Last weekend, Evan and I were at a bar and grille on the Oregon Coast. It was a local dive bar with a pool table, a simple menu of burgers, fries and chicken tenders, cold beer, low lighting, a sticky floor, and glazed, half friendly, half curious faces of men in their sixties and seventies, who grew up during, and some of whom probably served in, the Vietnam War, plus a group of drunk women who were a little younger, there to celebrate a fiftieth birthday, and reminded me of people from my hometown in rural Maryland. (BTW I did not take this photo. I found it on Google, but this is the actual bar I was in).
Fortunate Son was playing on the jukebox when we walked in. Not one of those old jukeboxes where you insert a quarter to play a record or a CD, but a digital jukebox where you play the music through an app on your phone.
Evan asked me if I wanted to play some songs via the TouchTunes app. I said sure, and I immediately started to think of all the songs that I thought would appeal to this specific crowd. I chose each song carefully, ensuring that my choices would maintain the current vibe and that the patrons of this dive bar would continue singing along, nodding their heads, getting lost in the music, and forgetting all of their problems for the duration of the three minute and thirty second song. My motivation was to appease and please.
I played more Creedence - Bad Moon Rising - She’s So Heavy, Love Her Madly, and I mixed in a little Alan Jackson and Josh Turner. Everyone in the bar was singing and smiling. I was killing it and I found joy in their joy.
Then it was Evan’s turn to play some songs. His approach was the exact opposite of mine. Instead of asking what everyone else would want to hear, he asked what songs would be unexpected. His motivations were to push the bounds of what was “acceptable” or “expected” and to disrupt the status quo. He played songs by Childish Gambio, Kid Cudi, and Pretty Lights. He found joy in the little bit of resistance stirring among the patrons, like one woman complaining, what is this song?
Shit I thought. I wish I was able to act more on my inner rebel voice like he is. I wish I didn't just try to please. And then, I realized that we both were operating from a cage. Glennon Doyle's voice in Untamed popped in my head: resisting is just as much of a cage as conforming. (I’m paraphrasing).
My cage in this situation was that of people-pleasing. Evan’s cage was that of resisting. The people-pleasing cage is probably the familiar cage for women. But as Glennon also says, our men are caged too. Patriarchy does a disservice to men as well.
Here I was spending my money to play songs that would make other people happy, and therefore make me happy. Granted, my songs were songs that I like, but I’m not sure I would have chosen them if I had simply asked “what do I want to listen to right now?”
There Evan was spending his money to play songs that were unexpected. Granted, his songs were also songs that he likes, but I’m not sure he would’ve chosen them if he had simply asked “what do I want to listen to right now?”
It seems many of us move about situations in one of those two ways: surrendering to the cages we are in, or resisting them just for the sake of resisting. Which cage we are in might vary depending on the situation. It certainly does for me. Often, I find myself in the latter cage, resisting for the sake of resisting. A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago: do you try to be different? I had mixed feelings about this question. Part of me was proud that this friend recognized that I am “different”. (Also, it’s a big part of my identity to think I am different and no-one understands me. Which is a protection mechanism and also is so NOT true. I am slowly dismantling this false belief). The other part of me was caught off guard because I actually do not know to what degree I “try” to be different; and if I am trying, does that mean my “difference” is inauthentic?
But wait, what is the obsession with authenticity anyway? Authentic means to be genuine; real; true. I believe that every expression of ourselves is real. How could it not be? It may be a real that is bred and shaped by familial, cultural, and societal norms, beliefs and expectations, but that does not mean it’s not real.
If I had asked myself: what do I want to listen to right now? my answer probably would have been Nights by Frank Ocean. That response would have been authentic and true for me; AND it also would have been shaped by my external environment. Many factors and experiences have led me to be obsessed with this song right now, and if those circumstances were different, I might not have answered Nights by Frank Ocean. I might have wanted to hear nothing but a visceral drum beat, played on a cowhide drum.
All of that to say, it can be so hard to answer the very simple question: what do I want? I’m talking about a rather silly example of choosing a song in a bar, but our bigger decisions are subject to the same cages, norms, and muddling of the expectations of society versus our own desires.
Do I want kids? Or has society just told me I should want kids? Or do I just not want kids because I’m resisting what society has told me I should want?
Do I want to get married? Or has society just told me I should get married? Or am I just resisting marriage because society has told me I should do it?
Do I want to take my husband’s last name? Do I just want to because that is the traditional way? Or do I not want to because I believe doing so would make me a bad feminist? Am I even a feminist?
And then there are these expanded cages which are a little more insidious:
Do I want to climb the corporate ladder and be a strong independent career woman? And in doing so do I want to expend my energy working for a company that touts diversity as a value but has an all white leadership team? That barely pays its front line employees minimum wage? That is selling a product that has been proven to negatively impact our mental health? All in the name of my freedom and “anything you (man) can do, I can do better)”? Or do I just think I want this because for so long, I / women have been deprived of such opportunities? Or do I not want it because this other, traditional, part of society has told me that I cannot be a mom and a career woman, and surely I must choose to be a mom…?
FUCK it almost feels impossible to figure out what the hell we want.
Sometimes, I think it’s okay to want something because it brings joy to others and therefore to you. But we shall not only find our joy in that of others’.
Sometimes I think it’s okay to want something because it’s unexpected and stirs up or activates others, in the name of rebelling and resisting. (I’m talking about minor activations here, like a song choice). But we shall not only find our joy in the reaction of others.
Sometimes, we simply must do the hard work to figure out what we actually want, independent of how any one else is going to react to or perceive it or us.
But how the hell do we do that?
Start with the body.
Take a deep breath.
What does your body desire right now? Maybe your body wants to stretch or pee or take five deep breaths or lay down for 10 minutes or shake it out.
Gift your body just that.
Then practice tuning into what you want in regards to the little decisions like…what to order when you’re out to dinner, what kind of drink to order at the café, how you want to spend your free thirty minutes, what book you want to read next.
For any decision at hand you might ask yourself “if I were by myself, what would I choose?”
This is not to suggest you never take into consideration the opinions and desires of your family, friends, colleagues, but even simply answering the above question, you will realign your internal compass, which will help prepare you for knowing what you want when it comes to those bigger decisions. AND you get to decide when you want or need to prioritize your desire and joy over that of others and when doing what your partner or kids or friends want is the very thing that will also bring you joy.