What's in the Toolbox of Liberation?
I think a lot about the wisdom and sentiment behind Audre Lorde’s famous observation that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” It’s a crucial insight, for those of us seeking better ways to exist, but it is after all more of a starting point than an answer unto itself.
There are two questions that this oft-recited quote raises in my own mind. First, how can we recognize which of the tools we wield are problematic? And secondly, what are our other options?
I am hardly alone in exploring these questions, to be clear; but what follows is a look into my process of trying to answer them.
The Bad Toolbox
Back in June of 2020, I started pondering the nature of systemic oppression. Such problems manifest in a bewildering variety of ways in our current world: racism, colorism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, ableism, classism, casteism, and on and on. It seemed to me, though, that despite the plethora of specific forms of oppression, all of these issues had some things in common. I began to see patterns.
In the two years (plus some change) that have elapsed since then, I’ve refined my understanding of these patterns into something of a general-purpose thesis. This is not to say that my understanding of oppression is complete, or even particularly robust. While I face several overlapping forms of marginalization and oppression myself, I also carry substantial amounts of privilege, and ultimately I am only able to speak to one lifetime of experience and perspective.
That said, however, the patterns I’ve identified have (thus far at least) seemed to be very useful for me (and a few others) in illuminating the question of “what, exactly, are the master’s tools, and how can we recognize them in practice?”
There is a lot to be explored – far more than I can fit here – but these patterns can be expressed succinctly with these names:
- Idea Control
(I am personally quite fond of the fact that this spells out “DEI” and serves as both a handy mnemonic acronym and a potent indictment of the kinds of neoliberal inclusionism that often parade around in the costume of “well-meaning” DEI efforts within the corporate world.)
These patterns are not concrete details, but rather more of a sentiment; they cannot necessarily be used to generate a comprehensive list of every single object in “the master’s toolbox,” but they can certainly be used to examine any given tool we wield (be it an attitude, social dynamic, formal policy, political stance, and so on) to determine if those tools are in danger of being weapons of oppression.
Moreover, these things rarely pop up in isolation. In practice, they are usually not simple, easily-spotted “tools” in the sense of tools like a hammer or a saw. Instead, they are often compound machines – built up by combining, blending, mixing, and connecting smaller things into larger systems. The parts themselves may not always be weapons of oppression per se, so it is vital to think about the overall effect of what happens when those parts are stitched together and used in concert.
The goal is to recognize those weapons, whenever we realize we’re holding them, so we can throw them away. Once we’ve done so, we can reach for something better.
When we make an active, ongoing, deliberate commitment to do this, we open the door to growth, and along with it, to liberating ourselves – and those around us – from oppression.
I did not begin my personal examination of oppression out of some kind of altruistic desire to fix the world. In fact, it started for me as a rather mundane issue of my own survival. It was not until I’d spent quite a bit of time thinking about how I myself had been hurt that I began to realize that the violence and oppression I’ve been subjected to in my own life had a lot in common with other kinds of oppression in the world. My glimpses into the systemic only began after quite a lot of staring at the personal and the specific.
In the summer of 2020, I was mid-way through my first year of living openly as myself – a trans femme. I was knee-deep in realizations about how violent and toxic my environment had been when I was a child growing up. I had barely begun to grasp the reality that I am autistic. I had not yet realized that I am also invisibly disabled.
I was watching the world around me catch fire, often literally, in a resurgence of awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement. The global pandemic forced an unprecedented number of people to sit and stay home, captive audiences in a wholly new way, and to bear witness to police murders of Black people in the so-called United States.
It was, of course, hardly the first time that police had brazenly murdered Black people. It wasn’t even the first time that such state-sponsored violence had been national news; but in that summer, as we all sat in lockdown, it seemed like a lot more people noticed than had ever even pretended to pay attention before.
At the company I worked for at the time, I remember there being some kind of low-grade unease. It was a rather preposterous thing, to my mind; the company was almost entirely white, and the staff was also overwhelmingly made up of cishet men. But a lot of people seemed freaked out, so I volunteered to join a group of managers and leaders in the company who were coordinating “conversations” or “listening sessions” for employees to talk about what was going on in the world.
