Liking Yourself and Being a Good Person–Is There a Connection?

Read this quote:

“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

If you were to take a wild guess, would you say that the person who wrote this was a productive member of society? Do you think that he or she was the type of person who helped others, who contributed meaningfully to his or her community? Was he or she a good person?

If you’re like most people (which, if you read this blog, you’re probably not, but bear with me), you’d probably answer “no” to those questions.

And you’d be dead wrong, because the author of those dismal thoughts was Abraham Lincoln.

This past weekend, my Jewish education group had its second retreat of the quarter. (I wrote about the first one here.)

One of our many discussions during the retreat was on which qualities are necessary for someone to be a good person (however one defines “good”). Some of my group’s suggestions, such as empathy, seemed completely accurate.

Some, however, did not. One student mentioned that she thinks that liking yourself is a prerequisite to being a good person, and everyone enthusiastically agreed.

I waited for her to explain. She said that you have to be fine with yourself before you can focus on being a good person to other people. She said that not liking yourself is unhealthy. (And unhealthy, by extension, must mean bad.)

I said, “What if the person you are right now just isn’t likable to you?”

She said, “Well, then you would just be bitter.”

I said, “I don’t like myself and I’m not bitter.”

She stammered, said sorry, and left the subject alone.

Here’s the thing. I would agree that genuinely liking yourself is a pretty good goal to have in terms of your own psychological development. However, I completely oppose the moralization of this quality. That is, I oppose the idea that liking yourself makes you a “good” person and that not liking yourself makes you a “bad” person. I also oppose the idea that you can’t be a “good” person unless you like yourself.

I have several reasons for opposing this concept. One is that I truly don’t believe that your opinion of yourself is strongly correlated with your treatment of others and your ability to contribute positively to society. There’s a stereotype of people who have low self-worth as selfish, miserable, and–as the girl in my group said–bitter. While it’s quite possible that not liking yourself would lead some people to be this way, it can also push people to turn outwards and do incredible things for others. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, may have been one such person.

Second, while the argument that you must like yourself in order to be a good person does not necessarily imply that liking yourself automatically makes you a good person, I think that’s something that should be examined. Once you do that, you’ll hopefully realize that there’s simply no connection. Some people who like themselves are great people. Some are horrible people. Some like themselves so much that they don’t give a crap about anyone else.

Third, there is an illness that up to a quarter of adults will experience at some point during their lives that has as one of its symptoms feeling worthless and hating yourself. That, of course, is depression. I hope I don’t have to explain why I find the suggestion that depressed people can’t be “good” people to be inaccurate, superficial, and downright offensive.

Fourth, all of this hinges on one’s personal definition of a “good person,” which was never elaborated on during our discussion. (I find that in conversations of a religious nature, these things tend to just be left undefined.) To me, a person who isn’t good is a person who has the opportunity to help others but chooses not to. A person who cannot help others due to circumstances beyond his or her control should not be labeled as “bad.” So if disliking yourself really is keeping you from helping others, that doesn’t mean you’re not a good person. It just means you have to work on your issues before you can put your goodness into action.

As I told the girl in my group, I dislike myself. There are two main reasons for that. One is that I have depression, and as I mentioned, that’s one of its symptoms. The other is that the culture I live in rejects many of my most defining traits, and it’s really, really hard to like yourself when you’re bombarded with cultural messages that tell you that you’re unlikeable.

With time, I’ll probably learn how to ignore those messages. But to suggest that I can’t be a good person right now because of them (and because of my depression) is extremely condescending. I do my best to be a good friend, daughter, sister, and leader in the Northwestern community. I have found causes that I support and advocate for them tirelessly. Because of my openness about my own experiences with mental illness, I have been able to serve as a source of information and support for many other people that I’ve met over the past few years.

Now, that’s hardly on the level of, say, Abraham Lincoln. But it’s more than a lot of other people my age do. A lot of the ones, I might add, who insist that this time of our lives is a time to “just focus on me” and “just do what I want.”

Liking yourself is great. It feels nice. But we shouldn’t confuse it with having the ability and the desire to do good.

Goodbye Lexapro

[TMI Warning]

Today marks the end of an era of my life.

Today I took my last dose of antidepressants, and tomorrow, for the first time in a year and a half, I will get up in the morning and (purposefully) not take that pill again.

I went on Lexapro as a last resort in July 2010. I won’t go into all those details here since I’ve written about it before, but I’ll say that, at the time, I had no other choice. When a body has been critically injured, it enters a coma. I was in the mental version of that.

Lexapro did a lot of things to me, some expected, some not so much. I stopped crying every day and wanting to kill myself, at least for a while. I also became, according to my friends, more lively, more social, and visibly happier.

But then, there was the other stuff. Lexapro broke up the one meaningful romantic relationship I’ve had in my life. (Was it destined to break up anyway? Now I’ll never know.) It altered my values and beliefs for some time and turned me into the sort of person I would’ve hated a few months before. Now I’m back to my normal self, thankfully.

