suffering

Why Some People Never Jump

"Courage is the opposite of cozy. You can quote me on that." -Pema Chödrön

Most people live their whole lives perched on the edge of life, steps away from unbridled bliss (or something close to it). They keep themselves poised, on tiptoes, terrified to take the flying leap into the great unknown.

For many people, the familiar is safer so they stop just yards shy of the dangling carrot. They choose to chase it and never take the flying leap to grab it and chomp down nice and hard.

But not me. No, sir.

Two years ago, I made a decision to change the way I move through the world to identify as a transgender person and pass as male. The process has taught me a lot about how people relate to change.

As with any major life change, some of what I’ve experienced was anticipated or expected and some was not. The parts I didn’t know or anticipate fall into the realm of the unknown—the aspect of change that people fear most, and that’s maybe why so many people never risk living their lives fully or they complain their way through the arduous process of change. They don’t want to risk not knowing. They may feel things they can’t expect or control. Or sometimes, they know how hard it might be and they just aren’t up for it because it’s hard. It hurts. It sometimes involves substantial loss for potential gain.

People have a hard time letting go of their suffering.

Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

If someone decides they don't prefer suffering, they must be compelled by something deeper and more powerful than their current existence.

One of the reasons I decided to jump and make the major physical transition was that my physical presence on the planet had simply become too uncomfortable to bear. I craved something different. I knew some of what I was up against, but the scales tipped in favor of the great unknown versus the familiar. The familiar was safe, but not comfortable. The risks were low and the payoff of living as I had lived was high.

But something deep inside me knew that I would never be truly happy.

"To overcome natural inertia, the motivation toward the change must be more powerful than the satisfaction with the status quo (or anxiety about the change)." -Bennett and Bush, 2014

I had a lot of practice with this, which was why this life change was even possible. I’ve sort of lived my whole life taking risks and doing what other people don’t do. I have a lot of experience with how to prepare for the unknown, how to handle myself when the unexpected happens and how to find a way to love this thing called life in the meantime.

My transition two years ago is only one of many, major life changes and choices I've made. It doesn't define me as a person but only helped me understand change and transition, and the relationship people have to it, on an even deeper level.

Here are some of the reasons why I think some people never jump:

They are afraid to change.

People get really attached to who they think they are, even when it isn't working so well for them.

There is no experience on earth like actively choosing to change your entire identity after inhabiting a body for your entire childhood, adolescence and young adult life. Having to unlearn everything you knew about how to move and talk and walk in the world and reorient yourself while still looking out through the same eyes? It’s mind-numbing. Disorienting doesn’t begin to describe it.

I’ve lost partners to new lovers. I’ve lost friends to death. I’ve lost beloved trinkets from my childhood. The permanence of the loss is something you gradually come to terms with. It’s gone, lost, over.

Losing 'yourself' while still being alive? It’s uncanny and surreal.

What I've learned (and loved) about the past two years was how little of myself there actually was that was permanent. And how much I get to evolve and create anew on a day-to-day basis.

They are afraid to be wrong.

What if it's the wrong choice? Well, who defines wrong? I already knew much of society and my family wouldn't approve of my decision, but I didn't want to live my life according to someone else's values and standards.

I think so many people do this, and then regret or resent some aspect of their lives because they chose based on what everyone else does--even when everyone else isn't all that happy.

I finally got to the point where I realized I had to choose and I would live with the consequences of my decision for myself. It meant throwing away the keys to an old reliable car, turning my back and walking away. It would work out the way it was meant to, like so many other choices and decisions had in my life thus far. Sitting on the fence of ambivalence was no way to live. It was a half-lived life and I wasn't about to spend the rest of my years on the planet that way.

They are afraid of the fall.

What would the process be like? There's only one way to find out. All the anticipating and planning in the world doesn't reveal something before it's time. It's like prying open a blooming flower.