I expected a lot of white fragility and other such nuisance from the conversation. I knew I’d signed up for a lot of emotional labor, even though the session I’d offered to host was only an hour long. I knew that I was likely to spend a lot of time afterwards needing to take care of myself after confronting the discussion at hand.
I wasn’t expecting to deliver an impromptu lecture on how oppression works and how people become complicit in it without knowing.
But after that meeting, and many other conversations over the course of that summer, I realized I had quite a bit to say about the matter – not simply as a means to understand myself and my own lived experience, but as a way to help other people learn.
Idea Control Displaces Learning
I was in first grade when an adult in my life first recognized that my brain was a bit different. She was, perhaps unsurprisingly, my school teacher. I doubt she knew enough to pinpoint me as autistic, but she certainly knew enough to warn my parents that they would need to be very careful with my education. I do not learn the way most people learn.
That was a fateful moment in my childhood, and the repercussions still play out regularly in my life, some three decades later. It was true that I needed special permission to handle learning in the way that is right for me; but that, sadly, also became a sort of carte blanche excuse for my parents (and many other adults) to double-down on subjecting me to emotional neglect and abandonment. After all, I learned best on my own, so it was OK that they were never around to help me, right?
I struggled to reckon with my own brain for a very long time. I knew something was different – it was at once both tantalizingly obvious and confoundingly impossible to identify – but it wasn’t until after I was out as trans that the big puzzle pieces began to fall into place. Long before I knew that I’m autistic, I knew that learning was a complicated thing – and that most of the world I’d grown up in did not understand learning at all.
As a schoolchild, I loathed schooling. Structured lessons, based on rote memorization and evaluated by rigid metrics, were a nightmare for me. The adults around me were endlessly frustrated by the fact that I often struggled (or even outright failed) at their tests and examinations, and yet, in a private conversation, I could demonstrate understanding and a depth of familiarity with the subject matter that often exceeded their own. I must have been “lazy” or “stubborn” or “uncompliant.” Why else would I be bad in school?
The truth was that I was none of those things; I loved learning, and easily spent more time and energy trying to learn and understand things than the vast majority of my peers. I read encyclopedia volumes for fun, in alphabetical order. I saved money to buy books about computer programming.
I wanted desperately to find approval – something I was constantly denied by everyone around me, including my own parents – and underwent endless contortion and contrivance to try and meet the expectations I thought I was supposed to be meeting. Somehow, it was never quite good enough.
Eventually, I dropped out of high school. I’d started taking college-level courses two years early, but after the hellish experience that education was for me, I decided that trying to pursue a formal education wasn’t worth it. I figured I’d rather hide my lack of “qualifications” and just get a job instead. (In fact, I got two full time jobs at once, almost immediately after I turned 18; and even worked both of them for over a year and a half.)
I never stopped learning, though; and a couple of years into my adult life, I decided I wanted to try to understand why school and I had been such bitter enemies. I decided I wanted to learn how people teach – which meant I needed to learn how people learn.
What I discovered was both enlightening and terrifying. In the traditions of education used in the United States in particular, as well as much of Europe, it turns out that learning is not actually much of an objective at all.
I found that “education” had been conceived and popularized as a means to produce homogenous, compliant, and largely narrow-minded workers en masse, for the purposes of fueling the post-Industrial-Revolution need for bodies for capitalism to exploit. While the institution of education had evolved substantially over time, it remained first and foremost a bastion of systemic oppression, especially after the age brackets of compulsory education gave way to the “opportunities” of “higher” education.
Such “higher” academic institutions in particular had emerged as a powerful means of reinforcing basic patterns of classism, racism, sexism, and so on. Moreover, they were used as a sort of false-promise of “mobility,” leaning into the white-supremacy-culture myth of “individual merit” to lure people into “working hard” to “earn” their chance at escaping whatever oppressions they’d been saddled with.
