Living in the Fish Bowl

“RA’s live in a fishbowl,” people tell you over and over. We…live in a fishbowl? Are RA’s aquatic, wriggling, gooberfish with round flat eyes, propelling ourselves around with our ancient paddle mechanisms, sucking tiny flora and fauna off of our closest friends and family? Do we nibble pellets that drift lazily, like feathers, through enclosure water, do we live in the dentist’s office?

fishbowl

RA’s are like fish in a fishbowl if the fishbowl were to be in the ocean, and the other fish look up to the bowl-fish as a moral example. And the fish in the fishbowl just CHOOSES not to leave the fishbowl because there are SOME things a fish can only accomplish from inside her fishbowl. 

I think I’ve made my point.

What I’ve been thinking about lately is how performative my personality has become. I am always looking at myself from the outside, representing myself in my mind with an image of myself from the outside, and not a mental map of my internal space (as I used to).  You’ve probably heard the saying, “fake it ’till you make it.” I used to think it was a soulless way to approach life, but I have come to see it as a powerful statement about the malleability of reality and self perception. Act differently, see yourself differently, and you will actually become a different person. Change your image, you can change your reality.  I have a real sense that I am constantly determining who I am. Everyday, I have the chance to decide who I want to be, and what could be better than that?

This kind of ultra-intentional self-image design does not exactly facilitate ‘living in the moment.’  I find sometimes that, even when I am alone, I feel like I am performing. I’m always in the company of a theoretical audience.

There is a sense in which being an RA punishes introverts. Being in a fishbowl strips introverts of their most important time. But more than that, being in a fishbowl robs us of the benefit of time spent unintentionally (for a community that thinks a lot about intentionality, we don’t spend a lot of time recognizing the importance of time spent unintentionally).

For me, being in the fishbowl has stripped me of some of my carefree sense of self.  I no longer give myself permission to simply experience my life–no, I must always be actively creating. I miss not caring about what other people think. I miss doing whatever I want when I wanted to. I miss thinking mostly about my own impulses instead of the ideal way to act in a given situation. I miss seeing myself from the inside instead of the outside. I miss the days when my identity was defined only by my idea of myself that day and not by my impact on a community outside of myself.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m trying to rethink what it means to be an RA. I love waking up everyday and trying to BE the person I want to be. But I also want to change the world with who I am.

So the lesson is, be an awesome fish. Show all of the other fish how to be a really awesome fish. But maybe sometimes, you can leave the fishbowl for a while, and bask for a spell in the sheer vastness of the ocean.

Advertisements

The Ghost of Campus Living Past


Every year at Lewis and Clark, 50 or so RAs get together and form new staff teams, and begin the work of the year anew.

Or so the story goes.

In reality, there is always a ghost of last year haunting behind the wings. Returning RAs see it everywhere they go. New RAs walk around getting an eerie feeling that there is something someone is not telling them. Who knows what ADs see anymore.

I remember being a little frustrated as a new RA. I couldn’t understand the divide between myself and the returning RAs.  Some of them seemed bored during training, or just a little ‘over it.’ I felt a little patronized by their reassurances; ‘don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.’ Weren’t they about to undertake new things themselves? Who would REALLY claim to have mastered community building, crisis management, personal development, and peer counseling as a twenty-something? Why didn’t they seem to be treating me as an equal? And most of all, why didn’t they seem to want to get to know me?

Later on, I remember having frustrations with teammates who were really hard to get to know because they were clearly not over their last staff team.

Now I’m a third year RA, and I’m struggling myself. Training starts in two weeks, and I can see these same tendencies I resisted as a new RA in myself.  It’s not that I’ve learned it all, but I’ve spent so much time thinking about these issues, that a two hour power-point might not be what I need to grow the way it was when I first began. More than that, I have to admit; I have a staff team I’m not over.

277349_500344059995829_501796320_o

Those 10 people on my staff team taught me so much–I trust them more than almost anyone in the universe. I can’t find a way to describe what they mean to me without using the word family. It’s hard not to see training as a time when we can all be ‘back together again.’ I know that when I’m in that room with many of my favorite people it will be difficult to give my new teammates the attention and the presence that they deserve.

