Learning to Love Myself
by Katherine Gan
Before this year, I could probably count the number of times I had cried on one hand. I don’t think I was a particularly heartless person, but I just never felt a need to cry. Happiness, stress, or sadness? To me, emotions were best expressed through words or hugs, not by tears streaming endlessly down my face. The few times I did cry, especially when frustrated or enraged, I would storm off into my room, slam the door, and sob alone until the tears ran dry. I saw crying as an uncontrollable, embarrassing expression- one that should stay hidden behind closed doors, instead of for all to see. This past year has changed my views completely. Crying is a strength, not a weakness, an act to be embraced, rather than shamed or ignored.
At its core, crying is a raw expression of emotion. The body becomes so overwhelmed, with grief, appreciation, or confusion that physically manifest in the outpouring of tears. I experienced this first hand. Last semester, for two weeks straight, I cried every day. Initially, I cried in response to the Kavanaugh hearings. At first, I was shocked by my tears because I had already lived through Trump’s first two years and remained resilient, determined to never stop fighting. But the Kavanaugh hearings themselves were devastating and numbing.
I remember leaving the Women’s Center following Lindsey Graham’s avid endorsement of Kavanaugh, feeling betrayed and horrified. Words could not capture the injustice and unfairness I had just witnessed at the hearing. I saw myself- as a woman interested in politics- denigrated and disrespected in the treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. A man who fundamentally violated a woman’s autonomy and committed a horrendous act was rewarded with a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.
Watching the political apathy and lack of response on Duke’s campus proved further disappointing. It was as if nothing had changed. Routines were in place. Classes resumed and assignments continued piling up. With the exception of my Women and Popular Culture professor, not a single one of my instructors acknowledged the hearings. The day I left the Women’s Center crying was the night of open selective living group parties. I didn’t understand how other students could continue going out, worrying about alcohol orders and playlists, when a catastrophic event had just taken place with Kavanaugh's confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court.
That night, I stayed in, feeling extremely out of touch with this campus, the world, and my place in it. My understanding of right and wrong came crashing down, and I didn’t know how to cope or reduce the dissonance. I remember crying and feeling so much pain, wondering why the world was so unfair, benefiting those who had committed the most egregious, problematic acts at the expense of the innocent. I asked why some of us were born destined to have the odds stacked against us---not only at Duke but also for the rest of our lives. I ended last semester hopeless and distraught, feeling a depth of emotion that I hadn’t before.
I can acknowledge now that I don’t feel searing pain or want to burst into tears when I think about the Kavanaugh confirmation. Correcting professors for making racial microaggressions or defaulting to male pronouns isn’t as draining and emotionally tolling for me as it was a semester ago. I’m not sure what really changed between last December and this January, but I see the hurt that I endured as a symbol of strength. I am able to truly understand what is at stake. Political issues are not just debate topics or theories; they affect my and other people’s very real lives. That same depth of emotion- the pain- has driven an understanding and lifelong commitment to equity, for me and others.
A semester ago, I would not have written this piece. Crying was a weakness, and I would not have wanted to be so honest about what I had gone through. But this semester, something has changed. I have learned to value the parts of myself that traditionally, I cut off and shut down. I met someone who taught me to see beauty in raw emotional vulnerability and openness. This same person has shown the power of language and coming to terms with how I truly feel. I have seen how the very same emotions that I felt were destructive and excruciating can be transformed into the utmost joy and appreciation- the feelings of being on top of the world.
I have been encouraged to be emotive- to say I love you and to feel love endlessly. My parents, my sister, and my friends make me grateful each and every day to be alive. Last week, I wrote on my arm, “how lucky am I” because I was surrounded by people who care about me and who I care about. I am so appreciative to have a sister that I would make endless sacrifices for. When I visited her two weekends ago and we biked around her campus, I started crying. She looked at me and asked if my tears were from watching her grow up. I shook my head “no”. I could not verbalize the immense appreciation of being present in that moment and spending time with her. Instead of wiping away my tears, I acknowledged them and smiled. I told her how happy I was to be with her in person, talking and laughing at her jokes, instead of communicating through 1 AM conversations on FaceTime.
I am lucky because this semester, I have experienced emotional liberation. I embrace telling people how I feel, no matter the risks. I have noticed that I am in a much more emotionally stable place, in which I can help my friends with their difficulties and troubles. I have the emotional energy and time to listen and be present with them. I can offer my endless support and actually mean it. I am fortunate and grateful to live in a world where I can see hope for the future. Instead of scaring me, the Kavanaugh confirmation gives me a reason to live and fight each and every day.
The hearings demonstrated how far we have to go and the work needed in my lifetime and future generations to come. I am inspired by some of the new women in Congress (although I must admit- there are still very few) who are bold changemakers and unapologetically progressive. I feel lucky to grow up in an era where there are politically active women of color I look up to at Duke and in the nation. They inspire me to do better and stay committed, no matter the stakes. I want to end with a message for all the women who have felt brushed off, suppressed, or silenced-there is a light to every dark day. The path to true liberation is extremely difficult and can appear long and winding around the privileged, white ivory towers of institutions like Duke. However, if you look in the right places, there is hope and overwhelming love.