The Tragedy of Rachel.

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I started writing a blog post on Rachel Dolezal. It was harsh. It was judgmental. It was a little mean-spirited. It was… honest, but maybe it was a truth not worth telling.

Part of what I hope to develop in my life is a sensitivity to the way that other people experience the world, even if I find their experience utterly baffling.

Look, I think the woman is either in desperate need of intense therapy or… well, yeah I think that’s the only option I have for her. Because whether she believes what she’s saying or she’s saying things to milk her fifteen minutes, she still has to unpack the baggage of identity that she’s carrying around, just as we all do.

The core of this story is a woman denying her foundational roots. For whatever reason, she has rejected her earthly source. She identifies as something “other” from her parentage. That, in and of itself, is tragic and not that uncommon. We all have that moment when we say that “I don’t want to be anything like my parent(s)”. Most of us will not take it to this extent. We’ll choose a different faith path, a different career, adopt different values. For most of us though, we snap back like a rubber band. Both nature and nurture are hard to escape. For one to so greatly distance oneself from their point of origin, there can’t be anything but heartbreak there.

What I don’t approve of when it comes to this story is the deception. A lot of people invested heavily in Rachel’s lie. It has to be called that. there was a willful misrepresentation committed. And some people were hurt by it. I don’t know that you can make a legitimate trek toward finding your true identity while perpetuating a lie. It’s never worked for me, anyway. ¬†The good that she may have done will always be scrutinized. She will have an asterisks next to her name in the record books for using blackness enhancing substances.

It’s quite possible to feel more comfortable in a culture that is not your own. I was a black kid raised in the suburbs. I often feel more comfortable around white people, particularly socially-conscious, left-leaning white people. I don’t want to be them. I want them and my black peers to appreciate that I’ve experienced my blackness under unique circumstances. It hasn’t always been a pleasant journey, but it is mine and it is authentic. I don’t doubt that Rachel has a comfort-ability and kinship with black people that comes from having adopted siblings. I do think that there is something legitimate and authentic under all of this, but somewhere in the journey for the authentic self, something got lost or damaged.

I wonder how much more good Rachel could have done had she come to terms with her privilege and identity. I wonder what would have happened had she literally found comfort in her own skin. She could have been an amazing ally. She could have marched in Ferguson and Baltimore in solidarity. She could have been active in the NAACP and taught Africana studies from a place of a compassionate outsider that may have allowed her voice to be heard in some arenas that are closed off from African Americans. The more I reflect on this story, the more tragic it seems.

Maybe I am still being too judgmental. I really don’t know what is in this woman’s heart or mind. My hope for her is that she finds peace. I hope that she finds places where she feels at home. I hope that she finds her authentic community that will love her through whatever storm she finds herself in. I hope that she will know herself, beyond skin or culture, to be loved.

Be Transformed

(This is part two of a two-part thought I’ve been meditating on. You can read part one here. )

It’s been interesting to watch the reaction to Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair article. As a habit, I do not keep up with the Kardashians, but I have been watching this story with a little bit of interest. It is interesting because it exposes a blind spot that I think and many other progressives share. I will confess that I am a bit gun-shy in writing this right now as I don’t want to offend in my misuse of terms and/or pronouns. I can’t identify with what Caitlyn went through as Bruce. I have never felt as if I was born in the wrong body. I have never identified as anything other than what I appear to be. I am a cisgender. This experience is foreign to me. Yet as an empathetic person, attempting to put myself in the shoes of another, I imagine that it had to be a horrible experience for her. I imagine that it had to be draining to keep up the appearance knowing that her internal reality was in striking contrast to her external one.

Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as reality television star and former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, poses in an exclusive photograph made by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair magazine and released by Vanity Fair on June 1, 2015.  REUTERS/Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair/Handout via Reuters   ATTENTION EDITORS - NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO COMMERCIAL USE.

