In my last post on good questions and trans inclusion, I offered an answer to the question, “What is gender?” This time, I’d like to look at two more aspects of genderneutral’s question: How can we include all trans people in our understanding of gender? And, how can we view trans people as interconnected within the larger human story of gender?
If gender is part of being human, for better or for worse–so often for worse–and if we could think of it a bit like language or music, we have already entered radically new territory. We are no longer in the realm of rules, rigid categories, and so-called truth. Instead we have entered a realm of meaning, culture, communication and beauty. A melody may be especially pleasing (or not) to our own ears, and it may be of a certain style or format. In no sense, however, can a melody be “wrong” or “right.” Pay no mind to the few who try to say so out of snobbery. Those who claim some type of music is not music are always made wrong by history.
So we can let gender wax and wane, bend and change with the cultural seasons; whatever is good and real in it will endure. We can let people, ourselves included, be as they are. They are that way anyway, whether or not we see fit to grant our permission. I say, use your voice and try to sing, as best you can, the song that you were born singing. Or dwell deeply in silence, drinking in the rich space of your own quiet. To insult or drown out another’s song is an act of cruelty, which does nothing but introduce more hatred into the world. Such violence is a senseless and tragic misuse of your fleeting time on this earth.
In this logic, all trans people are always already included within the concept of gender. I will not spend any time justifying our dignity or legitimacy. Our existence is enough. I take this truth to be self-evident: that theory and ideology, if they are to contain any sense at all, must conform themselves to meet reality, and not the other way around. Any explanation of gender that does not include us contains a basic flaw, a broken promise–it does not describe the universe. Not this universe, any way.
In this universe, gender-variant people have always been part of human diversity. This includes those who, in this place and time, we call transgender, transsexual, intersex, genderqueer, agender, bigender, Two Spirit, and other terms. In other times and places, different words have been used, implying different subdivisions among gender and sexual minorities. It is wonderful to learn about the unique terms and traditions of various cultures, especially the more humane manifestations. But that’s somewhat beside the point here. The point is simply that we are real.
How, then, do diverse transgender people fit into the larger human story of gender? Like violin strings in an orchestra, like crickets in a summer night. What would springtime be with only one type of flower, or dawn with a chorus of identical birds? It is the imposition of a violent and unnatural monoculture that rejects our spice and nuance for the sake of its own bland, efficient machinery.
But human nature, like all nature, contains somewhere within itself the awesome intelligence of the ecosystem. The natural world is an interdependent wonderland containing order and chaos, harmony and discord, and dazzling uncountable myriad forms. So the genders need no more determine, dominate or detract from one another than the animals, vegetables and minerals sharing a bit of the earth.
All I have said so far confines itself to our understanding of gender–to internal shifts in our view of the world. How do we take such an understanding and shift the world? I think changing our understanding of gender, and living out that change, are necessary, but obviously not sufficient.
What is sufficient? I do not know.
A good question is a thing of tremendous value and use. Continuing the conversation on nonbinary people and the trans umbrella, genderneutral offers a great question:
Perhaps the question ought not be “what is trans” or “who belongs under the trans umbrella” but “what is gender, and what changes in our understanding of gender need to occur so that all trans people are included in the equation and are understood as part f the whole”.
This question is much deeper and much more difficult to answer. I think genderneutral is right that this line of inquiry is essential to the acceptance and inclusion of diverse trans people, so I’d like to offer an answer of my own. I would love to hear other answers, so please feel free to share. This post is part 1 of my answer; look for part 2 later this week.
Let’s take a closer look at genderneutral’s question. I see a few queries here (I hope genderneutral will let us all know if I’ve misunderstood):
- What is gender?
- How can we understand gender in a way that includes all trans people?
- How can we view trans people as interconnected within the larger human story of gender?
These are some heavyduty questions with far-reaching implications. It would probably take a book–nay, a bookshelf–to offer a complete treatment of these issues. But if you think I’d let that little detail stop me from giving a bunch of sweeping answers in a couple of blog posts, then you, my friend, have probably not read many blog posts.
