Anne Lamott didn’t know the person, but she liked the tattoo on his arm, “It’s not them.” My son has solvitur ambulando tattooed on his arm, Latin for, “It is solved by walking.” I like Jonathan’s tattoo. I walk or run for 45 minutes to an hour, six or seven days a week. I find it cathartic and life giving. When I run and walk long distances, I solve things. A lot of people walk and don’t solve anything. In his retirement, Richard Nixon walked every morning, though it apparently didn’t solve much, since he never seemed to grasp the significance of his failure.
I, for one, do not need a tattoo that says, “It’s not them.” That is because my default mode is to say, “It’s all me.” There is a tattoo burned on my consciousness with those words. When you grow up with a narcissist, you learn quickly that you must acquiesce and admit it is always you, even when it isn’t. It’s the only way to live in peace, since that parent is where the locus of power resides.
I was in my thirties before I really stood up the narcissist in my life. It’s in chapter 19 of my book. Still, more often than not, my default position when something goes wrong is to focus on what I might have done or said to cause the problem. It is far easier for me to say, “It is me, always me,” than to say, “There were mistakes all around. I’ll own mine and you own yours.” When we were married, Cathy wanted me to fight more with her. Instead, I just rolled over. I assumed she was right. It did not serve our marriage well. Come to think of it, it does not serve our friendship all that well either.
So far in this post I have been talking about one-on-one relationships. I have not talked about entire classes of people. When it comes to conspiracy theories and whatnot, I may in fact need the reminder of the guy’s tattoo. I find it too easy to dismiss entire classes of people. Over the past five years I have become a part of the polarization that has affected our nation. My Facebook feed is all from the left. My friends and work are all heavily tilted in that direction. There are few environments in which I rub shoulders with people from the other side of the divide.
Part of that is because I am transgender, and a lot of people from the other side want nothing to do with a transgender person. Eighty-four percent of evangelicals believe gender is immutably determined at birth, though there is not a single Bible passage that would indicate that. Two thirds of them also believe the United States already gives too many rights to transgender people. Since the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality, the battle lines have been redrawn around us. Though we are only .58 percent of the population, transgender people now receive the wrath once reserved for lesbians and gays. More specifically, the target is on the backs of transgender children and adolescents, those least able to advocate for themselves.
Which might be why I find myself wading further and further into the culture wars, aligning myself with those fighting for basic civil rights. Not many of those fighting for trans rights are also into conspiracy theories, Donald Trump, and anti-vaccination rhetoric.
I do know that the more distance I gain from the anti-trans, anti-vaccination crowd, the less I think about them. And the less I think about them, the less empathy I feel toward them. And the less empathy I feel toward them, the less human I see them. Do you see the problem? None of this is even remotely okay. Once I start thinking like that, I am the problem, and I need to be reminded of the guy’s tattoo, “It’s not them.”
I believe the only solution to our current divide is through narrative, to tell our stories to one another, to get in the same room, around the same table, and talk about the common human experience. I have always found it powerfully redemptive to counsel people who do not share my political views. I learn so much, and gain so much empathy and understanding through our work together. Our shared human experience is evident in spite of our differences.
We know that humans like to tell themselves that we are more interested in knowing the truth than we are in belonging. Not so. Belonging has always trumped truth. That’s how people remain in religious fundamentalism for generations; it is too painful to leave. They know the center doesn’t hold, but as long as they remain in the tribe, their friends do. Having lost literally thousands of friends, I get it. It can be lonely outside of your multi-generational tribe.
I want to be a part of healing the divide, not widening it. As a transgender woman, I have few opportunities to interact with people from the right. Just today I was made aware that my book is part of a controversy at a library in Mississippi. The book is displayed along with three others from the LGBTQ+ community. Apparently, the display caused the mayor of the town to withhold over $100,000 from the library and brought a lot of angry folks to a meeting of the board. I wish I could show up at the library and let people talk with me one-on-one. Not about the book, or the display, but about who makes the best sweet tea in town. Finding the common ground that can unite us is critically important if we are ever going to bridge this divide.
In the 1930s, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote what has become known as the Serenity Prayer. Niebuhr’s actual prayer was not exactly the same as the one that has been popularized. Here is his prayer as originally written. I prefer the original.
Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.