Today’s my birthday. I share it this year with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a calendrical accident that confers the spiritual equivalent of a contact high.
But for me, a birthday is always an occasion. Every year has a distinct character and completeness that begs to be understood: I want to hang it on the wall, gaze for a while, put a frame around it. So when each birthday arrives, I ask myself what I have learned from the year just past. Today, two life-lessons stand out. Both are simultaneously personal and political.
I am deeply impressed by the lengths some people will go to avoid disappointment and vulnerability. This past year, I’ve noticed the way that has become a prime directive for quite a few people. I do not know whether it is has always been so: perhaps, at a certain age, it is usual to subside into guardedness—bitten too many times to be less than perpetually shy? But I don’t think so. I think it is one of the tendencies these times bring out.
All year long, I have been drawn repeatedly into a particular conversation, often in the process of getting acquainted with a new person. Some are with people have heard me speak or read a piece of my writing; some with men I’ve met in online dating world. Either way, the other person says, “You’re an optimist, aren’t you? How is that even possible when the human race is so determined to destroy itself?”
I explain that actually, I’m not an optimist. It’s true that often, I can see possibility, and almost always, the potential for good, for healing, for beauty, for meaning. But I can also see the many callous, corrupt, exploitive, and cruel actions that stain this world. I make no predictions as to which side will prevail. I simply notice that at this moment, life goes on. The thick pink-gold light at sunset turns San Francisco Bay’s cold water to wine. Birds careen overhead, drunk on light. People walk by: a father reaches low for the hand of his small son, who waddles along on legs just learning; next comes the couple who can’t keep their hands off each other, promenading, entwined, through the delirious sweetness of the hour.
“I’m just keeping my eyes open,” I say.
“No,” says the other person, “you’re a cockeyed optimist for sure. Our fate is obvious, because we’re so stupid. We knowingly poison our own air and water. It’s too late now. There’s no fixing it. We can only stand and watch as it all goes to hell.”
“You may be right,” I say, “but we can’t know for certain unless or until it happens.” I say that not knowing is the only intellectually defensible position. I explain that I feel much better when I admit it, that unknowing creates space for me to imagine and move toward alternative futures.
I ask this: “In the end, you may turn out to be right, but which life do you want to live till then? Watching the curtain fall? Or writing a new play?”
All year long, I’ve emerged from these conversations not fully understanding why it’s so important to these individuals to be right in predicting doom, as opposed to, say, warning and exhorting people toward the actions that could avert or forestall it. Why do they want so much to talk me out of pitching my tent on the ground of unknowing? Why can’t they tolerate unknowing as a stance? Why must it be resolved into some certainty, whether starry-eyed optimism or its opposite?
I’ve begun to see that it’s a heart question, one that pertains equally to the individual human heart and the heart of the world. These people are willing to endure enormous preemptive suffering to avoid feeling the vulnerability and disappointment of opening one’s heart to possibility that never materializes. On the personal plane, it keeps their hearts closed both to the depth of love and to the pain of its loss; on the political plane, it keeps them stuck as bystanders, rather than risking the fray. And we all lose by it. As Dr. King said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
It’s not that I don’t understand. Of course I do. I’m just as afraid of getting hurt as anyone else. At times, I’ve shaped my life to avoid pain. It may have taken me a long time to recognize that being defended against vulnerability can dull the pain, but it also dulls the pleasure. But not for a while, and not any more.
Happy birthday lesson number one, then: whatever this year brings, however risky it feels to say so, I’m open to it.
The second lesson has impressed me deeply too: it’s been a big year for noticing the degree to which so many people’s self-worth feels contingent. Online dating has been an amazing education in this respect, especially because the ambient gender politics throw it into high relief. When I meet someone online who wishes to get acquainted (and that possibility appeals to me too), my first step is to suggest a few moments clicking around my website, to learn a little more about who I am—watching some of a video, or dipping into an essay or blog yields a much fuller picture than a dating profile. That can also disclose glaring incompatibilities, sparing us both a needless trip to the coffee shop, so it’s a good filtering device.
That starts some interesting conversations (and sometimes, a sharing of work in return). But in some men, it triggers a powerful need to measure themselves and find themselves lacking. Those men sometimes write back to say they are impressed, and even to open a conversation about political or other ideas (see previous life-lesson), but also to declare that they could never keep up with someone like me. Usually, they say that I would get bored. (That’s the gender politics part, I think: wouldn’t women usually be more drawn to a man if he seemed dynamic or accomplished?)
No doubt they’re right. Boredom is likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: the person who feels less than will be dogged by it. He will freeze if he feels challenged to show up, and that will make it worse. The way out is either to dive in headlong, confronting the inner voice that makes you seem small to yourself, and possibly releasing its grip; or to keep your distance, avoiding people and situations that awaken self-doubt, and spiraling into a smaller orbit, even into isolation.
My inherited reactivity can be triggered by this. As an energetic little girl, full of desire, imagination, and opinions, I was often told I was too much: slow down, say less, keep your place. Learning to live has taught me to show up fully, as big as I am. If someone compares me to himself and decides I’m too much, let that be his truth, not mine.
It’s not always easy. The old voices whisper sometimes, as when a birthday opens a crack in time, when I wonder whether the years to come will show me the fulfillment of desire. In the meantime, I try to practice what a wise friend counseled, to have compassion for the one who is driven to compare himself to others, unable to take pleasure in what is. The personal is political, my generation learned, and this seems as true for the many as for the one. As Dr. King said, “As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free.”
Happy birthday lesson number two, then: the desire and commitment to show up as big as I am, to help those around me to do the same, and to see those who reject this choice with compassion, rather than giving them the power to shrink my own spirit.
Big birthday blessings, friends, for a year of willing to risk being who we are, hearts wide open. And happy birthday, Dr. King, the author of these and so many other beautiful words:
This is where we are. Where do we go from here? First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values.
Every year, I unearth the questions that are arising for me, the ones that will shape my take on life. Some change, some endure. This year, a new question swam to the surface of my awareness: Where do I belong? For someone who has lived such a peripatetic life, to be asking this seems momentous, although in truth, I don’t know if the answer will be a person, a place, a tribe. But somehow I am glad to be asking the question, and very ready to say yes if life hands me an answer. Will I be met? I am so grateful for the people in my life who allow me to answer yes, and still, I want more. Will I be understood?—that one is eternal for me, and the way Nina Simone asked it—big as life and proud of it—always knocks me off my feet. “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”