Examined Life: Judith Butler & Sunaura Taylor

This is an amazing excerpt from the film “Examined Life” in which Sunaura Taylor, artist and disability rights activist, and Judith Butler, critical theorist, go for a walk and talk about disability, gender, and the politics of inclusion vs. exclusion.

Their conversation is so interesting that I really don’t need to write anything else, but I can’t watch this and not jot down some of my favorite quotes and ideas…

On Visibility:

In the beginning of the segment, Taylor explains:

“I moved to San Francisco largely because it’s… the most accessible place in the world. …The physical access—the public transportation is accessible; there are curb cuts most places… buildings are accessible… this leads to a social acceptability. That because there’s physical access, there are simply more disabled people out and about in the world and so people have learned how to interact with them and are used to them…. Physical access leads to social access; an acceptance.”

Taylor described how, when she had previously lived in New York City, she would sometimes go into a coffee shop and carry cup to her table in her mouth, but it wasn’t always worth it because of the unwanted attention it attracted.

On the Expectations of Others

This brought Taylor and Butler to the question: Why do people get so upset with someone who doesn’t use a body part in the way that we assume it’s attended?

Butler notes the parallel here to gender studies, which asks: why do people get so upset when someone’s body doesn’t fit our ideas of what a man is, or what a woman is?

What Kind of World Do We Live in?

Taylor explains that she considers it a form of political protest for her to go into a coffee shop and ask for the help she needs. Ultimately, this form of protest poses the question: Do we or do we not live in a world where we help each other?

Butler explains:

“My sense is that what’s at stake here is rethinking the human as a site of interdependency.

I think that when you walk into that coffee shop, you’re basically posing the question ‘Do we or do we not live in a world in which we assist each other? Do we or do we not help each other with basic needs?

And are basic needs there to be decided on as a social issue and not just as my personal individual issue, or your personal individual issue…?”.

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I related to this clip on so many levels. Although much of my blog is about my experience with pain, there have been many periods of my life when I also had to deal with a level of disability, albeit in a much more temporary and transient sense. This only gives me a temporary glimpse into what someone with a life-long disability goes through, but I could definitely identify with some of the perceptions and emotions Taylor and Butler shared.

Maybe everything is amazing

I first saw this Louis C.K. clip a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. (Be sure you watch until the 3:05 mark, which is where he really starts to make his point).

Studying anatomy and physiology and learning about the body has helped me to get to the point where I can start to appreciate just how crazy/complicated/complex our experience as human beings is.

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A lot of people seem to become intimidated when I talk about taking these classes, and say things like, “Yeah, but I’m not any good at science.”

It makes me really sad to hear people say that, because honestly—there was a time when I didn’t think I would be any good at science, either.

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I did pretty badly in science classes in high school because, well, my life was falling apart. I just couldn’t get it together enough to study enough, and when I did, nothing could really become cemented because I hadn’t really slept.

I did much better in the humanities classes, because it was easier to just wing it. I might have been to out of it to memorize chemical structures, but it wasn’t too hard to just read a novel and give my opinion.

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Then after high school: for years, in the back of my mind, I sometimes thought about becoming a physical therapist.

Originally, the idea was born more out of desperation than inspiration. I was so frustrated by the fact that there was always something hurting, all the time, and that I seemed to have a new physical therapy referral every few months. I was always really interested in the explanations the physical therapists gave me, and always did all my exercises, but it didn’t seem to be quite enough. I sometimes wondered if the only way out of this would be to take matters into my own hands, rather than relying on other people for the rest of my life.

Then I met Tim and watched Neil Pearson’s lectures, and all of a sudden my desperation turned to inspiration. There actually was a reason why I was hurting all the time—an overarching reason that I could work on, rather than targeting different parts my body, piecemeal, for the next several decades. And maybe I could help other people like me, like Tim had helped me.

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This is the point at which I actually started to look into what it would take to get into physical therapy school, and saw that I’d have to take all of the science classes I’d so carefully avoided in college.

Now I am grateful that I had to go back and take all of these classes. And I mean, we’re not really talking high level stuff here—we’re talking general chemistry, introduction to physics. The things you would take in your freshman or sophomore year of college.

Basic as they are, these classes have totally changed the way I look at things.

It’s like recognizing there are two sides to every coin. On one side, I can focus on my experience—the way a certain part of my body feels (or, in most cases, hurts).

If I want to flip to the other side of the coin, I can stop and think about the complex forces that are literally holding this part of my body together. The intricate chemical and electrical signals that sensations to travel from my the rest of my body to my brain, and then back again. And the different areas of my brain that are involved in letting me feel the pain, and determining how much of my attention is devoted to the pain, versus paying attention to other things.

And the thing is—you really don’t need to be an expert, at all, to develop this sense of appreciation. I mean honestly, I know nothing. If I wanted to go into more detail than what I just wrote above, well, I’d have to go open a textbook to make sure I didn’t tell you the wrong thing.