New RAs, you deserve to be taken seriously and to be received with emotionally open arms. But, just in case you aren’t, please, don’t take it personally. I know I’ll be trying my hardest, but I also know that I have had amazing experiences this last year; I had a year full of team love, adventure, and growth, and it is taking a little time for me to accept that a change has occurred. Sometimes we need to grieve the small things too.

But my team stands as living proof that sometimes, the journey has incredible things in store for us that we cannot anticipate. Right now, life-changing possibilities are open to me, if only I can remain open to them.  My former team is no longer together, but we are still a family. We’re just a growing family.

YOU are the Goddamn Batman

You are a superhero waiting to happen. All you need is the right excuse, and a good mask.

herozzzzz

The Resident Adviser job can be that excuse. At least, it was for me. I am often floored by the thought that my job is essentially to be a really awesome person doing good things. But the catch is, being a superhero isn’t really a job–it’s an identity. You don’t stop being a superhero–when everyone else goes home and relaxes, when everyone else ceases to think about their job, the superhero continues to live their work. The sheer expansiveness of superhero work makes doing it both deeply rewarding and overwhelming.

Every superhero needs a mask, and RAs are no exception. In fact, it is the same mask; an ambiguous job description and nonchalant public persona hide the simple secret that most superheros are actually ordinary people. Community facilitators are Batman style superheros–we aren’t born with laser vision or super regeneration. We bleed just as much as other people. Meanwhile, in the public’s eyes, the identity of the individual melds into the identity of the superhero, until the two are synonymous. In some ways, the melding of identities is a way of becoming who we already were–I have always had the potential to lead a community, to make a difference in people’s lives, to handle tough situations with grace. On the other hand, it is an obliteration of identity, because I never get to be just ME again. I am “Me the RA.”

Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the impossible expectations facing a community figure. We sort of assume that superheroes are able to fix ALL of the problems, to address every crime, that Batman never sleeps through the bat signal. The reality for RAs is that we cannot do it all, and people will be disappointed sometimes. The reality is, we will never entirely live up to the mask, because the mask is always bigger than any person can be. I might positively impact the lives of some of the people living around me, but others who live on my hall will never connect to me and maybe even resent that I don’t interact with them in the way they’d like best. Perhaps I’m too peppy, or maybe not assertive enough, or who knows what.

And the successes are also hard to celebrate. I know a lot of impressive people–they volunteer, they have internships, they get A’s in the hardest classes. Much of the time, I can’t even talk about what I do, for confidentiality reasons. People don’t even realize I’m working sometimes; I have to work really hard to keep my door open. Even if I kept my door open 100% of the time, people would just assume that I am doing what I do naturally. But when my door is closed, no matter how much I have kept it open in the past, then I feel like I am concretely failing (in my own mind, if no one else’s). As a superhero, you will fail. If only yourself.

As is so often the case with creative work, when you really do it right, it seems effortless. Your residents, sometimes even your RA peers and supervisors, often have no idea how much work you’re doing. The blurred line between identity and work prevents people from seeing the struggle, the exhaustion, the growth.  What’s worse is that often it is hard  yourself to seethe impact you have. When the community thrives, I am often unsure if it is the result of my work or just an organic effect that would occur without me.

I found a quote this summer: “The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us but those who win battles we know nothing about.” Being a community facilitator is an act of faith. You will work and work, and then you will trust that because you worked with love, the love was received. The bruises that were already in your heart will hurt a bit. If you felt softness, or in awe, or in love, with those around you, you will feel it more acutely.  Over time, you will learn how to be more authentic to yourself while still playing the role you need to play. There is no Joker, and no Two Face. The enemy is losing faith. The easy option is not to destroy the cape but to avoid vulnerability. These are the challenges of an every day superhero. But on the deepest level, this is who we are. We are all capable of a quiet, and ever moving, greatness if we are naive enough to act a bit foolishly, and a bit bravely.

