Inspired

Speaker Ambassador welcome + program kick-off at TED2022: A New Era. April 10-14, 2021, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

Last week it was my privilege to serve as a Speaker’s Ambassador for TED2022 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Speakers Ambassadors are former TED speakers who are assigned a new speaker(s) with whom they will work. They are there to help folks prepare to present their talks and navigate the TED experience, before, during, and after the event. It is an honor to work with these incredible speakers. You are in awe of who they are and what they have accomplished.

Not only do you get to work with speakers, you also enjoy the camaraderie that exists within the team of Speaker’s Ambassadors. It is an eclectic group of fascinating, accomplished folks, each of whom has given their own TED Talk. We are all under the direction of Susan, Jordan, and Nehemiah, TED employees who keep us motivated with their ever-present energy.

One of the things I love about attending a TED event is the amazing cross pollination you experience. I spend a fair amount of time with other pastoral counselors, pastors, and psychotherapists. But rarely do I get to spend time with people from worlds far removed from my own. Last week I was with rocket designers, government leaders, particle physicists, actors, circus performers, museum curators, inventors, surgeons, and people from all manner of other professions. I even talked with the woman whose groundbreaking work on mRNA vaccines might well have saved my life.

Almost without exception these people were brilliant, yet humble and self-effacing. It reinforces the notion that those who truly change the world have equal parts confidence and humility. Interestingly, very few identified as religious. One who did was a Tibetan monk who was funny, engaging, and delightful. His talk was one of my favorites. If memory serves me correctly, he was the only speaker whose talk specifically touched on spirituality.

One fellow-speaker said I should look for another speaker at the event who had once worked as pastor. Turns out she was referring to my son, Jonathan. You don’t see many religious professionals at a TED conference. Which is interesting because I found a lot of those attending to be inherently spiritual. James Hollis describes the soul as the investment by nature in the individual and the spirit as the energy for the journey. These people were full of soul and spirit. They just don’t identify as religious. Given the kind of damage formal religion has done in the world, I can’t say I blame them.

Which brings me back to the cross-pollination at TED. Mingling with those unlike you invites introspection, examination, and innovation. It encourages approaching problems in new ways. During the week I had a major insight into a message I have taken in over the past few months, a message that is not only untrue, but damaging to my soul. When you force your brain out of its usual neural ruts, it creates new insights and even the occasional aha moment. Those moments are inherently soul affirming and spiritually significant.

Whenever I write about my experiences with TED, I know someone will think I am bragging. I hesitate to mention specific conversations, both out of respect for the privacy of the people involved, as well as any notion that I deserve to be in such conversations. These are all gifts, of which I do not feel deserving, but am not about to reject. That would be biting off my nose to spite my face. I consider it all a privilege. Anytime you can interact with people who help you think in new ways, it’s not just good for you, it’s good for the universe. This is how new solutions emerge, as creativity is prompted to move beyond conventional wisdom.

I am unashamedly a fan of TED. I am unashamedly a fan of TEDxMileHigh, the wonderful TED event in Denver that also has an outsize influence in making the world a better place. Recently I have been working with the speakers for their upcoming event. It has been a joy. I have always been curious beyond my own disciplines, a predisposition for which I am grateful. The good fortune I have experienced over the past four years to have my creativity fine-tuned via TED experiences is a blessing for which I am very grateful.

In so many ways my life has been magical and blessed. I never want to take a minute of that wonder for granted.

And so it goes.

The Imposter Syndrome

It is rare to run across an accomplished human who has not experienced the imposter syndrome, the sense that you do not have the qualifications necessary to be doing what you are doing. It could be serving as a Speaker’s Ambassador at TED2022, which I did this past week, or as a pastoral counselor helping clients deal with their own imposter syndrome, or as a corporate speaker.

I rarely feel truly qualified in my areas of endeavor. Every time a counseling client decides they’d like to work with me, I always want to ask, “Don’t you know that my doctorate is a Doctor of Ministry degree, and not a PhD? I mean, my mother certainly knew the difference. The imposter syndrome is common to most of us.

It’s been my privilege to speak with TEDWomen speakers about the imposter syndrome in the weeks leading up to their TED Talks. They all wonder how they were chosen to speak for TED. “Didn’t they mean to invite the other Jane Smith, you know, the one who solved world hunger?” Every speaker nods when I talk about the imposter syndrome. It doesn’t matter whether they are astronauts, trapeze artists, or particle physicists. The imposter syndrome is pretty universal.

