Cavafy Is Right

I’ve been living as Paula for nine years. When I transitioned, I lost all my jobs, my pension, and most of my friends. The kind of people I have in my life nowadays are astonished that such a thing could have happened. It is foreign to the world they inhabit. They understand little about the bubble in which evangelical Christians live.

I probably do not give enough weight to the emotional effect of having the world I inhabited for five decades turn its back on me. My friends are furious on my behalf. Maybe I let them carry the anger for me. If that is true, it is not fair to them. I’d like to forgive my evangelical friends, but there is such a thing as cheap forgiveness, forgiveness that comes too soon, before you realize the awfulness of a thing.

When my memoir was published, every interviewer asked about my friends in my old life. I usually acknowledged the awfulness without really acknowledging the awfulness. Instead, I steered the conversation to the many blessings I have experienced since my transition. Not many transgender people have the kind of post-transition blessings I enjoy.

My family has been wonderfully supportive and accepting. But I do still struggle with the pain they all experienced. The grandchildren adjusted without much difficulty. It has been much harder for my children and their spouses, and much harder still for Cathy. I love my family more than anything and I still find myself asking, “Was there another way?” It is always an open question. Sometimes I have to be reminded just how badly I was doing before I transitioned.

When I can get out of the way of my own tendency toward self-condemnation, its own kind of self-centeredness, I see the bigger picture. Rainer Maria Rilke has the right words for what I feel:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,

because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,

stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,

so that his children have to go far out into the world

toward that same church, which he forgot.

With everything in me, I hope Rilke is right. The Greek Poet Cavafy suggests that perhaps the goal of the journey is the journey itself. Ithaca was both the point of departure and the goal of return for Odysseus. Yet even when he returned to his home and his beloved Penelope, he was called onto yet another journey, this time inland, a metaphor for the truth that the most important journey is the journey into the deeper regions of one’s own soul. Cavafy writes:

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.

Without her you would never have taken the road.

But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.

With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,

You must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

I love vacationing in Hawaii, and often peruse sales listings on the Internet after I get home. It is a wonderful escape. There is something appealing about the one spot on earth in which you are farther from land than any other place. A long journey over water clears the mind. Being surrounded by the ocean reminds me of the eternal toing and froing of the tides. I love it there. But you take yourself with yourself wherever you go, and eventually the limerence stage of young love, with a place or a person, yields to the always restless longings of the soul. The existential anxiety would return to me in Hawaii as surely as it does in the beauty of the Rocky Mountains.

I’ve given up on thinking of life as any destination, any Ithaca. The notion of heaven as the destination, or sustained bliss, or abiding peace, are notions from the past. I think the object of this one precious life is the pathways you take along the way, the energy you bring to those pathways, and the energies you leave behind.

James Hollis writes about this in The Middle Passage. He reminds us of Jung’s central question. “Are we related to something infinite or not?” If we are, then more than anything I want my journey to bring sustaining energy into the lives of those I love and beyond. Is that too much to hope for? This is not a rhetorical question.

Jung also said life is a luminous pause between two great mysteries. The luminosity is because there is something holy and sacred about each human life, and the authenticity with which we live it. Which reminds me of Mary Oliver’s Summer Day. But two poems is my quota for a single post, so you’ll have to look that one up yourself.

And so it goes.

Well, That Was Quite a Statement!

Michael Knowles, right wing commentator of the Daily Wire, said at CPAC this past Saturday, “There can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism. It is all or nothing.” He went on to say, “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” I don’t mean to alarm you or anything, but since “transgenderism” doesn’t exist without transgender people, what he is advocating sounds more than a little like genocide. In fact, historically this is exactly how hate speech ushers in genocide.

Knowles is not the only one making inflammatory statements. Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said gender affirming treatment is a “demonic assault on the innocence of our children.” Demonic? Seriously?

Texas has introduced over 100 bills in 2023 restricting transgender rights. By comparison, they introduced “only” 20 in 2018. Last year Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that classified age-appropriate gender affirming care for transgender youth as child abuse. He was in effect saying to parents, “We will take your child out of class and build a case that you’ve accessed gender affirming care for that child, and then we will remove your child from your home and charge you with a felony.” Note nowhere in that investigation is any concern about whether or not your child is actually transgender.

By classifying gender affirming care as child abuse, you also make individuals in a plethora of professions mandatory reporters, likely to lose their jobs, licenses, and freedom if they do not report such “abuse.”

Fifty-six percent of transgender youth have experienced suicidal ideation, compared to 20 percent of their cisgender peers, an alarming number in itself. Thirty-one percent of transgender teens have attempted suicide, compared to 11 percent of their cis peers.

It’s not just children’s rights that are being threatened. Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, told the New York Times that their goal is to ban transgender care for anyone of any age.