In a way, formal education had become one of the more powerful secular tools available for perpetuating idea control. It had also, as often happens with oppressive systems, become entangled with exhaustion (demanding hard work in the guise of “earning” better life circumstances, setting arbitrary exclusion criteria as a way to decide who is “good enough”, and so on) as well as deeply reinforcing division along lines of class, race, gender, and ability.
All was not entirely lost, however. Some educators had noted that not all students learn in the same ways; and some had even gone so far as to recognize that some modes of teaching were getting better results than others.
From these teachers, I discovered that there are quite a few different ways that people like to acquire, process, understand, and ultimately “learn” things. There are myriad routes by which this can happen, and the ways in which each of us learn actually evolve over time.
The secret, it seemed, to learning, was to learn how to learn – and that is, fundamentally, a deeply personal journey. In other words, for anyone who is interested in learning, we need to first understand ourselves.
I started a very intense bit of self-exploration and discovery at the end of 2018. Even now, four years later, I find myself wondering just how much of me is still waiting patiently to be revealed. But understanding myself has been a brutally difficult journey, for a number of reasons, and a deeply draining one.
I would never have been able to learn what I have about myself without also learning how to sustain the effort along the way.
Exhaustion, when it comes to the weapons of oppression, is not simply a matter of being extremely tired. It also entails a particular mindset; it is a focus on scarcity, a denial of possibility, a limitation and removal of opportunity… in short, exhaustion is about trying to make things smaller than they should be.
I needed over thirty-three years to fully come to grips with the fact that I am trans, despite the fact that I have very clear and vivid memories dating back to when I was four or five years old of knowing something was different about me.
That was not, however, my own flaw or failing at play. In fact, it was a side effect of an exhaustion mechanism being used against me: the cis-binarist lie that there are only two options for how to be, boy and girl, and there’s no going from one to the other.
I could not understand myself because I could not see the options for how I could possibly exist. I knew I fit into neither of the boxes I was offered. I knew that “girl” felt a lot better than “boy” ever did – but I was never permitted to express or explore this, let alone actualize it in any meaningful way.
As part of reckoning with that history, I needed to do a phenomenal amount of work, to push beyond the tiny set of ideas that I’d been handed. Exhaustion told me I had no choices; idea control kept me from learning the truth. I often described it as having a view of the world “stapled” onto my mind, in place of being able to understand reality on my own terms. Pulling out those staples was painful, tiring, and difficult.
I’ve written a bit before about how I learned to be on my own side – the process of realizing I was not, in fact, fighting myself, but rather fighting against the social conditioning and programming I’d been subjected to my whole life.
The key thing that got me through that process was the moments of joy.
I learned, sometime early in 2019, that I could do tiny little things that felt really good – as if I was tapping into some kind of life and energy that I’d never known was possible. I followed those little flickers of exuberant vitality, like the proverbial breadcrumbs, through the process of unraveling my gender identity.
I followed them onwards, towards many other truths about myself – the fact that I’m a trauma and abuse survivor; the fact that I am autistic; the fact that I am not compatible with the societal construct of monogamy; the fact that I am disabled; the reality of my own deep, burning need to channel the opportunity and privilege I’ve been given to work to undo the rampant injustice that has been leveled against the world.
Along the way, I realized that this experience – this sensation of being deeply and profoundly alive – was the fuel that I desperately needed. It is the fuel not just for one leg of my own journey or a specific chapter of my life, but for any effort for liberation; after all, if we’re not fighting for room for unbridled, joyous life to flourish, as widely as possible, then what are we even doing?
We cannot sustain any meaningful effort against systemic oppression on a metaphorical empty stomach. Oppression thrives on starving us. We cannot dismantle such a massive, entrenched web of complicated forces without a rich, abundant supply of good fuel.
The summer of 2020 was something of a crucible for me. I was still settling into my authentic identity, learning how to present myself to the world as a femme for the first time. I was dealing with helping my tech-sector company navigate its first attempts at supporting remote-work environments after a long and petulant insistence on forcing its employees into open-floor-plan office spaces. I was watching people around me begin to notice the existence of injustice, often for the first time in their lives.