It was also a cruel helper at times. If I missed just a day of it, I’d be a wreck by nightfall. If I missed two days, the withdrawal symptoms kicked in, and they were horrible. I’d be dizzy, nauseous, barely able to walk, completely unable to explain to people why I was suddenly sick when I’d been fine just that morning. (“Sorry, I’m going through drug withdrawal” isn’t really an effective explanation for most people.) The worst symptom of antidepressant withdrawal has no official name, but depressives refer to it as “brain zaps.” They’re momentary sensations of being shocked or stunned in the head and they happen every few minutes or so, or even more often.

Theoretically, of course, there’s no need to ever miss a day of a prescribed medication, but when you factor in insurance issues, CVS’s constant fuckups, weird sleeping schedules, and other crap, it happens pretty often. I remember one awful time when I forgot to bring my medication back to school from break with me and I had to get my parents to ship it. Those were an unpleasant few days. Another time, my psychiatrist refused to renew my prescription unless I came in to see her, but I’d already be back at school by the time she had her first available appointment slot, and there was no way I could skip classes to drive six hours home to Ohio. She wouldn’t budge.

I’m not going to go into a whole condemnation of psychiatry or the pharmaceutical industry because they gave me back my life. However, I will say this: there is so, so much work to be done.

My psychiatrist prescribed me Lexapro after a nurse practitioner talked to me for ten minutes, and she for about five. She said that “academic stress” was causing my depression and that antidepressants would help me deal with it. She must’ve missed the part where I said that my depression started when I was 12 years old. She also apparently missed the glaring cognitive distortions and emotional issues I was having, and had been having for years and years. She oversimplified my problems and thus prescribed a simple remedy.

It took a while to even begin to sort out what the problem really was, and I’m still not there yet.

Some other things my psychiatrist didn’t tell me: the personality changes. The withdrawal symptoms. The fact that I was more likely than not to have a relapse (which I did). And, of course, the fact that you don’t really recover from depression. You only learn how to avoid it for bursts of time.

That was stuff I shouldn’t have had to learn through experience.

Now I look at that almost-empty bottle and I just can’t look at it with a sense of gratitude. I will never be an enthusiastic advocate of psychiatry, though I will continue fighting for the rights of patients to obtain complete information about medication and to make their own decisions.

I look forward to the end of that daily reminder of what I’ve lost. For the past year and a half, I have started every day by taking Lexapro and remembering that I’m not okay. Now I won’t have that anymore. Now I’ll be able to go half the day, maybe even an entire day, without thinking about that part of myself.

I’m not nearly naive enough to think that this is the end. For all I know, I’ll be back on the medication in a month. I’m almost certain that I’ll be back on it within the next few years.

But for now, at least, I’m done with it.

For now, the only things I’ll be taking in the morning are a multivitamin and a shower.

Normal, just like everybody else.

Days I've Been An Adult

[TMI Warning]

According to our culture and our legal system, I just became an adult.

That is, I just turned 21. Happy birthday to me.

Although 18 is the age of majority, 21 is the age at which we gain control over our own bodies by getting the legal right to pump them full of alcohol until we vomit everywhere and/or engage in inadvisable sexual relations.

Needless to say, I won’t be doing much of that, not on my birthday and not ever. But 21 is still an important age to me. Now I can bring a bottle of wine to a friend’s house as a gift. Now I can order a glass of champagne at a restaurant to celebrate something important.

I’m an adult today.

I’m an adult today, but I’ve been an adult many other days of my life. I want to reflect on those times now.

I was an adult on all the days I left my family behind, when I pretended that my family didn’t matter to me because that’s what adults do.

I was an adult on the day I fell in love with my best friend, and on the day when I left him two years later because it wasn’t right.

I was an adult on the day I sat clutching the phone for half an hour before finally dialing Counseling and Psychological Services.

I was an adult on the day I sat with my notebook and voice recorder, freaking because I was about to go talk to strangers, but I did it anyway.

I was an adult on the day I had my first panic attack and sat sobbing on a bench in downtown Chicago, punishing myself for all the things I couldn’t do.

I was an adult on the day I told my mom that I needed help.

I was an adult on the day my psychiatrist told my mom that I’d been cutting myself, and she turned to me and asked if it was true.

I was an adult on the day a careless driver totaled my car, with me and my little siblings inside. I jumped out of the car, my face stinging from the airbag, and carried my brother and sister off of the street, glass crunching underneath my flipflops.

I was an adult on the day I took my first dose of antidepressants, the first of many, and I was an adult on the day I decided that I didn’t need them anymore.

I was an adult on the day I turned down a paying job for the chance to volunteer in New York City.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I wanted to die, and I was an adult every single day after that, when I chose to keep living anyway.

I was an adult on the day I chose my major and my future career.

I was an adult on the day I told the world I have depression, and on every day I’ve done it ever since.

