In Please Follow Me, Jean Baudrillard sees a familiar game in a new light:
“Consider one of life’s original situations: that of a hide and seek game. What a thrill to be hidden while someone’s looking for you, what a delightful fright to be found, but what a panic when, because you are too well hidden, the others give up looking for you after a while and leave. If you hide too well, the others forget you. You are forced to come out on your own when they don’t want you anymore. That is hard to take. It’s like turning too fine a phrase, so subtle that you are reduced to explaining it. Nothing is sadder than having to beg for existence and returning naked among the others. Therefore, it’s better not to know how to play too well; it’s better to know how to let others unmask you and to endure the rule of the game. Not too fast, not too late.” (85)
When I was a child, an angry boy masquerading as my best friend bullied and abused me when nobody was looking. One example among many: after defeating me in a game of basketball, he’d hold me down and call me his bitch. Things only got worse from there.
I learned early on that it’s safer to stay inside—to curse the game, resent the players, refuse to win or lose. In high school a doctor found me clinically depressed. Twenty years later, on my worst days—overwhelmed and disconnected—I spend hours in bed, hiding in plain sight. I play dead for (negative) attention. The sick role suits me (un)well.
Self-sabotage helps me disappear before I’ve arrived. Cancelling plans at the last minute lets potential friends know that things “aren’t right” with me. The thought goes: I’m going to fuck things up anyway; I might as well get it over with.
Therefore—playing on Baudrillard’s words—it is better to unmask myself, on my own terms, before others expose me and deem me unlovable.
In college I wore myself out trying to be the perfect student, the perfect employee, the perfect perfectionist. I gained recognition for my academic achievements but needed others to verify my self-worth. If everyone liked me, then no one would hurt me.
Today I seek validation by composing (and obsessively editing) obscure blog posts I hope family, friends and digital strangers will find profound. I quote existentialists and wounded Romantics as prove of strife. As a philosopher, I always assume the fatal position.
Sacrificing freedom for safety can be deadly. The chaplain at my mental health center told me that we all need human connection, but trauma survivors whose trust has been broken need connection even more. Yet out of fear we hide from the world and, if we isolate too long, no amount of love or support from other people will save us. We must learn to love ourselves again and seek our own truths.
It’s a short distance from caution to hypervigilance. Chased in a nightmare, I find myself in a field of wolves. If I pray hard enough, I’ll turn to stone. But becoming an object means you’re still in the world. Even stones risk being thrown.
Tell me everything is alright.
Tell me everything is all right.
Tell me everything is alt-right.
Tell me I don’t look fat in these jeans.
Tell me I’m the one that got away.
Tell me I was your thirst.
Tell me this world wasn’t meant for one as beautiful as me.
Tell me you think of me when you hum.
Tell me my hands are bigger than the president’s.
Tell me I donate enough to hurricane relief funds.
Tell me you bought my book and the shipping was free.
Tell me I’m a white boy from the suburbs what do I know about “suffering.”
Tell me everything will be OK.
Tell me everything will be okay.
Tell me size more or less matters.
Tell me God is binge-watching us.
Tell me you never faked the news.
Tell me I’m more than a hound dog.
Tell me my poem is lovelier than a tree.
Tell me no man is a peninsula.
Tell me the meaning of strife.
Tell me everybody dies in the end.
Tell me there’s someone for everyone to disappoint.
Tell me it’s “lie down” not “lay down.”
Tell me nice guys let the girl finish first.
Tell me what will be will be no more.
Tell me if I liked it then I should’ve put a finger on it.
Tell me he doesn’t taste the same as me.
Tell me your name.
Throwing Judo Moves
Originally published in French in 1976, Symbolic Exchange and Death finds Jean Baudrillard incorporating into his thought the work of Marcel Mauss, a French sociologist who studied gift exchange in primitive societies. Mauss wrote about rituals in which each member is obligated to give gifts, receive gifts and provide counter-gifts, all of which contain traces of the person’s soul. The “goal” of the ritual: a gift-receiver must overwhelm a gift-giver with a counter-gift so powerful no further counter-gift is possible. In the process of trying to one-up each other, tribal members deliberately waste excess resources to ensure no one accumulates too much wealth.
