The SCOTUS hearings dragged the country through a new low and in the process, dredged up memories from my hippocampus. What follows is not salacious or violent.
A very long time ago I dated a smart and ambitious colleague. On one of our first dates, if not the very first, he bought tickets to a baking contest sponsored by the James Beard House in New York. Inside, we sampled breads from a variety of hopefuls who stood with their creations, cut into small pieces for event goers. Visitors could vote on their favorites. Towards the end, I remember standing in front of one table as we each chewed a small chunk of a loaf. My companion, enjoying the tidbit, remarked to the artisan that we had voted for it, even though we hadn’t. The lie triggered my bullshit detector. I wondered why he hadn’t simply said, “Your bread is delicious!” That would have conveyed the same sentiment. Troubled, I asked my date about his remark. I don’t remember his response except it must have addressed my concerns enough to lower the little red flag at the back of my mind. Perhaps the decadent chocolate martini we drank afterward further eased my misgivings. In the grand scheme of things, I told myself, it’s not a big deal. I knew that he was a very kind, caring person, in almost every way the antithesis of Kavanaugh’s former frat boy persona. Perhaps he’d been nervous and those words popped out of his mouth. I extended the benefit of the doubt.
We agreed to keep the relationship to ourselves and not flaunt it at work. Still, our offices were on the same floor and at various times our paths crossed or coincided. One day we rode the elevator together and were mid-conversation when someone higher up walked on. It might have been my boyfriend’s boss, or his boss’ boss; I don’t recall exactly. The rapidity with which he switched his focus to this man gave me whiplash. Within seconds, I went from being seen to being sidelined, in service of my then friend’s desire (or compulsion) to curry favor. That he did not briefly introduce me, simply as a fellow employee, left me feeling invisible for the duration of the seemingly endless elevator ride.
What made the episode jarring was that this boyfriend was otherwise quite attentive. Yet it’s as if he changed character when sensing the possibility of winning favor, as if buttonholing a higher-up in an elevator might alter one’s fortunes down the line. And while we are encouraged to have an elevator speech ready for moments similar to this – one never knows whom one might meet and how that might change one’s life!- in this case the man in question was accessible, a regular guy with flyaway hair and a rumpled suit rather than one of the sleek power broker-types who rarely appeared among staff. It was not a once-in-a-lifetime moment deserving a performance.
In a career focused (if not obsessed) world, where society identifies people by what they do, where they do it, and how far up the hierarchy they ascend, we are supposed to applaud ambition and glorify those whose resumes glitter with the names of elite schools and employers, as if reaching those pinnacles is worth any price. We may even look askance at someone who is not actively trying to grab the next brass ring and hoist themselves ever higher, as if contentment or satisfaction is a character defect. Around that time, many of our friends married and we attended several weddings together. My boyfriend wanted to get married, too. Of the many reasons I hesitated, the one that would have probably been least understood by others and dismissed if not ridiculed is that I had a strong aversion to his ambition, an ambition that has since propelled him to lofty, prestigious positions in rarefied circles. For a lot of women, particularly Jewish women, to get hitched to a guy who was “going places” would be an easy decision that their communities would applaud and celebrate, as if it were the natural order of things. When I finally did break up with him after months of agonizing, it turned into a painful mess, thanks in part to my lack of skillfulness. Before calling me some awful names, he admitted he had failed to disclose something when we started dating, believing that if he had told me the truth I wouldn’t have been interested in him. But what if the truth had created a foundation of trust and a stronger bond, or set both of us free at the start? It didn’t occur to me then but, as hard as it can be to tell the truth when one feels that much is at stake, doing so actually makes the other party more visible and whole, because they feel trusted and can then respond (ideally graciously and maturely) to the information. To hide something diminishes everyone.
Of the various things that disturbed me about the SCOTUS hearings, one of the worst was likely what many people would consider the least important given the serious allegations made by Dr. Ford (whom I believe). In viewing the proceedings not as a trial (which it was not) but as forum for determining fitness to serve on the highest court, I could not understand why Judge Kavanaugh, who supposedly has a distinguished record, lied under oath about the meanings of words and phrases in his yearbook that referenced binge drinking and sex, when the definitions are known by many and are easily verifiable (apparently many senators haven’t heard of Google). These baldfaced lies fooled no one. Another despicable moment was his refusal to answer with a “yes” or “no” as to whether he supported an FBI investigation into the sexual assault allegations, a question he was asked multiple times by multiple people. Gesturing towards the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, he said that he’d do whatever they wanted. What I heard was not the response of a grown man intent on clearing his name, but that of an insecure young person afraid of being denied his prize. He’d prefer to ingratiate himself to those in power to get ahead, signaling that ambition is more important than telling the truth. The Republicans, by prioritizing their political ambitions over the well being of the country, rendered the truth invisible and irrelevant. That is both sickening and terrifying. It’s also something that most of us are unlikely to forget.
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Wow. You hit the nail right on the head, Ilona! Being happy is “failure” if that’s “all” you’ve achieved. Just, wow!
Thanks, Sarah! I find it can be hard to escape the ambition trap. It’s drilled into so many and is baked into conversation, e.g. “What’s the next big thing you’re doing?” or “What epic plans do you have?”, etc.