The fight against trans rights isn’t so much about Republicans as it is about evangelicals. Over 60 percent of Republicans believe transgender people should have the same civil rights as anyone else. But 84 percent of evangelicals believe gender is immutably determined at birth and over 60 percent believe we already give transgender people too many rights.

We’ve come a long way since I led a conversation with a group of megachurch pastors about ten years ago in which the pastors talked about making room within their congregations for transgender people. Their reasoning was simple, if inaccurate. They said, “The Bible speaks against homosexual behavior. It says nothing about being transgender.” But that was then.

Since 2016 gender dysphoria has become the leading flashpoint for the far right. Why? First, those seeking to retain waning power have always focused on the most vulnerable people, minorities who are powerless. Transgender people make up only .58 percent of the population. As a group, we hold very little power or influence. According to a Pew Research Study, only 42 percent of Americans know someone who is out as a transgender person. There are fewer than 100 of us holding elected positions at any level of US government. (It is an honor to be among that 100.)

Another problem is that social pendulums perpetually swing from one extreme to the other. There are many, particularly in the academic world, who believe gender is purely a social construct. They say there is no predisposition before experience toward gendered behavior. Gender is only learned environmentally. It is my opinion that for the majority of the population there is a predisposition before experience to behavior identified with one gender or the other.

I do not believe gender is a social construct any more than I believe gender is immutably determined by medical personnel at birth. Both are distortions of a complex reality. Gender identity, like sexual identity, is on a spectrum, and it is rarely apparent early in life. At its earliest, gender identity awareness exists by three or four years of age, and sexual identity awareness by nine or ten.

While I thoroughly endorse children being able to explore their gender identity, when the day is over there will still be about .58 percent of people who are transgender. In some environments, six times that many adolescents currently identify as transgender. I believe the majority of those young people will eventually decide they are not transgender. Therefore, we do need to be cautious when prescribing estrogen, testosterone, or anti-androgens. Some effects are not reversible. While caution is appropriate, parents and medical professionals should make those determinations, not legislatures.

The greatest concerns I have are not about hormonal treatment. They are far more basic. They are about the overt hatred and vilification of the transgender community. Forty-one percent of transgender people will attempt suicide at some point in their lives.

Even those who have transitioned have higher than average suicidal ideation. Why? For 99 percent of them, it is not because they are not happy in their new gender. It is because of our society’s rejection of them, which results in internalized transphobia. Forbidding transitioning will not solve that problem. Stopping ridicule, bullying, and hate speech will solve that problem. Stopping anti-trans laws from being signed into law will solve that problem. Helping this minority  thrive will solve that problem.

Comments like that of Michael Knowles, Tom Fitton, and Terry Schilling (Hmm, interesting, all are white males) should alarm all Americans. Language that encourages radicals to pursue genocide cannot be tolerated. It is hate speech at its worst. It is time for trans allies, accomplices, and apprentices to speak up on our behalf. Enough is enough.

This Is Getting Serious

Over the past five years I have spoken to over 100 corporations, government agencies, universities, and conferences on issues related to gender equity. My first TED Talk, about the differences between experiencing life as a man and as a woman, has been the subject of most of my talks.

While I continue to speak on the ongoing fight for gender equity, I am offering a new talk on what is happening in America with the anti-transgender laws, rhetoric, and repression that are permeating our nation. Here is the description of the new talk that my speaker’s agency will be offering throughout the United States and Canada.

When an Arkansas State Senator recently asked a transgender pharmacist in a public hearing whether she had a penis, America entered a new and dangerous period of anti-transgender rhetoric and repression. Over 300 anti-transgender bills are currently pending in over 35 states. Nineteen anti-transgender bills have already been signed into law in the last 14 months. What is going on? 

As a pastoral counselor and national speaker on gender equity, with over nine million TED Talk views and a best-selling memoir about her transgender experience, Paula Stone Williams is prepared to help your company, conference, university, or agency understand why transgender issues have become such a tipping point in American culture.

With humor, insight, and a surprisingly candid perspective, Paula will increase your understanding, answer your questions, and help you navigate the dangerous cultural waters of sex and gender politics.

I am very concerned about the rights of transgender and non-binary individuals. I am about as privileged as a transgender person can get, but even I have received an uptick in emails, texts, and other forms of anti-trans rhetoric aimed at me. It affects my decisions about the places I travel. I have been avoiding Florida and any state that has recently passed anti-transgender leglislation. I avoid my home states of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, unless I know I am going to be in a supportive environment. I can only imagine how parents with transgender children must feel.

There was a day, not so long ago, when I felt safe anywhere in America. Now, I feel about some parts of the United States like I feel about fundamentalist Muslim nations in the Middle East. They are not safe environments for a transgender person.

