Not Being Afraid of Yourself

I often receive encouragement about my courage and bravery and it always embarrasses me.  I had a tendency to be dismissive until I realize how genuinely these compliments were given.  Now I express thanks.  Still, I do not feel courageous or brave.

When you grow up with someone who tells you they are perfect, and that notion is reinforced by a religion that teaches you must be perfect as Jesus is perfect, you believe perfection is attainable.  Unfortunately, it causes you to feel shame about the most basic of truths, that you are human.

When we receive good ego formation we learn early in life that we are flawed, but those flaws do not make us unlovable.  When we do not receive that assurance, we spend the rest of our lives searching for proof we are loveable.  In that desperate search for acceptance, the last thing we feel is brave or courageous.

In Shambhala:  The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chögyam Trungpa defines the warrior not as an agent of destruction but as one who is brave.  He observes, “This is the definition of bravery:  not being afraid of yourself.”

Why would we be afraid of ourselves?  As James Hollis says in Living an Examined Life, Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey, “We weren’t born that way (afraid of ourselves.)  But soon we learn experientially, and increasingly consciously, that we are tiny, vulnerable, and dependent on the huge powers around us.”  He goes on to say, “Whatever powers nature invested in us are easily overrun by the forces outside of us, and so we learn to deny, even fear, the powers within.”

Hollis later says the second half of life begins not at any chronological moment, but at the point at which we are obliged to radically consider who we are apart from our histories, roles and commitments.  A lot of people never arrive at that moment.  Many are too frightened, and with good reason.  John of the Cross had a name for what Hollis is describing.  He called it the Dark Night of the Soul.

I chose to consider who I was apart from my histories, roles and commitments.  It has not resulted in an easy life.  It has required a commitment to the truth, even when that truth renders you terrified and exhausted.  Not being afraid of yourself is hard work.

I was hoping that not being afraid of myself would allow me to confront and overcome a lot of my weaknesses.  I’ve learned you don’t overcome them; you just see them more clearly, which is a mixed blessing.  You better appreciate why people become annoyed with you, but you lament that your blemishes will not be erased.  Perfectionism returning to roost.

Not being afraid of yourself demands paradoxical strengths.  You must be at once gracious and unrelenting, accepting and demanding, vulnerable and self-protective.  You must be your own prosecution and defense, and ultimately, judge.  You must see yourself with a clear but compassionate eye.  If all of that sounds hard, well…

Transitioning genders strips you of status and standing.  You discover that some people were in a relationship with you because you were useful to them.  Others cannot bear your attempt at authenticity, because they have already convinced themselves they are unable to do the same.  You are too much the reminder of the road they did not take, the one less traveled by.  And of course, there are others who truly believe you were wrong and that your transition is unforgivable.  It’s sad, but it is what it is.

While my transition was devastating for my entire family, they have all responded by choosing to go on their own Hero’s Journey, with its road of trials and deep dark cave.  I hate seeing them in pain, but I understand its necessity.  My love for them is stronger and deeper than ever.

I gravitate to friends willing to go on a similar journey, those who risk everything because they believe the truth sets us free.  They make difficult decisions and awaken the next morning with a vulnerability hangover, but move forward anyway, because they believe it is the only decent way to live.  Their belief in themselves and in a loving gracious God, propels them through the desert, unsure of the destination, but certain of the direction of true north.  Their heart knows the way.

I love these friends and family members who journey with me.  I respect the pain they uncover in my life as they also uncover pain in their own.  The truth is empowering, if painful.  It is freeing, if costly.  And as I say often, the pursuit of truth is sacred and holy and for the greater good.

On the Passing of Margaret Stone Williams

My mother, Margaret Stone Williams, passed away on November 22, three months shy of her 94th birthday.  I was on my way to New York City to preach at Middle Collegiate Church when I received the news, and spent most of Friday making arrangements to get to Kentucky.  Mom had been receiving palliative care for several weeks, so we knew the end was near.  Still, you are never quite prepared for your mother’s passing.

