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Monday, June 20, 2016

Company Town and Giving Yourself a Break (Kit-Kats are gross)

Hwa only sobbed harder. Her throat hurt. Her eyes hurt. It was much worse to think of this happening to the people she knew. To think of all the women this had happened to, before her. All the women who had read those same word in some other place, at some other time. Maybe not for the same reasons, but the reasons didn't matter. What mattered were the words. The threats. The people who made them. And their hate. - Madeline Ashby, Company Town
I'm almost 37. This will not be a surprise to other 37 year olds, but maybe it is to you millennials: I don't know what's going on. Like, I haven't figured it out yet. I thought I would by now. But here I find myself regularly hearing something or reading something or watching like a TED talk or something and feeling the very foundation of my world shifting below me and then everything is new again. Or at least a little weirder.

Case in point: recently in a volunteer training we learned about self-compassion. I'd never heard that phrase before. When I was growing up it was all about self-esteem but that's doesn't cover the whole issue. It took a minute for this to sink in. Here's a long article about what it means if you really want to get into the science, but I'll sort of wing it.

Self-esteem is building yourself up like Ant-Man about to really get cool in Captain America: Civil War; running and saying, "I'm the boss, I'm the boss, I'm the boss," to get yourself psyched up. It's staring at yourself in the mirror and saying, "you can do this because even though your hair is gone your eyes are still pretty." It's hitting "publish" on another blog, knowing that even though there are millions upon millions of people just like you writing words just like yours that you can convince yourself for just a second that the sheer hubris of thinking someone wants to read it is valid. That your words mean something.

Self-esteem is not a bad thing. It's just incomplete.
Continually feeding our need for positive self-evaluation is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash. And right after the crash comes a pendulum swing to despair as we realize that—however much we’d like to—we can’t always blame our problems on someone else. We can’t always feel special and above average. - Kristin Neff, "Why Self-Compassion Trumps Self-Esteem"
Self-esteem, like the candy rush in the above example, gets you through the time when you really need to stand up and do something. But it doesn't help you with that crash afterward. The moment after a job interview where you start to beat yourself up about everything you said or forgot to say, for example. Or after a date when you say, "why did I even say that?"

This happens a lot when I volunteer. I'm on the local rape crisis team, which means that once a month I'm on call for 48 hours. During that 48 hours I have a flip-phone and a backpack and I'm the main person to talk to if someone needs to talk to someone about their sexual assault (or the assault of a loved one). It could have just happened or it could have happened years ago. I'm the hotline. I have a binder full of information about services that are provided in the community and 40 hours worth of training about how to listen to people. I'm also on call to meet victims at the hospital or clinic to stay with them and provide advice and services as they wait to get evidence collection.

What this means is that I often spend several hours with someone who is going through the worst time of their life and I'm just a guy. I don't have the right degrees for this kind of thing. The only thing I have to offer is me, and you've read the blog, "me" is a mixed bag. I'm like trail mix. There's some M&Ms in there, but you're going to have to deal with a whole lot of raisins to find them.

So I get a call, and I pump myself up. You can do this. You've got this. Hey man, you're an all-star, get your game on, etc. This buzz lasts for a while, but not the whole time. There is inevitably a point where I ask myself why am I doing this? I mean, I know why I'm doing it. It's because it needs to be done. But why is it me? If it weren't me would someone better be there? Would they say the thing that needs to be said or be better or have more hair? The last thing is a guarantee. The rest? I don't know. I honestly don't. Maybe just being there is enough, though.

Self-compassion is looking at yourself like you're just another human. You don't have to be a rock star. The question I had to ask myself that was so hard to ask and is still hard to ask is this: If I were my own best friend, would I be a good one?

