At the beginning of the year you hear it the most.
Just do it! Change your life! Change yourself! Now is the time!
All of the platitudes that are supposed to get inspire you to get off your butt and be the full human being you’ve always wanted to be. You hear it the most at the beginning of the year, but it’s with us always. Boostrapping our way to everything from financial freedom to thinness to a great job.
Just do it (yourself). (Why aren’t you) just doing it?
I took this picture the day of Winter Solstice 2016. There is a farm close to me that has buffalo and I knew when I left the house that day that I wanted to take a picture of the buffalo for Solstice. I imagined a hard core picture of a herd of buffalo charging up the small hill in their grazing area. Or maybe a picture of one of them swinging its powerful head back and forth, sweeping aside snow and debris to get at the food underneath. Something that would ‘inspire’ me, and prop me up on bad days.
What I didn’t imagine was this picture I got. An unsure buffalo standing in front of an open fence, unable to decide what she’s going to do. Go through the fence? Turn around and walk the other way? Lay down and do nothing?
I didn’t notice her at first, I was busy focusing my camera in on the groups of buffalo walking around the field. Sometimes they take off running and the thunderous sound of hooves digging into the ground and the surprisingly quick speed in which they run is a sight to behold. But after it became apparent there would be no running on that day, I shifted my camera’s focus onto the groups of grazing buffalo. Looking for maybe a ‘mother/baby’ combo or even just friendly looking buffalo buddies sharing some food. It was when one of the buffalos I was focusing on turned and walked through the fence gate that my camera finally passed this anxious buffalo, this one that couldn’t make up her mind.
And that she couldn’t make up her mind was obvious, as was her stress. Her head swung back and forth, not as I had seen other buffalo do, powerfully, low to the ground, with intention–but as if looking around for friends. I have a few shots of her looking directly at me and then a few more shots of her head in the opposite direction. Her body doesn’t move or shift in anyway in any of the pictures.
And she always went back to the staring at what was right in front of her. The open fence door. With something on the other side that she couldn’t get to. Even if she wanted to.
I wondered if the fences had electric currents and she had been shocked at some point. Or if she was just pausing for some reason only known to buffalos. Or if maybe she was younger than other buffalo in the area (she is significantly smaller than the others) and just didn’t know what to do with this big fence in front of her.
For whatever reason, she wasn’t ‘just doing it.’
And that’s the reason I finally snapped this particular picture and decided to post it.
Because it was the first time it really ever occurred to me: what does it take to walk through the fence? What does it take? Oh, I know all about structural and systemic inequality that prevents so many people from doing things like going to college or getting that amazing job we’re all supposed to be shooting for. Or getting that book published that we’re all supposed to just be ‘doing’ ourselves.
But when I saw this buffalo in front of the fence and started thinking about my own life and how I have lived 4 decades with an undiagnosed autoimmune disease, how just getting out of bed somedays has been nearly impossible, some times only able to accomplish it through extreme self-bullying (get up, what the fuck is wrong with you? MOVE NOW YOU LAZY SHIT!), and how I’ve been told for about 20 years that if I just lost weight–if I just ‘did it,’ I’d feel better…How many times and in how many ways have I hurt myself in order to force my body to do what others decided it needed to do? How long have I been holding on for dear life, wanting desperately to walk through the fence (Get up and exercise so you lose weight and feel better! Get up and cook dinner so you lose weight and feel better! Get up and take a shower so you want to lose weight and feel better!), but just not being able to?
How terrifying has that fence become to me after all this time?
I’ve been stuck in the same field all my life, and have had everybody from parents to doctors to myself try to force me through the fence without ever once considering that the reason I wasn’t moving wasn’t something I could control. Absolutely because of structural system inequality: not being able to afford a gym membership, not having safe enough streets to exercise on for awhile, not having childcare help.
But also because of just being different and needing different things to get through the fence. Needing a proper diagnosis. Needing time in the day not devoted to surviving work. Needing explanations about my body and the way it works. Needing a different set of goals, my own goals. Needing to learn how to even imagine outside of the box of ‘survival.’ Needing gentleness and support. Needing to know how to do gentleness and support.
We’re all sitting in our own field with our own fences that we haven’t been able to figure out how to get through. Have you ever been shown what it takes? Has anybody ever shown you how to walk through the fence in a way that won’t hurt you? Have you been shown repeatedly that walking through the fence comes with physical and emotional violence? Have you been beaten for being different, for wanting to be different? Or have you lived in a world that is so closed down, so narrow, that you’ve never even been allowed to imagine that walking through the fence is a possibility?
In the book, When the Body Says No, Dr. Gabor Mate discusses the stress of never being in control of your own life can lead to the type of chronic stress that can cause ill health and death. No wonder we all sit in front of our fences, panic attacks in one hand and reluctance in the other, heads swinging back and forth, desperately looking for a way to not have to deal with it.
We’re told relentlessly to ‘just do it.’ We want desperately to just do it. We learn how to beat ourselves, assault ourselves, self medicate ourselves, for not having any idea what to do with the massive fence in front of us, keeping us from dreams we never knew we were allowed to dream.
Dr. Mate suggests that a helpful way to challenge the way we have learned to talk to ourselves is to ask if we would talk to a loved one the way we talk to ourselves. So I ask myself, would you beat this buffalo? Would you see how powerful she is, and know that she can do it–and so decide all she needs is a good zap in the butt? Or maybe a fist to the face? Or maybe you could just scream at her, just do it, just goddamn do it you lazy sack of shit! You’re a buffalo! You’re more powerful than any other creature here! What is wrong with you??
Why won’t you just do it?
Thank god I was raised with love and respect for buffalo, with a sense of kinship with buffalo. Otherwise I might not be able to answer completely and honestly–no. I would never ever treat any buffalo as I do myself. I’d work with the buffalo on their own terms in ways that they needed to get them to trust walking through the fence. In best case scenario, I’d make sure they weren’t fenced in anywhere. I take the fence completely out of the equation. Because I know their natures are not that of farm animals. Because I love them and feel kinship with them.
What do I feel for myself that I won’t do the same thing for me?
As I have spent more time reflecting. I’ve come to realize that deciding whether or not to go through any symbolic or metaphorical or even very real fence is not the question. It’s recognizing how very little so many of us have been prepared to walk through any fence on our own terms and in our own way–indeed, how many of us have been traumatized or violated for even trying.
And so this year, I resolve. I won’t scream at myself JUST DO IT, WHY AREN’T YOU DOING IT!?!? I won’t beat myself when I fail again. I won’t self-medicate with abuse and shaming.
This year, I will instead with compassion and love, sit with myself and mourn, cry, educate, and love the buffalo that was never helped until this point.
What is wrong with you?
What is wrong with you?
The truth is, nothing is wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with me.
It’s ok to be sick, to be hurting, to not know. It’s ok. We’re all doing the very best that we can. And that is good enough.
We’ll get to that fence on our own time in our own ways, once we’re ready, hopefully. For now–rest. Fists down. And rest.
May we all be safe. May we all find peace. May we all be free.
And then decide. Not to go through the fence. But how to be kind to ourselves as we learn, as we breath, as we live. How to show compassion to ourselves. How to be gentle.
Let’s begin with compassion.
And because I have learned that self-compassion is a skill that can be learned, that I am teaching myself, I share with you the resources that have taught me: