Monthly Archives: April 2012

Balancing Greatness and Family

Last night, my girlfriend and I watched a documentary about the influential US architect Louis Kahn. Kahn died in 1974. In 2003 his illegitimate son Nathaniel Kahn made a documentary about the man, his father, who died alone in a subway station in New York, his body unclaimed for three days.

While there is much to chew on in this sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a complex man and artist, I want to focus on something that the Bangladeshi architect Shamsul Wares says near the end of the film. He is moved to tears when discussing the impact Kahn’s creation had on the city of Bangladesh and argues that while Kahn may have neglected his family, he was a man of great love for the people of Bangladesh, and that his familial neglect is the unfortunate consequence of his greatness. Or in his own words: “[Kahn’s] failure to satisfy his family life is an inevitable association of great people”.

This reminded me of a book by Gillian Slovo, daughter of South African anti-apartheid activists Joe Slovo and Ruth First. Every Secret Thing – My Family, My Country is a first person account of what it was like to grow up in a household where her parents’ cause always seemed to win out over family. It is a heart-wrenching account of the sacrifices the entire family had to make during the worst of the apartheid years. Today Slovo and First are considered national heroes in South Africa, First having sacrificed her life for the cause, killed by a parcel bomb in 1984.

What these two stories have in common is the apparent tension that exists between the personal ambitions of great individuals and the realities of family life. Is it possible to be truly great and still put your family first? In the case of Kahn and the Slovo family it didn’t work out that way.  Kahn was a serial adulterer who placed his work above all other considerations. The Slovo children rarely got to see their parents and constantly lived under a cloud of secrecy.

Reminiscing on his friend Louis Kahn’s flaws, Shamsul Wares defends him as follows: “He loved everybody. And to love everybody he sometimes did not see the very closest ones, and that is inevitable for a man of his stature”. But is it really? What kind of responsibility do we have to our children, our families? We may gain the world but if we are unable to share it with anyone, what does it ultimately mean?

Of course, it depends on our sight lines. The Slovos committed themselves to a creating a world where families of different skin colours would be able to live in a just and equal society for years to come. They were, presumably, looking at the long term benefits of their work. Ultimately, though, what guarantee did they have that all their hard work would pay off? And in the mean time, what of the family right in front of their noses? Their own?

It’s not an easy choice but it’s one that we all have to make in a way. Do we commit ourselves to living every day with the people closest to us, making that the core of our being? Or do we seek out opportunities and indulge personal ambitions, sacrificing, in the process, our immediate family’s needs? But maybe that’s a false dichotomy. If we can somehow include our family in our missions rather than hiding behind a cloak of secrecy, surely then our ambitions become a shared experience that deepens the family bond rather than weakening it?

When Kahn died, he was found with his passport but the address had been crossed out; he really was a man without a home. Always on the move, always seeking his next big project, he died doing what he’d devoted his life to. I suppose there is poetry in that.

How to Love Myself

…and other stories.

Easter weekend 2012 turned out to be a time of self-examination for me. I realized how much I miss having a faith community to belong to, and a family to share Easter dinner with.

I turned my back on Christianity a long time ago – at age 9 to be exact. I still continued attending church – it was expected of me – and I frequented Sunday school until about age 16, which is when most youngsters were groomed to step forward to get confirmed into the Church. At that point, though, I was thoroughly disillusioned. There was little comfort to be had in the cold pews that seated up to three thousand souls at a time – all of them white. Welcome to South Africa in the 1990s. Welcome to the Dutch Reformed Church. I left the church and never looked back.

For a time, my father was a deacon in our church; he was a man of deep faith. I really wanted to believe too, and we would have long discussions in which I asked him how he could believe in a God that allowed horrible things to happen in life, like death and sickness and ugliness. If God is all-powerful then He has the power to create perfection? My father would try to argue with me for a time, but then the conversation would dwindle. We realized that the chasm between us simply wasn’t going to be bridged through dialogue. One of the last books I ever mailed him was Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, in which Harpur argues that the Bible was never meant to be interpreted literally but is steeped in pagan traditions. In reply my father sent me Lee Strobel’s book A Case for Christ. This book argues for a factual reading of the Bible. And so things stood until the day my father died in 2005.

My loss of faith during my teens coincided with my deepening struggles around my own gender expression and sexuality. I did not feel comfortable discussing these feelings with anyone I knew, and felt ill at ease at home, in the church and at school. I avoided extracurricular activities and feared interacting with the world at large. I was celibate all throughout my teenage years and didn’t discuss my gender issues with anyone until I reached my mid-twenties. It was hard but by that point I was suicidal; I had nothing left to lose.

Like many of his generation, my father believed that homosexuality was a sin and that HIV and Aids was God’s way of cleansing the human species of those who turn away from Him. As for transsexuals, he felt they suffered from delusions and that delusions should be treated with medication not surgery. I like to think that my father would have come around if he’d lived, that he would have put aside his archaic thinking, but I can’t know for sure.  I do know that he said he loved me, even after I informed him that I was a transgender male and had begun hormone treatment to transition to living as a man. My father did not hide his pain at my decision, and our relationship certainly worsened after that. But I don’t question that he loved me. It still hurts, though, to think of what he must have thought of me.

