A few issues back I spoke about how I'm kind of uncomfortable with the idea of 'role models' but really liked Austin Kleon's reframing of them as 'guardian spirits'.
In response, a friend told me about 'expanders' - people who expand your idea of what might be possible for you. They're not necessarily role models - you might not want to be like them in a lot of ways, and you might not want to go as far as they do - but when you meet them you realise your life could be a bit bigger than it is, or your options a bit broader.
My friend Lisa Skye wears full on 80s scifi makeup and neon fishnets and stuff, and I don't want to dress like that, but it does make me want to be a bit more out there, a bit more visibly myself. Because it turns out... you just can. She gets away with it, because there's no overlord who decides how you're allowed to dress (outside of work obviously). She expanded my horizons of how out-there I think you "can" dress.
Or, maybe at work, a fellow employee tells your boss, "Sorry, I can't do that work, I already have too much to do this week" and you are super shocked because you didn't know you could say no. When your boss asks you to do more work, you just accept it and try to get it done and it's not even that you felt you had no choice, it just didn't even occur to you to wonder if you had a choice or not. It's just... you assumed you had to say yes.
It can be big things or little things and it's going to be different for everyone. You are probably someone else's expander, and you don't even realise it!
(This is all kind of existentialism by the way, if you've ever wondered what that is, the philosophy. A big part of it is accepting in a very radical way that you are free. Not that your actions won't have consequences, but that the range of choices available to you is vast, far vaster than we ever run through in an average decision-making moment. It means instead of thinking "I can't just get off the train right now and hang out in that park instead of going to work" you realise "I can get off the train if I want. I would probably lose my job, and so I'll probably choose not to. But I can. I literally physically can just stand up right now and get off the train and go sit in that park." In some ways it works out much the same, but existentialism says it's not the same.
Especially because there is a gap between what you feel sure you "can't" do, and the actual things which will have terrible consequences. Expanders help you see some of the things in that gap.
Some people HATE expanders though
Finding out you have a lot more options than you realised is really exciting and liberating for some people. But for others, it makes them really really angry. Because instead of looking forward to the new possibilities, they look backwards. And when you say (through your actions), "you can travel overseas, even though you have a mortgage, it's not actually that expensive", they hear "all this time, you could have gone overseas. But you didn't" and the thought of that is too painful and so they shut it down immediately and go "well it's easy for SOME, I suppose" or call you frivolous and irresponsible or whatever.
People who are not happy with the choices they are making get angry when told they have other options available to them.
I think this is also what was behind a very particular flavour of backlash to #MeToo - some women who had been sexually harassed in the workplace got annoyed at women speaking up about it. "In my day, we just got on with the job", or whatever. Some people were really happy to see women no longer tolerating what they were forced to tolerate. But others found it too painful - the only way they had been able to cope is by thinking of it as inevitable, unavoidable. Being told that it WAS preventable (not by any individual, but by the culture), made them feel worse, not better.
I guess it's something to watch out for - if I find myself resenting someone. I should check in whether it's genuine anger or whether it's some sort of personal regret that has nothing to do with them.
This piece was originally published in The Whippet #88 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!
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