(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.
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.
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…