I was an adult on the day I had to tell a guy “no” for the first time, and when I realized how much worse things could’ve gone.

I was an adult on the day I had to tell my best friend what to do when I can’t stop crying.

I was an adult on the day I lost a close friend because of who I am.

I was an adult on the day I met my newborn nephew and wondered how there could be a whole person there that hadn’t even existed 48 hours ago.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I have enemies. I have enemies because I like to say what’s on my mind. That’s not a reason anyone should ever have enemies.

I was an adult on the day I realized that my little brother is growing up to be just like me, and the thought of that made me feel awful.

I was an adult on the day I realized that I could never believe in God again, and I was an adult on the day I begged Him for help anyway.

I was an adult on the day I knew that I never wanted to leave New York, and when I decided that I was going to return even if I had to crawl there all the way from Ohio.

I was an adult every day I opened up and gave someone new a chance.

I was an adult every day I sat at the kitchen table, waiting for my dad to drive me back to college, crying.

I was an adult on the day I realized that things were never going to be the same again.

And I was an adult today.

I know that anyone reading this probably thinks this is all really sad. They will probably wonder why I would choose to think about such sad things on my 21st birthday.

It’s because, sad as they are, these things give me strength. I feel prepared for an adult life because I have been an adult so many times already. While reflecting on happy memories feels nice, it doesn’t give me that feeling of inner strength, because everyone can deal with happiness. Not everyone can deal with despair.

I can.

When Tough Love Becomes Abusive

Okay, so, I realize I’m showing up rather late to the laptop-shooting party, but I didn’t want to let this bit of news pass by without writing about my reaction to it–not only to the incident itself, but to the various responses I’ve seen to it from the public.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this:

In short–for those who don’t want to waste their time–girl rants about her parents on Facebook. Daddy decides that the correct course of action is not to, say, sit down and have a chat with his daughter, revoke her computer privileges, have her deactivate/delete her Facebook, or otherwise utilize actual parenting skills. No. Instead, Daddy posts a video rant about his daughter on the Internet (sound like anyone else in the family?) in which he shoots her laptop with a gun.

Okay. A few things:

  1. This father’s actions are abusive. I’m sorry if you don’t like that. I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit with your view of “traditional” parent-child relationships. According to modern definitions of domestic violence, destroying someone’s property in order to hurt or manipulate them constitutes abuse. (It’s in there, look it up.)
  2. And that’s only regarding the actual shooting of the laptop. As regards posting the video online, well, I hope it’s pretty obvious why I have a huge problem with parents exploiting their children for their fifteen seconds of fame. Especially when this involves violence.
  3. This girl does seem quite bratty and entitled. However, there is nothing a person can do–especially not if that person is a child–that justifies abusing them.
  4. That said, I’m not entirely sure that the girl’s Facebook rant was entirely unjustified. Immature and ill-advised, sure. But based on her father’s reaction, I wouldn’t say that her parents treat her fairly.

According to the ABC article I linked to, the police and Child Protective Services promptly paid the man a visit, but apparently they didn’t find anything wrong with the scenario. In fact, they told him, “Kudos, sir.”

There are plenty of tragic things about this incident. One is the fact that a girl is being abused. Another is the fact that her abuse is now captured for posterity on the internet. Another is that things are only going to get worse from here, both in terms of her relationship with her parents and in terms of her emotional health. Another is that her father seems to genuinely believe that he did the right thing by “teaching her a lesson.” And another is that the only “lesson” this girl has been taught is that guns are an appropriate way to express your anger at people.

One more issue, however, stands out as particularly sad, and that is the public reaction to the father’s video.

I am ashamed to say that I saw this video posted by my friends in my Facebook newsfeed with comments like “hilarious” and “what a hero.” I’m not proud to have friends who apparently condone domestic abuse as long as it’s amusing to them. If you watched this video and you laughed, I really urge you to reconsider your personal definition of humor, and I hope that you’ll take abuse out of that definition.

A hero is a parent who raises a difficult child with compassion. A hero is a parent with the strength to not take children’s bad behavior as a personal insult, but rather as a sign that more growth is needed.

This father is not a hero. He’s an abuser. Let’s call a spade a spade.

Why Hookup Culture Sucks

This week’s Daily column.

Most people over the age of 35 would probably tell you that the college hookup culture is a terrible thing.

To them, the truth is plain to see — casual sex leads to sexual assault, has all sorts of negative psychological consequences, and is usually a sign of low self-esteem. Popular books like Laura Sessions Stepp’s Unhooked and Miriam Grossman’s Unprotected, along with countless news stories and opinion pieces, promote this viewpoint tirelessly.

I agree that the hookup culture as it currently exists is unhealthy, but not for those reasons. The way I see it, the problems writers like Stepp and Grossman identify within the hookup culture are very real, but they are not caused by casual sex itself. Rather, they’re caused by a lack of education and communication.