Baudrillard views these rituals as a radical form of symbolic exchange, a concept he uses to critique capitalism. Emphasizing community and submission to fate, primitive peoples put to shame American values like greed, self-importance and celebrity worship.
Civilized societies based on economic exchange retain elements of symbolic exchange that haunt modern life. Still, Baudrillard argues, if we wish to save what makes us human, we must challenge the homogeny of the capitalist system with a gift it can’t return. We must force the system to humble itself before the world.
Nothing is more spectacular or subversive than suicide.
Death as creative act. Suicide as counter-gift. This is Baudrillard’s private revolution against capitalism’s reign of terror. People in Western cultures don’t kill themselves, Baudrillard contends, because resources are scarce. They crack under the pressure of mandatory consumption, their bodies too weak to enjoy a lifetime supply of products and services they don’t need and never asked for.
Thankfully, we don’t have to die to issue a challenge. We can commit theoretical terror, like Baudrillard does in his writings, or we can sacrifice ourselves through super-obedience to the logic of the system, devolving into passive-aggressive citizen-robots. In both cases a duel commences in which the weaker party throws what Baudrillard calls “judo moves” at its much stronger opponent, turning the system’s power against itself.
While I’m intrigued by Baudrillard’s provocative analysis, I’m here to issue him a challenge of my own. We live in a violent world rooted in socially constructed systems of power, oppression and abuse. We hurt, so we hurt each other. Rather than responding to violence with more violence, we must learn to forgive ourselves and each other for all our trespasses.
An understated but radical concept: forgiveness as the ultimate counter-gift.
There’s no reason to forgive someone who hurt me, just as there was no reason for him to hurt me in the first place. As a survivor who learns to forgive, I resist an impulse to give up. I can then devote myself to promoting an ethics of what I call “compassionate anti-violence,” which means fighting for empathy without punching people in the face.
This is not merely a personal healing. Survivors who acknowledge the truth of their ordeals are free to confront evil and protect others from harm, reducing suffering throughout the world. Poverty, slavery, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, terrorism, war: these are just a few examples of social and political traumas that threaten individual lives and the foundations of entire cultures.
Of course, anger and sadness are normal responses to injustice. I don’t deny anyone’s right to express outrage or disgust, but staying angry increases misery. To make matters worse, many survivors mistakenly blame themselves for events beyond their control. An inner-directed forgiveness has the power to heal self-inflicted wounds.
A Unique Burden
I live between extremes. One moment I’m hypervigilant—scanning my environment for threats, startled by the sound of my heartbeat. Minutes later I’m numb, disconnected from reality, an imposter in my own body—a classic case of depersonalization.
When I’m hypervigilant, I’m keyed up from living in protect mode. When depersonalization sets in, I’m desperate to confirm I’m alive. I find danger lurking in all directions, each step a trudge through the middle of imaginary battlefields.
There’s a reason for my distress: as a child I endured years of physical and psychological abuse. As a teenager, in addition to clinical depression, I received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was, in a way, “gifted” a unique burden, one I continue to carry with me.
Everyone suffers. My attacker was hurting when he hurt me. I assume he struggles to make sense of his actions years later. I don’t want to compound my suffering—or his—by hitting back. Despite attempts to erase him from my mind, I realize we’re forever linked.
Of course, I’m no saint. I’ve hurt family and friends, even lashed out at strangers. One spring day in 2003, I took more pills than my bottles directed. This got me a date with an ER nurse whose name escapes me. She poured me a pitcher of soot water to neutralize the poison.
“You’re so young,” she said. “You have so much to look forward to.”
There’s a chart somewhere with my personal history. I don’t know if I thanked her for filling in the blanks.