I do not want to portray myself as some kind of paragon.
As a teenager and young adult, I was a profoundly shitty person. I carried many toxic behaviors and horrific habits through my twenties. It wasn’t until 2016, in fact, that I realized exactly how much I detested how I was behaving towards other people.
So in 2020, while I’d been hard at work trying to understand queer theory, intersectional feminism, and my own active struggles against transphobia, there was a lot I had yet to examine.
That summer forced me to truly go back and look at systemic racism for the first time in my life. I’d never really been able to understand, before then, because I always struggled to see myself in the larger pattern of racial oppression. Once I knew how to see myself, though, the picture suddenly came into horrid focus.
My initial recognition, of just how complicit I am in systemic racism, was not easy for me. I had a lot of guilt and shame and confusion to work through. I needed to process a lot of ways in which I’d been conditioned to believe that my choices, views, and attitudes were “not my fault” – and ways in which I’d been reassured that my unfair advantages, due to being white, were in fact things I had “earned” or at least “deserved.”
If I had not already learned how to fuel myself – to comfort my emotions, to reach for peace and joy, to follow the trail of dim flickers of clarity through impossibly dark and imposing wastelands – I would not have been able to manage my confrontation with my own part in racism.
I simply would have been too exhausted. I would have given up.
Making peace with my existence in the world demanded that I continually return to – and cultivate – my skills of making peace with myself. I learned to make peace with myself by first learning how to make peace with my differences from those directly around me; from there, I began to learn to make peace with differences I rarely was required to see. Over time, those two skills fed back into each other, enabling an upward spiral of healing, reconciliation, and growth.
Disarming Weaponized Difference
Differences are inevitable parts of our reality. Nothing in our world is truly monolithic or simple. When it comes to oppression, it does us no good to try to deny the existence (or importance) of differences; that is simply erasure, and it is a violence of its own kind.
Division is what happens when oppressive dynamics use difference as a way to decide what (or who) is acceptable versus unacceptable. This need not happen on a large scale to be oppressive; in fact, division can take root within our own minds and hearts, convincing us that we are abominable, or irredeemable, or unworthy.
Perhaps more than any other weapon of oppression, division begins in ourselves. It preys on our fear of things we don’t like. It feeds our desire to point blame at something or someone, even if that means us. It gives us our enemies and our scapegoats. It lists our foes and threats, ever-ready with a dossier of who and what to avoid and shun.
Part of what makes systemic oppression so difficult to uproot is that it does not require our conscious participation. We can simply go through life, doing what we think is natural and expected, making what feels like our own best-judgment choices, never realizing or understanding that we are not separable from our environments. We are not distinct from our conditioning. The ideas we are given often define the limits of how we perceive and understand reality.
So when someone points out that we are complicit in oppression, it can feel incredibly painful.
In many cases, it is very easy to respond this pain with denial. We might be tempted to fall back on explaining our intentions, insisting that we had only good motives, that we didn’t know better, that we weren’t trying to cause harm. We can’t possibly be the problem.
Unfortunately, this response is extremely common. I’ve seen it in people denying their role in racism; I’ve reacted that way myself, in the past. I’ve seen it in people refusing to explore their own sexism; again, I’ve done that, too. I’ve seen it from people avoiding conversations about ableism. I’ve also made those excuses myself.
In order to deal with my own complicity in division on a societal level, I first needed to learn to recognize when it was happening inside myself. I needed to discover the patterns by which I marked things as “acceptable” or “unacceptable” in my own mind and emotions. I needed to find ways to see what was really going on when I concluded I couldn’t be “in the wrong.”
I don’t like hurting people. I have immense difficulty with violence of any kind. I learned to be very hurtful, once upon a time, as a means to protect myself. I did a lot of violence, emotionally and verbally, over the years, as a way to keep abusers at arms length and try to ward off even worse violence being hurled at me. But I didn’t like the idea of being a hateful, hurtful, violent person. Even though I buried that kind part of myself deep down for a very long time, it never truly went away.
