resonate with them in books written by people who are polit­i­cally anathema to them; I’ve expe­ri­enced this as a reader myself.

    I have friends who are — or rather were — Repub­li­cans; they are mostly inde­pen­dents now, although some have crossed over. But as the majority of creatives tend towards the liberal or the Demo­c­ratic, most of the people I know in real life are the latter. I have disagree­ments with many of them, on either side.

    But … I also have a lot in common with them, as well. I try to look at the things we have in common; none of them are people who scream at retail workers for wearing face masks, none of them are person­ally racist, etc. etc.

    I believe that bridges can be built because I’ve seen that. I truly believe that the common elements of our daily lives are, in most prac­tical senses, more rele­vant to most inter­ac­tions.

    So: I will let all of the comments in response to the article stand, no matter how very very very strongly I disagree with the under­lying facts in them. Although I write fantasy, I tend to be a fairly reality-based observer, and when facts don’t align with what I’ve observed and read, it’s much, much harder to have anything resem­bling a conver­sa­tion.

  9. Susan Whelan says:

    Michelle, I just discov­ered you (in my 70s!) and like the way you think as much as I like your books. Michelle Obama is intel­li­gent, artic­u­late and a gentle­woman, as her husband is a gentleman. I don’t under­stand the rampant hatred for politi­cians. I can hate their poli­cies or their actions but can’t hate a person I really don’t know. Some of the other comments show the seething anger in people and it frightens me. I’m not a fan of Justin Trudeau and don’t like the way he runs our country but I have no idea what he’s like as a private person and I can’t hate him. Make fun, yes, but hate, no. Keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll keep reading your amazing books. Assuming I don’t die before I get to read the next in the series. Then, I’ll be really angry.

  10. michelle says:

    @Susan: It’s my inten­tion to continue to both write my books and be myself, in all its iter­a­tive forms. Thank you <3

  11. Tina says:

    Thank you. That’s it, just thank you.

  12. Stefani Podoll says:

    One of the impor­tant lessons my kids are taught is to try to respect other peoples views. To ask ques­tions to under­stand why someone believes what they do. To have open and honest conver­sa­tions. When they have had opposing views they were called many cruel things. Iron­i­cally it was the people who spoke of treating everyone equally who did this. If they had differing points of view they were treated as if they were less. Those who read may assume which polit­ical group of students did this, but you will most likely be wrong. Poli­tics and opin­ions are very tricky. I person­ally am an inde­pen­dent voter. I found I have things I like from both parties and have no issues voting for either. I look at the persons record. Many times politi­cians will say one thing, but do another. At the end of the day I told my kids that it is our actions that matter most. If you say you will do some­thing then you do your best to do it. Currently people have turned poli­tics into an us vs them concept. It really is not. It is about compro­mise. People seem to have forgotten that they are dealing with humans. Humans who in most cases simply want to be able to raise their fami­lies and support them. I like Mrs Obama just as I like Mrs Trump. It is possible to like how people in either party hold them­selves and use them as exam­ples for how people should be. Just as it is possible to speak of things you disagree with people doing and using it as exam­ples of what people should not do. You walked the fine line very well and I respect that you were willing to share this part of your­self with us.

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