It’s not about mastering this information; it’s just about having been exposed to it, and having a sense of just how complex these things are. Complex, yet also orderly. Yes, we live in a chaotic universe, but our bodies have a blueprint that can be broken down into categories and understood.

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Sometimes I daydream about running a class for chronic pain patients. Not an academic class—more like a continuing ed class.

And we would just go over the very basics from anatomy and physiology. And my students could see that, when you just begin to learn about the body, it’s actually more like a language class than a science class.

Just as you would make a chart of the different parts of speech (past, present, future, etc.) you can make a chart of the major systems of the body. And then you can look at each system and break it down further; for example, you can break the skeletal system down into different types of bones, and then look at individual bones.

And then, as teacher, I would focus on the bones of the spine, since the spine is such a grave, sometimes threatening concept for anyone with back pain. I would explain that even though it looks like some kind of alien invention when you look at a diagram, the spine can actually be simple:

There are four parts of the spine. From top to bottom:

Cervical spine= 7 vertebrae that make up your neck

cervical vertebrae

Thoracic spine= 12 vertebrae in upper- and mid-back

thoracic vertebrae

Lumbar spine= 5 vertebrae in lower back

lumbar vertebrae

Sacrum= fused vertebrae at the bottom of the spine, which make up the center of the pelvis

sacral vertebrae

These terms are things that back pain patients hear all the time, and may even have explained to them. But, in my experience, there’s a big difference between having a doctor mention these things to you in passing—in an appointment where you’re scared of what he or she might diagnose you with—and learning something in a calm academic setting.

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The spine is just one example– there are so many different aspects of our physical being that sound complicated, even scary, when explained by a doctor, but look simple– and interesting– when broken down into smaller categories.

It’s helped me immeasurably to begin to understand this. Having a “second side of the coin” to flip to means it’s easier for me to change my perspective on the physical realities I sometimes can’t change.

Now I can’t think about how much something hurts without thinking about the fantastic nature of how it hurts. The fact that I have a bone, with muscles attached to it, with nerves that let those muscles communicate with this fantastic brain I have—it’s all pretty incredible.

Kelly McGonigal on Stress and Chasing Meaning

I stumbled upon this TED talk a few days ago, and it was just what I needed. I can already tell it’s the kind of thing I’m going to be telling my friends about and re-watching for months to come, so of course I had to share it with you all.

The talk is given by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University. I had never heard the term “health psychology” before, but from what I gather, it has to do with studying how people make decisions, and exploring how to help them make healthier ones.

This talk specifically has to do with how we think about stress, and how our pre-conceived notions about the effects stress has on us can actually affect how our bodies react to it.

One point which I found particularly relevant to my own life is the idea that people who care for others in some way—whether it’s friends, family members, or simply volunteering– seem to bounce back more quickly from traumatic events that happen in their own lives.

McGonigal outlines some of the biological underpinnings to this phenomenon, in particular the role of the hormone oxytocin.

Like many others, I had heard of oxytocin before, and thought of it as the “bonding hormone” because it is released at times when, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense for us to form connections with others. For example, oxytocin floods our systems during experiences like sex and childbirth.

What I didn’t know is that oxytocin is technically a stress hormone. Our bodies release it during times of stress precisely to motivate us to reach out to others. Oxytocin also has a protective effect on the heart, which begins to explain why those with more social connections do not show as many negative stress-related health effects.

Some of my favorite quotes are:

“When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.”

“When you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience.”

“Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort…. Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life, and then trust yourself to be able to handle the stress.”

I loved this last quote so, so much.

The message is this: don’t assume that stress is always harmful. It can be harmful if you’re afraid of it, or if you don’t have enough social support. But don’t let the fear of stress stop you from doing something you find truly meaningful, that gives you that sense of connection to the meaning of life. Because it is that connection, itself, that will enable you to handle the stress of what you are trying to do.

Amazing TED talk: Deep Sea Diving in a Wheelchair

I was so inspired by this TED talk that I had to share it with you all.

Sue Austin is a multimedia, performance and installation artist who lost the use of her legs due to an illness.

A new world opened up for Austin when she received her powered wheelchair, yet she was disheartened by the way other people looked at her. She says it was as if she had an “invisibility cloak” draped over her; that when people looked at her, they saw only their own preconceptions about what life in a wheelchair must be like.

To always be regarded with this combination of fear and pity was hard on Austin.

She explains,

“I realized I’d internalized these responses, and it had changed who I was on a core level. A part of me had become alienated from myself. I was seeing myself, not from my perspective, but vividly and continuously from the perspective of other people’s responses to me.

As a result, I knew I needed to make my own stories about this experience; new narratives to reclaim my identity.”

She began to explore the ways in which she could use art to challenge people’s ideas about life in a wheelchair. The results were absolutely stunning.

Check it out– you’ll see what I mean.

P.S. The format of the video turned out a little bit strange here (thanks a lot, WordPress). I recommend either expanding it to full-screen, or else watching the original in its intended format on the TED website.  Sorry about that!

You can also check out Sue Austin’s website at http://www.susanaustin.co.uk/