Let's Get Serious about Waking Life
This post is about Waking Life. Oh, Lawd, she gonna go there, you’re thinking. I sure am. I realize that I have been walking around for a week in this unbelievable state of utter shock, about everything I have read and everything that has been said. And I have been sort of depressed. And sort of empty. Out of body. Kind of like that movie, what was it? Oh, yeah. Waking Life…
For readers who do not know the conflict at hand, two business owners in my town of Asheville, NC were last week brought to shame for their vile commentary online and in podcasts about their sexual exploits. Jared Rutledge and Jacob Owens, owners of Waking Life Espresso, made comments and admitted to actions that were abusive, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic. Since then, members of the community have lashed out with enormous rage, and there now exists a sort of internationally known Bermuda Triangle of in-person protest, online shaming, and a host of voices which seek to calm the great, hot Anger of Asheville.
So far, I have just been reading. And reading and reading. All the Facebook rants and F-bombs. Every single one of them. I have listened to the radio interview with Jared and Jacob on Planetwaves.fm. I have read the archives of their nasty blog and twitter account, and listened, near tears, to the archived podcasts originally published by AshevilleBlog. I have just been reading, and saying nothing, except for exasperated sounds, and sad iterations. Perhaps, with so many people saying so much, I was waiting for someone to say how I feel. But I’m thinking that won’t happen.
I have been thinking about the words: WAKING LIFE. I think they are great. Obviously, all the ironies of the movie are staring us in the face, and are not-at-all amusing. But, put all that aside, and think about what waking life really means. It seems, if I had never seen that movie, or never walked into that coffee shop, that what I would think about when I heard those two words together would be something quite different. Something about reality and mindfulness, usefulness, and the human experience. As a writer, and a lover of words, I unfortunately have to grieve about the fact that people are using such beautiful words so very, very often this week, but our associations with them are now quite ravaged. This is in addition to the grieving that I’m experiencing for my town, and a couple of individuals who messed up BADLY, and for my society’s paradigms and people, which tend to disturb me anyway, and I’m not fond of examples that further that disturbance thank-you-very-much. I wonder and wish about what we should REALLY be hash tagging when we hashtag #wakinglife. Can we, should we, do it with respect to the words and their meaning? Not the scandal? Both?
I used to work with Jared and Jacob, at the Dripolator Coffeehouse in Black Mountain, NC, eight years ago. They were really different, then. I think. I remember my perceptions, at least. They were younger than me, and quite dedicated to their religion. I was interested in that, since I am not religious, but I was raised in the church, and I have always been a bit of a sleuth when it comes to sussing out young religious folks who actually have their own faith, and those that seem to have blindly accepted the faith that they were raised with. And so, I just wanted to learn about that. I remember having several conversations about it with Jacob and Jared both. For all I know, they both thought I was just another one of those asshole skeptics, judging them left and right. But I wasn’t. I was looking for something. Self-awareness. Intelligence. Interestingly, I remember being pleasantly surprised by both of them. They seemed to have a decently strong sense of themselves and their values. So, like I said, I’m reeling. A lot of their recent language has addressed their having fallen away from God, and really, that’s neither here nor there as far as I’m concerned, with regards to what happened. What I’m saying is that there was something there. Something good. No matter what their beliefs were.
Another memory that I have, which has stuck with me much longer than those conversations, is a rocky exchange I had with Jacob over some of our work duties. I was the opener every morning, and he was closing a lot in the evening, and I was upset about the things I was repeatedly finding in the morning that he had left undone. I mentioned them, and he obliged to correct. But then he didn’t. And do you know what I did? I wrote a mean little note to him in the team notebook at work. It was not constructive, in any way whatsoever. It was just kind of mean. It said “Dear Jacob: opening after you is kind of like getting kicked in the head.”
My boss called me out the next day, saying that Jacob’s feelings had been hurt. I felt bad. Truly. It occurred to me, and occurs to me still, that I did not in any way mean to hurt his feelings, but yet I did something that obviously would have. So what did I expect? I called him to apologize, explaining that I was sorry, and I knew the note was stupid and hurtful, and that everyone saw it, and that really, I had felt disrespected by his lack of acknowledgement regarding some things I had already talked to him about. He acknowledged my position and apology, but seemed shy (or maybe disinterested) in talking about it anymore. Anyway, after that, I always felt regret. I thought maybe I had been a bit of a bully to a younger, newer employee. And that I had written a note that other people might think was funny, or make me seem a certain way. I wrote the note because of my own BS, and less because of some silly shift duties being ignored. I was pretty young then, too, I guess.