I am more than willing to use my platform to speak out against anti-transgender rhetoric and legislation. I have already testified against anti-trans laws and have worked with the Biden administration to bring accurate information about gender issues to the American public.

When I transitioned, I saw a clear pathway forward for transgender people. I thought it would take as little as a decade to bring about equity for trans and non-binary people in most parts of America, and not more than a couple of decades in more conservative regions.

Then came 2016. Since then, things have gotten alarmingly worse. This week’s fiasco in the Arkansas Senate is only the latest example of the danger at hand. There has been an explosion of bigotry directed at one of the most at-risk populations in our nation. Trans people have a suicide attempt rate of 41 percent, six times higher than any other people group. Transgender adolescents have a suicide completion rate 13 times higher than their peers.

These are trying times, and we all have a responsibility to stand up for the basic rights of transgender and non-binary people. Now, more than ever, we need allies willing to speak up on our behalf. We need apprentices, willing to take direction from the trans community, to help us battle the ignorance and prejudice permeating our nation.

Last week my co-pastor Kristie and her fiancee Mara joined the Parasol Patrol, using opened rainbow umbrellas to protect children going to the Broomfield, Colorado Library for a story hour with drag queens. Protestors were shouting offensive slogans at the children and their parents. My friends said they needed more people holding more umbrellas to protect the children. The protestors were calling those arriving for the story time pedophiles. It is important to note that the protestors hurling these insults were wearing face coverings to shield their identity. In my opinion, that is a sign of their deep shame about their behavior.

This is not the time to remain quiet. We must work together to protect the freedom to be who God made us to be. To do anything less is to fail our children and the principles upon which this nation was founded.

Nope, It’s Not Going to Die

Everything I read of late tells me the church is dying. Americans no longer go to church, they say. Twenty-five years ago, 70 percent of us identified with a local religious body. Today, that number is down to 47 percent, a rather precipitous drop. Post-pandemic attendance continues to diminish. Are the church’s days numbered?

I was reading an article last week that said people are no longer attending religious services, but they are reaching out for the help of a spiritual director or pastoral counselor. Since my doctorate is in pastoral counseling, this should be good news for my profession. And the truth is that my clients, most of whom do not go to church, do have a keen interest in spirituality. However, what I can provide as a pastoral counselor is not what a person can gain from regular involvement in a religious community.

The church is the only institution whose main purpose is to do life together, search for meaning together, celebrate life’s milestones of together, and band together to care for others. Other institutions might cover one of those bases, but the church is the only one that covers all four.

We ask a lot of the church, and it never quite lives up to the task. The church is messy. The church I serve as a pastor, Left Hand Church (more about that in my next post) is every bit as much of a mess as any other church. When you bring people together in a voluntary community, it is going to be messy. You hope everyone will muster the strength to live authentically, but often it’s only an aspirational goal, not a reality. It’ll always be that way when you live in community with other messy, self-absorbed, avoidant humans. And yet, here we are, after 2000 years, and somehow against all odds the church still stands. Empires come and go, but the church stands.

Yes, the church has to reinvent itself for every generation, because the world is in a constant state of change. But through the changes, some things remain. They are to love God, love neighbor, and love yourself. And you can’t do the first two very well until you’ve learned to do the third.

The church is where we celebrate the milestones of life, be it births, weddings, funerals, the solstices, or some obscure religious celebration known only to one’s peculiar tradition. (Ever hear of the Cane Ridge Revival?) As a pastor, it is an honor to perform weddings, funerals, baby dedications, baptismal services, and be present for every other milestone of our communal lives.

I particularly love preaching for Christmas Eve and Easter. Nicole likes Pentecost and the first weekend of October, when in the tradition of St. Francis, we bless everyone’s animals.  Kristie always preaches during Pride month, and for Palm Sunday. I love that the church is the place that celebrates all of life’s comings and goings.

The church is also a place in which the total is greater than the sum of the parts. Individuals come together and miracles happen. The first wave of the Civil Rights Movement would never have taken place without the church. The abolition of slavery would never have happened without the concerted efforts of the church. Today’s church, at its best, focuses on the needs of refugees, immigrants, children, the LGBTQ+ population, individuals with disabilities, women, the economically disadvantaged, and a plethora of other people groups that have been marginalized.

Governments exist to meet the needs of the citizenry. Corporations exist to benefit their shareholders. Schools exist to educate students. The church exists to do life and search for meaning together. The church exists to celebrate the moments of our lives, and to join in common cause to produce the miraculous.

If the church didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. There is no other institution that does everything the church does. Church attendance might be down, but the church will be just fine. If we haven’t been able to kill it in 2000 years, we’re certainly not going to be able to kill it now.

