For the past year I’ve been working with an organization called PopShift that is influencing Hollywood writers, showrunners, producers, directors, and others on the front lines of culture. Until this week, all of the events have been virtual.
This past Tuesday 60 television writers gathered with the PopShift staff and a handful of storytellers at a beautiful garden in the Hollywood hills. Each storyteller spoke to 15 writers at a time around campfires scattered throughout the grounds.
There were six storytellers, including a whistle blower at a pharmaceutical company, a psychiatrist who is a proponent of psylocibin, an undocumented immigrant, a cult survivor who helps others find their grounding, a young man who has experienced the injustice of our justice system, and yours truly. I was greatly inspired by my fellow storytellers, and thankful for the couple of hours we spent together before the writers arrived.
The evening was magical. I don’t know that I’ve ever had such an attentive audience, though I suppose I should not have been surprised. I was telling my story to a group of television story writers. Of course, they were going to pay attention to a storyteller.
I was moved by the other storytellers and their willingness to be so transparent. These were all people who had been through the dark night of the soul, and their wisdom was readily apparent. I am always amazed to be included in such circles. I am also pretty sure I don’t belong there, as if I received an invitation that was supposed to be for the other Paula Stone Williams. You know, the one who actually figured out life. I left the Hollywood hills humbled and inspired.
After a quick flight home to Colorado, I had another wonderful experience with TEDWomen. TEDWomen is meeting this week, with remarkable women speakers from all over the world. Immediately after the main sessions they have TED Discovery Sessions, in which a workshop leader tells a story and engages the participants in conversation. It was my privilege to lead a Discovery Session, the first time I’ve had that honor since the TED Summit in Edinburgh.
My session was entitled, Lost is a Place Too. I talked about my experience in the land of the lost after I transitioned, and about my time there over the past fifteen months. I talked about how this last season in the place called lost was in great measure of my own doing, and the sobering lessons of that reality.
I spoke about our gifts and our pinnacle gifts. After the first discussion period, I talked about what James Hollis identifies as our existential guilt, what I call our abiding shadows. I noted how those shadows are almost always the flip side of our strengths. I shared how often I must say to myself, “It’s all right to have an unexpressed thought.”
I joined a discussion group during all three discussion periods. I wish we could have had hours, not minutes, to hear these women’s stories. They were thoughtful, transparent, and to a person, emotionally moving. They all shared similar stories. Each has had great success and great pain, and the pain has always been more instructive than the success. I wish that was not the case, but it is. They also shared a remarkable resilience I rarely see in men.
I hesitate to say this, because I know I will get in trouble for it, but my experience is that women are stronger than men. Women did not start life as close to the finish line as men, and they are accustomed to things not going their way. They have not received the same kind of encouragement men receive, and when they find it within themselves to go on the Hero’s Journey, they gain that most rare of paradoxical gifts, great confidence coupled with great humility.
I did not have a cisgender female experience, and as I said in my first TED Talk, I will not live long enough to lose my male entitlement. I am not as resilient as the women in my session. I need a constant stream of encouragement. When I am not forgiven, or trusted, or respected, I turn inward and want to disappear. The women with whom I interacted have the same tendency, but they have found the strength to rise above it. Against all odds, they still believe in themselves. It is inspiring.
I brought the thin skin of a privileged male with me into my transition. Now that I have nine years of experience as a woman, I am learning that while a woman’s skin might be literally thinner than a man’s, in every other way it is thicker, and more protective.
When I finished the TEDWomen Discovery Session, I sat and stared for about a half hour. I had to take in the profoundly moving stories the women told. I might have been leading the session, but it was their stories that were the locus of the hour.
It is a privilege to be included in these august conversations. It was good to hear the television writers talk about their triumphs and failures, their joys and frustrations. They have a humility I do not imagine I would see in most of the actors who speak the lines they write, but it is certainly there in the writers themselves. They know the Hero’s Journey and are living on the other side of the dark night of the soul.
The same was true of the women in today’s session. I have been blessed with many opportunities to influence others. What I never fail to take in are the lessons all of these wonderful people bring to me. They are a gift.
And so it goes.