It was precisely that good-natured desire to not hurt anyone that made it difficult for me to reckon with my own role in racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and so on. I knew, deep inside, that it was not my intent to hurt people, let alone oppress them. So any accusation that I had, in fact, done harm, felt like an affront to me – like I thing I needed to refute or at least reject, because it didn’t align with what I knew my motives really were.
In this way, my own division against myself kept me from exploring the possibility that I was accidentally causing harm and inadvertently perpetuating oppression. I felt that such things were unacceptable, and I couldn’t face the idea of doing them myself, so I spent many years ignoring the possibility as hard as I could.
The year of 2019 was filled with hard realizations for me – moments of confronting the reality that I was not, in fact, the person I thought I was in my own mind. When 2020 came around and I started truly facing racial injustice as an issue for the first time, I was able to do so only because I’d already begun learning to deal with the divisions between my self-image and my reality.
My journey of self-repair had given me the first basic tools I needed in order to truly develop empathy – not just for people like me, but for people with very different experiences.
It also, crucially, gave me a way to grapple with the Paradox of Tolerance. Division is about artificially deciding what is and is not acceptable; but the opposite of division is not universal tolerance. There are some things that cannot be acceptable, if we are to build a just and liberated world; the distinction is that we must focus that rejection towards choices and behaviors and not towards who people are.
We need to understand the complex interplay of autonomy and circumstance in order to recognize what is problematic and what is simply different from what we find familiar and comfortable. This is the seed from which our skill of empathy can grow into an ability to cherish difference.
I will never know what it is like to be Black. That is not an experience I can understand.
But I do know what it is like to be cast aside, to be looked at harshly, to be misjudged and misconstrued and slathered in blame for other people’s ignorance and failings. I know what it’s like to not feel safe walking into a room because I don’t know if anyone there will accept me. I know what it’s like to not want to open my own front door in case the knock is coming from someone who wants to hurt me. I know what it’s like to always second-guess, in the back of my mind, if I’m being brought close because I’m seen as a friend, or if I’m being brought closer because I’m seen as an enemy.
I know what it is like to be oppressed.
It’s pretty shitty. So while there are many, many kinds of oppression I will never experience – let alone understand – I can always understand how awful it is to be on the receiving end of them.
And I can also understand what it takes to truly reckon with being the oppressor.
This understanding gives me a place to start: a foundation from which I can spread outwards from myself, and begin to act to dismantle oppression and replace it with liberation in the world around me.
I did a lot of journaling in the summer of 2019. It was a way I could try to organize my thoughts, as the maelstrom of thinking unraveled my very existence and laid bare the core of the true me who had remained hidden and obscured for more than three decades.
I felt like I kept coming back to the same ground, over and over again, returning to the same questions, the same problems, the same frustrations and fears. I wasn’t sure if I was making progress or just spinning in circles. I kept notes, hoping to be able to discern the difference.
In that span, I often came back to a particular mental image. One of my early special-interests, as a young autistic girl-in-hiding, was space travel. I loved the physics of it – the idea of using gravity to create a special kind of orbit that worked like a “slingshot” to launch spacecraft across incomprehensible distances.
When using that kind of maneuver, it is common for a craft to fly “past” a point multiple times. When escaping the gravity of a planet, especially, it is also common to dip closer to the planet itself to gain speed, before breaking free entirely and hurtling away into space. What looks a lot like revisiting territory – or even losing ground – can in fact be a crucial part of the journey onwards.
I like patterns. I see them everywhere, as part of how my brain operates and exists within the world. I noticed a pattern like this, in myself, of thoughts that seemed to spiral around and around for ages. It was terrifying, at first, feeling like I was trapped in a whirlpool… until I recognized the pattern. I would feel like I was spinning in circles, yes, but sooner or later, something would fall into place, and I’d find myself blasting away into some new region of exploration.
I named that pattern “orbiting up.”