Mom and Dad were married for 73 years.  At the time of Mom’s death, both were residing in the nursing home at Sayre Christian Village in Lexington, Kentucky.  Dad is still there.  He will be 96 in January.

My mother was born in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, an area that has more in common with the Virginia Tidewater than it does with the Scots Irish culture that permeates eastern Kentucky, where Mom spent most of her life.  Though she was the daughter of a tenant farmer, she would have felt more at home on one of the sprawling thoroughbred farms around Lexington.  But her reality was closer to the fictional Port William described in Wendell Berry novels.  My being is rooted in those Wendell Berry environs.  Whenever I am in that part of Kentucky, the land looks like it had been expecting me.

Mom did not see herself in a Wendell Berry novel, or a Jesse Stuart novel, another Kentucky writer whose works I devoured as a teen.  Berry and Stuart wrote about people rooted in the land.  Mom saw herself more as landed gentry.  There was something in the warp and woof of rural farming culture that left a deep wound in her soul that never really healed.  I never learned the genesis of that wound, though its effect was always in evidence.

With a two-year degree from Kentucky Christian College, Mom became a para-professional at East Carter High School in Grayson, Kentucky.  She was a voracious reader and a champion of education.  She loved that her eldest son had a PhD, and that I had a Doctor of Ministry degree.

Mom never really accepted my transition.  Dad has tried to do so, with grace and love and great struggle.  Mom came to realize she would never see me again if she wasn’t willing to see Paula.  I am grateful she allowed me to visit.  When a nursing home worker said, “Oh, this must be your daughter, she looks just like you,” Mom was stone silent.  From early childhood I had known what would happen if I revealed I was transgender.

If it sounds like my relationship with my mother was strained, it is because it was.  Mom was nothing if not complicated.  She was at once funny and expectant, persistent and determined, critical and guarded, fearful and prejudiced.  She was also extroverted, intelligent and curious.  That curiosity and extroversion rubbed off on her children and grandchildren.  My brother and I have always loved reading.  We don’t see each other often, but when we do you can be sure we will have stumbled across the same authors.  I’m currently working on novels by Luis Alberto Urrea, Wendell Berry and Ursula K. Le Guin.  Mom would have approved.

I so loved that Jonathan wanted to honor his grandmother by conducting her funeral.  He did a great job.  With humor and heart, he told stories that captured her essence.  Just last week I heard from Mark, an old childhood friend, who said he loved coming to my house because my mother would read to him.  I remember her reading to me in the first and second grade, when I was struggling to read.  With patience and persistence, she made sure I began third grade reading above grade level.  She could be very determined.

I suppose there were 50 or 60 at the funeral service.  Most of Mom’s friends are gone.  I was able to see a few of my own high school friends who worked with her.  It was wonderful visiting with them.  A number of women came up and offered their condolences.  I was grateful for their words, and the fact that most made sure to call me by name.  Other than my relatives, no men spoke with me.

Because we wanted my father to be a part of every aspect of the funeral, we did not have a graveside service.  He would not have been able to walk to the top of the hill where the grave is located.  But Jonathan and I, along with my brother and his son, followed the hearse to the cemetery, the same cemetery I mowed when I was in college, the same cemetery that was next to my grandmother’s house, where she took us on warm sunny days.

We walked up the hill and looked into the open grave, then watched as they lowered the casket into its vault.  I was reminded of one of the opening images of the movie Dr. Zhivago, when young Yuri Zhivago watches his mother be buried on a cold, windswept plain.  I imagine you always feel a child on the day your mother is buried.

I could not cry until I got back to the safety of a friend’s home in Colorado, where two close friends waited to comfort me.  I wept until I slept.  It was the night before Thanksgiving.

On the banks of the Ohio, in the city of Huntington, West Virginia, on a bright afternoon in May over half a century ago, Margaret Stone Williams gave birth to her second child.  For the gift of life and the love of learning she imparted, I am grateful.  For her intelligence and wit, strong will and curiosity, I am thankful.  Rest in peace, Mom.  It’s been a long and difficult journey for you.  It is time to rest.  I love you.