"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.
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.