Growing up in the 9/11 era, I’ve grown accustomed to being aware of all kinds of threats to myself and my safety. It’s so familiar to learn about new dangers in the world and then having to just move on because I can’t really do anything about it. I’ve also picked up a lot of my personal outlook on life from having to navigate the world like this. I’ve really internalized the idea that we can’t live in fear or else we’ll never do anything worth doing and life’s just too short. I picked something else up from the turmoil of my childhood infiltrated by bad news and worse people. A kind of motto.
I don’t remember exactly where I first heard it. It seems like one of those things that you just always “know” like a metaphor you use without really thinking about what it means. In the time I was growing up though, this phrase was far from metaphor and I remember repeating it often until it stuck with me and I assimilated it into my own worldview. “We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” That’s it. That’s my life motto.
Sometimes when I tell people that, they laugh or they ask how many terrorists I encounter. A fair response. But some are more curious. They ask, “So who’s a terrorist?” and I tell them. It could be anything. In this sense of the phrase, I define a terrorist as anything that actively works against your personal purpose and joy. Toxic people, roadblocks, even your own self can be that. How many times have you screwed yourself over because you were afraid or ignorant or continued in a bad habit? And we’ve all talked poorly about ourselves or engaged in a thought life that simply did not serve us. I do it pretty much every day.
There is one terrorist in my life whose attacks I am often prone to and which I have only recently identified though I have been facing it for quite some time, and that is Isolation. By Isolation, I do not mean loneliness, although that is part of it. Often, I don’t even have to be alone to feel isolated. Sometimes I genuinely enjoy being alone. No. Isolation is more deliberate than the sheer probability of finding oneself with only oneself for company. Isolation is the lack of choice, the knowledge that there is something about the situation that you’re in that you can do absolutely nothing about and it’s leaving you on your own. Literally or metaphorically. Isolation makes me angry. It makes me feel incompetent. It brings out the worst sides of me.
The other terrorist that I think we all struggle with and that I find myself making deals with regularly, is Comparison. We all know how toxic Comparison is but we can’t help from tallying ourselves against people who we’ll inevitably calculate have more than us. Heaven forbid we ever compare ourselves to those who have less than us. For me, I tend not to compare material wealth as much as I compare other people’s life paths with my own. I keep score like it’s some sick fantasy sports league and I stand to win—or rather, lose—big this season. For me, the most important stat is “does she have a love story”? Then, is she talented? Does she have a lot of friends? Where does she get to travel? Were her grades better than mine? Does she get to have her dream job? Essentially, is she living the life I can’t live?
I’m not sure what it is in my nature but I have always found social media to be an extremely triggering forum of information and for a long time I have struggled with finding balance there. After an especially panic inducing episode on Facebook, I stopped using the site almost entirely. For a very long while, I unfollowed everyone on Instagram who announced an engagement or pregnancy or those who were especially showy about their love lives or travel plans or any other stat I measured. I felt it was the only way to defend myself against more terrorist attacks.
I soon realized though that it wasn’t fixing the root of the problem. I still felt the need to compare other people’s lives to mine, I just had less people to compare. So, I stopped unfollowing people. I tried to be happy for people, or at least not hate them, when they were getting the things I wanted in my own life but couldn’t have. I tried to immunize myself by forcing exposure to the sickeningly sweet love lives of my class mates and coworkers and the glamorous careers of strangers on Instagram. This seemed to work a little. I could at least tolerate them. But there’s always one.
I began following this girl on Instagram my junior year of college. She went to my school and although I don’t know her personally, she was a friend of many of my friends and she’s the kind of girl that everyone at least knew of even though I don’t really know why. And she’s exactly the kind of girl I would normally unfollow in a heartbeat. In fact, I have no idea why I started following her in the first place except maybe I forced myself to. Another immunization.
She’s petite, smaller than even me. Dresses beautifully, has lots of amazing friends, keeps a positive attitude. She’s an amazing photographer and talented writer. She comes from a wealthy family, has a beautiful hometown, and incredibly aesthetic adventures. She’s found the love of her life. She’s it. It’s like she was designed by the enemy as the perfect weapon. Her Instagram, to me, is a precision terrorist stike if I ever saw one.
Comparison and Isolation form a lethal combination when you find yourself quite literally living in your parents’ basement after graduation. Even when you know it’s temporary. Sometimes I can see it coming and try to prepare. I plan things to stay busy, build up my mental stamina, brace myself. I don’t negotiate with Isolation, I try to shut it out. Sometimes this works. This time, it didn’t. This time, it would seem I wasn’t isolated enough. This attack found me at the perfect time. In the isolation of my parents’ basement, with the constant infiltration of Instagram, I began to compare. She wrote a beautiful poem in tribute to her love story that started in middle school as the caption to a beautiful photo and all I could think the whole time I was reading it was “I’ll never have that”.
And it’s true. I will never have that story, it’s not mine to tell. And I’ll never have a picture like that, or her hometown, or her clothes or jewelry or hair. And she’ll never have mine. My things are not hers either. And I think that’s where the tallying goes wrong. Where the negotiations get off track. There is no equal. I can’t have her talents or her home or her boyfriend because I have my talents, my home, my singleness. She doesn’t get to trade with me or take those from me. No one does. And there are no guarantees. Even if I had the things she has that I think I want, no one can promise me that I would be happy with them.
Comparison tries to tell me that I would be happy with those things but it can’t promise me. And like any terrorist worthy of the title, it’s a liar. Isolation tells me that I’m by myself and that it will always be like this; always me against the world. But it can’t promise that either and it’s not very good at negotiating. Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle with this and I don’t know if I’ll ever stop struggling. I do my best but sometimes that’s just life. I will say this though; I still follow that girl. I still try to feel happy for her and appreciate the beauty she brings to the world and understand that it doesn’t diminish mine. I’m still working on my negotiating skills. Or lack thereof.