I do know people who never experience the imposter syndrome. They are the people who are, in fact, imposters. A certain former president comes to mind. Those who never experience the imposter syndrome are those who are unaware of their abiding shadows, those parts of themselves that keep rearing their ugly heads to remind us of our flawed humanity. If the problem is always “out there” and never “in here,” you might be an imposter.

Fortunately, that is not the case for most of us. We are not inclined to say, “I alone can solve this.” We are inclined to say, “I have no idea what I am doing, but if you want me to give it a try, I’ll be happy to do so.” Which is how people end up giving a TED Talk. They keep showing up and giving their best, and eventually they accomplish something that causes people to take notice. They are usually the last to think what they have accomplished is worth noting, however, hence the imposter syndrome.

My first TEDxMileHigh talk has been picked up by “Big Ted” and was released on TED.com two weeks ago.  In its first couple of weeks, it’s had 500,000 views, which is not uncommon for a newly released TED Talk. On the other hand, it is a little unusual for a talk that is four years old. I’d like to be excited about that, but since I spend most of my time thinking I didn’t deserve to have the talk picked up by TED in the first place, I have a hard time taking it in.

When I was first crafting the speech, I kept losing my place when I was trying to memorize the talk. I kept getting lost between the same two paragraphs. I finally realized I was losing my place because I needed a transition sentence between the paragraphs. The night before the talk I came up with this – The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good. I ran the line by Briar, my coach at TED, and she said, “Perfect.” It ended up being the most quoted line of my talk, a line I used in my next TED Talk, and used again on the dedication page of my memoir.

Before a TED Talk is published, a lot of energy is spent fact checking the talk. “Did that conversation really take place? Can multiple people verify its accuracy? Do you have documented evidence for the statistics you used?” The talk that was published two weeks ago was given four years ago. Before it could be published by TED, I had to verify the accuracy of every story. That included the story of Kyle, the former manager of a Denver bike shop that no longer exists. Though I didn’t know his last name, I found him on the Internet. When I called, he was on vacation in South America. He said sure enough, he remembered the conversation, and would be happy to verify its accuracy. He even told me the name of the employee who had treated me badly. His name was Blake. Of course, it was Blake.

The folks at TED already know you are going to find documentation for everything you say, because they have done their homework before they even ask you to speak. They find people who are not imposters. And what is the best indication someone is not an imposter? Well, I imagine it’s someone who is afraid they are an imposter. Because those are the people who are always filled with self-doubt, working hard to make sure they are not talking out of their behind. They are confident, which has allowed them to achieve some modicum of success, but they are also humble, because they know a lot of their success is because they were in the right place at the right time. They know the part that good fortune plays in achieving success.

I always feel all warm inside when someone acknowledges they are experiencing the imposter syndrome. It usually means they deserve to be receiving the accolades they are enjoying. They’ve done the work to get there. They have benefitted from good luck along the way. And the contribution they make has come from living out the call toward authenticity.

I am very grateful for the TED Talks I have done, and for the success they have had. And yes, I still tend to feel like an imposter.  And so it goes.

 

The Problem is Greed

(I wrote this post last Monday, when I was headed to speak in Huntington, West Virginia. The trip went well. I got home and promptly left again. I’m in a San Francisco hotel now, preparing to speak tomorrow. I have a busy life.)

I’m sitting in the Admiral’s Club in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting for a flight to Cincinnati so I can then drive another three hours to West Virginia, where I will speak at Marshall University. The airport is crowded. The workers are a little more surly than usual, and except for seeing my good friend Karen at the gate in Denver, I’ve not seen many smiles. Of course, it is also possible I have not been smiling.

I have flown over 2.5 million miles with American Airlines – not just credit miles – actual miles. Most of it was flown with USAirways, which acquired American about a decade ago. They won control of the larger airline but lost the culture war. American is not the friendly airline USAirways once was.

I knew USAirways employees all over the nation. There was hardly a city in which I didn’t know at least one or two gate agents. I had a lifetime USAirways Club pass, and loved chatting with the employees in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Boston, and a host of other cities. I knew the names of their children and where they went to college. I received free first-class upgrades 99 percent of the time, because USAirways thought good service and fair profits were both achievable. Their good will was reciprocated. For over a decade I gave my Christmas bonus to the USAirways employees at the Islip Long Island airport, all 17 of them.

I wrote the CEO of the airline occasionally, and always received a prompt reply. Their office called me a few times to talk about solutions to problems I had encountered. Things were, in a word, civil. Humanity won over profit. Commonality won over differences. Life was more gentle back then. I know what you’re thinking. Was it more gentle because I was a man? I really don’t think that had much to do with it. Flying is one of the few places in which I am treated pretty much the same as Paula as I was treated as Paul. Well, at least by employees. Passengers are another story.

