I used to be a bit of an asshole. Very accomplished, extremely articulate, pretty fucking smart. I knew it and I leaned on it: it’s all I had. I learned two roles growing up: how to be second to my father and how to be his object. For the first half of my life, I had no idea how to be a whole human in relationship with other humans. I was able to pass as a functioning human on the strength of how ferociously good I was at being a second to older white men and/or being their object.
I’m the first-born of six children. My white authoritarian father wanted a boy when I arrived, and he wouldn’t be told “no” by the universe or my mother’s womb. He made it his mission to pass onto me—his first-born female child–the hyper-masculinist survivalist vision he embodied. (He also dreamed of moving his family away, rural. Only luck prevented that dream’s likely consequences passing to his children.)
He cut my hair short. He taught me how to fight. (The kids at school called me “tank.”) He taught me that if a stranger on the street comes up to me and touches me, I should assume that that person was trying to kill me and respond accordingly. He told me where to do the most damage to another child’s body when I fight her on the first day of school. He coached me and drove me to other girls’ neighborhoods so I could fight them. He made me responsible for physically protecting my younger brothers and sisters.
My father’s smart genes also passed to me, and he claimed my mind from the start. My given intellect was fired in the kiln of his toxic masculinity and whiteness. I grew into a fierce competitor. I sacrificed the body for the game. In my whiteness, I blindly assumed everyone should be like me, and if they weren’t, they were probably deficient and needed my help. (Education later shattered that assumption.) I knew my intellect intimidated people, forced them to treat me with respect, and it got me high: in that power, I felt secure, like I was protected somehow. Like I could do anything if I just worked for it. Like I was in control of my destiny. Like I, alone, could make my best life. Like I was a boss, only second to the master.
My intellect no longer drives. It and I have been changed by hard experience. I appreciate my intellect’s mad skills and I’m grateful for its ability to solve problems. However, it is forged in toxic masculinity and whiteness. And it used to control everything. It knows now, though, that it no longer occupies a privileged place in my life, that it can no longer steal the center. It no longer takes what it believes is its rightful place, the spot ahead of everyone else. My intellect is a reclaimed, repurposed tool, used carefully. (It still, sometimes, gets aggressive when it feels good, though. It still, sometimes, pushes too hard, its force mostly unnecessary. It still, sometimes, plots our disappearance, especially when it’s suffering.)
My emotions are now my guide. I have been changed by hard experience, and in that experience, my emotions protected me. Growing up, I learned how to ignore my feelings, even when they ravaged my body. I learned to “shake them off.” Later, I ate my feelings, I drank them, I worked my emotions into submission and silence. For the first half of my life, I taught my feelings that they didn’t matter.
They are teaching me something very different now. My emotions are glorious, a revelation–they help me see, help me connect to the world. Help me empathize and be gentle with the parts of myself my father hated and tried to kill. To weave those parts into my new little life, a life previously devoid of meaning, that now overflows with it. My emotions help me feel and connect to those parts in other humans, too. My emotions are superpowers: they make me brave and strong and intuitive.
When I stopped ignoring them–annihilating my feelings–and I turned to reclaim and embrace them, the whole world changed. It’s like a missing game piece got plugged in, and the tight click lit up the whole board. My new sensitivity feels like I’m connected to a source, to something underneath everything else, something that makes it all matter.