What is gender?
Gender is a culture’s set of norms and roles associated with sex–the state of being male, female or something else. Gender is highly variable across cultures and times. Cultures have different conceptions of masculinity, femininity and androgyny. Not only that, cultures recognize different numbers of sexes and genders, and have different ways of determining the sex and gender of an individual. And yet, as far as I know, all cultures seem to have there own set of norms and roles that we could call gender.
Why is that? My guess is that since it is so widespread, gender probably serves some important functions in our communities. Some of those functions are downright awful–for example, in many cases, as is well known, a primary result of the gender system is to consolidate power in the hands of some people at the expense of others. The gender system also intersects with all manner of other systems–including religion, racism, colonialism, economics, etc.–often producing horrible violence and inequality.
At the same time, human beings seem to have deep longings to express ourselves through gender. We have strong feelings about our genders (or lack thereof), and we cannot change the way we feel for any reason. We want others to honor that and to see us how we see ourselves. For some reason, from a young age, for the vast majority of people, it seems we just are some gender (whether we can say so or not). To me, this suggests that gender is just part of what it means to be human. We bring intrinsic inclinations to the table, which get filtered and expressed through our particular culture and context.
This is not to imply that we are all alike, that gender is some variable we can simply measure for each person. I see gender as similar to spoken language–a way of communicating that varies across cultures and is fundamental to what it means to be human. Just like some people have an unusual voice or are deaf, some people have atypical genders or just don’t “hear” gender the way most other people do. That doesn’t make those people inferior in any way, just a bit unusual. It also doesn’t make gender or spoken language less central to the human story overall. Trans people of all varieties have always been part of that story, whether our communities have recognized us or not.
Another way to think about it is to view gender in terms of archetypes–themes that reverberate through human consciousness like recurring dreams. Themes of masculinity, femininity, and androgyny, as well as personas like the warrior, wise woman and gender-variant healer, come up over and over in the human experience. For this reason they often carry great import for individuals and communities. Like other deeply rooted themes such as love and home, they have an aspect of universality (or how would we even talk about them?) and an aspect of extreme specificity (or we would all be the same, which we most certainly are not).
We could think of these themes like melodies we find ourselves humming. We would then be free to allude, borrow, experiment, improvise. We sing in voices that are all our own–yet we also sing in the musical traditions in which we’ve been steeped. Our compositions are therefore never total mimicry, nor are they totally new creations ex nihilo. We sing to create within limitations, as much to follow rules as to break them. Most importantly, we sing to hear, and to be heard.
Coming up: I tackle the rest of genderneutral’s question. How can we include all trans people in our understanding of gender? How can we view trans people as interconnected within the larger human story of gender?
Bzzz. There’s that sound again. Bzzz. Bzzz. You shake your head, like you could shake the sound out of your ears. Bzzz. That sound, a harsh, metallic buzz that makes your teeth tingle and your stomach turn. Bzzz. It comes from everywhere and nowhere, out of the air, out of your own ears. Bzzz. When did you first hear it? Hard to remember now, it was so long ago. Did you notice it at first? Bzzz. Some vague memory of trying to take a spelling test in elementary school, distracted by the noise. Bzzz. Was it new then? You can’t remember. Bzzz. Bzzz. One thing’s for sure, it’s been with you a long time now. Bzzz. You used to try to describe it. One night asked your mother if she heard it. Bzzz. “What do you mean, sweetie?” she’d said, with the strangest look of sad, puzzled panic barely concealed on her face. “Nothing!” you yelled, in a voice too loud, too cheerful. “Never mind!” Already running away. Bzzz. Bzzz. It didn’t take long to figure out no one else heard it. Later, as a young adult, you worked up the nerve to ask a doctor about it, when you were at an appointment for something else. Bzzz. “I did want to ask you one thing,” you managed, just before the doctor left the tiny room. Bzzz. Bzzz. “I have this sound–this buzzing–I hear it sometimes.” That same look of confusion, worry, and something else. What was that other emotion, half-visible on his face? Disgust, maybe. Bzzz. He’s all business, peers into your ears with his little flashlight. Bzzz. “Everything looks healthy,” he declares with satisfaction. “I could refer you to a specialist if you’re worried about it.” Bzzz. Bzzz. “No, that’s okay,” you tell him. You just want to go home.
