Quotes out of Context: Eleanor Roosevelt and Louis C.K.

Whenever I have been hurt or have hurt someone and am trying to throw away responsibility, these two quotes come to mind:


At first these ideas seem to contradict each other. The first quote says victimhood is a choice; it’s up to us to accept or reject the inferior position of being hurt. We are in a situation and it’s our responsibility to decide how to feel about it. So if we are hurt, it’s our fault. It’s appealing to me, someone who is much more inclined to express hurt from the “superior” position of anger, and who also does not think it fair to be accused of causing hurt that I did not intend. So, I read this quote as to validate the admittedly defective ways in which I process being and causing hurt.

The second is from the view of the offender and says that if someone is hurt by your actions, you have to accept the fact without dispute and act accordingly. You can’t blame the person for deciding to be hurt (“playing the victim”), and you can’t decide that their hurt is invalid. These things don’t matter. You are responsible for the hurt you have caused. This is a healthier way to look at. Makes me feel safer to express hurt knowing it ought not to be rejected, and holds me accountable for the hurt I have caused.

Now, context.

Turns out, Roosevelt never actually said these words verbatim. She did, however, express this core idea over an incident in which the Secretary of her administration had been invited to give a speech at a University Charter Day, only to have the host of the event step down because she did not believe it appropriate to have a political figure speak.

At a conference, Roosevelt was asked whether the secretary had been “snubbed”:

 “A snub” defined the first lady, “is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.”

The quote was thusly distilled, attributed, and published in the Readers Digest. For ease of digesting.

I’m a surprised and a little disappointed at the relatively petty origins of such a powerful idea. I’d have thought it would be a response to bullying or discrimination to encourage those who feel the power is in everyone else’s hands. Really, the host’s decision to step down from the event seems to be an upholding of her personal values, not an effort to demean. Not a big deal.

The Roosevelt quote is really about self-esteem. Inferior and superior are states of self-esteem. And it’s true, if you have high self-esteem then you will not easily be taken down a notch by those who wish you challenge you. But the quote implies that self-esteem is something you can decide. Is that so?

The quote also raises the question: is someone with high self-esteem impervious to hurt? Should they be? What does that do to a person who is unable to feel hurt? Maybe there are times in our lives where we should be hurt, so we don’t get too ahead of ourselves. Just sayin’.

Then we have the Louis C.K. quote, which seems to me more about having empathy for those you’ve hurt no matter if their hurt is justified in your eyes. Since you are the one that caused the pain, your acknowledgement of it might be the only thing that can undo it, so it is your moral duty to do so. It has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. It’s a bit of a lofty idea, to expect everyone to cave so easily to those they have hurt when there was a reason – maybe even a valid one – to do it in the first place. But let’s say he’s talking about the hurt one inadvertently causes.

Context in light of recent events (refusing the address the allegations of the women who felt violated) gives this a little…hypocritical edge.

BUT WAIT. Upon further investigation, this quote is from season 5 episode 3 of Louis, where his character has to draw the line with a friend whose roughhousing goes too far, admit his friend’s protests:

“You’re hitting me and you’re physically hurting me and that’s where I have to draw the line. I’m telling you that it hurt and you don’t get to deny that. When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”

Goddamnit, it’s PHYSICAL pain he’s talking about!! Will I ever read a quote properly out of context?!

The Last Letter from Japan

Dear Bob,

Happy one year Japanniversary to me! I was supposed to be home by now. And then I was supposed to stay another year. And now I’m sitting here in the airport, en route to Korea and back in a day for the purpose of extending my stay for 1 more month for….no purpose at all. It’s a long story. One I can’t tell because it doesn’t make sense yet.

It’s weird reading my first few letters when I was just settling in. The story was so easy to tell. It was mostly exposè. My shallow impressions of a whole new life. It wasn’t fulfilling yet – but it seemed to promise it would be, the deeper in time I waded.

These last few months have been harder to write about. Yes, it’s deeper, in that the situations you stay in build in complexity exponentially, but making sense of it – that is, turning it into a story you can tell yourself (“ah yes, this is what’s happening here”) and live with (“and I am doing the right thing”) – requires many more assumptive leaps (especially in a culture where people hide their true feelings and I will never belong). That is the art of storytelling, I suppose; committing to a situation long enough for it to become wholly unique, and then being able to craft it into something that others can understand, relate to, find fascinating. It’s too hard. I think that’s part of why I like to change my life every year.

This last third has also been unusually full of sudden change compared to the rest that I couldn’t trust myself to reflect in the midst of it. Not like you can reflect in the midst of things anyway. You have to give some time….but not too much. There must be some sweet spot for optimal reflection, past the disorientation of the moment but before the inaccuracy of reflecting on memories of memories.

