People Like Me

I have published at least one post everyday in May.

I have the sense that June is going to be different.

I’m just going to clear out my last post.


Imagine you have the best pot of chocolate you have ever eaten on the left bank of the Seine.

It’s so dark and rich, you let it melt in your mouth because you can taste the flavor of roast hazelnuts and cassis melt on your tongue with a sensual pleasure unlike anything you have ever experienced.   You understand why people line up to pay six euros for this tiny cup, because it is like nothing else you have ever experienced.

And you’re back in the states, trying to tell people about this incredible, transformative confection.   You use all the words you can find to convey the experience of consuming it, the range of delight, the play of flavours, the astounding texture, the freshness and the richness.    You really want to share this with a friend.

They listen to your description and then they reply.

“Yeah,” they say.  “I like chocolate pudding too.”

And you are deflated.

It’s not their fault, you understand.  After all, they only have their experience as reference, and they really tried to go to an experience as close as they can get to what you are describing.    Their frame of reference is their frame of reference, and that’s all they can bring.

But you want to share, need to share.  And they just aren’t in a place where they can get it.

Shared experience brings shared understanding, brings shared intimacy.  That’s why people who have been together for years have such a close relationship, be they siblings, partners or even just work mates.

In our culture, there is some kind of shared experience of being a woman.   I see it when I watch Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central.   It’s about the experience of being one of the girls and being in relationship with the boys.     Even though every woman approaches her own role uniquely, she can understand the shared experience of being a girl in school, at a party, in the workplace, whatever.    Even though I haven’t had those experiences, I have worked hard to engage and respect those shared experiences by engaging the narratives of other women, building an understanding as any immigrant builds an understanding of their new land.

The experience of being trans in the world, though, well, in my experience it can only be shared with those who have actually eaten that particular pot of chocolate.

In other words, I need to share it with people like me, because only people like me have experience with what I am trying to convey, only people like me can connect with the intensity and challenge of the experience.   I certainly have run though words to try and express the experience in the best way I can, probably millions of words in the last twenty-five years, but no amount of words can ever convey the experience to someone whose best possibility is to assume that my experience must be like their experience.

This failure of shared experience is a continuing struggle for me, the thing which keeps me lonely and isolated.  If I don’t believe we can find shared experience to connect with, why try anyway?

The traditional trans solution to this is simple.  It’s to talk about trans using the common shared experience that already exists, to use existing concepts and tropes to express our experience.

If I could have expressed my experience, thoughts and emotions with conventional language, I wouldn’t have had the kind of struggle I have had in my life.  It’s the problem of the return of the gift; if they wanted it here, they would have it already.

I know that we are expanding the shared experience.  Gay men and lesbians can be visible today in a way that they never were in the past because we have added shared language and experience to the culture that allows them to express their own meaning.   But that language only evolved because they needed to create their own language with people like them, needed to share experiences with others like them, and then that language could become more mainstream.

And I know I have a teeny-tiny little piece of that work to do.

But I also know that I need to share with people who understand my experience in a shared way if I want to continue to extend my own expression.

I am awfully good at being an audience for other people, using my bank of personal experience and ingested narrative to really hear and reflect their stories in ways that help them understand and own them.

But finding a place to share the depth of my experience, well, that often seems as elusive as the ability to describe that divine pot of chocolate.

Faith and/or Belief

It has been made clear to me that I don’t understand faith.

I don’t understand how to defend and protect identity terms that others consider valued and sacred.    I am willing to challenge and move beyond identities that others hold as sacred, no matter how much they cover a multitude of sins.

T.M. Luhrmann has an essay in the New York Times that says Belief Is the Least Part of Faith.  In it, Luhrmann makes the point that people who hold faith as an intellectual exercise miss the point of how faith operates in many churches.

In researching her book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God she came to the understanding that the only way to understand those church goers is to “sidestep the problem of belief.”   In other words, parishioners often attend a church not because of the doctrinal beliefs the church holds, but because of the experience of being in that church.  To understand the behaviour, you have to sidestep the belief, this anthropologist tells us.

I can’t disagree with her assessment of why people go to churches.  It is the experience of what faith delivers to them that makes it sacred and powerful.

But neither can I “sidestep the problem of belief  — and the related politics” as she suggests.

If I can’t challenge the beliefs held by a church because those beliefs are not really the essence of the experience of faith for many of the parishioners — notice that in this model I am not allowed to call them believers — then those beliefs become unchallenged.

I am a theologian, dammit, not an anthropologist.  And that means I explore belief.

Even if those beliefs are not at the core of faith for many people who attend the church, they are at the core of the church.

I have no problem acknowledging the experience of faith, the quest for some kind of experience of solace and empowerment.   And I understand that for many, belief structures are not only not the core of their faith, but are often irrelevant to it.

I just have a huge problem with saying that experience means that belief cannot be questioned or challenged.

No sidestep for me.

I know that I make some upset by questioning belief structures that have the same name as the faith they hold so close and so dear.  They want me to know that their faith isn’t about belief, it is about something much more powerful and more present to them.  It is about key experiences and terms in their life that have saved and empowered them, made them closer to the experience of joy, as Luhrmann says.  Those need to be held sacred, they say, for themselves and for the others who can be saved by them.

But dammit, I’m a theologian.

I acknowledge and respect the experience of faith beyond belief.

But that faith can’t put belief structures beyond discussion, no matter how sacred they are to any individual.

Because my faith is in the question of belief, and how it informs and transforms our own stories.

I’m a theologian, dammit.