Run through this scenario with me: you're working in a remote part of Wyoming and due to crazy snowmelt, you get a truck stuck in the mud. You call a tow truck and eventually (at 3 AM) they get the truck out and you go back to your hotel and sleep. The next day you start working and you look at that area where you got stuck and you look at it and you say, "It looks dry now. Yeah, I can get through that." Guess what, you don't. You get stuck again. Last time you felt stupid. This time you feel like some kind of dumb-dumb criminal. You're like a serial killer of bad decisions. You are sure that you will be fired. And you deserve it. You should probably just be dead. You're going to lose your house and your family will be so disappointed in you. You'll have to tell your mom that you got fired and you'll have to say why.

While you're desperately shoveling mud that keeps replacing itself, you repeat this over and over in your head. You kick things and berate yourself and think about crying and maybe you do cry a little. This abuse does not stop. "You are so worthless," you tell yourself.

Imagine if you were with your friend, and while you shoveled they stood there and said all of these things. What if your friend was as hard on you as you are on yourself? Would it be helpful? Would this "best friend" of yours motivate you to be better if he was instead constantly pointing out your flaws and the ruin they will bring to your life? Probably not. "Hey bud," you'd say kindly, mud caking your shoes and jeans. "Pick up a shovel or shut the hell up."

A good friend says, "Yeah, this sucks. We're in a tight spot. But we'll figure it out." A good friend may even say, "Dude, you screwed up. I get it. Let's get out of this." And then leave it at that. Friends hold each other accountable but also recognize that we're all humans doing our best and if it's not them who messed up this time it certainly could have been and might be next time.

What if, and here's the real radical thinking, what if we recognized that in ourselves? What if we realized that we're all just folks and we're trying our best and when we get in the mud we can laugh at it for a second and then go fetch a hose? Because mud is not permanent and often by the time you get back home and you've had a shower and some soup it's probably OK. Or it will be OK eventually.

While I was stuck in the mud that day a guy in a very large truck happened upon me. It was lucky. He pulled the truck out and I got back to work and it turned out fine. But listen. Even if it didn't. Even if we had to call another tow truck and it cost another $300 and I did get fired I would still be a human being who is trying his best who screwed up this time but next time will be better. That's just us, every day. All of us.

Company Town is about Hwa, the only non-enhanced person in a town full of cybernetically and genetically manipulated perfect people. She also has Sturge-Weber syndrome, a genetic disorder that in her case is manifested in a large red "stain" down one side of her face and body and also includes seizures. As an "organic" she's untraceable because she doesn't have any implants broadcasting signals. And because of her stain she's unrecognizable by surveillance. This makes her a great bodyguard, which leads to her guarding the son and heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar of the corporation that just purchased the failing oil rig/city she lives on in Canada.

Whew, that's a mouthful, isn't it? I like cyberpunk stuff, especially in my video games, but honestly I'm a sucker for any tough guy in a trench coat with or without a special red eye that reads heat signatures and a cybernetic arm that crushes like steel pipes and stuff. I like the dynamic between the wealthy people with perfect bodies vs. the have-nots who live in squalor and the criminal element that exists in between. When cyberpunk is best it's a take on the LA Noir hard-boiled detective stories from the 30s whose response to the "perfect" plastic surgery veneer of Los Angeles was to point out the darkness in the alleys. Only with robots.

Company Town does all that: complicated story where at the end you're not quite sure if all the loose ends got addressed, a murder mystery, a begrudging main character who grimly looks at society from the outside, and so much grime. But it also does something very interesting. Hwa is almost a critique of the hyper-masculinity of those noir classics. Where in Chandler or Hammet's worlds Humphrey Bogart saw women as either problems or opportunities for conquest, Hwa sees them as people. The sex workers she guards are also her friends. She is tough, but her toughness is unique to this genre and I found that refreshing.

Also, she lacks self-compassion. Hwa's disorder and lack of augmentations makes her feel inferior. This inferiority drives her to train and improve and be competent, but it also makes her feel unworthy of affection. She doesn't realize her qualities, focusing only on her negatives. Her running internal commentary would sound familiar to anyone who struggles with compassion for themselves. Hwa is a great friend to others, but a terrible friend to herself.

Sound familiar?