Thanks to captainglittertoes for this post, which inspired me to experiment with new ways to narrate the trans experience.
We have to get out of this idea that trans=a particular style of transition.
There is no point at which we become transgender – it isn’t because you have changed your name, or taken hormones, or had surgery, or legally changed your gender markers. You were transgender before you started your transition, you’d still be transgender if you never transitioned. If you feel that you are not authentically the “sex you were assigned at birth” then you are trans.
I love this apt reframing of what it is to be trans. Jamie Ray’s words are a powerful case for solidarity and respect among diverse transgender people. They are also an antidote to the some of that crippling shame we so often feel as we attempt to be our whole selves.
I talk about my transition in the language of choice, and I have made choices. Yet that’s really beside the point, isn’t it? Whatever gender my ID says, whatever clothes I wear, whatever medical treatments I have–I’m trans, and I always will be.
My transition has gotten to a point now where the steps I desperately wanted are behind me. But loose ends remain. I’m moving step by step towards getting a hysterectomy, at the suggestion of my doctor and pleading of my mother, because of the unknown risks of living with male hormones and female internal reproductive organs. I’m less than thrilled about the prospect.
I recently found myself thinking, If only it weren’t my choice, I could accept it. Somehow I feel I got myself here, I am to blame, and now I have to make this difficult decision. I don’t even want the stupid organs–I just don’t want to be responsible for choosing to remove them.
It isn’t my choice, though, not really. I am choosing to take care of my health. That’s a choice I can feel good about. But all the other stuff, the stuff I sometimes feel really bad about, is no choice and is not affected by choices. I didn’t choose to be a guy who was born with ovaries. I didn’t choose to not produce enough testosterone. I didn’t choose to be a member of a group whose health the system blatantly ignores.
I am trans. I was before I started transition, and I will be til the day I die. No choice I can make will ever change or “fix” that. And by the same token, no choice of mine caused it, nor could have ever caused it.
In other words, I didn’t choose the situation. Observing the situation, my course of action is a simple thing. We make our choices within limits entirely outside of our control. One more reason to respect each person’s unique journey. And a reason, too, to give ourselves our full permission to do what we have to do. We’re doing our best with what we’ve got. What we’ve got is what we’ve got, and nothing more–not a reflection on us.
Sometimes the personal is political. Sometimes the personal isn’t even personal.
Love your neighbor as yourself; love yourself as your neighbor.
UPDATE (7/10/14, 5:00pm): Several readers have let me know that I over-stepped by wading into this debate as a binary trans person. Thanks for giving me this feedback and for doing it so politely. I apologize and I can see how I distracted from a necessary in-group conversation. If I could do it over, I’d address the topic in a very different way, sticking to my own experiences and making it more clear that it’s up to nonbinary folks to decide this one. My bad. Thanks to everyone who’s shared their thoughts so far.
Topherbigelow makes the case for adding N for nonbinary to the LGBTQ+ acronym:
If the LGBT community would like to stand strong in its support of all sexual and gender “minorities,” we should add an “N” to accommodate our nonbinary members. The constant pissing contests of who’s more trans needs to stop and if there is an entirely separate letter and a new vocabulary, maybe it will.
If you don’t identify with your sex assigned at birth, you are a nonconformer. If you identify with another binary gender, you’re trans. If you don’t, you’re nonbinary. It’s really not hard. Stop fighting each other and start fighting for what we all need.
First, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment in that last sentence. “Trans enough” policing is a damaging waste of time. Instead, we should work together to improve conditions for all of us.
