The Mythical They
I first heard the term from my coach and breathwork practitioner, Iona Holloway. The dreaded they — gatekeepers blocking me from being truly visible as an artist, dooming me to a thirsty prairie optimistically called “creative block”. Fran Lebowitz would argue that blockade was the better term. And since this pause had become the dominant pattern of my life, I would have to agree with her.
Specifically, I wanted to write. As of Spring 2021, for the first time in a decade, I was writing. I felt so inspired by the unique form of inner work I was doing with my wee but mighty Scottish guide, a kick-ass former All-American athlete who had been to hell and back with the same unhealthy survival strategies I lived in for years. Unrealistically high standards of achievement that left me exhausted to attempt anything new at all. Twenty years of unhelpful restrictive eating. Rigidity that woke me with dread each day and dropped me into bed exhausted each night. I felt she was the first to truly see me, and that I was uniquely qualified to learn from her. And so, I started cranking out essays and prompts, feeling I had the perfect audience of one to share it with. And I was right. She reflected it back to me with a sharp eye, and I trusted her good taste — until she told me that my words deserved to exist further than her inbox.
You know. My words. My stories. Out in the world.
My response to that was to choke on the normal sized meals I had just started learning to enjoy.
Sharing with Iona was one thing. She got me. Very few others would, I was convinced. And there were trolls out there, and people who read Joyce Carol Oates, and that one girl who tried to destroy my life in the 12th grade.
I slowly discovered, conversation by conversation, breathwork session by breathwork session, that none of those people were threats to my 36 year old self. But I was pretty sure someone would be, and they’d send me devastating critiques that I would barely survive, and after barely surviving I would linger for decades in a never-ending cringe that would cause me to neglect my children, furrow beyond the aid of Botox, and develop shingles. Because someone, someday, might have that power, right?
”It’s the mythical they,” Iona diagnosed. And that sounded like a fair assessment.
How could I write into a world full of the mythical they?
It doesn’t help that they wear masks. Despite applying all my intelligence, I could not describe the ones I feared, not even to a trusted ally, because I did not know. It’s just not humane when one cannot even face their enemy in the grand jury of their own existence.
But I’m guessing that you also know something about these potential acolytes of cruelty. I suspect you do. Maybe they are the other women at the Pilates class you want to try, or interviewers unspecified at that job you always wanted. Maybe they are the admissions staff at a PhD program, or people on the street that will definitely mock you if you dare wear that jumpsuit you love, the one that rests on a hanger in the pancreas of your closet. Or you may be a blessed one who don’t seem to experience this at all, in which case, I envy your warmer sun. But I have yet to meet you. I have yet to ask you what you fear in the absence of a they.
The mythical they are the reason I secretly paid $120 to take a private Yoga lesson before even considering joining a group experience — you know, so they don’t know how unpracticed I am. (And simultaneously, for years, I wondered why my fellow woman seemed to assume I rarely struggled. Allergic to vulnerability, Iona calls it.)
They are the hushed voices you don’t want to hear after you speak publicly. They are the Android-gripping palms of those who may view your imperfect but published creations, the work you churn out in hopes that one day you will meet your own particularly high standards. They are the family members who won’t understand, the spiritual leaders who won’t approve, the loving friends who may be offended, and the amazing spouse who doesn’t deserve this. This being a precise and public expression of your most identifiably human qualities, your honest motivations, your own unique view of the world and fiercely desired place inside of it. Your private wishes, your eccentric curiosities, your unpopular viewpoints, your most earnest attempts at artistic representation.
The mythical they all have one thing in common, no matter how specific or unspecific they might be.
One thing in common.
They are all creatures of your own design.
Because it’s always been a grand, panoramic tennis match between you, and you.
And I know for certain: if you and I can create an imaginary population as vast as the mythical they, what else are we capable of creating?
Some terrifyingly powerful, authentic reflections of the experiences that make us what we are. The good and the bad. The ethical and the questionable. The true.
I won’t lie to you, or to myself, by pretending that critics and naysayers will never challenge us if we stop living safely and start being braver. Of course they will, and that will suck a little, or maybe a lot. But I am saying that the mythical they cannot annihilate us without our complicity. We ourselves are the only ones in our lives with that kind of power, and every day we choose to go to bed denying ultimate responsibility for honestly reflecting our own experiences, we inadvertently make another small cut.
So I beg of you and I beg of myself: wear the jumpsuit. Take the class. Write the words. Do it out loud. And know: the ones that are meant for you will delight in your courage.
I hope I get to be your witness. I hope I can call you one of mine.
Postscript: My husband has informed me that he believes that he is one of those who live under the warmer sun, one of those who has never experienced the presence of the mythical they. To this, I questioned what he feared most. His answer: betrayal.
To which I would argue: betrayal involves a they.
But bravery? Choosing to trust, with all his intellect and instinct. And I am proud to say that he does.
Pick your brave.