I knew things were likely to get bad in the airline industry when United was allowed to acquire Continental, Delta absorbed Northwest, and USAirways acquired American. With only three legacy carriers remaining, it would only be a matter of time before prices went up and service went down. I was surprised how quickly it  happened. Greed creates a lot of dangerous cracks in the foundations of capitalism.

A couple of decades ago I served on the board of a small television network.  We were closely affiliated with a much larger commercial network, and I formed a friendship with one of their senior employees. He was always complaining about managers who “left money on the table.” I asked what the phrase meant. He replied, “To leave money on the table is to walk away from easy money. You see a place for bigger profits, and you don’t capitalize on it.”

A couple years later we were on a trip together and I told him I had noticed that the company rarely left money on the table any longer, but that it did leave people on the streets. Profits came before people. Not long after our conversation the network was sold, and my friend was out of a job. He became one of those people on the streets, only his streets were paved with platinum, thanks to a generous golden parachute.

Last week I spoke with the Chief People Officer of a company for which I’ve consulted a few times. Their CEO was one of the founders of a very successful travel company. The new startup, another travel company, focused on profits and people. The company was wonderful. They had achieved gender equity and took good care of their employees and customers. Then Covid hit and business travel came to a stop. The company kept the doors open for about 18 months, but eventually the leaders had to make the decision to shut it down. Their CPO took great pride in finding jobs for 99 of the 100 people employed by the company. For the company’s leaders, ending well was as important as profitability.

Large corporations rarely leave money on the table. Those at the top receive annual compensation hundreds of times greater than that of their lowest paid employees. Those executives never leave money on the table. I prefer companies with a heart, like the one that made sure their employees were taken care of when the business had to close. They remind me that capitalism itself is not evil. Greed is evil. These smaller companies are proof that capitalism can have a heart. They are the ones that give me hope in the future of commerce in our nation.

Well, it’s time to catch my flight to Cincinnati. Though I’m Executive Platinum with the airline, which means I fly over 100,000 miles a year, on this flight I’m likely to feel like I’ve felt for several years now – like I am little more than a flying profit provider. You can be sure the airline will not leave any of my money on the table.

And so it goes.

This Is Frightening

More hate mail arrived last week. Not volumes of it, but enough to force me to scan my inbox for unfamiliar names. When the negative mail increases, I usually go online to see what is happening.  A few weeks ago, it was a controversy about my book being on display in a Mississippi library. This past week it was a right-wing media article.

I spoke on International Women’s Day to the employees of the Owens Corning Company. I loved my interaction with the people who set up the virtual event. I thoroughly enjoyed crafting and presenting my keynote. As usual, I left 25 minutes for questions and answers. The talk was not recorded.

During the Q&A I answered one question by mentioning the source of much of the opposition to the civil rights of transgender children. I said that contrary to popular opinion, according to an NPR/Marist poll, the opposition to trans kids is not coming from Trump voters, 61 percent of whom believe transgender people should have the same civil rights as others. Some of the greatest opposition is coming from evangelicals. A Pew Research Center study found that 84 percent of white evangelicals believe gender is immutably determined at birth. Over 60 percent believe society has gone too far in accommodating transgender people, yet only 25 percent know someone who is out as a transgender person.

A few days after my time at Owens Corning, I was greeted by a headline in a right-wing media source that reflected negatively on Owens Corning and misstated my comments. Apparently, a company employee or someone connected to an employee had taken issue with what I said and instead of reaching out to me, reported it inaccurately to a news outlet.

I am accustomed to being attacked by the right-wing media. But I hated that a company brave and bold enough to invite me to speak on gender inequity was also attacked. The attack was unfair to the Owens Corning Company and its employees.

I know what I said in my talk last Tuesday. I know the vulnerability and heart I showed in that presentation. I saw the supportive comments pouring in from employees. I know what those who put together the conference said after I finished. I am profoundly disappointed that a single person could choose to take such a wonderful experience and turn it into a right-wing news story. Since 2016, that has happened more and more frequently. But the biggest problem is not the occasional attacks targeting people like me. The biggest problem is the attacks on our children.

I have been doing an increasing number of interviews about the awful anti-transgender laws in Texas, and the equally offensive laws passed in other states and pending in scores more. Virtually all these laws target transgender children, their parents, and healthcare providers. The good people at Owens Corning will be fine. So will I. We have the resources to dismiss spurious attacks without losing much sleep. But the children and their families?  I am really concerned about them.

We already have families who have reached out to Left Hand Church, telling us they are leaving conservative states and moving to Colorado, where they can be a part of a society that supports transgender children and their families. We welcome them at Left Hand, where we show them support and love.

