When I look back on being in the eighth grade, the two things I remember most vividly are the ever-present anguish of being a 13-year-old girl and a particular scene from Life of Pi. In this scene, after months of drifting along at sea, Pi and the tiger finally washed up on shore. As soon as they hit dry land, the tiger walks off the raft and slips into the jungle—never to be seen again. Pi is thus left alone to contemplate the significance and enormity of the journey they had taken together, as well as his feelings of pain and hurt at the lack of ceremony in their parting. His pain is shrouded in a layer of shame, one that is rooted in his initial, albeit wholly unrealistic expectation of acknowledgement from a tiger.
Without delving deeper into the texts of my eighth grade English class, suffice it to say that Pi’s shame at the tiger’s indifferent departure is a universal emotion, and one that is not limited to those unfortunate instances when we find ourselves stranded at sea with none other than a large jungle feline for company.
There is an ingrained humiliation attached to the notion of being disproportionately impacted by or attached to certain events or relationships—in the Pi-versus-tiger paradigm, a dichotomy is perpetuated. In it, one person, the less invested one, is absolved from any emotional responsibility, and gets to casually saunter into the jungle without so much as a cursory backward glance. The other is then left alone to grapple with the emotional fallout of the situation.
This dichotomy and the sense of shame we intimately attach to our vulnerabilities exist in a symbiosis of sorts. That shame is destructive to the notion of deserved emotional accountability, and when one person is operating on the premise that they don’t deserve accountability, the chance of them receiving it is pretty much nil. On campus, this manifests a pervasive coldness and emotional distance. The perfectionism we seek out in our academic pursuits transcends into our personal lives, and there is little willingness to communicate our difficulties and hardships to our peers. In our obsession with being impervious to pain, we allow this dichotomy to exist.
The first time I encountered this dichotomy was the first time I had a prolonged, non-platonic relationship with a boy. We were in high school, and somehow, a years-long friendship suddenly took on an element of deep emotional intimacy. In our shared adolescent idiocy, we agreed that the only viable trajectory for our close friendship was to break the bounds of platonism and enhance our relationship with sex.
Thus—somewhere between my infatuation with this Lothario, suffocating boredom with small-town life, and sheer inexperience with the inevitably emotional nature of prolonged physical intimacy—I found myself a newly minted other woman, side hoe, homewrecker; call it whatever you want, that is what I was. The kid had a girlfriend at the time, and I consider our affair one of the biggest failings of my moral compass—a phase of my life that I still recall with deep shame and regret. However, the basis of my shame transcended the sheer wrongness of the act; it became a shame that was inextricably tied up with my vulnerability and emotionality.
Our affair came to a screeching halt when it became too painful for me to continue it. It had become brutally clear that I was far more vulnerable in the relationship than he was and that the emotional stakes were higher for me. My attempts to communicate my pain were met with coldness—hollow platitudes along the lines of “you knew what you were getting yourself into” were thrown in my general vicinity.
It was as though I had entered some contractual agreement wherein I had legally signed away my right to vulnerability and was now being duly persecuted for it. Although we were both participants in our unsavory secret, it was I who was burdened with the brunt of the shame: shame in being involved, shame in trusting him, but above all, shame in my own expectation that he would understand my predicament. Seated on his throne of emotional security, he slipped into the proverbial forest, and I was left alone on our shitty little raft to wonder if I was crazy for feeling the way that I did.
In reflecting on my Monica Lewinsky moment, and who I was when it all went down, my main takeaway used to be that a better version of myself would have never been involved in such a sordid affair and would never have been emotionally invested in such a clearly unequal dynamic. Though the former portion of that I still consider to be true, I have come to learn that the latter is wholly unrealistic. There are no prerequisites to emotional vulnerability, no futile label slapped onto a relationship between two people can ever warrant or rule out intimacy and the subsequent mess of emotion it gives rise to.
Occupying a position of lesser emotional susceptibility certainly does not entitle one to hide behind labels (or a lack thereof) to mitigate emotional responsibility. A better version of myself wouldn’t have messed around with one of my best friends who had a girlfriend, sure. But even if she had, she would have realized that she was very much entitled to the pain she experienced as a result of it and was not in fact insane for expecting that pain to be acknowledged and understood.
Shame is non-negotiable. It is reflexive, and its very existence is predicated on its desire to conceal whatever it is attached to. Shame does not disappear because it has no rationale for existence, so it would be useless for me to sit here and tell you to rationalize your way out of experiencing it. We only breathe life into our shame when we try to hide it; it is when we deny it that we fulfill its sinister agenda.
It’s time we left the days of deliberate blasé-signaling behind us. Instead, I think we should sit in our vulnerability, our weakness, and our attachment—possess it, stew in it, wear it like a feather in our cap. Hell, we should grab the person we are so embarrassingly attached to—so shamefully affected by—look them squarely in the eye, and say to him or her: I care more than you. Does that scare you? What are you gonna do—run away?
Arielle Isack is a sophomore in GS majoring in American studies. She is not sure she wants this column to be a bimonthly callout of men, but would be far from ashamed if that is what it became. Not a Relationship Girl runs alternate Fridays, you can reach her at email@example.com.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.