I’ve never heard this proposal before, and it really got me thinking. Thanks to topherbigelow for raising this interesting question. I want to make clear that I am not trying to refute anything he said, just to explain my own current thinking on the matter.
At this time, I am not in favor of adding N for nonbinary to the acronym. I am not dead-set against it; as a transsexual man, I will defer to my nonbinary comrades if a consensus emerges in favor of the N. Nonbinary readers are encouraged to weigh-in in the comments. For now, I’d like to share a preliminary assessment of the idea. I lay out my concerns with making the acronym any longer, and then discuss some reasons I think nonbinary folks belong within the trans umbrella.
First, an argument from parsimony. The LGBTQ+ acronym has already been elaborated to the point that very few people are going to use or understand its longer incarnations. For example, topherbigelow uses the acronym LGBTQQIAAHP (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, allies, HIV infected/affected, poly/pansexual). Wow! I admire the inclusiveness of this acronym. I also worry it’s too much of a mouthful to be of much use, especially offline. I have been an activist for gender and sexual minorities for over a decade, I read LGBTQ+ blogs every day, and I had never heard this version. Off the top of my head, the longest version I know is LGBTQQIA (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual)–already too long for many situations.
I think it’s fair to say that many people, including many who are gender and/or sexual minorities themselves, are not going to understand this terminology. We have to strike a balance between explicitly including different parts of our community and using terms that will be understood by as many as possible. Language is useful only to the extent it allows us to communicate. Since nonbinary people are already included in the term transgender–though it’s true that not enough people realize this–I wonder how much is to be gained by adding yet another letter.
That doesn’t mean we should do nothing, however. I think we should continue to work for greater visibility of nonbinary people within the trans umbrella. Binary and nonbinary trans people do have our differences–but we also have so many similarities. We face stigma and ignorance that is heavily overlapping; the same laws bar (or fail to bar) discrimination as against us; we struggle with shame and misgendered childhoods.
Many of the differences–pronoun preference, medical care needs, legal document changes–exist within as well as between these groups. For example, hormone therapy is associated with trans men and women. I do think it’s probably true that trans men and women are more likely to seek out hormone therapy than nonbinary folks. However, there are some trans men and women who don’t take hormones, and some nonbinary people who do.
The variation within groups goes even deeper. How much do an 18-year-old queer, radical trans woman of color and a 50-year-old straight, white, Republican man of transsexual history really have in common? Just one thing: their sex assignment at birth differs from their real gender. That’s something they both have in common with any nonbinary person, too. Because of the tyrannical sex/gender regime, that one thing turns out to be really damn important.
In my time in our communities, I have learned so much from nonbinary people who have courageously spoken up in person, in print and online. I was often there to hear them precisely because we had connected through the label “transgender.” Though the mainstream conception of trans people is still basically transsexual men and women, I see much potential for further acknowledgement of our nonbinary kin, and I think a lot of good would come from that. I worry that adding an N would cause nonbinary people to get booted out of a community whether they have just started to make a real home.
Again, though, I am aware I say this as a trans man. It may well be that my privilege is hiding the true depth of the rifts among gender-nonconforming people.
What’s your take on all this? Nonbinary folks are especially encouraged to comment.
I enjoyed this recent article on Outward about celibate LGBT Christians. What is the place of celibate people in the LGBT community? And what is the relationship among religion, the choice to partner or be celibate, and LGBT lives?
Although author Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart throws around “LGBT” and “LGBTQ” like free condoms at a Pride parade, the piece is really about celibate gay and lesbian Christians, as far as I can tell. These are not ex-gay culture warriors, but people who accept and openly share their gay/lesbian orientations, who choose a life of celibacy in accordance with their religious convictions. Unfortunately, celibate gay/lesbian Christians face ignorance and hostility both in their conservative Christian communities and in the mainstream LGBT community. This question is a bit different for trans people, as sex and marriage aren’t the be-all, end-all of acceptance issues for us. However, I think there are also some transgender people who embrace their gender identities and choose celibacy based on the teachings of their traditions.