The point of sharing this is that I have always felt a little guilty about the way I treated Jacob, and that has totally colored my utter shock at the past week’s events. My feelings have run the gamut. From Well, I guess you don’t have to feel bad about the note anymore, to, I have an experience with this person wherein he was a human being. Just like me. Blood in veins and fear in heart. And so this just really sucks. All around. I’m trying to figure out where these two guys meet: the thoroughly benevolent kid who left trash in the sink whose feelings I hurt with a tiny note, and this guy who has all of a sudden become the momentary representation of misogyny in America. They don’t meet up, these two. Probably less because Jacob is “so different” then and now, and more because he has never truly embodied either one of those extremes, however convenient they might seem.
Let’s get serious. The things these guys did were terrible. No one sane is arguing that. While we acknowledge that, let's also seriously acknowledge that their actions have ignited and reminded us of our individual pain, and this informs our community pain. It’s evident in public discourse, and it is obvious to me in my own soul. Do I feel angry? Hell yes. Do I, like many of the angriest members of my community, want to see my own trauma at the hands of men, and yes, even at the hands of traumatized women, get wrought out and polished by this conflict and its outcome? Absolutely I do. But I see how unreasonable that is. I realize with frustration and defeat, that as angry as I am, I cannot detach my own, individual, private, embarrassing sadness and anger from the sadness and anger that I feel about this situation. Even if my anger comes from experience that is symbolic, and these two are guilty of many acts that reflect cultural scourge, I cannot let these two people accept all of my anger. My choice, in light of this, is to put my anger down, and keep looking deeply into how I feel.
I look at the larger issues: misogyny, racism, sexism, anti-semitism, lust, vulgarity, relationships, abuse, greed, power and control, disrespect. I have found myself asking odd and pointless questions, like: what would our problems, or outrages be today, if the tables were turned, and women had had long standing dominion over society? Who knows, and that’s not really valid. But, the fruitful result of this kind of question is that it helps me think about these issues over time, and ask about the events of the last week in the context of how culture evolves. How will this event be used in the ever-evolving pursuit of equality? In the perennial quest for meaningful, lasting, mutually beneficial human relationships? In the story of how we build community? Just as the Waking Life story has come to not only represent the bad decisions of two individuals, but also the culture of misogyny and the Red Pill subculture within it, our thought, and media will reflect not only the words of individuals and the health of our community in Asheville, but also our legacy of civil activism. We are, literally, waking life here, people. Right now. This issue, no matter how it stinks, is full of importance and nuance.
So. We need to go deeper. For a fine, full moment, let’s go past all these issues, to issues of why people mistreat each other in the first place. All the time, why do people fail at goodness? Why do people mess up? Sometimes, they do it to feel powerful. They do it to gain control. Pick a reason. But at the root, people mess up because they don’t know how to deal with their own pain. No matter the reason, it is always a reflection of personal weakness. Personal weakness comes from a lack of self-awareness. A lack of self-work. And if we are going to be super honest with ourselves, we are all guilty of this. In general, in our culture, we pretend not to be vulnerable at all. We keep our worries and our emotions buried. This is one of the reasons we seek a partner to begin with, and one of the reasons that we have such a hard time losing people, and making life changes. This is why new mothers long for support. This is why it is difficult to truly deal with death. This is why no one talks about divorce. This is why there are surprisingly few community resources on single parenting, even though so many of us are doing it. This is why social media is riddled with façade, and meme, and a hundred thousand individual efforts to say, “Isn’t my life great?” Let’s get serious: we don’t have many people who can deal with their pain without destroying other people. This problem is genderless, colorless, totally secular, and very deep. And then, in horrifying vortexes, our problem with vulnerability and low emotional aptitude is amplified by our prevailing –isms- sexism, racism, anti-whatever-religionism, and on and on.
