Monday, September 01, 2014

Tolerance Means Escaping Ourselves

If it were my decision to make, I’d make my frame a little less broad, a little less prominent. In group pictures, I stick out prominently as the largest person in the frame. In a recent conference photo, I am visible by the space I take up and the peculiar way my head juts out from a row of smiling faces. Locating me is difficult. Shorter people usually have a greater chance of having most of their front side towards the camera. I’m the sort of person who has to be identified as back row, third from right.

And by large, I don’t mean overweight, I mean big. I’m six feet tall, but my shoulders are broad and massive and my feet are like boat paddles. I weigh around 270 pounds but my body type holds it well. I always knew I’d be this size in the end when I was still growing, but it never seemed like a good fit even then. If I could have made the decision myself, I’d be 100 pounds lighter and more average sized in build, but none of us can escape biology.

Let me put it a different way. I've been told that partners past have found me attractive and appealing because, on a subliminal level, they feel safe with me. I can protect them from harm, or at least they hope I can. When my temper flares, however, I’ve produced a consistent response in others I find I can limit with effort but cannot eliminate. My girth and broadness have led some to form automatic erroneous conclusions. 

I assure you that I’m totally harmless, but without knowing me intimately, I can be easily misunderstood. Some years ago I became a feminist because I believed in gender equality. I still do. But I have learned to manage my anger and frustration, in spite of the guilty-before-proven-innocent culture I confront more than I would like. Attitudes like those are a harsh life lesson that none of us can fully escape ourselves. None of us can escape our outsides, our gender, and all that defines our basic identity. What keeps me safe also constantly reminds me that I feel ill-suited to this frame and this weight. That said, we don’t often engage with others, opening a needed conversation about the various ways anger and conflict affects each of us.  

When I lose my temper, I never resort to name-calling or insults. Though I’m not proud of it, I wound with my presentation of the facts. The truth can be more damning than lies and supposition could ever hope to be. In my religious work, the goals of others and behavior patterns are quite different. I notice many people want to be nice, first and foremost.

My feminist friends and fellow writers take the exact opposite approach, feeling that confrontation should be used with reckless abandon. I’m not sure whether there is any middle ground between the two, but I have most certainly sought to straddle the gap between them.

I take no offense if I end up in a vocal argument with either another man or with a woman. In the past, I’ve been dressed down by Sunday School teachers and grade school educators of both sexes. I can curse a blue streak and fight hostility with hostility, but I’d much rather be engaged in conversation without pyrotechnics. I try to be a good ally to those marginalized groups who need allies, but like everyone else, the life I inhabit is not colored black and white alone.

When problems with communication show up, as they always do, I’ve been understood and misunderstood. I’ve been a source of comfort to many but I know I haven’t always been seen fairly on my own terms. It’s easy to make assumptions when facts are not plain to the eye.

My last really serious argument, I am sad to say, concerned myself and a very jealous boyfriend. His wife was forced, at his insistence, to cease being Facebook friends with me and forbidden to communicate with me in any way. I felt this was unfair on his part, but didn’t want to press my luck. Argument isn’t rational, even though we may think we are being rational.

Maybe we don’t like to hear ourselves and our actions when we are angry. I surely don't. I'm sure what I just wrote, on further contemplation, makes me seem about 14 years old. What felt so justified in the moment may need to be looked at differently. Arguments not based on logic can quickly be transformed into violence. Centuries of societal conditioning and hard work can give way when fear wins the day. 

I grew up hearing the stories of my father, who was a Grade A hell raiser before he settled down, deliberately picking fights with those foolish enough to draw his fire. His broad shoulders and build were transferred to me by way of the miracle of simple genetics. I also acquired his temper, though that came from direct experience, not genes.

The funny thing is that I believe in big vocabulary words like Peace and always will. What is ineffectual and weak, however, always gets pushed around by the strong. Whether it be a matter of race or of sexual orientation, familiar old patterns, more often than not, win the day. Bemoan it if you like, but I'd prefer we find a solution than continue to be pushed around and coerced.

This isn’t to say that I believe in survival of the fittest, either. My faith insists upon a persistent belief that conflict can be removed by the assiduous study and practice of conflict resolution. In my family, I was warned repeatedly to avoid people who were so liberal that their brains were coming out their ears. Now I’m a different kind of liberal with my own belief system, seeking never to be the cultural stereotype about which I was warned. I still measure myself constantly against this standard, whether I seek to do it or not.

Our understanding of ourselves as we are is not cut-and-dried. Our ambitions are always held in tension and in sharp contrast with our limitations. And in the end, we are only a combination between our personal aspirations and how we are perceived by others. We can only define ourselves to a degree, and either we embrace other flawed creatures as they are or we live a life stuck entirely inside our heads. We need a combination between our best face and our worst moment. That is how we live with others. That is how we live together.

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