And so it goes.

To Read or Not to Read

I received my annual sales numbers for my memoir. My contract says I am not allowed to tell you how many copies have sold. It is a respectable number, but not what I had hoped. I worked hard on the book. I wrestled with it, and threw out three times as much material as appears in the final edit. I’ve had trials come about because of the book. It is a memoir. You tell things as you remember them. Whenever other people are involved, you confirm the facts with them, or when that is not possible, with others who were present. Nevertheless, people get upset.

Then there are the reviews. Most of them were positive. A few were glowing. A few were not. I tried to avoid reading reviews, for the same reason I avoid comments on my TED Talks. Nothing good comes from reading reviews and comments.

I’ve been surprised by some of the people who have read the book. They are people I never would have thought would read it. I’ve also been surprised by people who have chosen not read it, which includes a lot of good friends. I don’t ask them why they haven’t read it. Sometimes I discover they haven’t read it when I’m talking about something that is in the book – like – throughout the entire book – and they know nothing about what I am saying. I never say anything to anyone when I know they haven’t read it, even people to whom I’ve given a copy of the book.

I am a little surprised by those who have unabashedly said, “Oh, I don’t read books.” That last one always throws me. Who would have the temerity to say, “I don’t read books?” Apparently, a lot of people.

When his book came out Kanye West famously said he doesn’t read books. It kinda shows. Sam Banks-Friedman said he didn’t read books and that anything that needed to be said could be said in a six-paragraph blog. (This is paragraph five, if you’re counting.) It might have been good if SBF had read a few books, like maybe on how not to break the law.

I went to the folio show for magazine editors back when there were magazines and I worked for one, and the editor of Rolling Stone delivered a keynote speech. If I remember correctly, he said, “If it can’t be said in 800 words, it doesn’t need to be said.” At least he granted a few more paragraphs than SBF. (The word count of this blog is now at 375, by the way.)

One of my mentors, Roy Lawson, read a book a week. He probably still does. I always wanted to be like Roy, but I’ve never managed a book a week. I am usually reading at least two books at the same time. One is a novel. I read novels on airplanes, and before I go to sleep at night. The novels are eclectic, from Cormac McCarthy to Wendell Berry to Kelly Rimer. Between novels I read historical books. It took me several years to finish Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, seriously, several years. It didn’t exactly flow for me. I really like the writing of Hampton Sides. His historical books read like good fiction. The only problem is that he’s not very prolific. I’ve been waiting for something new from Sides for a couple of years.

I read novels and historical books on my iPhone. My other reading is of books with spines and covers and words on cream-colored pages. Those are the books on which I take notes, copious amounts of notes, starting on the back inside cover and working my way inward. If it’s a really good book, I run out of blank pages in the back and switch to the semi-blank pages at the front. I put the page number on the left side, and then a quote. If you turn to the page, the quote is underlined or in brackets. If it’s really good, it’s starred in both the back of the book and on the page itself. Some books have hardly an unmarked page. Swamplands of the Soul, by James Hollis, is covered with notes and underlined passages from front to back. It is one of my favorite books of all time, even better than The Middle Passage, another great book by the brilliant Jungian analyst.

At the encouragement of a friend, I just finished re-reading Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. She is one author I’d rather listen to than read. I’m not sure why that is true, but this time I made five pages worth of notes. By the way, she mentions Swamplands of the Soul without mentioning Hollis, which I find interesting. Psychologists don’t usually mention Jungian analysts.

I’m concerned that more and more people have no problem saying to me, “Oh, I don’t read books.” Do they really understand what they are saying? Do they get how self-limiting their lives are? Do they not understand that the cumulative words of our species carry weight and provide invaluable insight about how to live. Well, at least some do. People are still reading Homer’s Odyssey, all the works of William Shakespeare, and even the Apostle John’s stunningly mystical Book of Revelation.

You can’t learn everything you need from social media, friends, family, nature, or your lived experience. Books are the legacy of our collective experience. They place our lives within a context we can understand, one that provides wisdom.

Right now I’m reading The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles. I just finished Kelly Rimmer’s The Things We Cannot Say. I’m re-reading James Hollis’s The Middle Passage and getting ready to start Ed Yong’s An Immense World.

Books are reliable companions, keeping you connected to the spirit of the species. I’m not ready to write another book. I don’t even like to go back and reread any part of my memoir, the most recent book I’ve written. My agent keeps asking me the next book that’s up my sleeve. I honestly have no idea. I’m at one of those inflexion points in which I know I’m on the verge of something, but I have no idea what it is. It seems wise not to write another book until I’m on the other side of that inflexion point.

And so it goes.

