One Step At A Time
Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, begins with these lines:
One day you knew what you had to do and began
Though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice.
We are all subject to those cacophonous voices. Early in life we focus on mom’s voice, with every other sound fading into the background. In our formative years we listen to other authorities. I’ve always been amazed when NCAA basketball players clearly hear their coach from across the floor, when I can’t hear the person next to me in the same noisy coliseum.
Eventually we begin the process of differentiation. We become our own person, formed by our past experiences but now making our own way in the world. Some people complete this process by the end of their 30s. Others still have not completed the process well into their 60s.
When you are raised in a conservative religion, differentiation is difficult. You are expected to follow the rules – not just until you are 21 – but forever. The more restrictive the rules, the more difficult it is to differentiate. It is fascinating to see that attendance at the most restrictive churches is often far higher than it is at more liberal churches. Is it because the conservative churches hold the truth, as they claim, or because their congregants are frightened to invite mystery and complexity into their lives, and are therefore more likely to remain within the fold? Jungian analyst James Hollis certainly believes the later when he says, “Religion is for those afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there.”
In so many ways the clear boundaries of family and faith were nurturing for me, except when they were not. The church was of virtually no help with being transgender, the biggest struggle of my life. It did not help me when I was 20, nor when I was 30, nor when I was 50. The lack of assistance left me bereft. I tried talking with leaders in the church about my struggle when I was 20, 22, 25, 33, and so on. I was greeted with the typical responses you already suspect. “If you pray diligently God will remove this thorn in the flesh.” “Struggling with something like this builds character.” (That is actually true, though not in the way church people might expect.) “This is clearly wrong (Old Testament scripture offered) and you must fight against it.” The predictable list goes on.
What these superficial instructions do is drive an inquisitive young person toward the questions that have no answers – the ones that when asked cause your minister to reply, “Oh Paul, how could you ask that?” As if the person’s obvious displeasure should be enough to send you on your way, repentant. “Have I ever led you astray? You must trust me on this.” Well, come to think of it, I have no idea if you are leading me astray if you refuse to respond to the question I am asking.
Aware of my struggle, but before he knew of my transition, a person I deeply respect commented on my blog and quoted Wendell Berry. Jayber Crow, the protagonist in the novel of the same name, is struggling with difficult questions and seeks out a wise old professor who says,
“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out – perhaps a little at a time.'”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”
Not until I was 30, when I asked a retired gentleman to become my mentor, did I have a wise older person like Jayber’s professor in my life. He knew my issue and never judged me for it. Instead, he gave me permission to see my struggle as the massively difficult issue it was. He said, “Your heart is steadfastly turned toward the truth. But in situations like this, in which the truth is so difficult to discern, you must join Pascal and trust your heart.”
A couple years ago I mentioned to my psychiatrist that I had written a 10,000-word journal about my struggle. To my surprise he asked to read it. After he finished the long document, he wrote, “Poignant, and painfully free of self-deception.” It seems wise people know the truth is hard to tell and the truth is hard to tell. It is difficult to discern and even more difficult to disclose.
For decades I attempted to integrate Paula into Paul. I was left profoundly depressed and deeply unhappy. Eventually my family doctor said, “Among the very difficult choices you must make, it seems transitioning may be the only one that is sustainable.” I did not want the doctor to be right. Finally, when I had no other choice, I trusted my heart and transitioned.
There were many things I did not fully understand when I began this journey, as is true with any monumental journey. Just ask Odysseus. When you transition everyone in your world is forced to transition with you, and none of them are excited travelers. But those who love you work through their struggles and remain in your life. The few who have done so are discovering what I am discovering. It is far easier for me to integrate Paul into Paula than it was for me to integrate Paula into Paul. That is a truth I can easily discern.
I have lost much and continue to lose much. I will not lie, the losses have been staggering. Have they been worth it? As my cousin Jane said, “Your smile says it all.” Continuing the journey has definitely been worth it, authentically trying to become the person God envisions, and allows me to form.
I know many of you will disagree, particularly that God might have envisioned Paula. But the time has come to stop writing and telling me, “Your soul is in danger.” I have considered your words for decades, and I am going in a different direction, one that is firmly formed by the kind of wrestling with God that comes through long suffering.
I do not know what the future holds. Of course, no one is privy to the future, one of the wonderful complexities of human existence. But I do know how I shall travel this road – one step at a time – and forward.
The Journey ends with these words:
As the stars burned through the sheets of clouds there was a new voice
Which you slowly recognized as your own
That kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world
Determined to do the only thing you could do
Determined to save the only life you could save.
And so it goes.