And then, when people mess up, we suffer again from our collective problem of having only 1 to 3 emotions in our emotional toolbox. This is quite understandable. Moral issues seem un-punishable to us. People persecute others all the time, and get away with it, in a way that is becoming impossible to get away with physical crime. It's just not fair! And so we ache, deeply, for vindication, for ourselves, and for others. We go totally and completely hateful in response to the very hate that hurt us. Because what else is there, except shame, to keep people from doing unjust things which seem to receive no justice? We want tangible proof that someone has paid for his sins against another soul. But in the absence of emotional awareness, we will never receive it. This is because it is only partly related to what happens to the perpetrator. The other part, the harder part of dealing with what is out of our control, is up to us, and it will take time, and emotional awareness. Since we cannot control another's actions, or avoid the truth of terrible situations, our emotional work is to develop a peace about others’ actions that we can live with, without further burden, and without any further needs. It’s something like having, somewhere in your own pocket, a flint and steel, but going looking all over for a fire already burning.
As a result, some of the response has been vile. Some believe it is just. Some believe it is not. As unfortunate as it is, this is now a moot point. Even if there is one best way to treat these two people with whom we are angry, disappointed, and disgusted, humanity would not suddenly unite into that singular belief. They have been shamed, and they will be shamed. They have been wished genuine healing, and they will be wished genuine healing. And regardless of what is said or done to them personally or professionally, no one will ever know what punishment they experience in their own hearts and minds. I’m willing to bet it is unimaginable.
And what if that, right there, in that terror of conscience that J and J might feel, makes our problems worse? What if our deep problem of emotional ineptitude, and our lack of resources to deal with pain, especially for our men, keeps us continually emotionally tired, doubtful, and frightened, so that in weakness, we err again, and again we search for power and happiness at others’ expense? So, really, we face deep questions. In our society, where textured emotion is ignored, where therapy is only available to those who can pay, where the gender divide on emotion and power is deep, can these people get any better? Will they? Who will help them? How will they help themselves?
Recognizing misogyny, abuse, sexism, and their close, destructive tentacles is extremely important, but the umbrella of personal detachment and cultural dystopia still reigns over them all. Learn to stop for a fine, full moment. Check in with yourself. Reflect and hone. We should each seek to somehow share, or at bare minimum, think harder, and truly value how we FEEL. And recognize that our feelings are complex, and confusing, and we should be careful with them, and the way we paint them. And we should recognize that the confusion and art and utter end-of-the-day truth of how we FEEL affects how we behave. And we better quick begin fostering the culture of community and sharing that will make it so that we can be more adaptive in the ways that we each seek to FEEL BETTER.
Jacob asked the Facebook community what he should do next. It hurt, to see him ask this question, which reeks of desperation, naiveté, and utter self-abandonment. But I believe we owe him an answer, in order to address our deep problems of emotion and inequality. I dare say we owe him an answer, in order to shape proper civil activism.
Here is mine: What is next is a long and passionate dance with the truth. Not any delusion that begets convenience or an easier day, but the real, whole truth. The truth about how you felt, and how you probably felt things that conflicted, and what that did to you, and why you felt it, and how it affected your actions, and how your actions made others feel. And how those actions and feelings will leave their marks, based on history, and the repeated series of sneaks that make human life hard anyway, and based on whatever happens next.
And then, based on the truth, do things that depend on no one but yourself to help you feel better. And based on the truth, do things that depend on no one but yourself to create beauty in the world. To help others feel better.
Absolution is not next. Absolution is like a rare and special flower, growing (if you are lucky and strong enough) somewhere in the inescapable wilderness of truth. Ask first if you will be person enough to live happily in the wilderness, and not whether you will be blessed enough to see one of it’s most rare flowers. Let the truth rule you, as it will. You will live with it, and in it, forever. You will live with what you have done as a result of how you felt, for the rest of your life. We all do this, whether we realize it or not. I am doing it, fully and consciously, trying to figure out how I am guilty of projecting my trauma and emotion on others, and having done so, what I am going to do going forward, to feel better, act better, and be better. Ask yourself, how long must you walk this truth, how many stones you must turn over, how many suns and moons must come and go, and how much time and strength you must have before you know it enough to even plant the seed. This question is important, however rhetorical it is, and however unique its answer turns out to be, every single time it is asked. Time is the only tool you have that you do not own. Time is full, and factual, and as brutal as is truth.
What do we do now? Oh, my my what a great question. I think we need to do a little waking life. It seems the response should be the same for everyone, both Jared and Jacob, and all the people who are struggling to deal with their missteps. Stop for a fine, full moment. Reflect. Open more. Brave the bare truth. Create beauty around you, however small. This could be the next right thing. This could be #wakinglife