I've watched people try to meticulously plan for things only to be totally surprised by the actual experience. They spend so much time reeling from the unfolding process because it's nothing like they wanted or hoped for or had thought would happen. It's a good lesson in holding your nose and jumping and letting go of the need to control the outcome of everything.

They are afraid to be alone.

At the two-year mark, I’ve learned that taking the jump meant not everyone would join me. It's not how everyone lives. I've had to learn to be ok with me and back myself up on every decision, because no one--and I mean no one--has the right answer.

Change brings out the worst in some people and the best in others.  Some people I loved and trusted ran far and fast when my gender transition went from this totally fun concept to a brutally difficult reality. My process of transformation brought up issues they didn’t or couldn’t face about their own selves in their own lives so they needed to put distance between themselves and me and what I held up. On the other hand, transitioning brought friends into my life that I would never have met otherwise and many people floated like cream to the top of the bottle, showing tremendous amounts of tenacity and tenderness.

They are afraid to be truly happy.

Sometimes, at my best moments, I look past the not-so-hot parts about being transgender and consider it the ultimate privilege. I feel like I really lucked out and have moments of happiness that I never had before.

Sure, I'm repeatedly pigeonholed and asked incredibly inappropriate or personal questions on a daily basis. In many places of the world, transgender people are outlawed and killed. I can be denied a job or medical care, but hey! I’ve been given the chance to move through the world one way for 30-odd years and now I get to spend the rest of my days in another form like few people on this planet will ever experience! I’ve won the gender identity lottery!

In many ways, I feel luckier than most people, because I got/took a second chance at life. I get to do everything and anything I always wanted to do PLUS the richness of my incredible past existence.

Where I once wore heels (short ones, of course), I now get to walk a mile in the (much more comfortable) shoes of the men I longed to be like. I get to wear ties and pants and fun haircuts, fashion I really dig and can enjoy. I get to experience tremendous physical strength in my mid-30s. I can run farther and faster than ever and I had never been able to do many push-ups but now I can do 30 at a time. Chin-ups were impossible. They are possible, now.

And I'm a bit more dangerous with a bat now than when I was as a kid.

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Two years in, I can tell you that I jumped for that dangling carrot and I'm glad I did. While it is no walk in the park, and is filled with no shortage of issues and is anything but cozy, it's working, for whatever reason.

Maybe it's because I simply decided it would.

And I'm willing to bet it would work for the jump you're staring down, too.

Reconsider Your Complaint

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If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering. -Viktor Frankl

 

If you don't know Viktor Frankl, consider reading his book, Man's Search for Meaning. He was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. He wrote about his experience in concentration camps and the enlightenment he reached about making meaning from all life experiences, even the most unpleasant ones.

I've been seeing a lot of complaining on facebook lately, it's nothing new really. And friends have shared their grievances about their lives with me. Times are tough, I know.

I am not suggesting that people stop feeling bummed about difficult things. I recommend reconsidering your suffering and your complaint.

Consider that your life experiences are teaching you something, and it's possible that if you complain, you won't receive the message that's meant for you. If you're focused on the experience being a cause of suffering rather than a means for growth or evolution, it will persist.

Pema Chodron says, "nothing leaves our lives until it's taught us what we need to learn." I've seen this pattern emerge over time in my own life.

When something sucked, it usually kept sucking until I changed something about myself or the situation. When I wasn't able to change something, I usually changed my attitude about it, like Maya Angelou has suggested. Once I had moved on, I was able to see what life was trying to teach me, what the Universe was trying to give me or save me from and who I was now as a result.

This all may sound incredibly lofty and verbose. Let me give you a practical example.