The Good People Are Always Near

My health insurance was cancelled. Cathy received a certified letter with the ominous message, “It has been brought to our attention that you and Paula Williams are divorced. Paula William’s health insurance will end on January 31, and you are required to send us a divorce decree. You will be required to repay anything paid on her behalf between the date of the divorce decree and the date of the cancellation.”

Cathy called the next morning and told the administrator of health services that we are, in fact, very much married, and the administrator said, “I know you’re not because it’s all over the Internet.” Cathy was aghast, “Since when did the Internet become the arbiter of what is and what is not true?”

The administrator wouldn’t listen to Cathy. She said Cathy had to send a letter stating that we are still married, which we accompanied with proof that we are still married. How do you prove you are still married when you just celebrated your 50th wedding anniversary 16 days earlier?  We sent a copy of our marriage certificate, a copy of my name change, and a copy of the cover sheet of last year’s taxes, with the amounts redacted. (I wouldn’t trust someone who says “it’s all over the Internet” with the amounts of our income.)

Hate mail comes in waves. I can avoid most of it. I spot it before I even open it. Several messages have gotten through of late. They always reference my selfishness, the eternity I will spend in hell, and the immutability of gender. Yep, almost all of them are from evangelicals. Add to that the fact that someone took it upon themselves to inform the Bay Shore, Long Island school district that our marital status should be researched, and you realize there are a lot of people out there who want to make my life difficult.

It’d be laughable, but it’s not. I almost lost my health insurance. We’re still missing over $1600 in reimbursements from the school system that were required to have been sent by December 31. And the condescension Cathy experienced from the health services administrator left her in tears. I can usually blow off that kind of ugly stuff, but this was harder than usual, both because of the blatant and combative nature of it, and because it was aimed at Cathy as well as me.

So, all of that happened. But so did other things. Three friends reached out to me just to let me know they are thinking of me. Most put hearts of various colors next to their messages. I had wonderful text exchanges with my co-pastors, and with the chair of our church board. One of my long-time friends who works for American Airlines made sure Cathy and I got out of town before a snowstorm so we could get to a long-awaited vacation in Hawaii. Cathy and I had an amazing weekend with our daughters and their daughters at a wonderful resort in Colorado the weekend before leaving for Hawaii. And the Hawaii trip was everything we hoped it would be.

I am blessed. Beyond the health insurance fiasco and the hate mail, I have a rich and rewarding life. At the foundation of that life are a lot of good people:


The good people are always near

If you have eyes to see them

Though often they are cloaked in

Garments of some old failure


Their goodness like beams of light

Passing through a cracked door

Falls slant on hidden places

Where all the deep wounds lie


Pain knows pain and will not let

Its long and sordid tale abide

Treating wounds with gentle touch

The sisterhood of suffering


Goodness travels well

Turning up in peculiar places like

Your own heart when you thought

You had nothing left to give

Fifty Years

Fifty years ago, Cathy and I were married. December 31, 1972 was a rainy day on Long Island’s south shore. At the urging of her father, we had the ceremony at 11:30 pm, and were pronounced husband and wife shortly before midnight. Both of our fathers performed the ceremony. We were children, really. I was 21 and Cathy was 19. I was a senior in college and she was a sophomore.

We spent one more year in Kentucky before moving to upstate New York, and four years later Jonathan was born. Jael came two and a half years after that. Jana arrived in December of 1980. By the time the girls were born, we had moved to Long Island and were living about 10 miles from where we married.

Cathy and I were committed to each other, and to the institution of marriage. We assumed we would remain together for the rest of our lives. We were loyal, thoughtful, and kind with each other, even though we had the same kinds of issues common to all marriages. It is difficult living 24/7 with another human. Nevertheless, neither one of us ever strayed, and we never contemplated splitting up. We were committed for life.

The painful details that led to our separation are detailed in my book, As a Woman, What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned. Writing that part of the story was supremely difficult.

We were at Mike Solomon’s office. Mike was our wise and seasoned marriage therapist and he had decided to retire. We just happened to be his last clients on his last day. I asked, “How many couples are willing to work this hard?” Mike, not given to hyperbole, answered, “One percent.” I asked, “How many couples get this far in working out their stuff?” Again, he said, “One percent.” Then he spoke the sentence we both found devastating. Mike said, “Which is what makes this so tragic. You are a lesbian and Cathy is not.”

The two-hour drive home was in silence. Our separation was slow and painful, moving through all the stages of loss. Today, Cathy lives about twenty-five minutes away. We share an office in the home we built together. She is here three days a week seeing clients. We often have dinner together. She stays at the house when the kids and grandkids are in town. We vacation together.  But little else is as we would wish it to be.

