On Fear

Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it.
What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
dow there where the spirit meets the bone.

From The Ways We Touch: Poems. Copyright 1997, Miller Williams, via Your Daily Poem

“If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

Raylan Givens Justified, via Goodreads

I woke up this morning, first time in three days I didn’t feel like a miserable cuss who was mad at the world, but also feeling the miserable-cuss-ability on the horizons of my mind like a cloud I might pass through if I left the bed, that would stick the rest of the day. Again.

The problem, I think, is that I haven’t been showing enough people compassion. I’m in a new job with a new bunch of people and new responsibilities and I’ve been struggling to be my best self. I’ve caught myself treating people like I already know what they’re thinking, responding defensively to questions that weren’t offensive, and just generally being a miserable cuss. I’ve been treating them like people who are in my way, but I don’t even know where I’m going.


I’m afraid.

I’m afraid my peers aren’t going to like me and I won’t have any friends.

I’m afraid the engineers won’t see me as an equal.

I’m afraid management will decide I’m trouble and drive me out.

I’m afraid they’ll all ignore me.

I’m afraid that people will continue to treat me like an expert in accessibility when the only difference between me and them is experience.

I’m afraid that people won’t treat me like an expert in user experience when I’ve worked my ass off to try to become one.

I’m afraid I don’t have the ability anymore to separate “this is what WCAG says to do” from “this is good UX practice” anymore so when people want “just what we need to pass” I struggle to deliver it. I reflexively deliver the best design, which is not always what people want.

I’m afraid someone’s going to figure out that I’m just an English-teacher-flunkout who dropped her teaching major because she couldn’t get along with administration, and got into programming to talk to her boyfriend on the phone.

I’m so afraid of particular flavor of imposter syndrome that I 4.0’d my master’s degree in software engineering, took a certification course to fix Macintosh computers, weaseled my way into an Information Architecture role, worked in UX for 15 years, and whined my way into getting companies to pay for my accessibility training, and I’m still afraid I’m a stupid failure and everyone will figure it out. I’m so familiar with this fear I sometimes wrap myself in it and hide from the world.

I’m afraid of being “the breadwinner”, something I knew would happen when I started dating my husband 30 years ago, but feels so different when we finally get there.

I’m afraid of what happens if I fuck up this job, if they lay me off, if things go south and I lose health insurance.

I’m afraid things will get worse before they get better.

I’m afraid I can’t fix most of these problems by myself.

I’m afraid I can’t fix most of these problems.

I’m afraid.

And then I’m mad at myself for being afraid, mad at myself for not fixing things in advance so I wouldn’t have to be afraid (no I have no idea what that would’ve looked like), mad at myself for not being able to fix things now, and now I’m a miserable cuss who’s on the defensive not because I need to defend myself from my work cohorts, but because I need to defend myself from me.

And compassion? Oh forget that, I don’t have the capacity to give myself compassion, I don’t deserve

A tan and white jack russel lying on her back on a tan blanket looks directly at you with big brown eyes and a lot of love.

Zoë disagrees.

Zoë needs a few things in life: kibble, a place to potty, big fluffy blankets to burrow in, someone to throw the toy, and pets. Lots of pets. Love love love, because she loves me, and she doesn’t care what I’m afraid of or whether I’m going to mess it up. She wants hugs and belly rubs whether I’m good at my job or not. And not just any hugs and belly rubs — hugs and belly rubs from me because she loves me.

I’m not sure what compassion is.

Oh, I know it’s definition, and I know how I think it feels, but I’m not sure that everyone shares that definition with me, or wants to receive it, or wants to give it. “Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it.” It’s a tall order.

I think also, like empathy, it’s a term that corporations want to be something it’s not—something they can monetize. I can remember a time that we trained designers not to sympathize with our users, because sympathy (at the time) was to look at someone and say “oh you poor thing, I fee bad for you, let me help.” That’s too close to pity.

Designers, we were told, should have empathy. Empathy was the word for “being willing and able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. Like really willing, willing to stand at their desks and listen to them bitch about the problems our products cause, and really see how they cause problems and how that makes the user feel. And maybe even feel it with them.

But now we’re training people not to say they have empathy for others because we’ve turned that into the word that means pity, at least from a corporation’s view. “We’ll show empathy for people with disabilities by complying with the law and doing the very minimum to meet accessibility guidelines.” “We’ll build a disability dongle to help people and show that we have empathy.” “We’ll start a bunch of ERGs to show various minority groups that we care about them while simultaneously ignoring their recommendations, and ensuring that layoffs hit them the hardest but hey! we showed we care! They have a group!”

I fear that compassion will be the next word on their list, once “empathy” completes it transformation into a bad word.

But that’s a worry for another day, and one more thing I probably can’t fix by myself.

Today I’m reminding myself that Bernadette Peters and the Muppets were right, it takes just one person to believe in me (even if she’s a real dog) and that’s ok. And work is scary, and life is scary, and that’s ok. It’s ok to be afraid. It’s ok to be angry that everything is so damn hard. We’re all in this together. And we’re going to be ok.

The cloud of anger and resentment and being a miserable cuss has dissipated, for now. It’ll be back, eventually. In the meantime, someone wants me to throw a toy, and someone else wants help with a design, and someone else wants to know if I know anything about accessibility in this specific situation, so I’ve got work to do.

This too, shall pass.

Persian adage, via my aunt.