I began my career as a teacher at the age of 21. I taught 5th and 8th grade for several years and loved it. I was really good with kids from a young age, so hanging out with teens was easy and fulfilling for me. During that time, I fell in love for the first time--and it was with a young woman. I myself identified as female at the time, or at least presented myself to the world that way, and so our relationship was rather taboo for where we lived in the year 2000. I never told my students. I never told my colleagues. Here's why:

One day, the vice principal walked into the room where my team of teachers sat for lunch and she announced that she thought several of the kids were "swishy". I had no idea what she meant. I sat, PB&J poised by my mouth, listening as she and the two older male teachers ran through our class roster and listed each kid they thought demonstrated homosexual tendencies. Being "swishy" meant gay, apparently.

Within a year, three months shy of being awarded tenure, I quit teaching at the age of 24. I left the career I had worked toward so diligently, because I was terrified I wouldn't be able to be my true self.

Taking that leap prepared me to take bigger ones throughout the next 10 years. It was the first of many times I realized that I couldn't thrive by hiding or acting my way through life.

For a while though, I complained about it. I kept telling the story that I "had to quit" because it wasn't safe. I told this story about a few other jobs I held, jobs where my skills, habits and patterns didn't match the environment or mission of the group at that time. I complained until I could see the bigger picture. I complained until I started to make meaning from the experience.

Years later, I am developing a thriving business as an independent coach and consultant and use each and every skill I learned to master as an educator. I draw on principles of leadership and classroom management and group facilitation. I factor in Gardner's theory of different learning styles and make my presentations dynamic, interactive and most of all, fun. I tell my groups, "hey, I taught 8th grade. If my kids had fun, I'll make sure you will, too."

If I hadn't chosen to make meaning from that experience, and instead spent the rest of my life complaining that I had to quit teaching due to discrimination, I would not be able to thrive like I am today. I would not be able to share my skills with groups, helping them learn and laugh and love their lives and their jobs more as a result. I would have left my talent sitting in a heap, stifled and stopped by the small minds of a handful of people. I know more than a handful of people don't approve of me or the way I live my life, but compared to the many who do, it feels like a handful I can handle.

I see people complaining about a lot of things that feel new, unsafe, uncomfortable or unfair.

They complain about traffic, the weather, being a parent, not being a parent, having coffee, not having coffee, losing love, broken phones, losing jobs or not getting their way about something.

Again, I'm not judging the complaints or the complainers. I complain, I just don't share my complaints on facebook, social media or these blog posts. I do that because I don't find anything inspiring about complaining, and I don't think my followers would, either.

I prefer to share whatever I come up with as a solution to the complaint I had. When I've worked through the problem, when I've made meaning from the experience, I share what I will use or do as a result.

Next time you find yourself struggling with something, feeling at a loss or overwhelmed or generally stuck in the muck in some way, reconsider your complaint and try to make meaning from the experience, instead. Reach out to friends or family to gain some perspective if that helps. Get out your feelings, vent the frustration you feel--it is a crucial part of the process of getting from point A to point B.

And share THAT, because we all need help and inspiration, more than anything else.

 

photo courtesy of Umberto Salvagnin on flikr

 

 

Feeling All The Things

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"That's the thing about pain. It demands to be felt." - The Fault in Our Stars

Haven't seen or read this book, but I heard this quote in a clip and I thought it was pure truth. :)

One of the greatest lessons I learned from all the stuff of my life was how to feel my feelings. The more I walk amongst others, I really get how few people actually do this or know how to do it.

And I get it. I really do. It doesn't actually feel very good, especially the hard feelings. The good ones are hard to feel, too, I think. For me, good feelings sometimes bring a bittersweet quality because I know they won't last.

This fun BBQ with friends will end and I will have to go home.

This great movie will end.

This book will be over.

This gorgeous sunset will become night.

etc., etc.

Welcome to why I became a Buddhist. I find it helpful to have a tool to manage impermanence. Impermanence is reality, it's what is real and true about life. Before I realized this, I suffered a lot.

My relationship to and with impermanence began long ago.

I struggle with "issues" around abandonment and attachment from my childhood. I put the issues in quotes because, well, I think it's bullshit to stigmatize something that almost every person experiences an "issue". How about we just call it, hmm, the human experience.

