Dangerous to those who profit from the way things are

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An update, and some thoughts on pessimism.

There are a lot of titles I could have gone with, here. LA Story. LA Confidential. Down And Out in the Magic Kingdom. Postcards from the Edge. American Idiot. But nothing I can think of really fits.

I’m still stuck in the United States. I’m staying with my former roommate from my Seattle years, and her husband. Yesterday, I applied for a new passport. I’m supposed to pick it up, tomorrow. Then I’ll visit the Canadian consulate a second time, and get some advice on how to proceed. I’ve heard different things from different people: my attorney advises a “single entry visa,” the CIC website suggests a Travel Document, and the consulate itself initially suggested that I fly on an American passport and hope for the best.

I don’t want to hope for the best.

One of the things I’ve been struggling with as a person in the years since I left my husband is that I’m a natural pessimist. I do not expect things to go well. In fact, I expect them to go as badly as they possibly can. I’ve heard this expressed a variety of ways: that I have a “negativity filter,” that I need to take a step back and appreciate things more, that I need an attitude adjustment, that I need to work on my compassion, and so on. Some of this advice is good: it’s not really fun or healthy for me to be living with a constant expectation of awfulness, and long-term it limits the possibilities I create for myself. I’ve been re-evaluating that thinking in my foresight and futurism work, and as I spend more time with die-hard science fiction fans, many of whom bemoan the loss of optimistic SF.

(With regard to that issue, I don’t have much to say. The people who bemoan that loss are all much older than I am, and their understanding of what SF is and is for are different from mine. They say, “Where is my jetpack?” and I say, “Where are my global reproductive rights?” Of course SF isn’t as shiny and twee as it once was. The world itself was never that shiny or twee, and we realized it when we allowed the people traditionally excluded from the conversation — women, minorities, the underprivileged of all sorts — to share their lived experiences through art and commentary. Slightly-less-optimistic SF is not any less hopeful, it’s just not fantasy.)

But personally, my issues with optimism have more to do with my issues about over-achieving than anything else. My roommate and I are from the same teeny-tiny, highly selective honors program, and we can recognize this in each other. We arrived at university with vertiginous grade point averages, and we maintained them through university. Then we went to grad school, and did the same thing. We arrived at adulthood with the understanding that if we just did things The Right Way, everything would turn out fine.

This is not, in fact, the case.

You can do everything right, and still fail. You can have all the right qualities and qualifications, and still lose. This is hard, especially if you’ve done everything right your whole life. Relationships, in particular, are like this. You think that if you just do the right things in the proper way, or say the right words in an eloquent way, or plan the right events in enough time, you’ll be recognized for being awesome and everyone will want to spend all their time with you. But that’s not how it works. There’s no grading process. There’s no rubric. There is no Complete, no Perfect, no 100%. People either like you or they don’t. You have no control over that. It’s a black box system.

Immigration is also a black box system. You put in an application, or an entreaty, or a question, and something pops out the other end, without you ever having seen the process. And while that process is full of lists and checkboxes and qualifications and sub-routines, all of which have a rational place in the process, some aspects of it still depend on the messy stuff of human interaction. How a guard feels about you. Whether or not someone at the consulate is hungry. How well a police officer understands his stereotypes. It’s those things I’m pessimistic about, because it’s those things that I can’t control or influence. Simultaneously, I’m terrified of filling out the forms and the checklists, because I’m afraid of doing them wrong.

I suppose the easiest way to express this might be to say that pessimists like me are all control freaks. That we want things done a certain way, our way, The Right Way. That if it’s not done our way, it’s done wrong, and our confidence drops. But that’s not it. I think the problem lies in thinking that there’s a right way to do things at all. That if we just fill out the form in blue or black ink, or get our grades up, or complete the quest, or ask the right person, or what have you, that everything will be fine. That’s the myth we were brought up with: word hard, follow the rules, and succeed. But that’s not really how the world works, and it’s not really how life works, either.

And to an overachiever like me? That thought alone fills me with a howling void. So you can imagine how I feel about this entire process.

3 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Although, perhaps, being the type of person who puts the work in to achieve results in every facet of life has a better chance at doing so that an optimist who thinks things will turn out to the best, whether or not she works at it? And so, in an optimistic way, I should say that all your work has helped put you in a position to succeed in all these places in your lifer, and almost certainly in a better position than you would be if you were more complacent!

    I hope your immigration matters are settled quickly. A friend of a friend was stuck in the U.S. for quite a long time for some similar matter, separate from his wife and children. It’s not easy – take care and good luck! If for any reason you need help from someone down in Texas, let me know.

    Reply
  2. I completely sympathize with all of this, and those insights are astute. wishing you a way home soon.

    Reply
  3. “You can do everything right, and still fail. You can have all the right qualities and qualifications, and still lose. This is hard, especially if you’ve done everything right your whole life. ”

    Yes. Just yes.

    Reply

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  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, strategic foresight consultant, anime fan, and immigrant. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and IAM Sports & Entertainment. She has been a guest on TVO's The Agenda multiple times. Her novels are published by Angry Robot Books. Her fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, and Tor.com.
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