For instance, two possible negative consequences of hooking up — sexually transmitted infections and accidental pregnancy — could be eliminated almost entirely if people knew how to protect themselves from them. Of course, the issue of obtaining access to contraceptives is also a valid one, particularly given recent political events.

Sexual assault, too, can be curbed by educating people — and no, I don’t mean educating women not to drink too much or walk home alone. According to a 2010 study in the United Kingdom, two-thirds of people think that victims of rape are partially to blame if they initially got into bed with the rapist, and about one-fourth think that the victims are partially to blame if they dressed provocatively. It’s difficult to end rape on college campuses and in our society in general if so many people still don’t realize that rape is caused by rapists, not by revealing clothes.

Furthermore, our culture is saturated with TV shows, songs and other media that make it seem acceptable to “get” people drunk in order to make them willing to have sex, and I would not be surprised if some people take that message to heart. Of course, a drunk person cannot legally consent to sex, so people who try to get potential partners by using alcohol may not realize that they are actually making them legally unable to provide consent. A Columbia University study implicates alcohol in 90 percent of sexual assault cases on college campuses, showing that the relationship between alcohol and sex is not an entirely healthy one.

Even if the hookup is completely consensual, communication frequently gets the shaft. We’ve all seen movies like “The Notebook,” which usually climax with two people having sex for the first time without uttering a single word. Yet the sex still manages to turn out fantastic. I hate to rain on the parade, but that’s not really how it works. Sure, there’s a chance you’ll go to a party one night and meet someone who just happens to like having sex the exact same way you do, but it’s a pretty small chance.

Those lucky people can probably skip the rest of this column, but the rest of us should remember that you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it.

Unfortunately, expressing yourself clearly isn’t easy when you’re slurring your words, which brings me right to my next point: In order for hooking up to be safe and fun, we need to stop depending on alcohol as a social lubricant. According to a study done at Syracuse University, nearly two-thirds of hookups involve alcohol. Though drinking can be great for letting go of inhibitions, it also tends to make people less willing and able to speak up when something’s not right and to treat others with respect.

Respect might seem like an outdated word to use, but I hope it isn’t. I’m sure there are people out there who truly don’t care whether or not their hookup partner respects them, but I think most people do.

One common justification I hear from people who like to hook up is that, “It’s okay if they use me, because I’m using them too.” That is a terrible way to look at it. Just because you’re only spending one night with someone doesn’t mean you should treat him or her like an object.

Besides, the hookup can’t be that enjoyable if each person is simply “using” the other’s body, because sex requires a certain amount of teamwork.

Luckily, Northwestern does not ignore these issues. This past fall, the Essential NU program for freshmen was revamped to include an updated presentation on sexual health and assault. Staged in the form of a play, it emphasized the need for open communication between sexual partners and for challenging the cultural scripts that lead to both bad sex and rape. But this is a conversation that we need to have more often than just once a year during freshman orientation.

Though we do discuss issues like this on occasion — such as in meetings and events planned by organizations like College Feminists, Sexual Health & Assault Peer Educators, and Rainbow Alliance — they need to be higher up on the agenda.

Unlike the authors who write books with titles like “Unhooked” and “Unprotected,” I don’t think that casual sex is intrinsically wrong, unhealthy, or dangerous. I do think, however, that most of us are going about it the wrong way. For those people who want no-strings-attached sex, hookup culture could be a great thing — just not the hookup culture that we currently have.

On Identifying as a Feminist

[Snark Warning]

It’s fashionable these days to align yourself with virtually every feminist cause but to shun the label “feminist.” It’s not “cool,” people protest. We don’t want to be associated with those mannish lesbians. We don’t want to ruin people’s fun. We don’t hate men. Blahblahblah.

Okay, here’s the thing. There is no identity out there, no label or group, that doesn’t have some negative stereotypes associated with it. Unless you’ve decided to forgo all labels entirely, you’re singling out feminism for some very special treatment if you refuse to call yourself a feminist, feminist beliefs notwithstanding.

For instance, if I tell people I’m agnostic, they may assume that I just don’t have the guts to pick a viewpoint. If I tell them I’m atheist, they may assume that I’m selfish, inflexible, and intolerant. If I tell them I’m Jewish, they may assume that I’m privileged and cliquey.

Or, they may not.

I’ve identified as all three of these things at one point or another, fully aware of the negative connotations that they sometimes have. But did I hesitate to call myself these terms? No!

Some liberals are whiny and naive, but I still consider myself a liberal. Some Israelis are harsh and uncompromising, but I proudly tell people where I’m from. Some Northwestern students are snobby, but I never hesitate to tell people where I go to school. Some psychologists are annoying and try to psychoanalyze you, but–guess what–I’m still going to become a psychologist, and I’m still going to tell people what I do.

If someone judges you based on one word that you use to describe yourself, that person is probably an idiot. It’s not your responsibility to ensure that no idiot out there ever misjudges you, because what idiots do is misjudge people.