A Little Thing I Call, “Typing Terrible Things”

One of my favorite forms of self care is called, “Typing Terrible Things.” I will tell you the rules, but you probably already have a preeeeeetty good head start.  I sit down. I pull up my favorite writing utensils. And then I write the worst possible things I could write–every nasty thought I’ve had or might have had or could possibly have. I start by writing the first unpleasant thought that comes to my head, and then I write worse things, scarier things.  I write all of the mean things anyone has said about me, or that I’m afraid they have said about me. I swear all the swears. I write terrible things I think about myself, I write mean things I think about people I love. I write the things I would never admit to anyone else, but most especially I try to write things I don’t want to say to myself in the privacy of my head.  I write down in excruciating detail all the things that feel like they could rip the world apart. I write until a door opens somewhere, until I can’t think of new terrible things to say.

drawing_2511321408_755446

A photo someone took of me in the process.

Thoughts are tricky creatures. The same thoughts tend to run through our heads over and over again, most of the time without our awareness. By writing these thoughts down, a thought that may feel new and painful can be identified as an old thought. Plus, since you notice which thoughts are really the same thought, you magically reduce the number of negative thoughts! Magic!

Most negative thoughts are grounded in emotional truth, but ungrounded in outside reality. Our logical brains try to dismiss these horrible thoughts as soon as they come up, because the logical brain knows they are illogical and the emotional brain finds them too painful.  Give those negative thoughts a physical form. Face them in all their concrete power. You will not be destroyed.

In horror movies, most of the scariest monsters are the ones you don’t get to look at for very long. In many ways, the darkness is far scarier than any beast you can invent. If you were to yell, to DEMAND, that all the scary monsters you’ve ever dealt with line themselves up like a bunch of deadbeat criminals, all of the sudden the mental darkness would be empty. You could see what negative thoughts were running through your head all at once. You might be surprised how many of the bad thoughts are permutations of the same thought. And maybe the thought wouldn’t go away, but at least the next time you think it, you can notice it and say, “hey, that’s that one thought I sometimes have.”

When you’re done, you’re still going to be the same person, in the same place, with the same people in your life. No thought, no matter how horrible, is so bad that simply to think it would destroy you on the spot. You might not be able to accept the content of the thoughts themselves, but you might be able to accept that you have those thoughts. It’s okay, it doesn’t define you. I am not what I think. I am what I choose to invest myself in. 

Afterwards, go ahead, delete that sucker. You might want to give yourself a hug. Then, if you write manually, you can tear the paper into pieces, or burn it. Do it with flair, do it letter by letter, do it while swearing loudly. Perhaps you can watch a silly movie, or have a talk with a friend. Buy yourself a hot cocoa. But hopefully, wherever you go, you will feel lighter. You should. You just let go of the terrible weight of an undefined darkness.

Sometimes, the questions and not the answers impact us the most

In our first one on one of spring semester, my AD turned to me and said, “Tyler, you’re always telling me about other people. I want to get to know YOU.”

I was shocked. I had thought I had been telling him about me–I had summarized my real feelings and experiences, though I presented these with a polish and a positive, forward-thinking spin. I was surprised that my AD had noticed that I was holding back, because I hadn’t yet realized that I was holding back.  It wasn’t until the minutes after he said I hadn’t let him get to know me that I realized that he was right. I had gotten so used to the ‘fake it ’till you make it’ model of existence that I learned to ignore an entire section of myself, to let my own pain fall upon deaf ears, to march on unsympathetically with a shrug of ‘what can you do?’ when my emotions did not match up with my idea of who I wanted to be.  I was surprised that anyone, let alone this busy adult, wanted to hear me stumble through inarticulate sadness, to hear me talk about the thoughts I had self-labeled, “useless and unproductive.”

We all have a lot of those thoughts.

And the thing is, it’s not uncommon to hide our pain from each other, even (especially?) from the people we love. In fact, it is the rule. But I know I would like to tell people the truth. I think most people would, but we just don’t know how to begin.

A lot of people have certainly noticed over the years that I avoid expressing my real thoughts and emotions. The people who, like my AD, know how to call me out on it will always be extremely valuable presences. Many of the people who have most changed my life have done so with just such quick, cutting observations and inquiries. By their examples, these friends have taught me that listening is not only about staying quiet and absorbing the words someone else is saying. Listening can be an act of bravery. It is not only patient silence, it is sometimes the finely cut question. It is not only acceptance, but loving curiosity. It is not only accepting eyes to witness each other, but our voices, calling each other to step just a little bit more into the light.

