Indulgence as Self-Work

In Current by Ian Kennedy

By Ian Kennedy

One of the questions I get a lot, once people find out about Indulgence, is why we picked that name. I usually explain that my co-founder Angelina suggested it in line with her work, and that it’s focused on the subversion made possible through women’s indulgence in feminine pleasures of consumption and self-presentation. You can read more about this in our joint post from earlier this summer or in Angelina’s lovely article about the Mindy Project published about the same time.

Some people ask about men’s pleasure and men’s indulgence. My response is twofold. First, I think it’s great that our reading of indulgence is about women. As many of our male readers and most of our female readers know, a ridiculous amount of our world persists in being frustratingly male-focused, accepting women reluctantly, by law, and still sometimes not at all. Focusing on Woman’s pleasure is a conscious choice on our part to universalize female experience as natural and accessible. As I man, I don’t view this as restrictive, since, though I don’t have a woman’s experience, I can still (and often do) indulge in feminine experience. Women are asked to make do with universalizing man’s experience, like when the population of this world is called mankind, so we’re making an effort to turn the tables.

I’ve been thinking, though, as I’ve been traveling, meeting new people, and fielding this question a lot, about another great aspect of our title. Indulgence is about the intersection of literature and social justice: pleasurably engaging in literature with the aim of forwarding feminist anti-racism. Most activist friends connect with this idea immediately: they’ve been inspired by life writing and essays like Assata Shakhur’s, Ta-Naheshi Coates’s, and Julia Serrano’s, by novels like The Color Purple, Giovanni’s Room, or The Jungle, and by non-fiction like The New Jim Crow, A People’s History, or Empire of Cotton.

Other folks, though, wonder how this works: isn’t activism a bit more, well, active? Common sense suggests that to change the world I’d have to go beyond the personal and and into the public and the political. They’re right that we couldn’t have a social justice movement without marching in the streets, fighting in the courts, legislating just laws, and striving for cultural change. But there’s one more arena of action which we ignore at our own peril: ourselves. I’m not just talking about the important fact that self-care is essential to effective and continued activism. Rather, I want to focus on how our actions, thoughts, and connections are one of the most accessible arenas we have for changing the world.

The western secular culture I grew up in, however, has precious few effective methods for this kind of self-growth. We’re excellent at gaining skills and building powerful networks, but rubbish at learning to be good, kind, and excellent to each other. Faith traditions around the world have offered powerful suggestions, like buddhist meditation and other contemplative traditions, which I’m happy to see growing as practices here in the U.S.

If there is a western path towards kindness, though, literature is it. Novels and stories inspire empathy by forcing the experience of others into the our mind, changing the composition of our thoughts to make them literally less self-centered. While there’s some interesting evidence for this from laboratories, the great thing about it is that it’s easily verified by personal experience. Watch your mind when you pick up a book and you can watch it change, often for the better, and almost always towards more openness and understanding.

One of my goals at Indulgence, then, is to give a boost to literature’s capacity for inspiring good. By reading intentionally and writing about connections between what we read and the issues that matter, we’re actively working to reform ourselves. Of course that doesn’t mean that experiences I read about became mine: the time and space that separate being somewhere and reading about it remain. Instead, the power of literature comes from allowing me to broaden the sources of feeling that I base my actions and opinions on. I open up to the experiences of others, maintaining them in my mind-world as important and imported.

So, I compel you to take a break from your screen and pick up a novel. Pick it for what you like to read, and don’t worry what people will think when they see you with it. Read it with relish, let the characters into your heart, let the author drive your mind, and when you’re done see what it offers beyond those worthy pleasures. Books have shown me how to act and how not to, they’ve inspired me to reach out with compassion and listen with attention, to eat more of what I love and less of what makes me feel gross. They can do all that, and more, for you too. I guarantee it.