Analyzing the anthropology of a passive person

Lily KairisI have always been a self-proclaimed pacifist. An arbiter of calm discussions, an avoider of conflicts; the one who proclaims, when we’re not sure what to do with the night: “Let’s sit in a circle and hold hands and play bonding games!” It’s a little gross. I know. I’m a mushball. And I’ve recently been thinking about how on Earth I possibly became so cliché but also, as a repercussion, so passive.

So here, in three parts, is what I’ve come up with in the hopes of defining the development of a self-proclaimed tendency to seek out peace, or in other words: “An Anthropology of a Passive Person.” Maybe you’ll find something you recognize.

Part One: Childhood.

I grew up alongside a massive extended family: 14 cousins on my mom’s side and 18 on my dad’s. We shared holidays together; Thanksgivings were spent my mom’s side, Christmases with my dad’s, and when I was younger, my mom’s parents took all of our cousins on an international vacation every summer. They were trying to burn through money before they retired, and they thought, “What better way to blow cash than to spend it on our grandkids?” (A wonderful thought. I thank them, to this day, for that thought.) And this is where the passivity started.

Extended families are not simple. My 14 cousins and I, all being around the same age, had a propensity for shenanigans and camaraderie and willingly choosing to spend hours playing card games together in the backyard of our Tuscany villa (instead of actually touring the city with our parents, an option which we groaned was so boring. We’d seen enough churches and nice architecture already, thank you very much), but we also had a propensity for arguments. Especially us little girls — myself, my cousin Sophie and my cousin Abby. The three of us were the same age, give or take six months, and, in little-girl-world, that’s a recipe for disaster. It was only inevitable we’d argue about who got the biggest bed and who got to be Kirby when we played Super Smash Brothers. Except I didn’t really care. It was Sophie and Abby who cared, and Sophie and Abby who spent nearly every day in an argument. I, meanwhile, stood in between. “Lily, tell Abby she’s a brat.” Sophie would say. “Do you hear her?” Abby would then yell. “She’s being so mean! Lily, isn’t she being mean? Tell her to stop!”

But I would do neither of those things. I would instead hold up my arms like white flags at half-mast and try to bridge the space between the two of them. I’d say, “Can’t we just talk this out?” I didn’t understand, I never understood, why they felt the need to be so stubborn. Was Kirby, was the biggest bed, was the label of “who’s right” really that important? I’d been taught, in youth, to choose my battles. To let things slide. I didn’t understand why they didn’t.

Part Two: Adolescence

The first person to teach me the perks of being adamant, of not always choosing your battles, was my brother Jake. He was a senior in high school when I was a freshman and thus paved my way through adolescence. He taught me the meaning of every curse word, he taught me how to choose the right friends and he taught me, above all, how to be confident. “You have to just do you, and pursue what makes you happy, and not give a f**k what anyone else thinks.” These were his words of wisdom. And I gradually realized that they were true.

In high school, I couldn’t make friends by being passive. I couldn’t stand in between hoards of people with my arms spread in no-man’s-land: I had to make decisions. I had to seek people out, I had to embrace new opportunities and unfamiliar environments, I had open myself up to the world. So I did that. And it worked. I found my niche.
Except here’s the thing. I still didn’t take my brother’s advice wholly to heart.

My brother was the type of guy who had opinions so strong they could cut diamonds. He thought certain things were capital-c Correct, like opinions about the environment, politics, music, art, relationships and people, and that was the end of it. You couldn’t really dispute this Correctness. I, on the other hand, though I was certain who I was, and certain who my friends were, and certain about the wrongness of injustice and close-mindedness and various forms of -isms, I wasn’t certain about much else. I didn’t have a favorite band. I wasn’t entirely sure how to best fix socioeconomic inequality. I liked to listen to and appreciate other people’s opinions. Long story short, I still chose my battles.

Part Three: College

And now, here we are, at Hopkins, almost at present-day. When I first arrived here I wasn’t too different from how I am today. I was eager and wide-eyed, ready to meet new people and expand my horizons and broaden my perspective. I made friends with the eagerness of a four-year-old. I signed up for about seven new clubs. I ranted over dinner about everything I’d learned in my cool new classes about social change and cinema and anthropology. And, above everything, I listened.

There, I guess, is the mark of my lifelong passivity, reappearing again in college: my propensity to listen. To accept. It’s something I learned when I joined A Place to Talk (APTT), Hopkins’s peer-listening group. They taught me how to “listen to anyone’s problems, no matter how small, and respond empathetically without giving advice.” I learned how to disappear, to be present only as a sounding board for the other person to work out their own feelings. True, I had already been a proud confidante with a propensity for openness, but with APTT, I learned that my openness had purpose. I was accomplishing something real. And so I sat perched on my roommate’s bed and groaned in agreement to her awful boy problems or nodded along as my friend ranted about others’ selfishness or listened in silence to others’ anger.

Skip to the present day, and still I do the same. I’m a listener, I’m a “chooser of battles.” However, I’d like to argue that I’m not a passive person.

As the years have gone by, I have taught myself to debate. I have taught myself to stand my ground when someone spouts off on an issue I simply don’t agree with or when someone makes a misogynist comment that truly unnerves me or when someone belittles or degrades me. Following that sage wisdom my brother gave me as an adolescent is something I’ll admit I’m still working on, but I’m gradually doing better at “not giving a f**k” of what others think. In college I’ve fought a few battles. And I’m proud of that.

So, I’d like to make an edit. This is not, in fact, “An Anthropology of a Passive Person.” Because what I did in childhood, calming my feuding cousins or what I did in adolescence, listening as my brother drilled his razor-sharp musical opinions into my head or what I do now in college, promoting empathy like a badge of honor, is not passivity. It’s openness.

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