First, I’d like to say I have total respect for all LGBT people who are making meaningful lives that work for them. We’re not all the same, and we don’t have to be. We can respect each other and work together, and live very different lives–indeed, we already do.
One complaint with the article: Vitiello Urquhart sets up a dichotomy between religious, celibate, LGBT Christians on the one hand, and the mainstream, secular LGBT community on the other. These two groups both exist, but they are far from the whole story.
This convenience obscures several important axes of diversity among LGBT people. First, of course, Christianity is not the only religion with LGBT followers. There are many LGBT people within Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Native American religions, etc. Within these religions are many communities, with different views on LGBT issues. And there are also many Christian communities that support sex and marriage for LGBT people.
I imagine this issue in terms of 4 possible perspectives:
Sex & marriage permitted
Sex & marriage permitted
To be complete, the conversation must span the full range of viewpoints in our community. That means including religions beyond Christianity, and viewpoints beyond just 1 and 4. Viewpoint 3 is held by pretty much no one and not all that relevant, so count that out.
But what about viewpoint 2–religious people who support sex and marriage for LGBT people? We make up sizeable contingents of both LGBT people and religious people. What those holding views 1 and 4 may not understand is that we support full inclusion for LGBT people directly because of our religious beliefs.
My own views on LGBT acceptance are grounded in my faith and the teachings of my tradition. This runs so deep, I’m not even sure how to capture it. I can cite verses and traditions that support my views, but really, this isn’t about one teaching–this about the basic orientation of Judaism to human life. Consider this story.
A man wanted to convert to Judaism, on one peculiar condition: that a rabbi could teach him the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot (i.e., very quickly). Read the rest of this entry »
Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of “normal.”
– Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera
Before transition, I was a proud outlaw. People grimaced at me in the streets and were rude to me in restaurants. I guarded my heart closely, and I found solace in the knowledge I walked in a long line of rule-breakers, exception-takers, border-crossers.
In the crucible of my transformation to male, I hit a wall of resistance to this queerness. People began to smile at me and pat me on the back. I discovered the pleasures of easy social acceptance–life as a regular guy.
But a terrible fear gnaws at the edges of my good fortune. Suddenly I had a secret. The carpet of straight male privilege could be yanked away at any moment. Suddenly I had something to lose. Mixture of shame, disgust and gratitude at the new-found easy warmth of strangers. In a way, all their kindness was mine by accident. It was never intended for people like me, and it is constantly on the verge of leaving.
Within fear, the gnarled face of hidden resentment. Why me? Why this burden? There is nothing queer about me, I silently protested to a jury box of thoughts. There is nothing wrong with me, I really meant, and nothing especially peculiar in my essence.
And that is true. Trans people are a small share of the population. But there is nothing so strange about us, and certainly nothing bad or wrong. We are simply a few more shades in nature’s infinite palette.
It is the militarized perimeter between male and female that leaves us outcast. That arbitrary line drawn on the human body, a failed attempt to define us out of existence, to will us away like a bad dream.
I suppose we did cross the border, but it was the border that double-crossed us. Arbitrary, unjust, imposed and maintained through violence–that is the nature of borders.
I was born a little gender-variant human being. I wasn’t born a queer, a border-crosser or an outlaw. I was shaped that way by the sex/gender regime. I am a sloping hill carved by weather and time into a jagged cliff. My body is a crime; you can call me a criminal. Our violation is in the very word for us. Trans: across; gender: category. We are rule-breakers, exception-takers, logical impossibilities.
I am as I am. I was born a stranger in a strange land, and now I dwell in a land still stranger. I thought I could go home. But you can’t uncross the border. The crossing itself changes you. You can only cross, be crossed, and crisscross it again.
Hebrew, ivri, one from beyond
I find Sefarad in the heart of Aztlán
No state on the face of the earth is my home
My home is the One who goes where we go
Will LGBT people always need to come out? This question reverberated in my mind as I reflected on the steady pace of progress on LGBT issues in the US in recent years. Like so many issues that affect our community, I see a big difference between LGB on the one hand and T on the other.