So I wasn’t writing because I wasn’t reflecting, and I wasn’t reflecting because the raw material was unfolding too chaotically to make sense of it. I know, I know, I’m vague. This isn’t about Japan anymore. It almost never was.

How do you reflect? Do you do it in terms of right or wrong (did I make the wrong decision then, was I or were they in the right or in the wrong when we fought, did I do a bad thing that caused this…)? And if you do, do you always conveniently come out the good guy? Or do you reflect in terms of cause and effect, so you can understand why the outcome happened? If so, do you always understand? Are you OK with not understanding?

Anyway, onto more concrete items: one main change is I had moved to part-time teaching small groups or 1:1 to mostly adults, and all people who want to learn. It was such a different level of job satisfaction. I think I’ve realized that I just don’t have the patience for people who don’t want to learn, and I don’t want to be where I’m not wanted or needed by the people I am offering to. I think this probably rules out my option for becoming a teacher in the future (actually, the option is ruled out for me because I took almost no teachable subjects in my undergrad…go figure)

At the same time I moved into a new house further into the side part of the countryside, had to give up the car, and am biking everywhere. This has been an excellent change too. Gosh I am really not looking forward to moving back to the city. If it weren’t for the ones I love I…. don’t know where I’d be.

And why am I stuck in this very inconvenient and wasteful 13 month situation? There are reasons, but the story I stick to is it’s because of my hopeless ambivalence. If I knew I wanted to stay only 1 year because I have shit to get on with back home, I would be back home now fully immersed in the shit. If I was entrenched in all the good this life here has to offer, I would have easily chosen to stay. It was my choice, but I could have gone either way with any small reason. When you don’t have any direction either way you become at the whim of the emotions in the moment. Is that what “living in the moment” is? Well I hope it’s leading me somewhere good.

As if reading my innermost anxieties, you sent me this webcomic the other day that I can’t stop thinking about. 2012-01-04-Eat_Shit_And_Die_202.jpg

See, I’m pretty disappointed about how many things in my year here have gone (or rather, not gone) given that what I couldn’t control was so to my advantage in getting the things I thought I wanted. My lack of writing stories, learning Japanese, saving money, clarity, community integration being the main ones. But according to the comic, all these things that I wanted out of this experience were because I didn’t actually want them. When you want something, you put in the effort. What you actually do in life proves what you actually want.

So, the explanation is simple: I just don’t want it enough. The life I have is the life I want. That doesn’t seem right though.

The End



Cuteness: A Philosophical Investigation

Chase No-Face (Facebook): Cute because he’s loved, or loved because he’s cute?

Cuteness is an underrated and misunderstood virtue; its essence obscured by cat memes and intellectualization as a mere evolutionary advantage. Here I want to try to dissect cuteness as the independent quality in a person that transcends age and appearance.

There’s no denying that children and cats can be cute, but it’s not by virtue of who they are (as you’ll know if you’ve ever taught children or been allergic to cats). They have the quality of cuteness. Anyone can be cute if they have cuteness; but they and cute are not one in the same. So what IS cute, then? What is the form of cute?

Baby wombat: not my thang

To take some stabs at finding what all cute things have in common, or at least eliminate some possibilities, we can ask a form of Moore’s open question:  That which is youthful is cute (let’s say). Baby animals are youthful. Are baby animals cute? Well let’s say they are. A baby wombat is a baby animal. Is a baby wombat cute? No. So only cute baby animals are cute. Maybe it’s big eyes that are cute. I can think of many people with big eyes who aren’t cute once I get to know them. So, big eyes themselves can’t make someone cute. It’s something else.

Teaching such a range of students here in Japan, I have experienced an almost inverse correlation with age and cuteness. It seems the older they are, the more warmth and affection I feel. Also, the older they are the more reserved/nervous they are, maybe in part because they have had (especially in the countryside) less exposure to English/Western culture, and choosing to take an English conversation class with a foreigner is more of a leap for them. My feeling is that the older people who choose to speak English with me, despite their nerves, do so because of a certain purity, vulnerability, and eagerness in their intentions that makes them, well, cute. The cuteness that the little ones exude is something else altogether – indeed probably to do with the evolutionary advantage that makes me (and their guardians) tolerate their decidedly non-cute behaviour so that I can still perform my duties with patience and affection. That’s different.