For now, I’m sitting with the thought that sometimes, the mere act of asking is enough to change someone’s life.

Facing the Existential Crisis Posed by Life After College

Lately, I have been coming to terms with a lot of feelings I didn’t know I had.

change

Coming into my senior year, I feel an odd mix of excitement–I have spent three years to get where I am–and sadness, a kind of preemptive grief. This is it;  I am going to graduate after this year. The thought of leaving my school, and this job, makes me feel a little lost. What if I’m not done with this experience? I’m afraid that I won’t be able to move on from this time in my life, but the school, campus living, my friends, will. Will I find other things to do that are this meaningful? Will I have the willpower or the ability to spend my life on noble things?

Most of the time, I doubt the value of the things I’m doing. Let’s face it, I am a privileged white kid, getting an education that will give me possibilities other people will never have, and to what end?  While I love many of my classes, I’m not sure if being educated is meaningful in its own right. I have all this debt that will force me to revolve my life around the acquisition of money–I can’t just decide to go travel, or live off of a very small salary. Is it worth it?

Worst of all, part of me does not feel it is meaningful to just to be me; a 20 year old who likes to have philosophical conversations and to partake of all things whimsical or weird. Part of me feels that this 20 year old persona is not really me;  “Tyler the RA” is me. Unlike almost everything I do, I absolutely feel that watching out for the well-being of 30 young adults is meaningful. I never regret time spent as an RA.“Tyler the RA” is the person I have decided I want to be; a public persona, the person who does everything with premeditation, who has trained herself how to react to every social situation so that she can be most helpful to those around her.  That person is valuable to the world.  In a real sense, I feel that I am losing myself when I lose this job.

I have been anticipating a great void entering my life after I graduate, and I have started to resent this job because of it. I have given so much of myself to this job–how could it let me go careening off into the emptiness? …Of course, this is all in my head. If I’m reasonable, I know that I need to keep growing and changing too, and the people around me are not simply throwing me away. They genuinely love me.

As Mary Oliver says, I have to be “determined to save the only life [I] can save.” I need to trust that I will find ways to live a meaningful life. Perhaps I’ll realize that it is meaningful to simply live and enjoy living. Or perhaps, I simply need to decide that when I graduate, I will find a way to serve the world in ways that are just as interesting, just as powerful, as the ways I am helping out now. I have to believe that any love lost out of my life will make space for it to re-enter my life in a new form. Most of all, I need to stop thinking of myself as expendable, and I’ll realize that no one else around me sees me that way.

No one ever said self care was easy. But, at times, it is the most important part of the job

We talk a good game about self-care: but what does it really mean? And why is it so hard?


It has been 2 years since I became an RA. It has enriched my life, and sometimes, quite wonderfully, consumed it.  I have begun to own the role as part of who I am. I love this job.

But in spite of the fact that I feel confident I can handle any situation involving other people, I still struggle all the time with maintaining balance and self-care. When I say I struggle all the time with self-care, I mean it literally. I am struggling now, today, all the time, with this balance. 

selfcarebare

Self care bear, why is this so hard?

At some point fairly early on, I started to need my job. Instead of being a lonely college student depressed from a lack of purpose, I can be the RA, a person who is always looking out for others, a person who does incredible things, a person with confidence and purpose to spare. But as time went on, sometimes I forgot to be a person outside of my job. It became revolutionary to think of scenarios in which I do not have to be that person, the person who always feels responsible to look after others and facilitate community. It became revolutionary to think, “sometimes, I am just me, just a being existing and feeling, and it is not always my responsibility to make things right.”

I had this conversation with a good friend of mine.  My friend is an excellent listener. He had started to have all of these break-through conversations with people, conversations that had that satisfying ‘ahah!’ moment, where everything about that person–why they are the way they are–falls into place. You know you have hit this moment by the face of the person you’re listening to; you can see and feel their overwhelming relief. “If you reflect back to someone just so,” I think, “if you use just the right word, magic happens.” Suddenly, neither you nor the other person is trying to think of things to say, or trying to secure each other’s approval. Suddenly you are saying what you truly believe and feel, often quite to your own surprise. It is pure electricity.