Alma and I were recently discussing the amazing shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage we’ve seen just in the last decade. We made friends through youth activism, a lot of it centered around marriage equality. Every legislative session, we swarmed the state capitol, asking our representatives to vote “No” on proposed DOMAs and “Yes” on domestic partnership bills. We thought we would see marriage equality in our lifetimes–but we didn’t think it would arrive so soon, or so decisively.
This year, marriage equality came to our state. I shed a few tears watching the first same-sex marriages performed in my county, a ceremony in English, Spanish and Hebrew. What will it be like for kids who grow up in a marriage equality world?
The gap between my generation and my parents’ is massive. When they were growing up, coming out young meant one’s early twenties. In contrast, many people my age (mid-twenties) came out in high school or even middle school. Realizing you’re gay at 25 seems surprisingly late to me. No disrespect meant to those who come out later in life; it’s just a cultural norm. The point is that in some spheres, “early” and “late” have completely shifted in just a couple of decades.
This means that “coming out” for young LGB folks can have a completely different meaning from earlier times. For example, my mom, who is in her fifties, sensed she was a lesbian from a young age. But she had no words and no role models. She married my dad, and ended up coming out in her late thirties. For her, “coming out” meant letting go of a false self she’d presented to the world for many years. Of course, many in her generation came out at a younger age and never entered a different-sex marriage, such as my step-mom. Still, the phrase “coming out of the closet” surely suggest a sojourn in a narrow place of hiding, shame, and restriction.
But what is coming out for the person who is able to say “I’m gay” (or whatever) at age 14? Many of these people will move smoothly from childhood to adolescence to adulthood without ever presenting a false straight self. They will have their first kiss, first date, and first marriage with a person they are actually attracted to.
So I wonder whether in the next generation, “coming out” will have the same resonance for LGB people. More and more individuals may have the chance to simply “come in” to their selves, without no detainment in the closet.
But what about trans people? Acceptance and awareness of our lives are on the rise, too. The Time piece on Laverne Cox seems to suggest a new level of mainstream affirmation. Yet it seems certain that for the foreseeable future, trans people will always have to come out.
Ascribing sexual orientation to a child is different than ascribing gender. I think more parents will be willing to wait and see who their child loves. But how many will be willing to wait and see who their child is?
I am not advocating gender-neutral childhoods. Many of us wish we’d had the chance to grow up as a boy or girl–why deny that to others? The fact is that for the vast majority, sex assignment works.
So there may be no getting around it. In cultures that have a deep and wise appreciation of gender variance, trans kids may be sensed by the community, and may not need to come out. But in this country, I believe we will always need to announce ourselves. We will do it younger and younger, til many come out as children and young teens. We will do it to greater and greater acceptance, til rejection by one’s family becomes rare. But I do not think there will come a day when being trans doesn’t come as a surprise. Maybe someday they’ll have a test to diagnose us, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. They’ll probably try to exterminate us if they do.
Because the shackles of assigned gender will always confine us, we will always know the narrow place of the closet, even if we only know it for a few youthful years. Because no one is going to find our genders for us, we will always walk a crooked path, a path that forever remains less traveled. We are rare birds. Twenty-five years from now, trans kids may be less different–but we will always be different.
That’s my guess, anyway. What do you think? Feel free to speculate about identities I did not address.
My buddy janitorqueer posed an interesting question to me a couple of weeks ago:
Have you ever come across someone within your own community who you strongly strongly disagreed with? If so, what action or non-action did you take?
I certainly have! This can take a wide variety of forms. As a Jew, I sometimes have strong disagreements with my fellow members of the tribe about Israel/Palestine, among other things. As a trans man, I sometimes have strong disagreements with others under the LGBT and/or trans umbrella. For example, I take issue with all forms of “trans enough,” “subversive enough” and “feminist enough” tests of individuals’ gender identities or expressions.