This way, cute might be defined as the opposite of threatening. It’s impossible to feel defensive around someone you find cute. Instead you have the impulse to open up, to bring closer, to care. It seems like love – but the safest form because a cute person seems unlikely to reject or hurt you. Once they do, they cease to be cute. I consider cuteness as the clearest indicator in my own relationships of whether I want to stay or go. When it fades, so does my affection. The disappearance of the cute betrays an undercurrent of mistrust or insincerity. Fear seeps in – of being hurt. And loving is not worth the risk anymore.

If someone allows themselves be cute around you, it means – either because of their nature or the way you make them feel – they are they are showing you themselves with no defenses at all. They are showing you that they trust you. To consider them cute is to accept their invitation to trust – and to do with that what you will is your power and responsibility. If people find “cute” condescending, that just goes to show how they feel about defenseless people.

I’m not exactly sure how or why cuteness is such a prominent feature of Japanese culture, but mostly it seems to be a certain commodification that gives cute a bad name (in the form of big-eyed tooth or cow mascots for decidedly non-cute things like dentists or beef restaurants.) In fact, cuteness, or Kawaii, is dually defined as adorable and lovable. That which is easy to love. So, that which is easy to love is cute. Could that be the answer?

Quotes out of Context

Dear Bob,

You posted the quote,


This has been one of those lifelong trending topics of interest for me – the whole faking it until you make it business, and whether it is at odds with authenticity, since it implies you are not being who you are. But also whether being who you are is overrated and a certain amount of pretending is what we all do to become the person we want to be, and maybe my refusal is why I am sooo delayed. Maybe.

The quote has a foreboding ring to it though, so maybe that’s not what it’s about and I am once again projecting to a quote out of context and missing what the author intended. Well, here I go.

It’s part of his book Mother Night and I didn’t have to get very far – it’s the third sentence. Goes like this:

“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral, I simply just happen to know what it is. We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Unfortunately he doesn’t expound. The next line goes:

“My personal experience with Nazi monkey violence is limited…”

So I listened to the rest (of the audiobook). It’s about an American who pretended to be a U.S. defector-turned-Nazi to spy on the US during WWII for no reason other than that he was approached and could use his skills as a playwright to write brilliant propaganda and such. “I would fool everybody with my brilliant imitation of a Nazi, inside and out” he says, “and I did fool everybody. I began to strut like Hitler’s right hand man. And nobody saw the honest me I hid so deep inside.” But when the war was over, he found it was not so easy to resume an authentic life.

So in context, the quote refers to this man who has adopted a pattern of behaviour that didn’t reflect his attitudes and how and how those behaviours followed him past the point he dropped them off. This is the lesson that put the quote in the context I think it was meant to be in, and not the one I was projecting – that our reality is determined by our behaviours, not our thoughts, and compartmentalizing the two is not so easy. That’s why we must be careful we aren’t leading anyone astray in either direction about who we really are via our behaviours, because it will come back to haunt us. Maybe not in the form of influencing our thoughts and muddying our authentic self on the inside, but like in this case, being unable to lead an authentic life on the outside because of the reality he has created with his behaviour (in the form of his worshipers tracking him down).

Maybe it’s why he kills himself at the end, despite having his name cleared after nearly being exposed. Maybe the cognitive dissonance was too much to bear, or maybe he knew he couldn’t escape the life he’d pretended to have. In any case, he severely underestimated the difficulty of separating one’s thoughts from his actions.

But when people pretend it’s usually to be someone less despicable. So what to make of pretending to be someone better, more noble than they actually are?  If it’s true that we are what we pretend to be, what’s to distinguish someone acting and someone’s being, so long as they act consistently? So long as they never let on to anyone what their true feelings are.

Do feelings change with behaviour? Is that what transformation actually is?

Comments welcome!








The Paradoxes of Vulnerability

Oxford’s Dictionary (I mean, define: __ in Google) defines vulnerability (noun) as “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” Other synonyms include: powerless, defenseless, dependent, weak, exposed.

In self-helpy ways, the definition is more focused on the mechanism of getting to the exposed place as being one of surrender to your own negative states. And it’s supposed to be good for you. But talks* of vulnerability here are often too vague or trite to be much use. To me, anyway.  So I’d like give my own take on vulnerability and argue in favor of its main paradox: how vulnerability makes you strong while invulnerability makes you weak. In the self-helpy way. First, defining my terms:

Vulnerability, the noun, is the quality of admitting and expressing our dark, weak, ugly sides; unwanted feelings and erred ways when they come up. Then there’s exposing ourselves to situations where we can be challenged and potentially hurt as being vulnerable, the adjective.

Being the noun while doing the adjective gives us growing pains **. Being vulnerable without vulnerability is a hollow endeavour***.

