Through Questioning Everything

Though Questioning Everything

I was in a dinner conversation in which one table mate said to another, “Tell me, exactly what do you mean when you say he is real?” Our fellow diner replied, “He is authentic.” The first person asked, “Authentically what? Authentically human?” My friend felt caught in a battle of semantics, but I was actually sympathetic to the questioner. What does it mean to be authentic?

I do not believe it is accurate to say someone is authentic. There is no magic point of authenticity in one’s past or future. There is no authentic self, only authentic living. Authentic living involves constantly creating and reinventing oneself.

Authentic living is a journey undertaken not in some vacuum, but in a complex world of relationships, where actions have consequences. My decision to transition involved authenticity. It was important to be on the outside the person I had always felt I was on the inside. Many people thought I was brave and courageous, while others said I was selfish and foolish. Both reactions were heartfelt. I was in the middle, wrestling with the veracity of these disparate voices. It took every ounce of wisdom I could muster, but all of that was an essential part of living authentically. Without the reflection and reaction of others, my attempt at authentic living would have been little more than an exercise in self-absorption.

As a child, living authentically is impossible. We can only hope to have an environment in which those who care for us provide reasonable boundaries that are clear and supportive. We hope for parents who are able to delay their own gratification so they may attend to our needs, assure our safety, and provide us with a solid sense of self. That is the kind of environment that enables us to strike out on our own. For all of us, the time comes when we must differentiate from our families of origin. Still, some refuse to leave, enmeshed in a family system so toxic it irreparably damages their souls. For most of us, however, we eventually muster the strength to start out on our own. It begins in fits and starts in our teens and is not completed until we are in our 30s or 40s. Only then are we able to become who we truly know ourselves to be.

I was speaking with a delightful woman whose father is an Evangelical leader of national influence. We were talking about ways in which she can find gratitude for the home in which she is no longer welcome. I suggested, “Well, at least you are not cowering in some corner. Your parents gave you enough security to find the strength to be true to yourself, in spite of their objections.”

This woman is living boldly, honestly, and authentically. I wish her parents had the capacity to feel the pride they should feel for their extraordinary daughter. Of course, her parents would tell you they have rejected their daughter because they are also striving to live authentically. But I believe there is a difference between parent and child.

This woman’s parents have determined that authentic living is not determined by them, but by the church of which they are a part. They have passed along the painful and difficult responsibility of making up their own minds and ceded that power to others, choosing to be unquestionably obedient to the boundaries established by their church.

Their daughter, on the other hand, has decided to follow the words of M. Scott Peck, who said, “The path to holiness lies through questioning everything.” To be holy is to be whole, accepting full responsibility for how you choose to live. It is deciding which tribal land will be yours and which expression of spirituality will be yours. If that sounds like hard work, it is because it is, harder than most of us want to do. That is why it is so much easier to allow someone else to determine the boundaries of our lives and the limits of our curiosity.

When I was in Bible college one crusty old professor said, “Your problem is you think too much.” He was actually correct. In that environment my thinking was a problem, both for the professor and for me. The professor chose to live out his days within the bubble of Fundamentalism. That was his right, and by all appearances, he was comfortable. But his journey was not mine. I chose the road less traveled by and I have no regrets.

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I Could Have Had Another Meeting, But Then…

I Could Have Had Another Meeting, But Then…

Two weeks ago I returned from seven days with two precious granddaughters. I watched over them while their mom and dad were at a pastor’s retreat. Because the gods smiled on me, I got to see them again last week. Since they live close by, I see the other three more often. I adore all five granddaughters, but over the last couple of years there have been more than a few changes in my relationship with them.

Some changes arrived with my gender transition. When Grandpa became GramPaula, the adjustment for the girls was less traumatic than I feared. Their parents did a great job preparing them. In fact, once they met me their adjustment was pretty much instantaneous. Not to say there were not some interesting conversations. Like the time we were in a public restroom and one granddaughter asked, “Hey GramPaula, are you allowed to be in a women’s restroom if you used to be a boy?” We had a little conversation about private versus public conversations.