To say, “Yes, this word describes me perfectly but I’m not going to use it lest anyone judge me idiotically,” is letting those people win. Because, unsurprisingly, the people who will still have the courage to call themselves feminists will be the radical ones. Love them or hate them, they don’t represent the majority of people who hold feminist views.

In other words, when you disassociate from an identity that describes you just because you don’t want to be associated with some of the people who share that identity, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Feminists are not all alike, just as atheists, Jews, Muslims, Christians, vegetarians, liberals, conservatives, Israelis, Americans, Democrats, and Republicans are not all alike. You can’t understand a person in their entirety just by knowing that they belong to one of these groups.

I am a feminist. I am not identical to every other feminist you have ever met, studied, or heard about. If I tell you that I am a feminist and your response is to smirk, roll your eyes, or ask me if I hate all men, then I’m probably going to consider you an idiot. Why? Because you haven’t bothered to take me seriously. You haven’t learned about my beliefs, but you’ve already decided that learning about them is a waste of your time. Because you’ve disagreed with me without knowing what you’re even disagreeing with. That’s idiotic.

If you actually learn about what I believe and then decide that you disagree, that’s fair. But that’s completely different. And don’t worry, I won’t think you’re an idiot.

As for people like my younger self, who refused to call herself a feminist for fear of ridicule, I only have this tiny suggestion–stop fearing people’s judgment so much. They can’t do anything to you. They come and go. Your beliefs are the core of your character and, although they may change with time, they will always matter to you. They will always matter more than some idiot who sneers at you and asks if you’ve burned your bra yet.

Criticizing is Not Complaining

Most bloggers expect and receive their fair share of stupid comments. It’s kind of an occupational hazard.

However, one recurring theme I see in comments–both on my writing and that of other opinion writers–disappoints me the most. That theme is always some variation on the following: “Sure, this is a problem. But it’s not worth writing about. I hate it when people complain about stuff that’s never going to change anyway.”

First of all, it’s important to distinguish between complaining and criticizing. Complaining is whiny and usually only points out something that’s crappy without explaining why it’s crappy, let alone proposing a way to make it better. Complaining is what people do when they post Facebook statuses about how much they hate Mondays or how annoyed they are about a new rule at school or work. Complaining is usually intended to generate sympathy, although it often fails at doing so because it is irritating.

Criticizing is very different. It involves describing an issue and explaining why it’s problematic. A good critic should also offer some suggestions for change, though that’s not absolutely necessary. (Sometimes those suggestions are best identified by reading a critic’s entire body of work; for instance, many of my posts describe problems that could be ameliorated through increased attention to mental health in our society, but I don’t always explicitly state that in each post.) The primary goal of criticism is not to elicit sympathy or attention for the writer, but to point readers’ attention to a subject that the writer thinks is important.

Readers who misinterpret the purpose of critical writing are doing a disservice to the writer and to themselves. Because these readers usually only write when it’s required for school or work or when they want to share something with their friends on Facebook, they fail to recognize the fact that, to other people, writing can have a greater purpose than that. Although most writers enjoy receiving compliments on their work, they don’t do it solely for those compliments; they do it for any number of reasons that the reader may not know. So why assume the worst?

In other words, I really hate it when people dismiss my writing as “complaining.” If that’s really what you think it is, you’re missing the point by a pretty wide margin.

Supposing a given reader has already made the decision to view all serious, critical writing as “whiny” and unworthy of his or her attention, that still leaves the question of why it’s necessary to demand that the writer stop producing it. The comments I see to this effect rarely just say that they dislike the piece in question; they usually tell the writer to “stop complaining” or that “this isn’t worth writing about.”

This really bewilders me because one would think that people would learn over time which writers they enjoy reading, and which ones irritate them. If you don’t think someone’s writing is worth your time, that means you shouldn’t read it. It doesn’t mean they should stop writing it.

Then there are the readers who claim to agree with my point, but who think that I shouldn’t write about it because…well, just because. Usually they’ll say that there’s no point, that it’s not going to change anyway, that I’m only going to annoy people with my “complaining,” that bringing attention to the problem will cause undue criticism of certain groups or values that the reader holds dear, or–my personal favorite–that I’ll just make people realize how shitty things really are (and, of course, that’s a bad thing).

I’ll grant that there’s a fairly decent chance that nothing I personally write will ever change the world, unless I become very well-known someday. Most writers aren’t going to single-handedly change anything. But enough criticism and conversation creates an environment in which change is possible, because it places certain issues on our cultural agenda.

Furthermore, I would challenge these readers to provide me with an example of a time when people kept quiet, behaved well, and patiently waited for some societal issue to improve–and it just did.

Chances are, there isn’t an example, because you can’t solve a problem if nobody speaks up and calls it one.

From revolutions to tiny cultural shifts, all social change works this way. No dictator wakes up one morning and decides to let a democratic government take over, no CEO wakes up one morning and decides to start paying employees a living wage, and no bigot wakes up one morning and decides not to be prejudiced anymore. Unless, that is, somebody challenges them and forces them to change.