Maybe I’m just a pessimist, but I imagine that this transformation had to have an element of grief to it. The identity of “Bruce” had to have had some security to it, even if it was a false security. It had to have had some normalcy to it, even if normalcy is way overvalued. It had to have had some security to it, even if it was the kind of security that prohibits freedom. To give that up, knowing that there was no going back from whence she came, had to be an act of extreme courage. She surrendered a false self for a true one when, in some significant ways, it was so much safer to continue to live into the false self.

The world my ego created was a false self. I recognize that now. I recognize that I needed to let go of that which my ego projected to the world. And I recognize that I wouldn’t have let go that false self without major calamity in my life. Perhaps I created the calamity because of the discontent the false life was causing me. Hard to know. What I do know is that, whether I am better off or not, I grieve my former life. I grieve the security that it gave me. I grieve the sense of certainty that it provided. I grieve the stability…

(while I was writing this, my friend Shannon wrote a great piece on grief. You should read that then come back. I’ll wait…)

… but maybe what I grieve the most is the luxury of outsourcing my identity to others. See, my false self projected a version of me that was likable. I was rewarded by being liked and by being told what was likable about me. “You’re smart!” “You’re funny!” “You’re well-spoken!” When things fell apart, people said different things about me. “You’re selfish!” “You’re an asshole!” “You’re a disappointment!” That’s the danger of outsourcing your identity. If the good things people say about you are true then the harsh things are equally so. Still, it was easier to accept those images of myself than it was to find my true identity. “You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Harvey Dent’s great line in “The Dark Knight” became my mantra for awhile. If people thought I was selfish, then I would be totally selfish. If people thought I was an asshole, then I would be a total asshole! If people thought I had disappointed them before then they ain’t seen nothing yet!

Fortunately, I couldn’t live with myself in that mode for long. The villain’s mask didn’t fit me. Neither did the hero’s. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but what I was experiencing was a death. The death not only of a former self, but a former way of being in the world. I would have to find a new way of being. I wasn’t dying in the way of a person with no air in her lungs. I was dying the way a tadpole dies when lungs develop. I was dying the way a caterpillar dies in the cocoon.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by renewing your mind – Romans 12:2

I had conformed myself to standards of success that included family, title, station, salary, education… even standards of goodness. I had become everything that I thought I was supposed to be and in the process lost my true self. The disruption of my world has caused me to think differently. To many, my actions may seem similar, but the ways I think about my self and my place in the world are very different. The way I think about others and God is very different. It’s a process. I won’t say that my mind has been transformed. I would say that it is transforming. I no longer believe in a “trickle-down” economic of love where, if I were loved enough, I would have enough excess to give to the world. I understand myself now as a conduit through which love can flow through if and when I am open to being love’s vessel. I understand that I do not need to hoard love. Love is best given and exchanged.

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For as long as I can remember, I have been a fan of the Transformers, the cartoon, the toys, the comics… the first of the live action movies is tolerable. I’m fully aware that whatever mythos was created around the character was simply a vehicle (pun intended) for selling action figures, but I love them nonetheless. The transformers’ “true self” was the robot form. They were, after all, “robots in disguise”. After transformation, though, there was always some remnant of the false self. A wing from a plane. A windshield from a car. A set of dinosaur teeth. Optimus Prime (above) was clearly a truck. Sometimes while transforming the toys, it feels like you are breaking them. ¬†Transformation is an interesting process. We always retain some of what we were. We never lose the disguise of the false self completely, but the real self breaks through the disguise and shows the world who we really are. I can’t undo my past. I can’t unhave my experiences. I can’t unlearn my skills nor give back my gifts. I am marked by the remnants of the life I once had. But I am attempting to live more mindfully with the broken pieces. I am trying to find the cure for my endless restlessness within myself. I am trying to be more comfortable in my skin.

I feel like a fraud as I write this. I know that I have not overcome all of my insecurities. I know that I still derive huge amounts of worth from what people think of me. I’m trying to hold the beast at bay, the beast here being my ego. I am mid-transformation. It is painful and awkward. I fight to not slip back into what I was while wrestling with not knowing what I will become. The trick now is realizing that there is no finished product…