I know I risk pandering to stereotypes, but as a father I felt a deep need to provide for my family, to keep them clothed and fed, safe and secure. I loved spending time with my children and I knew each of them very well, more than many fathers I’m sure, but providing for my family took precedence over nurturing. While this has probably been true of fathers since the dawn of humanity, I now find myself able to take at least a peak from the other side.

I’m sure some of the changes are simply because I am now semi-retired, with more time available to my grandchildren. But there is more to it. There are chemical changes brought about by the arrival of estradiol and the departure of testosterone. I do not know how to define these changes other than to say all five senses are heightened when I am in the presence of my granddaughters. There is an awareness that is deeper and more tangibly experienced than anything I knew as a father or grandfather. It’s as though I can see into their hearts and feel the timbre of their expectant souls. I cherish each moment with unspeakable joy.

As comfortable as the girls are with me, I notice a difference in how they relate to their Grandma. They are a bit more free with her body, (though they are pretty comfortable with mine. Last Friday my back served as a surfboard for four little feet. “Come on GramPaula, make some waves!”) But I must admit their little bodies do fit a little more snugly in Grandma’s embrace. I assume it is because of who she is, this person who always gives. It is also because she is a mother, with all the instincts and rights thereof. That is one of the many aspects of female experience I will never know.

As for me, I’m happy to be in a position in which I can truly attend to these five little lives. Last Friday morning I could have had a business meeting. The folks I was with the day before, women I thoroughly enjoy, were open to meeting again. But I declined their generous offer because I was in New York and had a chance to let my son relax while his wife went to work. So I fixed breakfast, finished making their lunches, and walked the girls to school in the 20-degree weather, two precious gloved hands resting in mine. Why work when you can begin your day with a little bit of heaven?

Dad, Grandpa or GramPaula, my children and grandchildren have been the finest blessing of my long and fulfilling life. They make me grateful to live and have my being here on God’s green earth, where I have heard many little voices laughing and known the unspeakable joy of love offered without condition.

There are still days in which it is difficult to accept how much pain I have brought into the lives of those I love, but then I am struck by the grace offered to me by Cathy and my children and their spouses. And I remember that to these little girls, I’m just who I am. It doesn’t matter whether I’m Paul or Paula. And that feels like pure goodness sliding into my life on some myseriously generous moonbeam.

And so it goes.

So Much To Learn

So Much to Learn

I understand Evangelical Christianity fairly well. I’ve taught doctoral and masters level courses on contemporary American Christianity. I understand church planting among Evangelicals and have a pretty good awareness of Christian higher education, church growth, megachurch administration, worship, and more esoteric topics of Evangelical life.

Truth is I have always been curious. Talk with me about fracking and I will listen with interest. Strike up a conversation about the lives of women on the American frontier and I will enjoy the interaction. ¬†Anything about America’s airline industry will get my complete attention and probably an opinion or two. Years ago a mentor told me, “You need to give yourself permission to be the Renaissance person you are.” Permission granted, I have learned at least a little bit about a lot of stuff.

These days, however, I am once again a novice. I know very little about the inner workings of the LGBTQ world. It is all so relatively new to me. For instance, in some settings you can use the acronym “LGBT” and all is well. In others you must add the Q (Queer) and in still others you must add an “I” (Intersex.) And no, queer is not the pejorative term you remember from 40 years ago. So much to learn.

Even within the LGBTQ community there are pockets of unknowing. Gays and lesbians are often uneducated about transgender issues, and a lot of us do not understand much about bisexuals.

We are all lifelong learners, some more committed than others. Both of my mentors were voracious readers and curious observers, right to the very end of their long lives. I have no doubt both would have been surprised to hear about my gender dysphoria, but their curiosity would have been immediate and their spirit, generous.

Most of my adult life was spent among well-educated straight white American males, so I tended to know the things they knew. None of us were aware how much Western civilization was tilted in our favor. Not until you go through a radical change like mine do you begin to understand the pervasive nature of white male privilege.

Now I am learning what it means to be a woman, or more specifically, a transgender woman. I am part of a tiny minority, seldom studied and little understood. I am humbled when I read about those LGBTQ pioneers who have gone before. They were truly courageous.