I have had my struggles with mental illness, primarily clinical depression, but my being a transgender male was not, in my opinion, a sickness. And more recent science seems to back me up.  But back then, what really made me sick was the judgments all around me, the blame, dismissals and sheer mean-spiritedness I was confronted with, especially from my mother. For the sake of my own healing I ultimately severed ties with her. I haven’t spoken with her since 2006 and likely will not see her again. She would say that it is my loss. And in a way she would be right. I have indeed lost something by not having a family to form community with. But I do not miss her damnation and her lack of compassion.

Luckily, familial rejection did not mean rejection from my friends, and over the years since, I have built a community of chosen family. They have witnessed my transformation and my coming into my own. Their support continues to nourish me. And recently I have even given myself permission to imagine what it might be like for me to have children of my own. Will I be a better parent than my parents were? Will I be able to love my child unconditionally, no matter what?

As for my faith-life, I am finally moving towards making peace with God. I believe He exists in the spaces between us. Whether I will ever belong to a faith community again remains to be seen, but if I do, I commit to doing no harm, and to loving those who are different from me. Because if we can’t do that, what hope is there of achieving peace in this world?

Losing My Community

What do you do when you’re an eleven year old kid in a – for all intents and purposes – foreign country where even your own home feels unsafe? That was what it was like when my family moved from Canada to South Africa in the early 1990s. After the initial glow of newness wore off I realized that the land of my birth, a country I hadn’t seen since I was 4 years old and then only for a year and a half, was a pretty disturbed place. Here I was, in a school with children who spoke Afrikaans, not English,  and where it was life-threatening to form relationships with people whose skin-colour was different from my own.

I really wanted to love my birth country. My family was proud of its Afrikaner heritage and expected the same of me. And yet I felt confused, not proud, as the apartheid-era rhetoric filled my ears. Our return was four years before Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as the first black president of this nation and there was chaotic, even dangerous energy in the air. No one knew whether we would end up with a civil war on our hands. And in this mix of political angst and outdated Afrikaner pride I emerged uncertain of how to shape my own identity.

At eleven, I was still puzzling over what racism meant. Canada, too, had had its share of discrimination – as I’d seen myself in Prince George, where First Nations children were ostracized for their dirty clothes and different ways. But it’s different when you form part of the (white) majority seeing your peers discriminate against the (Native) few. You know it’s wrong but you can sort of forget about it. Those who are marginalized, you know, can’t really fight back.

In South Africa, though, things were different. Afrikaners numbered approximately 6 million in a country of close to 30 million black people. We were the minority who had somehow taken power away from the majority and were holding on for dear life. In fact, we held onto power so tightly because we thought that giving it up would mean our own massacre. The massacre didn’t happen of course – largely thanks to leaders such as Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and others preaching the value of forgiveness and reconciliation. I think a lot of Afrikaners were skeptical whether this approach could work. As were many, I am sure, black people who felt no desire to forgive and move forward together.

There have been ups and downs on the road to recovery. I no longer live in South Africa so cannot speak on how far we’ve come. The last time I visited, in 2004, a new black middle class had begun to emerge. But HIV was wiping out generations of South Africans and crime was at an all-time high. Was that progress? The poor were still largely poor and the political arena was rife with charges of corruption. A “brain drain” was occurring – with those with education and means seeking out opportunities in foreign lands instead of engaging in the difficult task of rebuilding a country that had been through so much. But there have been positive changes too. South Africa successfully hosted the World Cup Soccer in 2010. South African trade is thriving again on the international stage with the lifting of sanctions after the fall of Apartheid. And a new generation of post-apartheid youth are stepping forward to lead the way to a fair and equitable society.

As for me, I am still sorting out how to shape my own identity. I no longer proclaim loudly to the world that I am an Afrikaner. Why would I when – even to me – that word conjures up images of township massacres, political prisoners and repressive policies? I am still teasing apart the legacy of oppression that is my birthright, learning how to convert it into a constructive force. I have severed ties from the community that spawned me – from the biological family that I once belonged to. I have committed myself to forging new bonds with those who, like me, want to create a future that is inclusive of all of us, regardless of skin colour, race, sexual orientation, gender expression, or class.

I believe it is in the sharing of things, ideas, wealth, that we allow each other to flourish.

Status Quid Pro Quo

What is status? And who gives it to us?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately – about the importance of status in my own life. First, let’s define status. To me, it means where we place in the hierarchy of society, with the wealthy squarely located at the top of the ladder and the poverty-stricken at the bottom. I have, in my mind, made a habit of equating wealth and status but I have come to realize that this might not always be so. Surely there are those in our world who have earned society’s respect and yet do not carry the riches such a position would imply? One of my personal heros, Buckminster Fuller, operated virtually at a zero sum game for much of his life – as per his own admission. And Mother Theresa, for example, gave her life to serving others yet had little possessions of her own.