Knowing when I was “orbiting up” made it possible to withstand the sheer, inexpressible, unceasing turmoil of 2019. I knew I was moving on to something better, even if it felt excruciatingly slow at times. I could find reassurance in the knowledge that, even though it felt like I was coming back to ground I’d trodden endlessly already, I was at least seeing it from a new vantage point.
It wasn’t long before I wanted to understand more than just my own experiences. Indeed, I knew that very little of me could really be “understood” without also trying to understand my environment, my circumstances, my history, my relationships. In short, to understand me, I also needed to understand my world.
For a while, this seemed like a shaky paradox – a sort of introspective chicken-versus-egg conundrum. I wanted to learn to relate to the world around me in new ways, based on my rapidly-growing knowledge of myself and my past. I also saw many other people struggling in similar ways with similar questions about themselves, and I desperately wanted to help them, too. It was far too much to handle all at once.
I needed an anchor point.
Originally, my anchor point came from a very basic rule of emergency triage: tend to yourself first. At one point in my life, I felt like this was a problematic and selfish stance to take. But midway through the fight to come to terms with my own trans experience, I began to learn just how important and wise it really is.
When we are struggling, thrashing against the pain and weight of our own burdens and wounds, we are more likely to do additional damage than we are to help anything. Worse, if we go too long without tending to ourselves, we can end up being lost, too – along with all the additional damage we’ve done in our flailing and panic.
This is not to say we need to be perfect before we can help. That is an oversimplification, and it is far too easy to use such simplistic thinking as an excuse to continue being inactive.
Rather, it is an acknowledgement that, when we feel the desire to help, it’s always worth looking inside ourselves first, and making sure we truly can.
As I’ve come to codify it in my own head, it is something of a principle – a way to remember to deal with my own situation before trying to affect the rest of reality. When I remind myself of this, I say, “I have to start with me.”
I cannot orbit up and spiral out beyond myself if the gravity of my own struggle is too strong. I cannot be a part of undoing systemic oppression if I do not know how I am oppressed and how I oppress others.
What is alive grows outwards, from that which is already alive and healthy. I cannot grow outwards from places where I am wounded or poisoned or diseased. My liberation has to start with me.
The Toolbox of Liberation
So I’ve found some ways to recognize the weapons of oppression. I’ve taken time to understand that these weapons are rarely entirely separate things, but rather usually come in hybrid form, combinations and mixtures and blends and elaborate contraptions. I’ve learned to deal with the process of understanding when I’m wielding those weapons, and how to make peace with that so I can throw them away.
What, then, do I pick up next?
I like the phenomenon of symmetry, personally. I find it pleasing that there are “opposites” to the weapons of oppression. These are, again, hardly the only things to choose from; we must be careful not to assume that the possibilities we know of are the only ones that exist. I will continue to point to the importance of embracing complexity in our thinking.
But we can at least begin by thinking about the polar opposite of each of the three main patterns of oppressive dynamics:
- Instead of regarding difference as a rationale for division, use difference as a hint to practice growing our empathy.
- Instead of succumbing to the limiting effects of exhaustion, find what makes us feel joyful and alive – and cherish the factual reality of abundance.
- Instead of relying on idea control to hand us the answers, to tell us what we can (and can’t) trust, and who we should listen to, we can learn how to learn.
I feel that it is extremely important to apply these things within ourselves before expecting to go much beyond that. But this is not a simple, direct, linear process. Quite the contrary, it is much more like a rising tide: the waves will crash forwards and recede again, many times, even as the overall level of the water gets higher. We may orbit up many times, and along the way, we will certainly be affecting more than just ourselves.
But to truly have a lasting and healthy reach, we have to continually come back inwards, and make sure we’re attending to the patterns of oppression in ourselves.
As we build our trust in ourselves, and work to change our own various kinds of complicity in oppression (whether aimed at others or internalized), we build the skills we need to relate to others. We can begin to bridge the gaps of division and learn to embrace difference.
The better we know ourselves, and the healthier our connections to the world around us, the more sustainable our efforts for liberation can be. As we find what brings us life and joy, we can recover from the effort and pain and work of dealing with oppression. We can endure more, and we can more readily find even greater abundance already available in the world.
