Empowerment, Selfishness, and Loneliness

We live in funny times. Several years ago I was in a school library when an older woman came in, and I overheard her adamantly announce to the librarian that she wanted to donate books with a specific message: empowerment for women. I remember thinking that books with a “message” sounded boring. Who would read them?

But I must have been wrong, because the narrative has grown and become ingrained. We’ve been told to break the last of the ties that bind us, to have it all, to say yes, to say no, to change the world, to lean in. We’ve been told that we can. And, of course, because we can we should.

We do not need anyone else but ourselves to succeed, because You is kind, you is smart, you is important. Follow your heart and go with your gut. And so, wherever we are and whatever we want, we are true to ourselves, following the dubious wisdom of a Shakespearean lord who gets murdered through a curtain. We dig deep, find hidden reserves, and realize that we’re capable of much more than we ever knew. On our own strength, which is at times considerable, we rise.

We’re not cruel, of course. We don’t step on others’ faces as we climb past them—we’re not willing for their heads to bruise our heels—but we do leave them behind. This is our journey, not theirs, this journey further up and further out, where no one has ever been before. We’re not making decisions based on what others want anymore—we’re basing our decisions on what we want! This makes us feel powerful. We begin to glow.

And then one day we wake up to find ourselves alone. Even if the dream we were chasing was in service of others, we have not wanted to rely on their help to get there. To accept, or—God forbid—ask for help would have disproved all the stories we’re only just now managing to believe about our own capability. So it is just us here now. To be our brother or sister’s keeper would have gotten in the way of our hard-won self-sufficiency. Particularly when some brother or sister is not particularly kind or smart we have been trained, in self-preservation, to ignore the fact that they are still painfully, wretchedly important.

We’ve cut ourselves off and, in doing so, imbued ourselves with a loneliness that feels nearly impossible to recover from. It’s not just lonely at the top—it’s lonely to be a human with skin on. Hollywood makes movies about this. We are empowered, sure. But to reduce ourselves to bundles of self-made desires and shining abilities to fulfill those desires is just another funny roundabout way to dehumanization. Our deepest level of personhood does not exist in self-reliance, but in belonging.

I’ve made more generalities here than I know what to do with, and they’re all centrally based on the only subject I really have for study: myself. I’m thinking mainly about women because I am a woman, and I’m thinking mainly about millennials because, for better or for worse, I’m one of those too. But as usual, my driving purpose in writing all this is much the same as Ralph Ellison’s, something which is both a fear and a hope, cautious and bold: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

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