Transgender families in Texas are in danger. Vulnerable children are at great risk. Trans kids already have a suicide rate 13 times higher than their peers. My heart aches for these children, their families, and their medical providers.

The parents of these transgender children, desperate to nurture and protect their loved ones, are beside themselves. This past week I talked with one mother for over an hour. I don’t know that I brought her the tiniest bit of comfort, other than providing a listening ear. After the conversation I said aloud in my living room, “My God people, have a heart.” I spent most of my life among evangelicals. I cannot  believe that they are willing to attack vulnerable families and courageous healthcare providers just so they can win the culture wars. But as Scott Peck said a few decades ago, “Ninety-nine percent of the evil done in the world is done by people who are 100 percent convinced they are right.”

Who decided transgender people should be on the front lines of this ridiculous culture war? We are only .58 percent of the population, about one in every 200 people. None of us chose to be transgender. Who decided we should be attacked just for being who we are, and then decided that it wasn’t trans adults they should attack, but trans children and their parents? And who decided that healthcare providers who have studied diligently and worked tirelessly to keep us alive should be vilified and even prosecuted simply for ameliorating our suffering in the world?

I am frightened. Given what is happening in Texas and other states, it appears I should be frightened. I am grateful for companies like Owens Corning, that welcome me into their space to talk about gender inequity and transgender rights. It is a reminder that the majority of Americans are supportive of our community.

My plea to evangelical Christians opposed to transgender rights is simple. For God’s sake, have a heart. Children are dying.

And so it tragically goes.

 

Fellowship

We want to figure out life together. We have always wanted to figure out life together. Our species never took off until we moved from the level of nuclear family to the level of community and tribe. What brought us together? It was not the need for safety, but man’s search for meaning. Think Stonehenge, the carved figures in Rapa Nui, the pyramids of Egypt, or the burial mounds of indigenous Americans. All around us are countless examples of people coming together to figure out why we are here, and for what purpose.

We are also a spiritual species, and we best work out our spirituality in community. Yes, religious communities are messy, because they are one of the few places in which we learn to be human together. Yes, they are often toxic, because there are six different stages of faith, and those who never get beyond stage three remain within toxic fundamentalist religions. They work from a binary “us versus them” perspective, convinced that only those who believe as they believe are “in” and everyone else is “out.” And, make no mistake, they can be pretty cruel to those who are out.

One of the defining religious issues of our time is LGBTQ+ acceptance. The 2020 American Values Survey indicated that 70 percent of Americans are supportive of marriage equality. A surprising finding is that well over 50 percent of Christians are supportive of marriage equality, including 79 percent of mainline Protestants, 76 percent of Hispanic Catholics, 67 percent of White Catholics, and 57 percent of Black Protestants. Only one Christian group is opposed to marriage equality – White evangelicals, who oppose it 63 percent to 34 percent. That is the “us” versus” “them” dynamic.

While the fundamentalist forms of the desert religions remain binary and toxic, the majority of Christians in America are supportive of marriage equality and transgender rights. A lot of those people are in vibrant, dynamic churches like the church I serve as a pastor – Left Hand Church in Longmont, Colorado.

Last weekend we held the third annual winter retreat of Left Hand Church at Castle Mountain Lodge in Estes Park, Colorado. Kristie Sykes has coordinated each of our retreats. Kristie and Nicole Vickey worked hard all weekend to keep the food and fellowship (yep, I said fellowship) flowing. Shannon Fletcher led a sharing circle in which every single attendee shared a meaningful moment from their lives. Mara Vernon, CEO of Ripp Leadership, led a delightfully insightful session on the DiSC Personality Profile. Heatherlyn, Bryan, and Cairn led us in great worship. Heatherlyn and Bryan jammed late into the night, and Kristie Sykes led us in fun games Friday night, then took us through a helpful spiritual gifts assessment Sunday morning.

I’m older than dirt, which means I have attended a lot of retreats. I can’t remember any I enjoyed as much as this one. Yes, the programming was amazing, and the food was wonderful, but it was the fellowship that filled me to the brim.

Fellowship is such an evangelically tainted term that most progressive Christians avoid it. But there is nothing wrong with the word. It is a friendly association, especially with people who share the same interests. At our retreat, the primary shared interest was a desire to live authentically in community, trying to love God, neighbor, and self. The weekend was messy because the church is messy. But grace prevailed, because if a group is trying to follow the example of Jesus, grace will always prevail.