I have gone on record a number of times saying I hope they are able to determine what causes a person to be transgender and change it in the womb. I wanted to be married to Cathy for life. But I also know I had little choice but to transition. Everyone with whom I was close, including Cathy, knew it was no longer sustainable for me to remain living as Paul. Therapists and close friends have all used the same word to describe our circumstances – tragic.

For Cathy and me, that language is descriptive, but not very helpful. Neither one of us wanted this, and it is profoundly difficult to know how to move forward. There are no examples before us, no counselors with the wisdom of experience to guide us, and no clear path ahead. These are uncharted waters. We navigate as best we can. Our respect for each other remains, as does our love. We both miss the intimacy we had in our marriage, but it is what it is.

On our anniversary we had a wonderful dinner together at our favorite restaurant. We spent the evening watching movies and talking, as we did through most of the holidays. We do not know where we go from here. We will write the script as we live it. While our life is not as dark as a Bergman film, I’m pretty sure no one but Jane Campion or Martin McDonagh would want to make it into a movie.

Life is difficult. It is that way for everybody. I do not believe our lives are any more or less difficult than most, and we are grateful for the abundant blessings we enjoy. Our children and their partners bring us great pleasure. Our granddaughters are our delight. We both have deep friendships and good work.

This fiftieth anniversary was bittersweet. We have lived authentically and conscientiously, but there is pain and sorrow. Nevertheless, life goes on and we do our best to love each other well. Love is, after all, what makes the world go round.

And so it goes.

The Alchemy of Joy

I remember the first time I heard Handel’s Messiah. Seeing everyone stand when the choir began singing the Hallelujah Chorus was wonderful, but it was the closing – Worthy Is the Lamb and  Amen Chorus that brought goosebumps. That is when I wanted to stand. When our Select Choir sang it during my junior year of college, I did not want the concert to end. I wanted to keep singing that song over and over.

Isn’t it a wonderful thing to get goosebumps? I attended a couple of concerts a week ago, and had goosebumps in abundance. I was experiencing surprise in the form of wonder.

Surprise is one of the six core emotions of humans. All six come to us when external stimuli create a physiological response in our bodies. The six core emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. All six create different types of physical responses – goosebumps, a dry mouth, a rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, hair standing up on the back of your neck.

Feelings are different from emotions. Feelings are our own personal reactions to the emotions that come to us. Our feelings are our personal response to emotions, and they are based on our personal experience. Brené Brown has identified 150 different feelings that are derived from our emotions.

One of the core emotions is happiness. I remember Christmas when I was in the fifth grade. I was hoping beyond hope for a new bicycle. I came downstairs and there it was, a JC Higgins 26″ Tank Survivor with saddlebags and streamers from the handlebars and I was happy, very happy.

Happiness comes when you expect it. You get a raise and you’re happy. You go on vacation and you’re happy. You get a new bike, and you’re happy. Happiness comes when you expect it. Joy, on the other hand, has a mind of its own.

Just a month before I got that bicycle, my maternal grandfather died. He was an Eastern Kentucky farmer and though he was gruff and spoke a total of 10 words a year, whether he needed them or not, I adored him. And I was devastated. At his funeral I was filled with sadness and fear. It was the first time I ever encountered the death of someone I knew and loved.

At the funeral I leaned hard against my father, and he gave me a half pack of peppermint Lifesavers. We went back to the house and my mother and aunts got talking about their dad and telling funny stories and they laughed hard, before dissolving in tears again. And then they told more stories and laughed again, and I was filled with wonder that these women I knew to be so stoic and guarded were laughing and crying in turn, and I was grateful to see them like that – expressing their true emotions with abandon.

I don’t know that I would have known what to call the feeling I had then, but I know now what it was. The feeling was joy. That is when I discovered that fear, followed by wonder, followed by gratitude, creates joy. Fear, wonder, and gratitude are the alchemy of joy.

It was that way for the shepherds who were there at the birth of Jesus. When the angel came to them, they were utterly terrified. But then when they saw what happened at the manger, they were filled with wonder. In gratitude they told everyone what the angels had asked them to speak – that the Lord had come. And Luke tells us, they were filled with joy.

The same thing happened two years later with the Magi. They were not kings, but wise leaders from Persia, probably Zoroastrians, another monotheistic religion that believed in a moral duality of right and wrong.

They followed a star and when it led them to the toddler Jesus, they were filled with wonder. They brought frankincense, gold, and myrrh, to show gratitude. But they also felt fear. When they were on their way to where Jesus was, they stopped in Jerusalem. Herod asked where they were going, and before they realized it had been a bad idea, they told him. He said, “Make sure to come back through and let me know where you find him?” I believe it sent shivers down their spines. When they were ready to leave where Jesus was, they had a nightmare telling them to return another way, and they did. Again, it was fear, replaced by wonder, coupled with gratitude, that brought joy.

