Sharp lines define: the corners of a square, the borders of a tattoo, the ends of a smile. Sharp lines form an edge, and I’ve sharpened some edges like hunters sharpen knives.
There’s a fine line between light and darkness: where the shadows blur and intermingle, the edge of twilight simultaneous beckons us forward and pushes us back.
Treading upon this edge has been my journey of late, and every misstep brings me closer to the blades upon which I try to balance.
Metaphor itself builds an edge upon the world, drawing together what’s real and what’s imagined: There is, of course, no fine line between light and shadow; instead there are only gradients of varying degree and subtlety. And the edge I walk upon is also metaphor, but by defining this line, I illuminate a path to walk upon: metaphor allows me to distill my thoughts (amorphous, ambiguous, moist) into approachable words (focused, solid, concrete). So I edge the world to feel its corners, and then I climb through the seams these words have torn in the cloth of my reality.
So when I last wrote, before senior finals, before IML, before senior graduation, I was pondering self-exploration and evolution: Can I grow from a feeling of being naturally submissive to actively dominant? Can meekness turn to assertion? Through experiences I will not share publicly (though positive, they are too personal) and through reflections upon these experiences, I’ve realized three important facts.
First, I have always had a dominant side.
Second, my dominance has always been directed inward.
Third, it is not dominance but cruelty that I fear.
Confronting this is difficult. It forces me to face aspects of myself that are terrible and painful to look upon, and very little metaphor can ease this introspection.
There were moments when, beating and broken by the whips of the world, I could see clearly through this haze, but as the red flesh cooled to blue bruises, and the bruises themselves became soft and subtle skin, that moment of clarity retreated and a veil fell over me again. Old habits become continued routines; unwanted mindsets persist and intrusive thoughts push me toward the ease of yesterday.
To break hold of the past, I must also break myself. I must looks through the cracks, shine light into all the dark places, and breathe with new lungs.
I have always had a dominant side. I construct worlds of my own making, and to my characters, I am God: what I say is the final word. And as a child, if plans deviated from the itinerary, I became restless–or worse, I had a meltdown. When I took charge of recording our weekly TV shows, when I made my own system to keep track of things, if anyone intervened, they were first to feel my wrath. And there were times, more than once, in a bit of anger, I screamed and threw things across the room.
Even my interest in music mocks me now: I never found myself drawn to music to make me feel a certain way; instead my feelings led me to the music. My Chemical Romance became my soundtrack of fury; Fiona Apple, depression. Their words and melodies reflected what I felt inside, and through feeling their music reverberate around inside me, I was able to work through and release that anger and depression.
I also enjoy subversion. I have always had something of a rebellious spirit, wanting to reach past my age and accomplish things beyond my means. I’ve lobbied against the elite; I’ve fought to change norms and expectations. This is control. This is dominance.
But the heart of my dominance has always been turned inward: they say the self is the greatest critic, and I became my master and my slave. If I could not live up to my self-set expectations, I would berate myself and beat myself; rarely if ever physically, but whips and chains are of little value when the mind can make so much worse on its own.
So I held a stern and strict stick to my own neck, and I controlled every impulse and desire. I became my own puppet, and for years I forgot who I was. Or I tried to build myself into something I was not supposed to be. I’ve learned, and I’m now more compassionate to myself, but that tyranny of self left deep, fibrous scars.
And it came in a moment of limitless vulnerability that what scares me isn’t dominance, but the force of dominance I felt at my own hands: cruelty. For years I knowingly and willfully harmed myself for the sake of ends I didn’t even know, and though I could see myself suffering, I felt no regard for myself. Perhaps this was a result of latent mental illness, of anxiety and depression and low self-esteem and self-worth born from years hiding in the closet (so many closets) and never-ending shame… but in the end, no matter its origin, or perhaps because its origin is unknown, all that persists is the cruelty.
I fear perpetuating that cruelty upon others. I fear if I try to be in charge, if I try to control, to dominate, to be an authority, then I will thrust upon others the same cruelty I spent so many years subjecting myself to. And I know, as I learn to find that balance, I will make mistakes, and there will be moments when my attempts at being stern or authoritative will simply seem cruel, and not only seem, but at times I will be cruel. Perhaps not intentionally (can that even be cruelty?) but by its impact, it will happen.
Those moments I will learn from. Those are the moments that build men greater by breaking them down, and while I don’t necessarily desire those moments, I recognize that they can cause the most lasting and meaningful growth of all moments. But I fear them, and I fear the backlash of self-inflicted shame when they inevitably occur.
It’s easier to be submissive. It’s easier to relinquish control and give up my fears. If I have no power, then I cannot be cruel. I cannot cause harm by inaction.
Except I can.
There is cruelty both in acting and in choosing not to act. It’s cruel to see a blind person stepping in front of a bus without saying anything. Is that any different than being cruel by pushing the person in front of the bus with my own hands? Perhaps in some systems of morality those two actions would be distinct, but to me, they’re equatable.
So why should I fear taking charge and being authoritative because it might lead to cruelty when submission can lead to cruelty just the same?
To place it squarely in the realm of my daily life: is it not cruel to pass students ahead to higher grades when they haven’t learned the skills or knowledge to be successful? It is.
And is it not equally as cruel to allow students to behave without disregard to the norms and policies and culture of the school we live in? Does that not set them up to transgress in more dangerous environments where the consequence is death, not detention?
Untangling these knots is a task all its own, one that no master’s degree in knot theory can help with, despite the metaphor practically writing itself. And to find the fine line between dominance and cruelty is a dance along a razor blade, a handstand upon broken glass, and it will be painful. That much is certain. But what follows the pain? What follows the pieces breaking apart and the light falling between the cracks?
There is something on the other side, but one can only hope to see to the other side if one first acknowledges that the other side is there. If we stay blind to it, we are blind forever.
I am no longer blind to the other side, and now that I know it’s there, I can climb these walls, or smash through them, break them open, or in the process, break myself open.
And, perhaps, all of the above.