Not interested in changing the status quo? That’s fine. You don’t have to be.

But some of us are, and you should get out of our way.

Dating Dangerously

Three weeks before my senior prom, I asked my best friend to be my date. I was sure he had feelings for me and I wanted him to know that I returned them, and that I hoped that things would go farther. Awesome! I thought. Asking people out is so easy!

Not so fast. At first, my best friend said, “Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.” Three days later, his maybe morphed into a no. I was, needless to say, extremely confused.

Traditional dating wisdom would attribute this unfortunate turn of events to one of only two possible causes: One, that my friend had simply lost interest in me; and two, that he still liked me but just didn’t want to go to prom with me for whatever reason. In the first case, there was obviously nothing I could do and I should just move on–okay. Makes sense. In the second, well, obviously my friend is a sissy who doesn’t have the guts to act on his feelings, and therefore I should just move on because he would clearly make a crappy boyfriend anyway.

Well, I immediately threw out both of these explanations and decided to ask my friend why he said no. Turns out that he’d been worried that, as I’d recently ended a relationship, our going to prom together would look bad. I respectfully disagreed. To this day, I still don’t understand what was going through my friend’s mind, but he soon changed it and decided to take me to prom after all.

And in fact, we soon started dating seriously and continued to do so for nearly two years, at which point we broke up and remained best friends.

The point of this lengthy and seemingly unnecessary foray into my personal life is this: I would’ve missed out on a hell of a lot if I’d just done things according to tradition. Because according to tradition, first of all, I should never have asked my friend out to begin with. After all, if a guy doesn’t ask a girl out himself, clearly he’s either not interested or, again, a sissy. Second, when I received the answer “no,” I should’ve realized that my friend was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Just Not Interested.

And then, not only would I have spent my senior prom awkwardly taking pictures of my girlfriends and their dates, but I would also have foregone nearly two years of a serious, loving relationship.

The truth is, scripts and stereotypes make dating simpler. Rather than actually having to figure out how the other person feels–or, you know, ask them–you can just rely on a mental flowchart to help you. He didn’t offer to pay? He either lacks manners or just isn’t that interested. She invited you into her apartment? She wants to have sex.

Dating scripts also make it much easier to negotiate a timeline. (FYI, if you don’t know what I mean by “scripts,” here’s an unfortunately crappy wiki page about this sociological term.) A guy once said to me, “So, this is our third date. When are we going to kiss?” As if my kissability expires after the third date. Although people undeniably differ in how slowly or quickly they like to go, the very idea that things should progress according to a set schedule makes it easier for people to pick potential partners. If someone takes less time than you to be ready for something, then clearly they’re “easy” and you shouldn’t bother with them. If they take more time than you, then clearly they’re “prudish” and…you shouldn’t bother with them.

I met a guy once who all but bragged to me about how he was once seeing a girl, and the first time they made out, he tried to take her shirt off. According to his account, she “totally freaked out”–that is, not only did she decline to let him remove her shirt, but she also apparently didn’t do this in a nice enough way. Leaving aside the issue of the woman’s possible lack of manners, this guy decided that she wasn’t right for him purely because she wasn’t ready to remove her shirt and he was. In fact, even though she wanted to see him again after that, he ignored her calls without any further explanation.

And that was much easier than asking her to tell him how she felt, or simply apologizing and waiting for her to remove her own shirt when she was ready to. Was it possible that the girl was really unable to satisfy his needs, and that he’d do well to move on? Sure. But he didn’t ask. Perhaps her reaction was due to memories of a painful past experience, or maybe he pulled on her shirt too hard and startled her, or maybe she suddenly remembered that she’d worn her ugliest bra that day. It could be anything, and not all of those possibilities necessarily involve her being unsuitable girlfriend material.

Traditional gender roles and dating practices are also restrictive when it comes to men’s behavior. As a girl, I’ve grown up hearing entire lists of how men who wish to date me ought to behave. They should always offer to pay, and they should always walk me back to my apartment after a date, even if it adds half an hour to their walk home. They should be willing to spend time with me any evening I want, and they should always help me with homework, take me grocery shopping if they have a car, carry my bags, move my furniture, fix my computer, buy me gifts, and initiate everything sexual without any reassurances from me. And, of course, they wouldn’t be even remotely interested in seeing any other girl. Only me.

So imagine my surprise when I started dating and encountered the following paradox: plenty of guys wanted to date me, and they seemed quite interested. Hell, sometimes they even wrote me love letters. But, for some reason, none of them were willing to do everything on that list of perfect boyfriend behaviors. They’d ask me to text them when I got home safely rather than offering to walk me back. They’d tell me that they had plans with friends on Saturday night, but could maybe hang out on Sunday. When we ordered food, they’d quietly let me pay for my own stuff, which I gladly did. Sometimes, to my initial chagrin, they even admitted that I wasn’t the only girl they were interested in.