OK.

So, I struggle with the experiences of abandonment and attachment from my childhood. My parents divorced when I was year old and my father moved out, remarried and had two sons. I have one sister and two brothers. I don't call them half-brothers--there is nothing half about them. It really doesn't matter that we have different moms. They are my brothers, end of story.

Because psychology is what it is (whatever we understand it is, really) I experience the impact of this family arrangement. It trickled into my childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood and, presently, my adulthood. It impacts how I interact with other people and how I relate to work, exercise, food and spirituality.

It's good for me to know this so I can make sense of everything I think, do and say. Some people don't think this is a good use of their time. Different strokes for different folks, I say. I find it helpful to make meaning from life because it's how my brain works. Before I had tools to help me, I really struggled. Now, I apply the many tools I've acquired over the course of 15 years and they help me adjust and recalibrate to make my life more positive and so I can experience less suffering. As long as I'm here, I might as well enjoy it, right?!

One way I do this is to feel all the things. Even the dark, nasty, horrible things. One of the worst feelings I felt was at the end of romantic relationships. There were times I felt like my body was coming apart at the seams. I felt like I was being squeezed out like a sponge or like someone was reaching down into my intestines and pulling them out through my throat.

So, trust me, I know why people do anything in their power to avoid feeling hard feelings. I know how it feels. But I have spent years practicing how to do it because each time I do, it makes it a little bit easier, ironically. It doesn't seem like it would work, but it has for me.

Sort of like waves of nausea. We all know that feeling.  You know how sometimes you wait it out, and let it pass, it goes away? Sometimes it's the flu or food poisoning and it doesn't go away. I'm not talking about that kind. haha.  I'm talking about the kind that makes you sit down and stop for a minute. And when you take deep breaths and a sip of water, it passes. And you feel really relieved because what felt so horrible a minute ago now isn't there and you feel so much better.

You realize that you didn't need to do anything other than sit and wait it out. And you are ok. And maybe next time the nausea comes, you will know what to do and it won't feel so scary.

I tried this the other day when I felt incredibly restless. OMG. I was like a Tazmanian devil, moving from thing to thing, picking things up, putting them down, literally walking in circles. This went on for about two hours until my mindfulness practice kicked in. I caught myself and I stopped. I felt the twitches and tics in my body. I felt my muscles tense and relax. It was like I took a picture of myself. I watched myself from about two feet away. And I sat down, put my palms on my thighs and I sat there. I felt like my head was in a vice.

I took a lot of deep breaths. I realized what was happening and that I'd been here many times before. I knew I was safe but I said it out loud, just to remind myself. I knew I had nowhere to go and nothing important to do and this was a perfect time to be fearless and face whatever wanted to come up.

I allowed myself to REALLY feel the depth of the loss, the pain or the grief I was experiencing. I wanted to know what it was like to really FEEL it and not run or move around anymore, because all that moving around clearly wasn't making it go away.

WOW. Tears came up from the depths of somewhere. I let them pour out and down like they did when I was kid. Did you know that tears perform the essential physiological function of cleansing stress hormones out of our bodies? I didn't know that. Since I learned, I'm always thrilled when I can manage a good cry.

When the tears were over, I felt like someone had uncorked me. The tension was gone. The grasping, restless feeling was gone. The headache was gone. My focus was back. When I released my resistance on feeling those hard feelings and just allowed them to come up and out, something horrible didn't happen. Instead, I felt much better on the other side.

Let yourself ride the tide, the highs and lows of life. Don't try to feel "good" all the time, it isn't natural or realistic. Nothing in life or nature is like that. It isn't always sunny or rainy (well, depending on where you live, of course).

Feel all the feelings and remember none of them are permanent. Not the good ones or the not-so-good ones. 

 

"Let everything happen to you

Beauty and terror

Just keep going

No feeling is final."

-Rainer Maria Rilke, poet