Scanning the coffeeshop for somewhere to sit, my gaze caught on a undergrad woman sitting in the corner. She was mainly working on one table, with her bag spilling over, taking up a second. My first reaction was disgust. Why would you do that in a busy coffee shop? Rude.
My second reaction was: Nah girl, you take up space!
I mused that I don’t know how her day is, how she is, whoshe is. Taking up two tables might be an amazing step in her journey of self-liberation. For someone like me, who was raised to be small, to yield, and to default to taking up as little space as possible, two tables could be huge.
Knowing what ‘two tables’ means for her is hard, no, it’s impossible to know, from the outside. It’s also none of my business. But what I do is completely my business. And this coincides with questions I’ve considered with friends: what’s the “right” thing to do, when we both want to be polite (perhaps only taking up one table) but also practice self-liberation of taking up space? Today I see clearly, the answer is motive. What is driving me to give up the table, so to say?
- Am I giving up the second table out of generosity?
- Or out of the compulsive reflex that tells me I “should” only take up one table, that I “should” give it away (to someone more deserving ??), that I “should” (be small)?
That’s the difference between being generous and being small. It’s important to realize that the external action or behavior will look the same to anyone else. But for me, the difference of which motive I respond to, which one I sustain, is huge. Habits solidify through repetition. Reflexes, too. In my efforts as a feminist, a scholar, an activist, I want to gently re-program myself, re-member my thoughts so that I am properly sized in the world, that I take up as much space as I do, without shrinking or going small when I think others would prefer me that way. I re-program myself by only giving up the second table out of generosity, not out of any social “should.” In that way, I nurture generosity, and not shame.
This table metaphor serves us best when we can see this process in play in other places. Another version of this comes in First Nations story, a often quoted story of wolves:
Your motives are your wolves. I had fed my fearful wolf for decades before realizing that I was sustaining the pattern of reacting in fear each time I reacted fearfully. I have been able to slowly change that from a predictable pattern of action to an impulse! A huge success. And I did it all by paying attention. I paid attention to my motives. I considered how feeding each felt. Ultimately, I chose to feed the motives that would move me in the direction of my larger goals: taking care of my self and others. When I choose fear, I close myself off, and then I’m no good to you or anyone.