Many great truths are paradoxical. Light is both a particle and a wave; man both finite and infinite. The road to maturity requires both radical openness and wise discernment. It is a road of ever-increasing knowledge, held loosely, coupled with ever-increasing wisdom, held tenaciously. It is a life grounded in the past, yet leaning into the future, happy to be a part of this great mystery in time and space.

One of my mentors talked about the multiple conversions of his life. Each came when radical new information took him through liminal space onto a new road of trials. He discovered each road, traveled with open mind and inquisitive spirit, led to holy ground. He said he finally came to understand all ground is holy.

I will always be a student, grateful for the teachers who have come into my life. As I once again accept the role of novice, I hope both wisdom and understanding result from the many things I come to know.

“That I Was Blessed, and Could Bless”

“That I Was Blessed, and Could Bless”

I once had a coworker who never seemed to feel pain, offloading it instead of dealing with it. He passed his pain along to others. His father was an alcoholic and his mother an enabler and he was not willing to walk his way through his emotions. Instead he passed his anger along, almost without thought. When I no longer had to work with him I vowed to never again hire a person unwilling to experience pain. I wanted to work with people who believed the truth would set them free, though they also knew it was likely to make them uncomfortable first.

Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck once wrote about the need to entice a client into therapy. Many come to counseling eagerly, but leave prematurely, as soon as they realize the amount of work necessary to truly deal with their issues.

Most people do not want to actually grow. They just want the pain to stop. They will trade a more fulfilling future for a quick fix today. As soon as an emergency tourniquet stops the flow of acute pain, they leave therapy. Only the brave remain, the ones willing to feel their pain instead of offloading it. And what do these brave souls discover?

They discover becoming more fully human has little to do with happiness. Happiness comes and goes throughout life. Becoming more fully human is all about power, not power expressed as lording it over others, but power restrained, what the Bible calls meekness. It is the power of refusing to be defined by other people’s opinions of you. It is the power of knowing you can dialog with anyone, because you are comfortable with where you stand. It is the power of knowing what you know.

This is not the power of the desperate, but the power of those who believe in abundant life, those who influence others not through argument, but through generosity of spirit. It is the power to do what you are called to do and let go of the consequences. It is accepting the weaknesses you are never going to get ahold of, and learning to be okay with that.

People with this kind of power discover there are not many kindred spirits on the journey. They often feel alone, though some are grateful for the solitude.

Do I consider myself to be in this company of the humbly powerful? Sometimes yes, more often no. I am too aware of my need to be accepted, not a particularly helpful trait for a transgender woman. I also remain impatient, addicted to speed. (Show me any great master addicted to speed – not one out there.) Plus, with all of the humility forced upon me through my transition, you’d think I would be the picture of generous tolerance. Alas, I still do not suffer fools well. I suppose those might be some of the traits with which I need to make peace. They are so very unbecoming.

The poet William Butler Yeats had similar feelings. He expressed them in verses four and five of his poem Vacillation.

My fiftieth year had come and gone

I sat a solitary man in a crowded London shop

An open book and empty cup on the marble tabletop

As on the shop and street I gazed

My body of a sudden blazed

And 20 minutes more or less it seemed

So great my happiness

That I was blessed and could bless.

Yeah, I feel like that. But listen to what he writes in the next stanza:

Although the summer sunlight gild cloudy leafage of the sky

Or wintry moonlight sink the field in storm-scattered intricacy

I cannot look thereon

Responsibility so weighs me down

Things said or done long years ago

Or things I did not say or do but thought that I might say or do

Weigh me down, and not a single day but something is recalled

My conscience or my vanity appalled.

Yeah, I feel like that too. Ah, the marvelous inconsistencies of being human.

Long ago I chose to take the road less traveled by. It is a rocky path, strewn with all kinds of debris. But it is my journey, not the journey someone else imagined for me. On my better days I do not offload the pain my journey brings, but reap the wisdom contained therein. On those days, if I can offer that wisdom to others, I will do so.

And so it goes.