Learning New Tools
Any learning process is, by definition, not an instant thing. We all learn in our own various ways. Many of us, however, have become conditioned to understand “learning” through an extremely narrow lens.
Back when I was a professional computer programmer, I often had the experience of working at a computer alongside another person. Sometimes I was at the keyboard, sometimes it was someone else; sometimes it was many of us collaborating at once. But whatever the arrangement, we’d be tackling a challenge – and I’d eventually make a suggestion or take an approach that was not known to whoever else was present.
When that happened, I frequently would get asked the exact same question:
“Where did you learn to do that?”
I always found this question confounding, especially as an almost entirely self-taught engineer and a high-school dropout. It was not, however, until I started laying out the notes for this essay earlier today that I realized just how telling the choice of words is, in that question.
People did not ask me how I had learned, or even why I had learned. They asked where – virtually every single time.
Idea control, as operationalized by the institution of formal and compulsory education, has burdened untold millions of minds with the notion that learning is a thing that happens in a specific place, or at least a specific sort of context.
In other words, learning isn’t commonly seen as a thing you do outside of school.
On occasion, I would answer this question – of “where” I learned – by trying to express that I am self-taught. I gave up on doing this very often, though, because of the almost inevitable reply: “I could never do that.”
This sentiment strikes me as deeply tragic.
Learning is not some kind of mystical power. Learning is a capability that – to some extent or another – literally all forms of life possess.
Learning is the process by which we experience things, and then change in response to those experiences.
Small children are unrivaled experts at learning, often right up until we start sending them to organized schools to educate them, at which point “learning” becomes a dirty word for many students.
There is a simple art to learning things the way a child does, but it is one we are often told is inappropriate for adults: and that is the art of play. Play is experimentation, willful embracing of unknown consequence in the service of finding out what if.
Play is nourishing and a vital source of joy. Our culture often scolds us that we should not play until we are done working, or that we should only play in very narrow ways and in very specific settings; this is nothing more or less than weaponized exhaustion. Devaluing playing is oppression.
Play is connected to the heart of expanding our concepts of the world. Playfulness also has a deep connection to the art of empathy. It is only through imagination that we can try to understand and relate to experiences that are not like our own. Of course, we should strive not to be callous or dismissive in relating to others, especially across difference – that often just falls back into oppression in other forms. “Play” is not necessarily the right verb here – but there is a crucial connection to creativity in our ability to understand more than what we already know.
I contend that play, in appropriate contexts, can help us hone those skills of imagination and stepping-outside of our own views – and that those skills can, in turn, be transferred to respectfully understanding others.
How do friendly children teach each other group activities, such as a sport?
They watch the ones who know already. They encourage each other to give it a shot. They jump into it. They mess around. They try some things, and see what sticks. They point out to each other what isn’t working. They experiment some more. They find ways to laugh when they mess something up, they figure out how to tend to the bangs and bruises of making mistakes – whether to flesh or to ego – and they summon the will to go again.
I think there is much we can learn from children, even as adults.
When we seek to quit using the master’s tools, when we truly commit to not endlessly rebuilding the master’s damnable house, we need to do a lot of learning. We need to learn when we’re holding those tools, and how to let go of them. We need to figure out how to reach for better ones.
We need to watch the ones who know already – not expecting answers, but just patiently observing, allowing the experience of watching to become a source of new ideas and inspiration. We need to discover that learning does not have to come in the form of packaged solutions, but can be had by experimentation and contemplation for ourselves.
We need to help each other try things out, encourage each other to take the first steps. We need to recognize how to handle our inevitable mistakes and accidents, and how to give ourselves grace when they happen while holding ourselves accountable to continuing to pick back up and go again. We need to build the habits of helping out those around us who are doing the same.
Building a better world will be hard work – far too much work to do, without also knowing how to rest. And as we learn to forge – and wield – the contents of the Toolbox of Liberation, it’s always worth finding ways to play.