On Safety

Dec. 6th, 2006 12:47 pm
gaudior: (Default)
I was in the T-stop yesterday when I heard shouting. Loud voices, young, and I couldn't tell whether they were shouting in play or in anger, so I decided to go investigate (there were a fair number of people on the platform, and one man was already moving that direction). I found a girl sitting on a bench, bent over in obvious exasperation, and swearing at two disembodied voices. I looked around, confused-- they weren't next to her on the bench, they weren't on the lower platform... and then with a cry of "Oh shit! Oh shit!" two kids ran out of the subway tunnel, just seconds ahead of the train. They were sixteen or seventeen years old, tall, Black, baggy-clothed and laughing their heads off. The girl glared at them, relieved. I was already right there, so, laughing friendliness, I yelled at them. "Do you know," I shouted over the roar of the train, "how much it would suck if you'd gotten hit?" One boy blinked at me. "What? Police?" I shook my head. "Don't get hit by the train!" He shrugged, smiling. "Don't worry," he reassured me. "We won't get hit by the train."

And what I find myself wondering is-- how does he know that? I mean, I'm sure part of it is bravado (can't admit you were scared, after all, not when you're seventeen...), and maybe part of it is the same sense of foreshortened future some of the kids I worked with last year had. But I imagine that a big part of it was simply the belief that no, of course they wouldn't get hit by the train. They were too lucky for that, too smart, too quick-- too, very simply, themselves.

The thing is, most people do that. I don't have to be a stupid teenager to believe, when I get up in the morning, that I'll get through the day just fine. I won't be hit by a car, I won't be knifed by a crazy person in the subway, I won't have a heart attack or a seizure, no meteorite will fall on my head. I wake up in the morning with a sense of safety.

This is, according to some psych theories, because we all carry the illusions of our specialness and our invulnerability, all the time. Even though these illusions go against all rational sense. We know, intellectually, that we'll all die. We know we're vulnerable to illness and accident and other people and plain bad luck. But somehow, we're able to put it out of our heads. We're able to trust that we can walk out the door and face the world, and be fine.

So my question is, how? How do we do that? What gives us the belief in safety in such an unsafe world? Is it faith in God? Our loved ones? Ourselves? Is it just that we've never died before, so why would we now? Where do these illusions come from?

And if we lose them, can we get them back?

--R

Reading: Hellspark, Janet Kagan. An Empty Spoon, Sunny Decker.
gaudior: (be the change)
In a comment to a recent post of mine, [livejournal.com profile] homasse described "White Woman Syndrome," or WWS, a phenomenon discussed on a lot of the minority-focused forums on lj. She said that the usual explanation people there come up with for why White women sometimes act like complete, entitled twits is that "White women, being considered the ideal for beauty and such, fully expect the world to love them and make everything perfect for them because they were the Perfect Little Princesses, and when it's *not*, they can't deal." She says she's not sure she buys this completely, but she can't deny the phenomenon.

Neither do I, and neither can I. But I think I have some ideas about where it comes from. )

On pain

Jun. 9th, 2006 05:51 pm
gaudior: (profound)
The people from Teen Empowerment (a program in the high school where I work which hires high school students to do projects to "improve their school climate") came up with what seemed like a fairly daring project this year. They had an English class of students from our high school, E High (urban, almost all students of color and/or recent immigrants, many of them living in housing projects, and all of them dealing with gangs, drugs, shootings, poverty, racism, and a fuckload of other badness on a regular basis), do an exchange program with a class from W High School (almost all White, upper-middle-class, suburban). They exchanged emails for several months, had classroom discussions about social inequality, and then, finally, went to visit each other's schools.

It seems to have gone well-- better than I expected. The W High kids talked about being happily surprised to see "people, not stereotypes," being shocked/impressed with the sorts of things our kids deal with all the time and how they're able to handle it, as well as enjoying the "colorfulness" of the school. I didn't get a sense of whether they learned much that they hadn't been expecting to learn from the experience. But I was more struck with the reactions of our kids. One thing that was something of a relief was that while they did get a clear sense of the unfairness of the situation, they also found things that they appreciated about their school-- the diversity, the energy, and the teachers who care very deeply about them and support them*.

But the other thing that struck me was how struck our kids were by the problems of the kids of W High. They had, they said, assumed that since the W kids were rich and White, they wouldn't have many problems. And indeed, the kids at W don't have to deal with watching their friends get shot, or watching their parents work three jobs to put food on the table, or trying desperately to learn English on the fly quickly enough to pass their classes. But they have problems, our kids said. Problems with parental expectations, and grades-- problems so bad that they do things like pour vodka into water bottles to drink in class to get through the day. One of our teachers said that when the two classes were talking together, some of the W kids were talking about binge drinking, and our teacher realized, looking around the room, that her students had no idea what this meant. She explained it, and they stared at her in confusion, then said, "That's just stupid."

All of which leads me back to a question I had when I, too, was a White, suburban, upper-middle-class kid-- and I looked around and saw how terribly, self-destructively miserable my friends were-- and I didn't understand. How, I wondered, does it hurt so much when life is just not that bad? Of course, I was young and naive and quite emotionally stunted (didn't let myself feel sadness until college, didn't understand depression until after I graduated, I'm only just now learning about anger, and I haven't touched fear yet)... but it's still a question for me. Why is pain like this? Why is it that outside circumstances don't seem to make a damn bit of difference to how much it hurts?

I don't know, but I have a guess. )
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