After you have a conversation like that with someone, it’s hard to let go. You want to spend all your time thinking about their lives, the puzzle pieces they are struggling to put together, the pain that has shaped who they are. You want to do is to see into the secret lives of people, and once you see, to connect on a deeper and deeper level. It is a beautiful experience, but sometimes, somewhere in the passion of connection, we lose the patience to worry about our own lives, to do the little tasks pushing our own lives forward. The more entrenched we get in other peoples’ lives, the more we develop an inability to invest in our own. Slowly the world gets smaller and smaller.

I have a very rewarding identity as an RA, an identity which I am proud of. But increasingly, as I become a senior thinking about graduation and as I am getting back in touch with myself, I’m realizing I need certain times where I need to be MORE than just an RA. Maybe there are times when I need not to be an RA at all. This is obvious to some people, some people realize this need right away. For me, it is a need I am having for the first time.

Self care for me at this point means developing a new sense of self to strive towards. Not only do I want to be that community figure, I want to be a writer, a mentor and a student of mentors, a person who isn’t afraid to focus on her own life, a person who is invested in herself. I can be obsessed with being an RA, but I have to force myself to see the power and importance of my larger identity as well. Balance will only come naturally when I have regained that sense of perspective.

For now, my homework is to enjoy the sense of passion and purpose this job gives me, while always asking myself; what gives me passion and purpose outside of this job? Why ELSE am I living? Because ultimately, I am more than any one identity, no matter how important it is.

 

Get grounded before training starts

Dear incoming RAs,

In this time just before training starts, I find myself buzzing with energy, but also feeling a little ungrounded. I’m looking back on this time two years ago, right before my first training, and wondering, “what do I wish I could have said to myself back then?” Funnily enough, all the things I would say are things I find I still want and need to do today. Here are 5 ways to get a little extra grounded before training:

1. Watch or re-watch this:

http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html`

Spending time finding your own ‘why’ is one of the beautiful things about being an RA.

I don’t know if this will help get you started, but this photo, which is the banner of this website, has my all time favorite answer for why I do what I do: photo (17)

2. Filling my google calender with my first month of community builders and notes to myself (lists of things I need, tasks to accomplish). The first month is an important time, and also a crazy time, and having that first month planned out a bit helps me feel like I have a little more control.

3. Making a facebook group for my staff team (someone else beat me to it this year!) This is an idea one of my wonderful staff team mates had last year, and it was wonderful. It is great for little communications, like when you want to know when a staff meeting is, or a duty swap question, but more importantly, it is a beautiful place for all sorts of silliness. And silliness is the lifeblood of a staff team.

4. Writing. I need all the emotional bandwidth I got for the start of the year, and writing, whether it is about being an RA or not, opens my brain and my heart up like nothing else.

5. List writing. I am going to draft a list ideas for door decs, hall themes, and random things I want to do. Often I will write a few few values at the top of the paper to keep me grounded in my mission, or I’ll just start with the values and free write about ways to accomplish my goals.

Other thoughts you may want to toss around:

  • Become friends with your staff team and your AD if it is in any way possible. These people can change your life if you throw yourself into the process. I have found that returning RAs have a lot of power when it comes to setting the staff dynamic. So, new RAs, if you are finding you don’t love your staff dynamic, maybe see if you can befriend a couple of the returning RAs and ask how they feel about it. By planting it in their minds, they may realize they want change too, and realize how they can positively use whatever authority their seniority gives them.
  • Plan programs and events selfishly. If you throw an event that makes you happy, you are already winning and other people will probably love it too. So, think; what experiences do you wish you could have?
  • Personally, I like to keep track of the positive feedback I get. If you want to do the same, get a small book, or a stack of post it notes, or something, and write down all the nice things people say about you and the moments of powerful connection you have with RA’s, AD’s, and your residents, especially of the first month or so. Write anything that inspires you. Return to this book when you’re feeling low. I found it helped me on many a low day.
  • Use being an RA as an excuse to do the things you want to do anyways. Change your school, meet with whomever, be ridiculous in public. As an RA, people will not be surprised when you stick your nose around. Take advantage of it.

Have faith that indeed, YOU ARE HERE FOR A REASON. Here is to you, and the journey you’re about to begin!

–love, me