Defying cultural norms and forging an individual path takes radical courage. Yet relinquishing the familiarity and assurance of implicit acceptance can open the way to entire new worlds says Ciara Cremin.
Change is a wish, a death wish: a desire for renewal. Two years ago I changed my gender.
Ever since I was a child I wanted to wear what society deemed inappropriate for my sex. If initially I thought the problem was with me, when finally I stepped foot out of my home dressed as a woman, there was no question about it, the problem was with society.
Sometimes it’s the problem itself that wants changing. Having determination of the problem is the path to freedom. It’s through this that we determine the nature of what really does need changing. Far from helping us, frequently the change we want guarantees our enslavement.
If your partner strikes you down, then by any reasonable measure and irrespective of ‘cultural values’, a line is crossed and the relationship almost certainly should be ended. Things are not always so clear-cut. Must the relationship be ended when the ‘spark’
has fizzled out? For some it surely is a ‘deal breaker’. But there’s danger in the weight of expectation. Relationships are built on fantasies that in our imagination the lover at first embodies. However, as we all know, reality is a lot messier and more complex. Nonetheless, relationships are torn apart because of fantasies none of us live up to. They’re the sorts borrowed from the kind of magazine you find at the doctor’s surgery.
As Freud wrote, the human condition is one of discontentment. Discontentment is the wellspring of art, of science, of love and revolution. Contentment is our enemy.
Contentment is on the side of reaction. It wants stasis and what it begets is a death spiral. Vigilance is required. Our discontentment is also the wellspring of commerce, the fuel of war machines. The feeling of discontentment is fuzzy. We’re never quite sure of the cause. Advertisers provide it an identity. A problem is manufactured for which the solution always, in one way or another, involves monetary exchange.
Our heads are stuffed overflowing with billboard Hollywood spectacle. We’re born watching adverts. In the mirror we imagine perfect bodies and perfect complexions. Along our contours we trace invisible idols. We see flab, blotchiness and wrinkles. We
want diets, foundations and creams. Are you getting enough sun? How are your cholesterol levels? Wrong questions make wrong problems make products. The bare wrist becomes a business opportunity, a void you want to fill with a watch that measures your pulse. Why? Because an anxiety was stoked and where there are anxieties there are needs, needs demanding lifestyle changes. Question the question. The boss organises an away day, a ‘wellness’ retreat: the latest fad of consultancy firms. Wellness is the palliative for a virus caused by your labour. In this register, lifestyle change is of piece with contentment, about remaining stationary, passive, dead. You had the wrong lifestyle but you can buy the right one. It’s at the gym you’re contracted to where, amongst other sweaty, irregular bodies, you run. Pop video porn is your only distraction. But at least you’re fitter, healthier in body if not in mind, and more productive.
How much are we prepared to tolerate? To be author as opposed to slave of change is to be flush through with power. Change, real substantive, life transforming, vitalising change, is an event, a rupture in the fabric of routine. Changes like this that you make issue from a kind of madness that causes you to dispel with caution. Others call it courage. It was in such a moment of madness, for I don’t know how else to describe it, that I crossed the threshold of my home and went to work in skirt, blouse, heels, pantyhose and full makeup. Change, real meaningful change, has irreversible consequences. It renders what you thought once meaningful but stressful, draining and dissatisfying, meaningless. When the criteria according to which you conducted yourself are overturned, anxieties that kept you from sleeping are deprived of their power.
We put up with a lot. We tolerate conditions that if we had agency to do anything about it we’d surely change. Some standards are important to maintain but which are so routinely violated that we cease to recognise when a red line is crossed. Red lines are daily crisscrossed: scrubbed out. That’s what’s so insidious about workplace bullying and the subtle – sometimes not so subtle – forms of harassment women are finally reporting on. Rarely is the bully so brazen, so exposed, that action can be taken. You feel the effect but remain suspicious of the cause.
Am I being paranoid? Am I expecting too much? In the routine drudgery of daily and nightly labours, the spirit atrophies. We become comfortably numb, contented in a situation that in our youth we swore we’d never put ourselves in. Of course, we want change. We’re short changed. There’s always something wrong with us. There’s always something to feel guilty about. But to reiterate, true freedom is in the capacity to decide the problem. Like the problem of my gender: I was guilty of wanting to wear dresses, made to feel ashamed if seen in makeup, for some my ‘condition’ a pathology requiring treatment. We are suckers to a disabling wisdom: Oprah, corporate values, family values: nations built on genocide sustained through violence. When you take possession of the problem, the change you enact is on your terms, for purposes that are your own.
Lars von Trier’s masterpiece, Dogville, illustrates the situation many of us are in. A stray without a home, Grace, played by Nicole Kidman, is offered the hospitality of a village community in whom she demonstrates gratitude by performing daily tasks. She prunes hedges, polishes glasses, babysits for a busy mother and keeps a lonely old man company. Aware of her vulnerability and emboldened by her inexhaustible desire to please, the villagers assign her additional and increasingly more onerous tasks.
She’s the scapegoat when things go wrong and duly punished for it. A hand brushes ‘accidently’ against her knee, another forces a kiss and soon they’re all at it: she becomes the victim of collective and systematic rape. Even then she tries to see their point of view. After all, wouldn’t she do the same in their situation? Then, as the full moon rises, all of a sudden those faces once bathed in a benevolent light are cast by a different, harsher, more unforgiving one. Clarity is brought to the situation. No, she would not do the same. And if there’s to be justice in this world, if others are not to suffer as she has, then it is her duty to rid the world of this village and everyone in it.
There comes a point when we all need to recognise that the change that is needed is greater than ourselves. It is the society that must be changed, a rotten and corrupt system that everywhere breeds misery, hatred, violence and oppression. It’s the kind of change that’ll never be hawked by advertisers and that you won’t find serialised on Netflix. It’ll never be the theme of an away day organised by your employer or something you can get via a PayPal transaction.
Discontentment is a condition of life but hope is a necessary correlate without which there’s only decay and disintegration. Throughout the world, through the course of history, people have risen up on the prospectus of change. We fight for a better world when we believe that a better world is possible. But the cynic will remind you that all such revolutions have failed, all promises of a better life have been broken. Do you mock the naivety of youth and their utopian visions? Do you take pleasure in seeing those visions crushed? Perhaps you yourself are guilty of this kind of thinking? Do you see?
Returning to that image of the lover in whom you invest impossible expectations, the way out of this cynicism lies in this: It’s not that we must get rid of our fantasies but instead be mindful not to be enslaved by them. Change is a process involving taking risks. It’s about taking chances, the roll of the dice, bad dice: a revolution betrayed. Good dice: lucky breaks, great advances. Change is chance, a chance of a future, an impossible future, impossible from the perspective of the now. When that nylon-sheathed foot encased in a black court shoe first crossed the threshold of my front door, I couldn’t have envisaged the changes it would usher, the opportunities that’d arise, the lifting of spirits. There were colours I didn’t know existed, a spirit I hadn’t until then recognised as damaged was renewed. In new worlds there are new peoples, different kinds of dissatisfaction and new possibilities that arise from them, both personal and collective. There are no brave new worlds and nor should we want them. Fantasies can be the motor of change. But sometimes they are the wrong fantasies. If change is a constant through which as a species we thrive, it’s not so much the point to realise them as to be the collective authors of them. We need ideas, impossible ones, that if enacted would engender a different, more beneficial compact between individual and society. We need changes that, in these dystopian times, future generations will be enriched by and also find hope in.
Words by Ciara Cremin.