It strikes me that what I crave, then, is not so much financial wealth but societal respect. I want a seat at the communal table and I want my voice to be heeded and heard. This, to me, is no small revelation. Up to now, I had operated under the false assumption that if I just stick to my job long enough, and make enough money, somehow, at some point, suddenly the world will care more about me. But until then I am doomed to the shadows.

It’s true that money does facilitate that journey up the social ladder. To be able to buy your way through life conveys power. And power is, after all, why we seek out status. Power means having the influence to shape the future rather than standing by the sidelines. But where I have faltered is to believe that only wealth can bestow me with this power. And that, simply put, is not true. Not having money is indeed an impediment to power because one spends so much of one’s energy worrying about where the next meal will come from, and how to keep a roof over one’s head. But once this abject poverty is resolved, the paths towards wealth and power may very well diverge.

Maybe power isn’t the word I’m looking for. It conjures images of kings and queens and arrogant, corrupt politicians. It implies subjugation and separates the world into two camps: those who have it, and those who don’t. What I seek is not power, then, but influence. Influence does not mean taking power away from anyone else. Instead it seeks to strengthen those around us. And that is what I want to do: I want my voice to be heard but more than that, I want to create a world, a space, where everyone’s voice has the potential to be heard in a constructive manner.

The question for me becomes how to foster influence – not for my own gain but for the sake of contributing to the success of the greater society. And by success I mean health, happiness and peace. We deserve to live in a world where these qualities are foremost.

Maybe it’s time to re-imagine status. Rather than portraying it as a ladder, one that leads from bottom (poverty) to top (wealth), what if it is more like a cloak we choose to throw over our shoulders, a kind of uniform that represents our willingness to serve a higher calling. For some, money can buy them the privilege of wearing it. But for others, we inherit it from our fathers, mothers, brothers, mentors.  And once we have the cloak, only we get to decide when to take it off, when to pass it on, and how to use it.

It’s time for me to take up my status cloak. What will you do with yours?

From Coping to Thriving

As one who has lived in the strangle-hold of depression for a large portion of my life, I know how hard it is to put aside unhealthy life habits and engage with the world in a positive way. Patterns of behaviour develop over time, through repetition, and become engraved – especially if these habits begin during childhood. And if solitude is what one has practiced, day after day, year after year, as I have, then breaking out of that solitude becomes a mountain as tall as Everest is to the novice mountaineer. Success does not happen overnight.

I have at times wondered if it is possible to heal fully when so many of my formative years have been shaped by a disease that left me afraid to step out of my parents’ house, communicate with my peers and learn new things joyfully and without fear of failure. How does one undo years of dysfunctional conditioning? Should one even try?

I know that I am not alone in my struggle, as is attested by the high number of people taking anti-anxiety drugs and SSRI medication for depression. In the West, our ever accelerating urban environments are flooded with unsorted information that overwhelms the senses and can paralyze us if we are not equipped to process it effectively. What we end up hearing is noise – if we are uninitiated. In this dangerous and overstimulating sea of data we each must learn to be the captains of our souls, sailing towards an island of silence – a space of calm and clarity that lies within us. If we are lucky we have families that can help show us the way. But if we are unlucky, we are left to navigate our own path before we are fully prepared.

I have learned through much hard work to access my inner sweet spot when I sit, for example, in front of my computer screen and allow my fingers to guide me towards some form of self-expression. Like a muscle, my voice grows stronger only when I exercise it. And like a reluctant athlete I often stumble, grow lazy or simply procrastinate.

Self-expression does not come easily to me. And while I enjoy writing – or should I say, having written – the actual process, of sitting down and creating a space for the words to emerge onto a screen, well, that can be terrifying. Not only do I fear the emptiness of the blinking cursor on a blank screen, but I fear what it is that might emerge if I were truly honest with myself and with others. Because within me, I know, is much darkness — and that darkness is ugly, like an open sore. Why show it to the world when I can just as easily pretend that it doesn’t exist?

But mental wounds, like physical ones, need to breathe. You cannot treat them if you do not acknowledge their reality. They must see the light of day, or else fester and spread like an untreated infection. As a teacher once said to me, humans are exceptional energy conductors – and horrible energy storage devices.

That is why I write about my struggles, with mental illness and with coming to terms with my non-typical gender identity. That is why I proclaim to the world: I am not normal. This is harder to admit than you might imagine. I have wanted, for much of my life, to be nothing more than just like everyone else. But how many of us really are, as they say, ‘normal’? And is being normal really a prerequisite to being a constructive contributing member of society?

I don’t know about you but the people from whom I have learned the most in my life have not been what you might call ‘normal’. They have been unpredictable, unorthodox and inspiring because they have done, said and spoken in ways I did not know possible. They have revealed new ways of seeing and offered up unimagined landscapes to ponder.

To imagine, I believe, is our greatest ability as human beings. It is what gives us strength and drives us onward and outward into dialogue with the world we inhabit. To be depressed is to lose the ability to imagine anything other than what is. It is an unbearable place to be.

I, for one, am ready to imagine again. Even if that, too, can be scary.