Notes on the Self and Helping Others

Jun 20, 2018

Notes on the Self and Helping Others

When I told my brother I have a blog, he scoffed, “Ugh, you’re obsessed with yourself.” And, for a long time, this is how I felt: There is no way that I can write about myself without being or becoming a narcissist. This thought kept me from writing about my experiences before, during and after my MFA. I erased myself from my writing, which caused my words to feel detached and to lack vulnerability. Now, when I read this old work, I feel the hum of repression locked behind the words. There is so much I wanted to say but couldn’t bring myself to—I was terrified of the exposure.

I’m still uncertain how my brother and I have been able to coexist in the same household—we’re so different. Because of this, he reveals things in ways I never would have noticed on my own. Like, I never realized I was terrified of this self-exposure until I was talking to my brother about my class on “identity.” He thought I should incorporate more objective writing prompts for people like him “who don’t enjoy writing about themselves.” Like I was, my brother is still afraid of the exposure, of his self laid out on the open white space.

For an extra credit assignment, I had my students write a personal narrative on: “The hardest thing you’ve had to do in life.” As a student was turning this essay in, he qualified his paper with, “I feel uncomfortable writing about myself because I like to write about interesting things, and I’m not one of them.” The lack of self-worth in this man’s statement is heartbreaking, and I wonder if this is how my brother feels.

After this student’s comment, I asked the class how many of them believed their stories were worth telling, only 2 out of the 25 raised their hands. Many of those who didn’t raise their hands, when prompted to explain why, concluded they didn’t believe there was anything special about them or their lives to give their stories value—more self-erasure.

Scholar Anne Fuss argues in her essay, “Essentially Speaking,” for the need to wash away personal experience from the classroom because it isolates those who can’t share in the experience. In rebuttal, feminist scholar bell hooks argues in her essay, “Essentialism and Experience,” that personal experience is critical for students’ learning in the classroom. hooks asserts that we learn through our experiences because everything that has happened to us outside of the classroom provides context for what we can discuss in class. Essentially, Fuss is trying to simplify students by making them a singular identity—a student. Whereas, hooks is trying to complicate the singular student identity by allowing them to share and partake in their own and one another’s humanity.

Yet, today, our education system wants us to teach our students to erase themselves from writing as if they are some nebulous, bodiless voice—also known as “academic writing.” Our students learn to exchange “I” for “one,” to write themselves out of their words to provide distance and objectivity, but who does this help? What if they never becomes an expert or someone worth believing? Then, their writing is left in the limbo of the absently present identity that is scholarly work. In this setup, students become passive, absent movers of information versus active, present sharers of information. Even though there is value in writing objectively—the ability to step out of our perspective for awhile—there is never a totally objective place. So, before our students can write brilliant essays, they need to have the confidence in their brilliance, in their voice, in their ideas and in their thoughts, which can’t be done without affirming the self.

Often, we need the help of others to fully see ourselves, a term referred to as “self-expansion.” Like most things in life, we also have a myopic, self-conscious view of who we are. So, when people point out positive or negative characteristics about us, it expands our idea of the self we inhabit. In a terrifying, challenging place like the classroom, it is incredibly important to help students see themselves as students, as learners, as thinkers, and to validate these roles. One of my best students left my last spring class by saying, “Thank you for making me feel special,” and I didn’t know what to say, but she is—they all are—they just need help seeing it.

Some of us, depending on our position in the world, have the privilege of being complex. Others, on the other hand, face constant obstacles that impede their humanity. hooks is trying to overcome this by allowing us to tell our stories as a way to enrich, engage and empower the classroom by acknowledging and celebrating differences instead of looking at them as exclusionary. When our students feel like their voice matters, it’s hard to get them to stop communicating. When they feel like their voice doesn’t matter, it’s almost impossible to get them to speak up. The question is, as someone who feels confident and sure, am I willing and ready to help others expand? And, I most certainly am.

As an essential form of expression in today's world, writing is a critical part of the self-discovery process. It provides that space to explore who we are both publicly and privately. So, writing has given and continues to give me a space to ravel and unravel this alien amalgamation that is identity. Even though my brother and my students don’t feel this freedom yet, I hope someday they will, and I hope that someday is soon.