What is it to go against the stream?
Tell me about this stream.
Tell me about what can be separated, such that “for” and “against” mean anything?
Willpower. When we extol it here in the United States of America, often what we are praising is some combination of privilege and ego-fixation. It's not fair to lay that accusation at the feet of America alone, when the same nonsense is happening everywhere. Just, here, in America, the old myth of willpower carries something more of virtue. Something more of blindness to the mechanisms that protect power and prey on weakness. The most recent shooting of an unarmed black man – a boy, really – echoes something of this, some part of how narratives unfold in contexts that no one in power much wants to talk about.
When I was a teenager in Atlanta, I went to a fancy prep school. The dominant narrative around this was that I was there because the academics were good, and this was in some ways true. It was true that I could take AP classes in lots of things. It was true, because I was good at testing, memorizing, and analyzing, that I benefited from the school’s dumb-dumb, dumb-smart, smart-dumb, and smart-smart hierarchy, and often wound up in small classes with few students. Also true, but seldom discussed, was the fact that my mother’s considerable willpower, unfocused outside the home, came to bear on my work habits. Was it because of my willpower or virtue that a highly intelligent woman surveilled my working hours and forbade me distractions? No, it was built in, a lagniappe for me, courtesy of the patriarchy. Also not discussed: My tuition was paid for from my grandfather’s and father's business successes. For women under patriarchy, access to privileged males means access to power. I could be Miss Feminist as much as I wanted at school, but the fact that I was there, and did well there, had a lot to do with not needing a scholarship, overcoming my family’s lack of social connections in Atlanta through our connection to money. So it goes. Not all one, not all the other. Smart, yes. Highly supported within certain societal arrangements, also yes.
Anyway, in an environment like that, parties manifested in a certain way. The whispered word would go out that someone's parents from one of the three conservative Protestant sister prep schools – not the hippie one, not the Catholic one – were going to be out of town. One of the huge neo-plantations on Atlanta’s leafiest streets would be empty on Saturday night, and we knew just what to do with it. A long line of shiny SUVs, a short line of scruffy Honda Civics and hand-me-down station wagons would park along the street. Kids would walk up the splendid drive between manicured azaleas, and proceed directly to the poolhouse to get shitfaced. In truth, I only really ever attended one of these things that I can remember. I wasn’t really part of this underground; mostly, my undergrounds were boozy in other ways. But I remember the feeling of relief, of restraints removed, a new openness to settling into the ridiculousness of our high school lives, in the company of other kids whom I might in daytime have seen as natural enemies, or at least preppy space aliens. We knew we were safe there. We knew, implicitly, that no one would come bother us.
Imagine now the party in the suburbs of Dallas last weekend. Same basic setup: someone's parents are out of town. The kids gather, with booze, of course. Except now, through social media, maybe there are more kids. Except also, these are largely African-American kids, and so, subject to more policing than the white children of Atlanta's surgeons, lawyers, and business executives of thirty years ago.
The neighbors call the cops, believing underage drinking is happening at the party.
What does will power look like, for the neighbor?
I want this annoying noise to stop.
I want those kids to be safe.
I'm tired of the ruckus that happens at those people’s house.
Something like that.
The police come. Except, unlike thirty years ago, they’re militarized, carrying assault rifles more appropriate to war, than to setting social boundaries. Except the kids they’re busting have been conditioned by years’ worth of stories of people just like them, shot and killed for no reason.
What does willpower look like for the kids? It looks like the will to survive.
It looks like Get me out of here, so no cop lays a finger on me.
It looks like I don't want to be expelled from school, shamed, punished, fed into a machine that starts tonight, and ends in years of solitary confinement, or a fishy death in custody.
So the kids get in their cars – or if they’re 15 – their friends’ cars – and they go.
The police arrive in their cruisers. Who knows where they've been tonight? Maybe chasing addicts’ petty burglaries. Maybe answering calls to houses where everyone pretends it's all fine, even the woman with the bleeding cheek, even though you know something’s fucked up, but you have to leave anyway. Maybe they’ve been sitting in their cruisers, bored, talking about cause, effect, missed opportunity, debt, and regret. What does willpower look like for you as a police officer, as you pull up outside the house, cars parked everywhere, woozy scared kids darting off as best they can?
It could look like remembering your own life, not so many years ago, and knowing that what these kids are doing, you've done, too.
It could look like setting aside the mass of power that's been allotted to you, and the stories you've seen on the job and on TV, and entering the situation with a clear, focused mind.
Or, unfortunately, it could look like some dark old instinct of the hunt, dressed up in virtue, and it could smell blood. It could pick up the rifle and shoot blindly into the passenger side of the car, killing the fifteen-year-old boy, destroying him in front of his brothers, before he’s even had the chance to learn his own will as a man.
Of course the boy was going to be there.
Of course the neighbor was going to call.
Of course the police was going to come.
But there so many choices around all of this, never opened, never acknowledged, and so many constraints.
We like to think that we navigate on willpower. It's somehow reassuring – a readymade explanation for all that is good and all that is bad in our lives. Much less reassuring, much more work by far, is the careful reckoning of our interconnectedness, and of the drives that move from within what we are, and have been trained to be.
Two days ago, the dogs are model citizens: on a five-hour hike, they stick with us, refrain from eating other hikers, and come joyfully when called back to our plodding human pace. Yesterday, they rush headlong to maul a porcupine, as though they had never before experienced spike-filled tongues, snouts full of quills. They, like me, know, and don’t know.
We, all of us, engage the will, and surrender. We train and remember, act and forget, maintaining hope in the face of its momentary dissolutions. Don't confuse what you will, with what you really are.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.