Of course, there were two possibilities. Either, as traditional wisdom would indicate, these guys don’t “really” like me that much, or traditional wisdom is simply wrong.

Luckily for my love life, I decided that the truth lay in the latter.

But that makes it a bit more difficult, doesn’t it? I can’t rely on these clear-cut categories to figure out who’s really interested and who’s just passing the time. If there’s something I’d like a potential partner to do for me, I have to actually ask rather than assume that they’re just going to do it.

If I truly believed that a guy has to be a paragon of masculinity in order to be an acceptable boyfriend for me, making decisions about dating would be easier, because I’d just ditch all the guys who didn’t fit that mold. But of course, in the long term, I’d only end up ditching my own chances to find someone who’s right for me.

Conventional dating scripts are being challenged all the time, but they still cling to life in the form of movies, TV shows, Cosmo, and many other bits of culture. They also continue to drive the actions and desires of many people, albeit not of me and the people I hang out with.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that they make things so deceptively easy. Dating outside of the conventions seems riskier, scarier.

But in reality, it’s not. There’s so much joy and freedom in writing your own rules, or forgetting rules altogether. It opens up the possibility of meeting someone who likes to play by the same rules, or lack thereof, as you do.

Don't Blame it on the Tech

[Snark Warning]

A modified version of this piece also appeared as my column in the Daily Northwestern.

Technology gets a bad rap.

You wouldn’t think so–obviously, we all love it–but in a way it does.

You can’t really go a day anymore without encountering a book, article, or person spewing some variation of the following: “Oh, these days, everyone’s just so plugged in to their laptops/iPods/iPads/iPhones/Kindles/Blackberrys/etc,” always with a tone that combines whininess with nostalgia.

Sometimes it’s in the context of promoting physical activity, face-to-face interaction, getting out into nature, ink-and-paper books, live music, or any other number of virtuous things. Sometimes–paradoxically, since this usually appears online–it’s in an article about some brave soul who has eschewed Facebook, email, or–gasp!–the Internet altogether. Sometimes it’s embedded in smug pieces with titles like “Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone” or “Why I Don’t Text My Boyfriend.”

For a while, I really couldn’t figure out what it is about these remarks that drives me so far up the wall. I thought perhaps it was the repetition and sheer clicheness of such comments, or just my contrarian nature.

However, I think I’ve finally figured it out. These lamentations annoy me because I read them, accurately or otherwise, as attempts to shift responsibility for running our own lives off of ourselves and onto the technology that we willingly invent, purchase, and use.

In other words, it’s not that I can’t be bothered to spend time with my family. It’s that the evil Apple device prevents me.

Of course, I exaggerate. Most people don’t really feel like they can’t control their technological activities (although there are exceptions). But I do get the sense that gadgets get an unfair amount of blame.

I also think that people often choose to cut themselves off from technology, at least temporarily or partially, rather than learning how to achieve some sort of balance in their use thereof. What else explains the preponderance of browser extensions and desktop software that blocks “time-wasting” websites or programs? If the only thing preventing you from typing www.facebook.com in the address bar is a special browser add-on, you’re not actually learning how to control your urges in the moment they arise.

I also know of people who literally deactivate their Facebook accounts or have a friend change the password during critical academic periods. Of course, part of me just wants o say, more power to them. But another part wonders why people can’t just restrain themselves from going to the website.

In other words, Facebook doesn’t waste your time. You waste your time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in connection with what I wrote about in my last post. When I observed Shabbat this past weekend, that meant I had to spend 24 hours without using any technological device.

Aside from the fact that my nephew was born that day and I really wanted to check in with my family, I can’t say that the obligatory technology fast affected me much. I didn’t die of boredom without the Internet, but neither did I revel in the feeling of being “free” from all that pesky technology.

Ironically, I think this trend started off as a contrarian one. At some point within the last decade or two, some skeptic probably wrote an article to the tune of, “You know all that technology we think is so awesome? Yeah well it’s not.” (In fact, that person is probably Nicholas Carr.)

But now I’d say that this has become a mainstream opinion–one that I don’t necessarily disagree with, but one that seems completely oversimplified to me. I don’t believe that there’s anything special about today’s technology that causes it to sap all of our attention. As with most social trends and problems, I believe that what’s going on here is actually much more complex.

For instance, everyone loves to bemoan the fact that people now communicate mostly through technology. There’s the old cliche about texting or IMing someone who’s just in the next room–or in the same room, and the preponderance of college students who use Facebook to run their entire social lives.

But what’s really happening here? Could it be that the expectation for young people to go away to college, move frequently, and put off making permanent bonds with others until later is driving the increased emphasis on digital communication? Could it be that most people never learn effective communication skills and thus feel more comfortable talking to others from behind a screen? Or, perhaps, that technology takes away the fear of rejection that people face when they try to, say, invite someone to hang out in person or come up and engage them in conversation?