Fear, replaced by wonder, coupled with gratitude, that is what I experienced on the day of my grandfather’s funeral. That is what I have experienced so many times since. It is the alchemy that produces joy.

May this Christmas season bring you great joy.

This I Believe

Ever since I finished Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, I have been reading additional sources that support his belief that there are three moral standards in the world. In my opinion his thesis is accurate.

The first and oldest moral standard is that there is no greater moral good than to protect the integrity of the tribe. Since we never grew rapidly as a species until we moved from the level of blood kin to the level of tribe, keeping the integrity of the tribe was critical to the development of civilizations. People surrendered their personal freedom to the leaders of their tribe.

What brought us together as a tribal species was not the need for safety, but our search for meaning. Which brings us to the second moral standard of our species, that there is no greater moral good than to obey the teachings of the gods. This is the moral standard of all fundamentalism, particularly the fundamentalist expressions of the desert religions, which began as religions of scarcity, and remain so in their fundamentalist forms. With this moral standard, people handed over agency to the religious leaders who spoke on behalf of the gods.

There is a much younger third moral standard. It is the standard of most of Western Civilization. It is the standard that says there is no greater moral good than to protect the freedom of the individual. This standard permeates most of Europe, the United States, particularly its northern tier, and all of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It was the moral standard of America’s founding fathers, and its principles are woven into the US Constitution.

René Girard, the late anthropologist and philosopher, wrote a book called Violence and the Sacred, in which he talked about tribes and religions, and how those in power figured out how to remain in power. They created scapegoats within the tribe that only they could identify, who had to be expelled for the sake of the tribe’s or religion’s security. “It’s not a good time to change leaders. Only I have the unique ability to root out our enemies and banish them from the nation.” This mimetic theory, as Girard called it, is at the foundation of all power metanarratives.

A metanarrative is a big giant story that explains the meaning of life. In power metanarratives, the victors write history, determine the nature of truth, identify and elminate scapegoats, and force their narrative on the entire culture. At its worst, it is Germany’s Third Reich. An example of a religious power metanarrative would be today’s American evangelicalism, in which leaders claim the moral authority to condemn LGBTQ+ people as scapegoats who need to be expelled from the community.

Scapegoats are always the powerless. In today’s evangelical America, they are transgender children, only .58 percent of the population, but with a suicide completion rate 13 times higher than their peers. They are America’s most vulnerable population, yet they have become the center of America’s culture wars. The scriptures say absolutely nothing about being transgender. But this is not about what the scriptures say. It is about the arbitrary decisions of those in power about who is and who is not a threat to the community, and therefore a scapegoat.

And yes, it is not lost on me that I am a scapegoat in the evangelical metanarrative. Someone who was respected as a national leader was immediately ostracized upon announcing they were transgender. It happened because the leaders of that religion decided all transgender people were not fit to be leaders. It cost me a huge pension, all of my jobs, and almost all of my friends.

In his study of power metanarratives, Girard made a fascinating discovery. There was one major metanarrative, and only one, that was not a power metanarrative. In fact, its hero was a scapegoat. His words were about caring for widows, orphans, and the poor. His followers were social outcasts. 

Girard was very taken by that scapegoat and his followers, if not the religion that eventually grew out of his life. The religion became just another power metanarrative. The scapegoat himself, and the message he brought, were truly revolutionary. The scapegoat taught that you should love your enemies, and those who wanted to be great had to become servants of all.

I still believe in the life and teachings of that scapegoat. I can think of no better way to live than loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self. I believe it is the teachings of that scapegoat that gave birth to the moral standard of the entire Western world, that there is no greater moral good than to protect the freedom of the individual.

Because we are open to everyone on the spiritual journey, some people assume Left Hand Church is a Unitarian/Universalist fellowship or a Unity Church. We are not. We are a Christian church. We follow the scapegoat and his teachings. We eschew the power metanarratives and embrace the one who said the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Yes, after everything I experienced at the hands of the evangelical church, I am still a follower of Jesus. Because Jesus is not the evangelical church. Jesus is the one who fought for the freedom and dignity of every single individual. Jesus told us that above all else, love wins.

It is that Jesus I worship during this, the darkest of days. It is that Jesus, born in a stable in an out of the way village in an obscure nation over 2,000 years ago, who turned power metanarratives upside down and gave our species it’s only hope – that the way forward is through love.

That is the Jesus who I celebrate in this holiest of seasons.

A Message to Bring

I am putting together a couple new keynote presentations for my work as a speaker. That world continues to be good to me. During 2022 I’ve spoken at Spirit Aero Systems, Wittkieffer, Medtronics, Pipeworks, Proctor and Gamble, Colas Canada, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, CBS/Viacom, Owens-Corning, NN Netherlands, TEDWomen, and several other companies, conferences, and universities.

