Friday, January 9, 2015

The pain in our attachments: how debate taught me how to love to hate to love better

I’ve resisted writing about debate for a long time. I have an epic trilogy worth of journal entries about debate and all the feels it has given me in the past six years, but considering how much of my identity and my life has been shaped by debate, it sometimes amazes me I’ve held out this long.

It’s hard to talk (or write) about debate. For people who aren't part of the community, debate is just a foreign, secluded, complicated world full of people who say strange things and speak too quickly. It’s inaccessible, it’s dorky, it’s misunderstood. Even with people who do debate, it’s still hard to talk about. We are a community full of quirky and dorky people with varying opinions, people who have a tendency to aggressively point out the differences in those opinions before searching for the similarities. For me, talking about my own feelings about debate can be hollowing, it can be overly-emotional, and it can be just down right difficult because despite all these communicative skills I’ve developed, materializing emotional attachment into words is a nasty task.

So I guess I’m telling you this because things might get messy here. And contradictory. And nonsensical. In fact it’s almost guaranteed. But as my relationship with debate has evolved and matured, going from “it’s complicated” to “it’s still complicated,” I have learned lessons about how to love something that have made me better and stronger. Six years into this commitment, I think debate and I are ready to go public about those very important lessons that I have learned this far.

Since my first debate tournament, debating has always been an incident of approval-seeking and love/hating. If you doubt the cruelty of adolescents, though few of us who have been through high school do, it was at a high school debate tournament when I was fourteen that I was told by a peer that I am “too stupid to be good at debate, and should quit before I embarrass myself” and was thus sent into existential crisis mode. Existential crisis mode is still characteristic of my reaction to major setbacks and disappointments in debate. It is defined as the following: immediate self-loathing and deprecation followed by defeatism and the announcement of my now permanent resignation and apathy, topped off with a strong drive to prove myself and a decision that growth comes from getting up when you’re kicked. And I always get back up. If this sounds emotionally unhealthy to you, I assure you that’s how it feels to me – every time it happens. Debate has kicked me a lot of times but they all still feel like the first time, reminders that I’m “not smart enough,” driving a knife that I’ve never removed deeper and deeper into my chest.

I will never remove this knife. I will never feel good enough for these genius-mutant-mind ninja freaks who I am surrounded by. I will never get high enough speaker points or win enough rounds to feel like I proved that I was smart enough (for myself or for anyone else). Debate will never repair this damage and it will never affirm me. It can only push the knife in deeper. I have learned that by now.

But we are all living with knives in us. We think we’re the reachers, that we’re the outcasts, that we’re not attractive enough, smart enough, good enough, successful enough, or likeable enough for the things that we love. In so many ways in so many places, we all feel that we are not deserving of the things we pour our hearts into, and nothing holds more of my heart (or my schedule, hours that could have been spent sleeping, and mental energy) than debate. For others their debate might be another person, another activity, another site of dangerously needy attachment, but for me it’s just debate. Stupid, arbitrary, isolated, misunderstood debate.

Today debate hurt me again. After tentatively handing this activity my heart (again), debate twisted the knife a bit, etched in “still not smart enough, better luck next time,” and handed it back. Again. And while I sit here feeling not good enough, not smart enough, and not loved reciprocally enough, I am reminded that I have never loved debate because it loves me back, I love it because it has taught me how to love better, work harder, and be stronger. Debate taught me that when we cast our love out into the world, even if we reel it back in empty, we grow stronger with each and every throw. (Sorry, I deploy metaphors like I deploy jokes – poorly and somehow always at the wrong time. Anyways.)

Debate has taught me that a world that wounds you is not a world you don’t belong in. Sites of injury are sites of vulnerability, but it is in those spaces that we learn the most about ourselves. Debate taught me that the parts of me that persist are stronger than the parts of me that hurt. Most importantly, it has taught me that growth in love comes from the act of loving, not from the act of being loved.

I love debate dearly. I love that it keeps me up at night, that it steals (all of) my time, that it teaches me how to be bad at things and then how to get better at the things I’m bad at. I love that it brought me people who challenge me, people who bother me, and above all, people who love me. I love debate, certainly, for all that it has given me, but I love it more for what it has taken, or rather, what it has shown me I am capable of giving.

If nothing in this rant has made any sense to you, the following is the generalizable Wikipedia summary version where I pretend this is something besides a rant about my feelings:

When you love something enough, it will inevitably find a way to hurt you. There is no rule of reciprocity that guarantees if you love well enough you will be loved well in return, there is only a chance that you can learn to be the best version of yourself in the face of rejection and disappointment. Being strong, being passionate, and being unafraid of giving, even while knowing the world is full of things and people that will do nothing but take from you, is worth more than being rewarded, appreciated, and loved in return.

Today I stumbled upon the most recent edition of myself who has grown a tremendous amount as an academic and a community member, a person who feels unbelievably grateful for the opportunity to love something that allows me to grow intellectually and personally, even when that something is jabbing knives into me. Debate could end up never giving me anything I want from it and by wounding me in the first place, by giving me something I love so much that it could hurt me so badly, it still would have made me the best I’ve ever been by showing me how to love something that I am vulnerable to. It is this capacity for openness that has allowed me to grow in my personal relationships and in every other element of my life. Talk about portable skills.

Love something enough and it may hurt you, but love something enough in spite of this and you will also see how much you are capable of. Debate has taught me what I am capable of and it constantly challenges me to be capable of more. If I never become smart enough, hard-working enough, talented enough, or just generally good enough for debate, it will have still made me a smarter, harder working, and DEFINITELY good enough individual.

I am so thankful for the people and the experiences that have torn me down, built me up, and made me better in this stupid, stupid, perfect space I continually choose to occupy. And I am so happy to be the hurting, conflicted, but constantly improving person who I have been building in these six years, someone who has something worth loving so horribly, painfully much.

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