I’m really just throwing out suggestions here, because I don’t know. But I do have a very strong sense that technology is really just the medium through which already-existing problems in our culture and our psychology are being revealed.

For instance, everyone hates the nasty trolls that seem to inhabit every website with open commenting. However, the Internet and the anonymity it provides do not cause trolling; they simply allow it. What probably does cause it are boredom, frustration, and a general inability to empathize and care for people you cannot see or even imagine. And those are problems that reside within ourselves, and not within the technology we’ve constructed.

Technology makes an easy target. It’s new, it’s hard to understand, and it’s changing our culture faster than we can churn out books and articles that analyze it.

But it bothers me that choosing to disconnect from technology has acquired a moral value, and that we bitch and moan about technology instead of some of the larger, deeper problems with our culture.

Those problems are much harder to tease out and analyze. It’s easier to just write a piece blaming everything on iPhones.

But gadgets come and go. Culture usually does not.

Depressed on Shabbos

[TMI Warning]

This past weekend, I participated in an overnight retreat with a Jewish education program I’m involved in called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. In Jewish parlance, the trip is called a shabbaton as it takes place over the weekly holiday of Shabbat (“Shabbos” is the Ashkenazi variant of the word, in case you’re confused).

On shabbatons, the custom is generally to observe Shabbat in accordance with Jewish law. Although this is commonly interpreted as not doing any “work,” our rabbi pointed out that the actual rule is that you cannot “act” on the physical world. For observant Jews, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a time when writing, using electricity, driving a car, tearing paper, cooking, exchanging money, and tons of other activities are all forbidden.

Anyway, I won’t go too far into the religious significance of Shabbat, since I’m sure you can read about that elsewhere and I’m not really the best authority on it anyway. But from the discussions we had as a group, I gathered this much about Shabbat, which I didn’t know before: it’s not only a time of rest, but of reflection. The idea is that you don’t do much of anything except be with your friends and family, eat good food, and think about how your life is going.

All of this sounds awesome in theory. Everyone could probably use some time to just think.

However, for people who struggle with depression, as I do, there is literally nothing worse than to have to spend a day doing nothing but eating, socializing, and thinking.

In fact, Shabbat is tragically full of the very things that depressives should generally try to avoid. For instance, like most Jewish holidays, it revolves around eating and drinking. The amount of food that it’s customary to consume at a Shabbat lunch or dinner could probably feed a family for a week. While this does theoretically sound awesome, overeating takes a huge toll on my mental state.

A similar issue is the compulsory socializing. Although not all depressives are introverts, many are, and the disorder sort of turns everyone into a bit of a loner. I wish I could spend hours with people and feel good about that, but I just can’t. After an hour or two, I start to sink into a funk and desperately want to escape. Unfortunately for me, Shabbat meals last for hours.

The prohibition on writing hits me hard, too, because writing is the main outlet I have for channeling my emotions in a positive way. It’s one of the few things that helps when I’m very upset. Reading is an okay substitute, but it’s just not the same.

Thinking, however, is the worst. Depressives can’t really “think,” they can only ruminate–which means endless, circular thoughts about why they’re terrible people unworthy of love. If I had to sit down for a while and think about how my life is going, I would probably become very, very miserable, and that’s exactly why I vastly prefer doing things to sitting around and thinking about them.

And indeed, on Saturday night when Shabbat was over, I didn’t feel refreshed and at ease like I was told I would feel. I didn’t feel stressed, either, but then I rarely do. Rather, I felt vaguely overwhelmed, like my mental capacity had been drained. Later that evening, I burst into tears for literally no discernible reason, and that’s not something that happens to me often anymore.

Unlike certain other religions, Judaism does not want its adherents to suffer or put their health at risk. That’s why, for instance, those who are sick or pregnant are not obligated to fast on the Jewish fast days. That’s why Jews are not only allowed, but obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.

However, the entire concept of mental health has only really been around for the past century, whereas the laws of Judaism were written thousands of years ago. I can no more expect Judaism to make allowances for people with clinical depression than I can expect it to, say, condone same-sex marriage.

Religion in general isn’t particularly kind to the mentally ill. When it’s not telling us that we’ve brought this upon ourselves and it’s God’s punishment, it’s telling us that we ought to be able to drag ourselves out of it on our own by praying, repenting, being good wives and husbands, or just sheer willpower. One of my favorite bloggers refers to depression as “spiritually incorrect,” capturing perfectly the way I feel about the intersection between my faith and my mental disorder.

I hope that as I learn more about Judaism, I’ll discover ways to make it work with the person that I am. That person will probably never be able to enjoy a full day of eating and being with people; I’m just not built that way. But I know that Judaism does have much to tell me about living well.

However, I doubt that I will ever be willing to observe Shabbat the “right” way. Spending one-seventh of my life without the ability to do the one thing that always makes me feel good seems like a waste. Ultimately, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in an afterlife, so this is the only one I’ve got.