I usually speak for 30 minutes and do Q&A for another 30 minutes. Since Covid, most of the conferences have been virtual, but in-person events are coming back. Almost all my talks are about gender equity. A few are about LGBTQ+ issues. One of the new talks I am considering is entitled, “Lost is a Place Too.”

In that new talk I want to say that our problem in life is usually not the thing we fear. It is that which gave birth to the thing we fear. Beowulf’s problem was not the sea monster, Grendel. His problem was the even more hideous sea monster, the mother of Grendel.

What is the mother of your presenting fear, the one you see clearly before you? If your presenting fear is failure, the mother of that fear may be the deep-seated conviction that if you are not successful, you are not worthy of love. That is a fear of many, born of parents who chose to love conditionally.

What is your core wound, the one that follows you through your days? That is the fear you must face by dropping down into the deep, dark lagoon for three days and three nights and maybe longer, until you finally slay the mother of all monsters.

I want to talk about the courage it takes to answer that call, the one you have been avoiding. No call is easy to answer. The first call is always a call to “out there.” It is a call to the high seas. The problem is “other” to you. The first call is frightening, foreboding even, but it is “out there” and therefore manageable.

The later call, the one you have been avoiding, is the call inland. It is the call of Odysseus to take an oar inland until he found no one who knew what an oar was. Then he was to plant it in the ground as an offering to the sea god, Poseidon. Only then could he return to his beloved Penelope and live into “sleek old age.” His trip inland was exhausting.

The journey inland is always exhausting. When the call is inland, the journey is contained within the unexamined borderlands of your soul. It is a journey you must take alone. No one can travel with you.

It is the journey that comes after Dante’s awakening at the beginning of the Divine Comedy: “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.” It is the call that takes you through the existential pain of Shakespeare’s MacBeth -” Life is but a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The call inland will always be to a place in which you do not think you have the tools to succeed. That is because you do not, in fact, have the tools to succeed. You will only find them in the middle of the battle. Beowulf didn’t defeat the mother of Grendel with the helmet and sword King Hrothgar gave him. He had to let go of those tools. He slayed her with a sword he found during the battle, attached to a chain on the wall of her lair. He never would have found that sword if he had not let go of the useless tools.

People progress in therapy when they answer the call inland. They grow when they take responsibility for their own choices and stop blaming others and stop expecting rescue from them. They grow when they allow themselves to be filled with doubt. Doubting everything is the beginning of wisdom. Tennyson said there is more faith in honest doubt than half the creeds. Doubt is the necessary fuel for change.

What does life look like after the journey inland? It looks like serving from your overflow. It is about healing others from your own wounded places. It is knowing when to step in and rescue, and when to step back and trust the flow. It is trusting your intuition because your intuition is in touch with your soul. The soul resides beneath the ego and its demands for power and safety. The soul is the realm of the inland journey.

My problem is that I am not exactly sure how that will play in the corporate world. Will the CEOs in Singapore get it? What about the executives in the Netherlands? I know the leaders who steer from their souls will respond well, the ones who dream into the distance instead of managing from quarter to quarter. George Washington would get it. So would Abraham Lincoln. There is a reason we celebrate their birthdays and not the birthdays of, say, James Buchanan or Herbert Hoover. Yvon Chouinard gets it. I’m not sure Jack Welch did. Edwin Colodny got it. I’m not sure Doug Parker does. I know, now I’m down in the weeds of specific company executives past and present.

And I’m not sure I get it. I process information quickly and hold onto it well. I know a lot of stuff. Yet I am far too sensitive to all the voices around me, shouting their bad advice. I am prone to listening to the voices from without, not the one from within. If I’m going to get ahold of that, it better happen soon. I don’t have another seven decades to figure this out. Still, I know I have something to offer. I’m like that pitcher that bounces from team to team, good enough to have a long career in the big leagues, but not good enough to land in the hall of fame.

Which brings me back to why these corporations want to hear from me in the first place. I do have one area of unique expertise. I know what it is like to live both as a man and as a woman, and I can tell you with great certainty that it is a lot harder as a woman. Women from all seven continents have thanked me for that little piece of information.

When people want to hear from me beyond that narrow sliver of knowledge, I am always surprised. I’m just not that good. I have gained some wisdom, but not the wisdom of sages. I’m more like the prophet that says, “This is the only way. No wait, a minute. That also might be a way over there, you know, way over that way.” It takes the luster off your prophesying.

Nevertheless, I think I’m going to go with the new offering, Lost Is A Place Too. It may sit there untouched by any willing takers, but then again, there may be a few out there who think, “Wait, that’s just the voice we need.”

And so it goes.