I believe in subtlety. I believe in the quiet complexity of tones, gestures, underpinnings, and unintended consequences. I believe that when I acknowledge subtlety, my vision is sharper.
I have spent a lot of my life in self-doubt about subtlety. After all, there is a fine line between awareness and paranoia. It’s one thing to recognize that most people have multiple motives and agendas, and it’s another thing to obsess and over-analyze until everyone seems “out to get you.”
Attempting to walk this fine line, I tried to categorize my world into either/ors: healthy and unhealthy relationships, good and bad art, logical and nonsensical religions, helpful and stupid political choices. That doesn’t really work either, because when you over-simplify, you ignore certain truths. And when I ignore truths, they nag at me, lingering. . . until I’m back in the swamp of self-doubt. Self-doubt makes my fingers shake and tremor; I find it pretty unbearable.
To acknowledge subtlety takes bravery, though. With a thudding heart, I began to look at the subtle truths in my own life. I discovered that important people could hurt me, and I could still love them. I discovered that people might express pride in me, but also want credit for me. These discoveries brought complicated-but-honest feelings: pain, confusion, loss. I also found that people who denied hurting me, might be avoiding their own subtle truths of harm. This time, the discovery brought pure relief. Slowly but surely, self-doubt was receding.
Subtlety wasn’t just about my own relationships, though. Subtlety was also about the relationships between other people and other groups of people. As the subtle truths of my own lived experience became clearer, it was easier to see the subtleties in discrimination, neglect, power, international relations, and terrorism. As a therapist, I began to see the small and large ways that family members show love, but also how family members ignore each other’s needs, scapegoat each other, and vie for attention. As a social worker, I began to see the small and large ways that societies engage in the same behaviors. I notice that I hear more about Darfur from celebrities than our government. What does it mean to choose between “Female” and “Male” on a form at the doctor’s office? Am I really so well-educated because I “worked hard”? Why do some people of color look past my shoulder, and others look me straight in the eye?
Subtlety takes an awful lot of deep breaths, a true unfolding from the inside-out. As I moved further “out,” I needed to tolerate an awareness of guilt, a sense of obligation to oppressed people, and the reality that I can’t control the past – but I still need to be responsible to it. But alas, a mind without ignored truths is a quieter, more comfortable, contented mind. Now, when I hold out my hands, they are still.
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