I saw healing there. People surrounded hurting souls, bathing them in prayer. There were deep, abiding conversations, as well as raucous laughter. (No one ever did tell me the meaning of that one word I had to read aloud while we were playing that one game. I had to look it up when I got home. I will not mention the word here!)

When I returned to my home in Lyons, the house may have been empty, but my soul was full. Left Hand Church is broken. Most churches are. We are also a pretty remarkable church. We are resilient and hopeful and honest and not afraid of the dark places, or the roads filled with fallen branches and stones. We know there is no way but forward, through the desert, and we stay true to that journey.

Whenever I do interviews for radio shows, television shows, or podcasts, I am always asked why I remain in the church when I was treated so horribly by it. I always say that religion at its worst may be toxic, but religion at its best is transformative. The retreat this past weekend was transformative. I am pleased I am still a member of a Christian church. If you’ve given up on the church, you might think about giving it another try. We meet every Saturday at 5:00 pm.  Just sayin…

 

Communities and Chapels

Over the years I have worked in education, the for-profit world, and with multiple non-profits. I have never worked in government… until now.

The city manager of Englewood, Colorado, was a member of Left Hand Church when he lived in Longmont. We were at a party in December when I mentioned that a neighbor wanted me to run for the Board of Trustees in the town in which I live. I had always heard that small town politics is like national politics – you never please anyone.  But my friend said we all have our civic responsibilities and running for the town board would be good for me and for the town. He said more often than not, our particular town’s government was comprised of people who tended to work together, moving in the same general direction.

So, I gathered the signatures necessary and left my completed application with the Town Clerk and waited for the election on April 5. I figured I wasn’t likely to win, since I am transgender and all. Only I found out a few weeks ago that there will not be an election. Only six people filed to run for the Board of Trustees, and only one person filed to run for Mayor. Apparently when that is the case, everyone whose paperwork was accepted automatically becomes a member of the Board of Trustees, or Mayor, without an election. Huh. Now this is starting to get real.

After several weeks of training, on April 18 I will be sworn in as a member of the town’s Board of Trustees. I am eager to serve – seriously. I mean, why not? I am the pastor of a church, a pastoral counselor, a speaker on issues related to gender equity, and an author. Why wouldn’t I add public servant to the list? I have no idea if I will be any good at it or not. I’ll let you know.

Speaking of things at which I may or may not be good, did I ever tell you about the time I helped renovate the chapel with several church members and one of my co-pastors, who had to say repeatedly, “Uh, no, Paula, let me help you with that.” She was patient and kind, and the chapel is a beautiful, sweet intimate space. I get to preach in a place with a cool coffeehouse vibe.

Left Hand Church meets in the chapel of a United Church of Christ. Like every other chapel built in the 1960s, it was not given a lot of forethought. Adding a chapel was just what churches did back then. Nobody builds chapels anymore. They figured out that they don’t get used. This chapel collected dust and sat behind hideous solid brown doors, one of which defiantly pierced a splinter all the way through my finger when I was carrying it to the dumpster. Behind the doors was a neglected carpet, dirty purple chairs, and a giant mosaic of Jesus which left the room out of balance. Jesus didn’t leave the room out of balance, just the mosaic.

But my co-pastor had a vision, and with the help of a bunch of other lesbians with power tools, she brought it to fruition. She bought lots of mismatched chairs and recovered the cushions with bright fabrics which we put around wooden tables, and the whole thing looks just like our church looks– eclectic. If we’re expecting a lot of folks, we take out the tables and put the chairs in rows. If it is likely to be a more intimate gathering, we sit around the tables and talk and sing and listen and worship.

I touch a lot of the bases in my life. As a therapist, I spend sixty minutes at a time with precious humans and help them remove the obstacles hindering them from discovering their own answers. It is hard and holy work, helping them find the light hidden inside their hearts.

My church work is where I join with a group of people to figure out how to do life together. Outside of the family, the church is the only institution whose main purpose is to help people search for meaning together. That is why the church is always messy. Humans are messy.

And now I am joining my town’s Board of Trustees, caring for its citizenry. I won’t be helping individuals find answers; I won’t be helping fellow church-members search for meaning; I will be helping our town figure out how to be a better servant to its residents.

I hope I don’t let people down, though I am sure I will. It’s just the nature of things. I’m sure someone will have to say to me, “Uh, no Paula, let me help you with that.” But maybe I’ll do enough redemptive work to help keep the universe in balance. That is my hope.

My term on the Board of Trustees lasts for two years, probably just enough time to figure out what I’m doing. It took me a few decades to figure out ministry, and several years to become a decent counselor. Let’s hope I’m better at town governance. I don’t have that kind of time to get up to speed.

