I got read this morning.
The circumstances aren't really relevant beyond setting the context. I had just come up out of the Metro and was walking the couple of blocks to my office when a man stopped me to ask a question. My answer didn't satisfy him and he became angry and closed in on me, close enough to pick up some subtle cue that caused him to suspect I was transgender. He yelled an accusation to that end loudly as I was walking away, and I felt my cheeks flush with anger and embarrassment.
I feel blessed that this has happened to me very rarely since I transitioned, but when it has it's left me reeling with self-doubt. As I walked to the office today, that's where my thoughts went. I was obviously doing something wrong. Was my make-up or my hair unsuitable this morning? Maybe it was the clothes I was wearing, or my posture or gait. Or perhaps something deeper or more abstruse. Is my jawline too square ("Maybe I need some plastic surgery"), are my hands too big ("I wish I had some pockets to stuff them in"), is my voice shifting to a lower range ("Need to start concentrating on that again")?
And then I noticed that I was walking more quickly than usual, with my head down and my shoulders slouched, fearful of meeting anyone's eyes as I passed them on the street, wanting only to get to my office and shut the door. I was in that old, familiar place, I realized -- the place of fear -- and I was experiencing that old, familiar tension, the one between the deep desire to live openly and with integrity and the frantic impulse to safety and security.
In her book Woman Awake: Women Practicing Buddhism, Christina Feldman has a great chapter on power and the ways women experience and practice it in our culture. She writes,
In a patriarchal culture, power is equated with the capacity to have power over something: it is the capacity to control, to alter, to manipulate, or to influence the world. This capacity to control builds a sense of strength, an illusion of invincibility. Cloaking ourselves in power, we can manipulate and control our world while protecting ourselves from the effects of power.
This is the power that was employed against me this morning, but it is also the power I employed in response. Just as the man who accosted me sought to control and manipulate me to bolster his sense of strength in the world, I sought to control and manipulate myself so that I might feel less weak and vulnerable. Our instruments of power--debasement and humiliation--were the same, and we even chose the same target, my deepest sense of personhood.
These ways of being and relating are conditioned by our culture and deeply ingrained in all of us, but Feldman reminds us that such violent exercises of power do not come without cost:
In developing power or mastery over anything, we set ourselves against that which we wish to control: we set ourselves against people, against events, against nature, or even against our own nature. With the desire for mastery comes a distancing from that which we seek to control. The distance is essential to create and preserve: it serves to prevent us from being overwhelmed by the power of others and to protect ourselves from fear.
The results are predictable and inevitable: isolation, competition, destruction, the hallmarks of our modern society. Feldman urges women to break free from their cultural conditioning, to "appreciate the invaluable contribution that their disposition and yearning for interconnectedness can offer to the dissolution and transformation of destructive systems that are based on the notion of mastery over others." The first step in this process of integration and liberation, for me at least, is getting comfortable with my own vulnerability.
I need to warm up to the fact that invincibility is a myth and reject the notion that self-respect is a zero sum game. I need to reaffirm my commitment to live according to what I know to be true, not according to what feels safe, and set aside identities and roles rooted in defensiveness. I need to refuse to give my assent (and thereby surrender my true power) to social systems and relational structures that deny our mutual dependency as human beings, a truth Feldman calls "nature's first law" and the fundamental principle of our survival, both as a race and as individuals.
As these become my practice, I will grow in awareness and acquire a deeper wholeness. "For when I am weak, then I am strong."
(Cross-posted at Crossing the T.)