**to hurt is to grow. You might have heard. But it’s only as long as you’re aware of what about your psychological condition caused the hurt in the first place, and why you don’t need to be anymore. You need to feel it first, though.

*** being invulnerable means we cannot get hurt or change, means we cannot learn the above, means that while our appearance might seem solid and mature, we are an empty product of our experience. And this product is weak****.

There still needs to be a balance, of course. Too much vulnerability (adj) can make you seem overly emotional and self-absorbed. Being vulnerable to the wrong person and in the wrong situation can backfire*****.

The problem is that when you want to express vulnerability, it means you are currently feeling vulnerable and thus at the mercy of your emotions. This weakens your judgement and makes it more likely that you will indulge inappropriately. Here, emotions must tempered with logic (paradox #2).

Does too little vulnerability make you invulnerable? I don’t think so. Invulnerability is a different beast from mere ignorance; the quality of actively denying our dark, weak, ugly sides, either knowing it exists but not wanting anyone else to, or having deluded ourselves into thinking they are not there.

****How does invulnerability make a person weak? I guess it ultimately depends on one’s definition of weak. The way I see it, the weakness of the invulnerable lies in not so much in what they are, but what they are incapable of being. As being invulnerable limits growth, they are weak in relation to their peers and their potential self. Weak in the way that when the opportunity for emotional intimacy presents itself, they are not strong enough to reap its reward.

It also depends on the possibility of there being a person who is without flaws. Then there’s nothing to offer in the way of vulnerability. I don’t believe such a person exists, but who’s to know.

*****It helps if the recipient of the vulnerability is also one who is comfortable with their own so that they are less likely to use it against them. Unfortunately, it’s often the people who are not who are most able to/wont to hurt the vulnerable (noun and adjective) (paradox #3…or is it a catch 22).

*except for this talk

The Blessings of Doubt?

“It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that ain’t so” – Will Rogers

Anecdote a)
In my first year at VIU I was a psychology student taking the required statistics class taught by Kim Iles. Kim was an engaging teacher, that much I knew, but the subject, like most things mathematical in nature, never clicked. Unfortunately for me, Kim was the type to pick people in class whether their hands were raised or not, just to check if they were listening. When they got it right, he might toss them a little chocolate bar. When they were bullshitting or guessing, they suffered an acute public shaming. It was always one or the other. I knew I was not even close to sweet chocolaty understanding, so each time he scanned the room I sunk in my seat and looked away. Bless the guy, he usually spared me. But one day my time came and indeed I couldn’t make an educated enough guess to show an even faint grasp. I gave the only answer I knew: “I don’t know”. He threw me a full-sized Snickers bar and said “Good answer.” I rejoiced.

I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic until he gave us a brief aside on how IDK is always a good answer to any question you genuinely don’t know, how so many problems in the world are attributed to people pretending they know something they don’t. This is the lesson that stuck with me most in that class, which I ended up technically failing (but given the minimally passing grade anyway on account of being smart in “other ways”). The next year I found philosophy, the only place not knowing seemed to work.

Anecdote b) I later had a boyfriend who was a devout Christian. I was so in love but couldn’t reconcile his faith. “If you don’t believe in anything then you’ll never move forward” he’d say. “I’d rather be suspended in doubt than deluded” I’d say back. Our fundamental issue was not so much whether God exists, but the irreconcilable difference of me believing the assumption of doubt is healthy and that beliefs should be true, and him believing that doubt is paralyzing and beliefs should make you feel good.

Anecdote c) My latest ex, a politically opinionated atheist, accused me of being too dogmatic with my belief in doubt. He wanted me to take a side on issues. I’d rather not pretend I know something about which I only have or can only have partial knowledge. He’d rather fill in the gaps with whatever logical fallacies he can get away with. I’d rather not, and I’d rather he not.

I know that doubt is a virtue. When we doubt our mind is open to other possibilities which are more likely to be correct. I know that when I am feeling insecure or not comfortable about being unsure, I’ll make more assumptions and thus an ass out of myself. I know that being caught in false claims of knowledge makes us less credible to our peers over time and that being around know-it-alls is fucking exhausting. I am pretty sure I’d rather be in doubt than be wrong and find out later, or even be living a blissfully ignorant but less optimal timeline.

But only one out of these three examples led to a happy ending. So, to what extent is doubt a virtue? About what sorts of things?  Am I denying myself happiness or progress by trapping myself in suspended disbelief about things that I can never know anyway? Are there certain situations where faking it until you make it, or believing for the sake of it, is the way to go?

I just don’t know.