I have no intention of slowing down. I like to be busy. Between my speaking career, my pastoral work, my counseling practice, and now my service on my town’s Board of Trustees, I’ve got enough to keep me going for a few years, and that’s how I like it.  I’ve been saying that I’m semi-retired for about eight years now. I’m not sure any of the last eight years are what semi-retired looks like. But hey, it is my life, and I do want to make a difference while I’m here.

And so it goes.

 

It’s Not Them

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.

The Merry-Go-Round

I was a fearful child. I refused to ride on most of the attractions at Camden Park, the amusement park near my hometown of Huntington, West Virginia. Even the merry-go-round was more than I could handle. The horses had menacing gazes. The lions gaping mouths were ready to devour small children. The merry-go-round had a brown bench with a narrow seat and a high back, colorless among the brightly painted ponies. My mother made me go on the merry-go-round once and tried to coax me onto one of the horses, but I went straight to the brown bench, where I sat until the ride mercifully ended. She never made me go on the merry-go-round again.

My mother was fearful of life. As a child who paid attention, I did not miss the fact that the person I depended on to navigate through the world of big people was a frightened guide. That is how we inherit intergenerational trauma. Mom never got over her fear. She tragically gave up and quit trying, never getting out of bed the last ten years of her life.

Over the past decade I have had reason to be fearful. I lost hundreds, even thousands, of friends and acquaintances, to say nothing of losing my job of 35 years and a large pension. We make it through life by holding onto the notion that we are in control of our lives. We are not. Well, we do have control over whether we eat three chocolate covered strawberries for breakfast, which I may or may not have just done, but most of the big things are out of our control. You might have noticed.

Every time I pick up an Anne Lamott book, I am struck by how transparent she is about her shadow sides. Invariably, I find myself in the pages, unable to put the book down. Her shadow sides are similar to my own, only she writes about them with so much more clarity than I do. She also writes with more self-compassion, which makes her words easier to digest than mine. When I write about my shadow sides, my friends say, “Give yourself a little grace.” But they don’t know what it is like to live in this body. I really do want to get it right, though I miss the mark so often.

If we are committed to the process, we go through many conversions in life. We begin our adult lives fulfilling the unfulfilled dreams of our parents. That works until it doesn’t. Then we move into what Carl Jung called the second adulthood, in which we begin to focus on our own dreams and aspirations. As the years progress, we find we have fewer friends but deeper friendships. We are more interested in being in relationship than being right. And most frightening of all, we realize that when we are called, we no longer have the luxury of rejecting that call. We can no longer claim that we need to put the kids through college and save for retirement. We are forced to look the call straight in the eye, knowing time is running out. Will we show up or will we stay locked in our comfortable houses? Because of our predisposition to remaining comfortable, the call in the second half of life does not come as a moment of joy, but as a moment of terror.

Assuming you do answer the call, the surprises continue. You find you might be called time and again, onto ever more frightening journeys, the kind that will show your every flaw and demand that you work on the stuff you’ve avoided for decades.

I’ve read that the sixties are the most productive decade of life, followed by the seventies, followed by the fifties. If we haven’t done so in our forties, during our fifties we find the courage to answer the call. Our sixties are when we find our stride. Our seventies are when we realize there is yet another call, one we never anticipated. This one is easier to navigate. We’ve already failed enough to know that failure is good for the soul. We let our wisdom make the major decisions, looking deep inside our own souls for our sense of direction, knowing that looking outside ourselves never works out so well. I don’t know anything about the 80s, but I’m watching two mentors closely. They are still finding new ways to serve and grow.

I still occasionally get overwhelmed by fear. After every blood test I anxiously await the results. Things happen when you get older. Our bodies wear out. Mine has been very good to me. I still mountain bike and run and hike and all the things. No one ever thinks I am the age I am. But you can’t outrun time. I remember the day my mentor, Jim, said he was going through his final conversion, giving up his attachment to his own body. He was 98.

I will be back in Huntington, West Virginia next month. It will still be winter, so Camden Park will be closed. That’s fine with me, though I would like to know if the same merry-go-round is still there. I wouldn’t be frightened of the horses and lions now, though I still would not ride on them. I’m prone to vertigo when I spin. The spinning of the planet is enough of a challenge, thank you.

It will be good to be back in Huntington. I will be speaking at Marshall University, where my father worked on a master’s degree. Huntington is only about 30 miles from where my parents and other family members are buried. In many ways, the region is still home. When I return, it looks like it has been expecting me.

I am not as fearful as I once was. I have looked life straight in the eye and done the hard work. I don’t ride on the brown bench in life. I ride on the wildest pony, and when I go back to the Tri-State region of my youth, I am reminded of just how far I’ve come.

