Growing up I always thought my desire for love was defective, my need for intimacy a weakness. I thought that care was only for the needy, the intolerable, the fragile. Over the years I learnt, as many women and non-men do, that any desire for love (any desire to be held, cared for and cherished by virtue of my being) would elicit relentless punishment under the dominance of patriarchy. In this search I twisted myself into something else. I chased the affections of a distant father figure and a negligent mother, undeterred by the painful failure of my previous attempts, or the emptiness of a ‘love’ predicated on an absence of care. Any lacking I felt was my own inadequacy. If only I could make myself worthy, then I would receive the love I craved so much.
I bore witness as my brother grew, from a boy who shared his emotions with uninhibited ease, into an apathetic young man detached from his desires. Encouraged to betray himself by the unremitting punishment and psychological terrorism of patriarchal ideology, and led to believe that expressing joy, or sadness, or love, or pain would render him less than masculine. To be a man in the eyes of patriarchy you must dominate, to dominate you must be strong, but emotions are for the weak. He was an exuberant, carefree child, playing dress up with our neighbours’ daughter and stealing my barbie vanity makeup set to do it. Nowadays I don’t recall the last time he hugged me or told me much about himself at all. Perhaps that’s more a symptom of alienation caused by an acutely abusive childhood than the systemic socialisation of patriarchy, or perhaps that childhood was only ever possible under the violence of patriarchal masculinity anyway. But masculinity itself is not the issue here, as Bell Hooks said, “the crisis facing men is not the crisis of masculinity, it is the crisis of patriarchal masculinity.” That is to say: the tendrils of patriarchy are wrapped tightly around all our hearts, and fixed identity categories and rigid gender-sex roles harm us all.
At 24 I’m still working to unlearn these things. Escaping the family home isn’t akin to emancipation and it certainly wasn’t the catalyst for my shift in thinking. The rest of our culture is equally isolated thanks to neoliberalism’s drive towards individualism, the belief that we alone are responsible for our own economic and emotional wellbeing. Our national identity itself is constituted by a lack of community care (or any sort of solidarity) and a government hell bent on dismantling all forms of social support. No, it was years before I discovered the power that interconnectedness can hold. That tenderness is key to revealing the possibilities for closeness that were always there, along with the lies that kept them hidden.
So often in this world we believe ourselves to be lonely islands in a vast sea, owing each other nothing, because intimacy itself is antithetical to a culture of self-responsibility. Caring for others is of no benefit to the independent person. Love wastes time and money. If you want to make it in the world you gotta look out for number one. But the truth is we’re never alone and whenever we think we are it’s at the cost of someone’s suffering. We always owe each other something (at least I think we should) and we always need something (and that’s ok). To me that need is love, care, intimacy, vulnerability and feeling. It’s love by virtue of your being, independent of your capabilities or what you can or can’t do. Not love with a capital L, or the elusive unknowable forces of destiny in fiction. I’m speaking of love as a doing word, a care action, or what Bell Hooks spoke of as a love ethic, because a life lived without love, in isolation, is always lacking. Depending on others is intrinsic to the joy of life, to need and want and give and love is to enrich your being: I will always choose joy over strength.
I’ve been choosing joy for several years now, by which I mean intimacy, by which I mean care. My choice has been one of unlearning the sense of self-responsibility that kept me from seeking help, and the shame I was taught to feel in needing others. It’s also been learning to reach out and foster relationships of care, mutual aid and support within the friendships I nurture and the communities I exist. To help, not to better my own circumstances but the wellbeing of others, of all. To improve collectively the lives I might touch. All this, of course, is easier said than done, because fear and other people are rarely so rational. But a huge part of it is realising that a will to vulnerability is the key to alternative intimacies in all forms of relationality. That honesty and making the effort to communicate are intrinsic to healthy, sustainable relationships, no matter how hard the work. It’s learning to do love rather than just desire it.
I carry this with me in all I try to do, in doing love, and being loved. In Love love and all its possibilities. All love without a will to vulnerability and tenderness is lacking, as Barthes wrote: “there is not only need for tenderness, there is also need to be tender for the other: we shut ourselves up in mutual kindness, we mother each other reciprocally; we return to the root of all relations, where need and desire join.” This sticks to me. I want to be in tenderness with you, engulfed but never at the cost of myself. Your entirety should never be the sacrifice for intimacy, it is the coexistence of yourself and togetherness without contention; we can always hold space for two things at the same time. I am me and you are you, but we are in tenderness, togetherness. In each other’s arms but whole unto ourselves. A million fleeting moments that equate to a life. I mean this to you: yes, all of you.
I used to think that choosing vulnerability in the face of domination, and patriarchy, was an act of bravery. To lay bare the things you’re taught to hide an act of heroism. At the cost of the self, martyrdom. That the castigation of my feelings as weak was wrong, they were the weak ones to live such lonely, distanced lives. But I was so wrong. To be vulnerable is to be weak (in the eyes of patriarchy and morality of dominant culture). To believe it to be bravery is to moralise the validity of our emotions; what’s so wrong with being weak? If strength is living alone, an ocean between us all, then I don’t want it. If it’s repressing our needs and squashing the opportunities for joy that love can offer, then its worthless to me. I want to be weak. I want to be intolerably vulnerable. An emotional degenerate. In intimacy with each other and ourselves. I want to live life along a wealth of lines, surrounded by care. I want us all to be weak. I want us all to know love.
I hope you too are wretched and fragile.