My responses have varied from situation to situation. The better I know the person, the more likely I am to broach the disagreement. With a solid rapport, even extremely challenging topics can be handled gracefully.
When I don’t know a person well, I usually still try to address the issue. There’s just something that gets under my skin about someone in my own community who holds views I see as harmful to that community.
Sometimes, this goes really well, and we both learn something. Other times, we fail to communicate well. Feelings get hurt, wounds get salted, and we walk away even angrier than we were to begin with.
I love that janitorqueer asked about “action or non-action,” because this is where the latter comes in. When it becomes clear that the conversation is producing a lot of heat and little light, it’s time to walk away. This especially applies on the internet, where we are often quick to judge, slow to listen, and likely to misinterpret and be misinterpreted in turn.
I’ve been in my fair share of debates, and I have little interest in debating anyone now. Treating each other with kindness is more important that proving a point. For trans people, sticking together as a community is an essential part of the struggle for justice.
In an online context, if someone’s opinions drive me nuts and communication is not going well, I simply stop reading anything that they write. That might sound obvious, but it took me years to learn to stop going to blogs that piss me off.
How do you deal with disagreements within your community?
As a kid, I obsessively repeated number sequences in my mind. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2… If I failed to repeat the pattern–the right numbers, in the right order, at the right time–my mother would die.
At 5, I knew she would die in a fire; at 6, I knew she would be shot. At 8, I knew she would be killed be a drunk driver, and at 9, I knew she would get cancer. I became especially consumed by this terrible false foresight when she went out at night. I begged her to take me along to meetings and choir practice, convinced that if I were there, she wouldn’t die. Or at least you would die too, a part of me whispered.
I have struggled with anxiety for as long as I remember. I now recognize it as OCD, which runs in my family. I am worming my way out from under the thumb of these fevered preoccupations.
The same pattern has followed me in a dizzying variety of forms, both subtle and overt. In the most obvious and painful form, I believe that my mind can cause or prevent a loved one’s death. I recognize the pattern by two telltale signs:
- The thought states or implies that my mind can somehow influence external events and/or predict the future. If I think about something bad, it will happen; or else, just as often, if I don’t worry, it will happen.
- I am fixated on an imagined disaster . There is little evidence that this event will actually occur.
The delusion is so obviously false, and the fixation so clearly misguided, it is hard to believe I fall for it over and over again. But mine is a clever and persistent monster. I talk myself out of wild improbabilities, only to talk myself into new fears, ever so slightly more plausible. The shape-shifting apparitions of my mother’s death–fire, gun, car accident, cancer–chronicle the obsession’s development over time.
I want to be free of my father’s disease. I have loosened and loosened its grip; I have reach levels of calm I never thought possible. Transition, medication, and meditation have done me worlds and worlds of good. These days, my moods are upbeat and steady. People remark on my peaceful demeanor, a compliment that always surprises me. Still, again and again, I get caught in its cold fingers, and I find myself with a knot in my stomach, gasping for air, when absolutely nothing is wrong. I never want to feel that melancholy panic again.
Its disguises are manifold, but the root is the same. My mind ceaselessly sets about attacking problems, always making plans and calculations, hedging bets, setting goals. Like a loyal dog, my mind sniffs out possible problems and goes about solving them. There is nothing wrong with this–it’s useful. But my poor little mind, always wandering through worries, returns again and again to one problem, the Problem of Problems, a nauseating truth it cannot solve.
My mind has been trying to outsmart death. Temporariness is the wall I’ve been banging my head against. My mind hits it and gets stuck in an endless loop of magical thinking, like a scratched CD stuttering, like a crashing computer.
When I can observe this, a warm glow overflows from my heart. It is the light of love for myself, for the good old dog that is my mind, bound to try, doomed to fail.
It’s okay, boy. You just can’t solve this one.
הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל
Mist of mists, said Kohelet. Mist of mists, all is mist.