And so it goes.

I’m Back

Anne Lamott writes that defeat has been, for so many of us, the portal to soul. James Hollis says wisdom comes through the integration of suffering. Megan Devine says grief is not a problem to be solved, but an experience to be assimilated. Do you see a theme?

A handful of you have noticed I have not written since early December. Well, it’s not that I haven’t written anything. I’ve written several sermons, a few birthday cards, a letter of reference or two. But I haven’t written a blogpost.

My memoir wore me out, both the writing of it, the second guessing of what I wrote, and the promotion of it. My last book event was the Miami Book Fair in November, when I spoke alongside an author whose works are world class. My book isn’t bad, but it’s not world class. That was humbling.

I have a few books on the kitchen counter waiting to be read. My book is on top. I haven’t read it since I read it aloud for the audiobook. Sometimes I look at it with a sense of accomplishment. Other times, I can only muster a halfhearted, “Meh.” It’ll probably be a few years before I actually read it again. Someone showed me a Facebook post the other day with a picture of my memoir next to other books people want to ban from a public library in the south. That hadn’t occurred to me, but in today’s America, I suppose it makes sense.

I really do want to read all of the other books neatly stacked on my kitchen counter, but the only ones I have gotten to so far are Anne Lamott’s Dusk Night Dawn, and two books by James Hollis. His book, Middle Passage – From Misery to Meaning in Midlife, found its way into a scene in the second season of Ted Lasso. It’s out of print, so it’s been hard to find since its television debut. I’m way past midlife, but the book speaks to me. It’s section on marriage is one of the best I’ve ever read on the subject. The other Hollis book is Swamplands of the Soul – New Life in Dismal Places, probably his finest work. My copy is all dog-eared and marked up.

All three books are appropriate for those attempting to live authentically, and not afraid to look in the mirror. While I was in the midst of reading both Hollis books, I was also discovering still more flaws in my being that I had not previously acknowledged.  We’re not talking nitpicky flaws, like leaving my reading glasses smudgy. We’re talking big stuff. I said to Cathy the other night, “I don’t know if I would have done any of this hard work had I remained Paul. Life was too comfortable.” It is not comfortable now. I squirm a lot. I’ve seen shadow sides of myself that cast long and lean shadows, the kind that come just before sunset.

In Swamplands of the Soul, Hollis writes, “Perhaps this existential guilt is the most difficult to bear. To know oneself responsible, not only for the things done, but the many undone, may broaden one’s humanity but it also deepens the pain.” He goes on to say, “The ironic consciousness can see the flawed choices, can understand their consequences, but this knowledge is neither redemptive nor avoidable. Such a person is always left with a troubled consciousness, but at least, as Jung pointed out, he or she is thereby less likely to contribute to the burdens of society.” Except when you do contribute to people’s burdens. Sigh.

Hollis calls this, “an existential guilt from which there is no escape, only denial or a deepened acknowledgement.” Most people choose denial. Choosing deepened acknowledgement requires enough ego strength to go into the depths, where the light barely penetrates and self-condemnation shows up behind every door you open. Self-forgiveness is nowhere to be found. It’s dangerous down there. That is why Hollis acknowledges that self-forgiveness is the hardest goal of all. Anne Lamott says she “continues to believe that love is still sovereign here, and that the hardest work we do is self-love and forgiveness.”

So, that’s why I haven’t been writing. I’ve been looking into the dark places, seeing clearly the flaws, while doing a terrible job at self-love and self-forgiveness. But if someone as individuated as James Hollis and as cool as Anne Lamott face the same dilemma, I must be on the right track.

Theologian Paul Tillich understood self-forgiveness. He defined grace as, “Accepting the fact that you are accepted, despite the fact that you are unacceptable.” I can’t use that quote much at church, because too many people carry the wounds of having been taught that an angry God is just waiting to send them to hell. You can’t take in Tillich’s words until you have left that notion behind and can take in your full humanity. God is not going to send you to hell for being human. But that doesn’t mean you won’t send yourself there, right here on earth.

Which is why most people stay on the surface. Let’s just act like everything is fine, because if we dive into the chaos and emptiness that follows, God only knows when we’ll be able to come back up for air. Or write a blogpost.

I think I’m ready to write again, to keep up the weekly schedule I’ve maintained since 2014. I used to do that with no problem.  From 2003 to 2014 I was the editor-at-large of a national religious magazine, with a deadline for a weekly column. I miss that work, and the people with whom I worked. I miss a lot of people from my past life.

