Thursday, May 7, 2015

Saying No

Sometimes you just have to say no.

I've spent a lot of the last few years saying yes. Most of the time, it's for a good reason, and there was an acceptable amount of direct reward for me in association with agreeing to do something I have mixed feelings about.

Nearly everything I've done in association with my asexuality activism is something I have mixed feelings about.

I began to make my asexuality videos years ago with mixed feelings. I participated in a documentary about it with mixed feelings. I gave interviews to mainstream media with mixed feelings. I went to conferences with mixed feelings. I wrote a book with mixed feelings.

I continue to have mixed feelings.

The reason I keep doing what I'm doing is that people want and need someone to do it and I am apparently pretty good at it. There are also aspects of it I enjoy and which do directly help me; I love blowing off steam on my various blogs and clarifying my own positions, or interacting with other people online who have been through similar types of invalidation, or (of course) selling a book and benefiting financially from that. But all along, my reason for doing these things has been about other people.

When I was a young person just coming into my identity, I was on my own. And it didn't really bother me that nobody was talking about asexuality, because I didn't need validation or fellowship or support the way most other people did. Well, I guess that's not really it; it was that I already had those things, and my sexual identity wasn't a problem for the people who were closest to me. I was extremely privileged to grow up with that kind of buffer and unconditional acceptance. I never felt like I was lost and alone if nobody else experienced what I did, and I don't remember ever having a high level of stress over it. I stressed over people's reactions to it, because they were anywhere from infuriating to potentially dangerous, but they never wormed into my core and made me bitter, rotten, or empty. Somehow, I escaped internalizing those messages.

Most people like me did not.

When I began to write about my experiences online--just as I wrote about other things that bugged me in my collection of rants, like how I hated how messy my roommate was and how I hated running out of toilet paper--I came face to face for the first time with what people sound like when they are denied what I was offered. I did not relate to their brokenness or their despair, but I did understand intimately why the things that had happened to them (and hadn't happened to them) destroyed them, and I wanted to participate as much as I could in their healing.

So, for me, it's sort of like I'm taking something onto myself that other people can't carry or shouldn't have to. I take flak in the media. I laugh at the death threats. I dedicate time and energy and mental resources to composing helpful materials, and I individually comfort and respond to hundreds of people every year while taking steps toward fixing the broader infrastructure that injures these people in the first place. I care about them as individuals, and as a concept. And of course, helping them makes me feel good even though the main reason I do it is that I feel it's necessary and I can.

But sometimes, there is an emotional and physical cost to doing what I do, and sometimes I push past what I reasonably should. I almost always feel like I'm letting people down if I say no, and I know that's pretty common for people in my position. I have said no to a few interviews recently. I have said no to a request for workshop participation. I said no to a keynote speech opportunity. I will probably say no a few more times in the coming weeks.

I said yes to going to New York for the Lambdas, and I am going to have a great time I'm sure, but I initially balked at the idea. I'm not a huge fan of travel. I'm not much of a willing participant in events that involve pomp and circumstance. I'm blown away and honored by being selected as a Lammy Finalist and if I actually win in my category I'll probably drop my brain down the front of my dress, but these kinds of things aren't intrinsically rewarding to me; they're a symbol of who I helped and who appreciates it. And in the course of the travel, I am going to get to hang out with my dad, stay with my college roommate and friend John, probably see some shows, chill with my aunt who lives in the city, meet with my agent, and probably get to meet one of my Pitch Wars pals. I anticipate the human interaction and contacts to be my "real" reason for going, from the hobnobbing I'll get to do at the Lambdas after-party to the partying with my old roomie. When I went to Minnesota last month, my favorite part of it wasn't the actual event; it was hanging out with the cool queer kids. 

I also said yes to going to the North American Asexuality Conference in Toronto this year, and I just registered and volunteered to run a low-key workshop about handling detractors. I'm looking forward to the events, but I'm also just looking forward to meeting everyone and seeing some old friends/online friends. I said yes to participating in Pitch Wars later this year, primarily because I love the connections I make with other writers during the contest. I said yes to another book event, and am looking forward to the people I might meet while participating.

All this might seem pretty weird considering I'm also not a social person and I don't feel lonely or isolated, nor do I crave interaction with others. But it is intellectually and emotionally satisfying to see them, meet them, exchange ideas with them, and appreciate/be appreciated by people who know why I do these things. I'm far more interested in creating content on my own terms than I am in herding cats (read: being an activist on the ground), and every single one of these events I've undertaken has required me to balance the cost with the reward. The rewards are always a little murky. I feel good when I help people and I feel good when I say yes. That's kind of it, with the notable exception of how I'm pretty close to getting my first royalty check on the asexuality book and it will be pretty significant in my terms, so that's another kind of reward. (It's also not here yet, and it's not why I do anything.) I calculate the cost, acknowledge that the cost is usually more than the gain, and say yes anyway. Doing so leaves me in a deficit.

That's when I start saying no. When I start feeling that debt and need time to replace it.

The whirlwind lately has pulled me away from my fiction writing, which is my passion. It's the thing I do that can conceivably be enjoyed by others but is first and foremost done because I love it. It is its own reward. It doesn't cost me anything to produce it and love it and share it, because it's what I would be doing if I had no other obligations or competing passions attached to caring about people's welfare in this world. It's also what sustains me and helps me fill those pits back up when they're depleted. And it's what helps me climb back to where I start saying yes again.

It feels like it's been too long, and I don't have the focus or energy right now to work on fiction so I've been doing stuff like sending out short stories and delving into consumption mode (more reading, more watching cartoons, more aimless entertainment). These are neutral activities that don't actively cost me yes points, and they provide some insulation so my yes points start building back up on their own. But I'm still learning when I should say no, and sometimes I do wait too long. I'm kind of floundering in one of those times right now, so those who are paying attention may see more NO being handed out around here. It's not the best time to ask me for anything that I don't explicitly invite, though I'm not going to bite your head off if you ask.

The next couple weeks are going to take a lot out of me when there isn't much there in the first place. But I'm fortunate in that I know I can say no and I can withdraw when things are too much--the obligations and undertakings are primarily things I agreed to, not things that are thrust upon me. And I think that's another big reason why I say yes a lot; I recognize that many other people's NOs would not be respected while their YESes are assumed throughout their lives. I sometimes feel guilty that I lean on that privilege at times so I can keep going at the rate I do and to the extent I do.

I'm so, so fortunate. And I think part of the reason people have contributed to that "fortune" so much is that they recognize what it costs me and recognize that it would be very easy for me to say no. I encounter so much help and support without asking, and sometimes I do need to ask but it rarely goes unanswered if I do. I only hope that people who do hear "no" from me in the near future can understand the context in which it is offered, and will understand that I do have to say no now and then to preserve a mindset and emotional functionality that will enable me to say yes most of the time in the future.

1 comment:

  1. This is such a great post, to which I can really relate. I've also had to learn that you can only give so much as an activist; eventually you have to take care of yourself, including by doing intrinsically rewarding things, so you get that energy back. Thanks for sharing this story!