It was not as if I had planned to go and then couldn’t at the last minute. I knew from the outset that I would not be able to attend the Women’s March. There is no delicate way to say this, but even maintenance level chemotherapy banishes you from events where there’s the possibility of being bathroom insecure.
Where I Was While Others Marched
So, I was at home while others were out at the biggest gathering of women in my lifetime. I had made my peace with that. It was a lovely afternoon really. Apple wood on the fire, a momentarily mellow dog, a book I’d been looking forward to cracking open. All very cozy. I checked in and looked at the photos that friends were posting from marches in New York, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, DC, Knoxville, Miami, even little Concord, New Hampshire. It was watching the Superbowl. You have a better view of the game on television than you would at the stadium.
Feeling Left Out
It was all good. Until some of you started posting pictures of yourselves attending the march with your daughters. That’s when I started to feel sidelined. Left out. What I would have given to have been in New York alongside my own daughter!
She is the social activist who inspires me most—not just a tourist marcher, but someone who works on the front line of these issues every day a New York City classroom.
But I couldn’t march with Abby and there will be other experiences in the future where I will likely be sidelined again. Which got me to thinking about living vicariously—not just on this occasion, but living vicariously through the experiences of others in general.
The Relatively New Privilege of Being There
I remind myself that for such huge numbers of women to be able to pick up and transport themselves to DC or Boston or New York is a relatively new phenomenon, and one born of a certain level of affluence. It is a marvelous thing that many of us now inhabit a world where we can do, or at least contemplate doing, all sorts of things that would have been impossible for our mothers and grandmothers. We can travel and have this experience or that one. The world is wide. It may not fully be our oyster yet, but we’re beginning to collect our share of its pearls.
With that newfound agency enabling us to be there in person, living vicariously through the experiences of others is in danger of becoming a lost art. Why watch when you can play?
Two Reasons Why Living Vicariously Isn’t All Bad
And yet there is something to be gained, I think, on those occasions when we must depend on others to be our eyes and ears. I’m still working on my manifesto about vicarious living, but here are a couple of thoughts.
#1—Living vicariously opens up conversation. Over time, it may even raise our general level of discourse.
When you can’t go yourself, you become hungry, greedy even, to learn everything you can about the experience you’ve missed. You learn to ask better questions. You sharpen that skill of being able to draw others out.
You also give others the opportunity to become better narrators. To shape and refine their own lived experience by putting it in story form. In the words of Joan Didion:
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.
If people tell their stories in order to live, then being a receiver of stories is a life-giving act.
#2—Living vicariously helps us to see things from a different point of view. When we go in as our own agents, we tend to see the things we are already programmed or inclined to see. We tend to use the same filters over and over again, without even realizing that they are in place.
It’s good to shake that up. I find that the older I get, the more deeply entrenched I am with my own little tribe of categories. Perhaps we homogenize with age.
When I have to take things in through the eyes of others, I am forced to see them through the categories they use, through their presets. Maybe theirs are just as baked-in as my own, but they are inevitably different. Ergo broadening.
Learning to Bend
Sure, I still would rather be able to go out and do everything I want to do on my own. But even life’s imitations are proving to be good teachers. Some etymologists think the word vicarious may be related to the Old Norse word vikja which means to bend and to viker, the Swedish word for willow twig. I certainly haven’t achieved willow status, but I am learning to bend. And to live well, even when it has to be vicariously.