The people in my current life know nothing of Paul. They only know the woman whose life is intersecting theirs. They see her very differently than people saw Paul. Her flaws are visible, her insecurities are worn on her sleeve, her distraught face is as easy to read as a children’s novel. Life was easier as Paul. It is more soul-disrupting as Paula. But that is good. It is very good.

There Must Be a Pony Somewhere

On Thanksgiving morning, for the second time on a holiday, I was greeted with early morning hate texts from evangelical Christians. The texts seem to be coordinated, though I can’t be certain. What would cause people to work so hard on a holiday to find my cell phone number and send hateful messages? Yet again, I had to remove my phone number from all public sites, including my counseling practice.

I have received thousands of hateful messages, texts, comments, and phone calls since I transitioned. The biggest waves of nasty mail came after my New York Times article, my first TED Talk, and the release of my memoir. Positive correspondence is about ten to one over negative correspondence, so you don’t need to worry about me. My soul is fine. From the time I transitioned, I knew that embedded in my identity were responsibilities. I could not slip off into the night. I had to speak out. I knew I would be a lightning rod for the naysayers.

Recently, however, the tone of that correspondence has been darker and more frightening. We have to monitor our live Left Hand Church services on Facebook every week, because we have been attacked by groups of fundamentalists who storm our site and disrupt the online service. Since 2016, it has gotten worse, as those on the extreme right have been empowered to publicly express their hatred.

I am not the only one receiving hate messages. Just last week I talked with a brave person trying to navigate the waters of evangelical hate. This week I spoke with another. The calls are getting more frequent from good-hearted souls with their eyes steadfastly focused on leaving a world they know is too small for them. But on their way through the restrictive city gates, they are attacked by people terrified of trusting the truth inside their bones, people who turn their fear outward and project it onto those with more courage than they can muster.

My greatest concern is that virtually all of this vitriol is emanating from the religious right. An article a few weeks ago in the New York Times said Americans are increasingly equating evangelicalism with right-wing Republicanism, as if the two terms were synonymous. I see no evidence to refute that perspective. The utter confidence with which these fundamentalist Christians make their attacks is alarming. They do not exhibit one ounce of doubt about the rightness of their conclusions. I have no idea what the more moderate members of my former denomination are doing to combat these vigilantes. I’m not sure they feel capable of doing anything, since the extreme conservatives are getting the upper hand in most evangelical denominations.

But here’s the thing. We’ve been here before. This is not America’s first time at a chaotic rodeo. We’ve always created enemies that don’t exist, vilified those newly arriving on our shores, turned our neighbors into the opposition, and generally made a mess of our democracy. And somehow, we have always been able to right the ship.

Nevertheless, I am frightened. This is the worst I have seen the ship listing during my lifetime. It feels like one rogue wave could finish us off and send sober minded citizens scrambling for the Canadian border. Yes, we are in a crisis, and what we do next will determine if our democracy survives.

How do we stop the madness? I know of no other way than to love those frightened souls. I think of a counseling client I had years ago whose political views and perspectives were the polar opposite of my own. I wondered if I could truly help my client. It wasn’t long, however, before I came to truly love the client. To my shock and utter surprise, they remained with me after I transitioned. A bond had been formed, and the client was able to look past their fears to find the common ground in our professional relationship.

Yes, it was a professional relationship, not a friendship. But it is a model that plays out every day in companies, government entities, schools, health care institutions, and other environments in which people from opposing views are brought together. The norm is not Congress. The norm is not the church. The norm is ordinary people brought together in the public square.

Most of my public speaking is in the corporate sector. I talk with the employees of corporations and offices across our nation. I find an openness to the message I bring that I would never receive in a church. I see it in the eyes of the audience members. They begin skeptical, but the longer I speak, the more I see their resistance fading, “She seems relatively normal – at least as normal as I am.” I know when they reach that point that the battle is over.  Yes, I am the same as you – bone and sinew and neuroses and complexes and prejudices and blind spots – in a word – human.

I focus on those positive encounters. I do not answer hate mail. I encourage those receiving hate mail to block the senders, have their correspondence vetted by allies, and above all, to never ever read one single hate message. No one is strong enough to endure a steady stream of vitriol.

But if you can see the larger picture, and understand these people are terribly frightened souls, you can protect yourself when you are being attacked, but also look for opportunities to reach out in those environments in which both sides come together. At work, or on the soccer field, or at the baseball game, you can take the common ground you share, and leverage it to see the precious human hiding behind that harsh facade. If we can learn to do that, we can save our nation.

In my soul I am an optimist. I believe we can right our ship. I believe if there is a pile of excrement, there must be a pony somewhere. I am determined to find the pony. I know there’s a pony.