The Arts of Living and Dying in Damaged Bodies
Act 1: Fear and Trembling
I finished a 6 week course on Gender Equity and Reconciliation (GERI) last week. A group of 25 people, approximately half who identify as men, half women, and some non-binary, were hosted for two hours on a weekly basis to dig deep into the lived traumas of gender dynamics together. The format is simple, but the progression of the time spent together effectively unravels you.
The course is something that I probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon, much less joined, but a wise friend recommended it to me, and I trust following the threads of my relationships to spaces outside my usual orbit.
At the beginning, I had my doubts about whether I needed the course: I thought I was pretty well-reconciled with gender. I’ve collaborated with my best friends to create critical artworks about the tender anger of women’s experiences. I’m in a committed relationship and have beautiful platonic friendships with men. Most of the time, I wish that gender didn’t exist. I am a socially-progressive Millennial, tugging at the prudish collar of my hetero(mostly)-CIS-woman skin that adorns me, peering out at the open waters of the gender fluidity and pan-sexuality, and occasionally wondering if I should just get naked and jump in.
But the truth is, I haven’t spoken explicitly or at a vulnerable depth around gender relations in most of my life and circles. It’s much safer to follow the known scripts: with friends who identify as women, we say “ugh, men!” and share experiences rife with quotidian micro-aggressions, mansplaining and cat calls, like trading shitty snacks at the schoolyard (although sometimes, we dip into the painful territory of deep-tissue trauma, and there, we softly hold hands and space). With friends who are men? Mostly, we avoid the topic altogether. It doesn’t feel safe for either side to wade into the messiness of the gender war zone: part of the script, regardless of whether you sit on the so-called “left” or “right”, “feminist” or “men’s rights” polarities of the political binary, is that you must demand and perform one’s fealty to the “side” chosen. A friendship that endeavors to the blurry middle will not emerge unscathed.
My relationship with gender dynamics is the shallow water that I swim and breathe in. But the looming shadows of leviathans swim below.
I joined the Gender Equity and Reconciliation course because I started to notice a growing irritation with the lazy scripting and “safety” of my conversations around gender. I started to notice that in my automated instinct to avoid spaces that I project as non-representative and “white-and-male-dominated”, there was a disturbing tenor of righteous justice and smug satisfaction. I started to notice that when men I am close to attempt to share their troubles or process their concerns about identity politics, I would get emotionally triggered in the conversation. I would feel betrayed by a perceived lack of allyship, and mask this emotion by disdainfully conflating their concerns with the lazy labels of “male fragility”, “toxic masculinity” and the “manosphere”.
This blindspot was a black oozing hole that I wanted, needed, to look at it. So for six weeks, I witnessed.
For six weeks in the GERI course, we listened to one another, women to women, men to men, women to men, and men to women. In the beginning, it was difficult for the men and women to trust each other. We were suspicious of the “socially appropriate” scripts iced our interactions like armour, scripts that keep us safe, and scripts that hid monsters: vengeful rage and anger, righteous betrayal and hurt, shameful fears and tears.
At one of the earlier GERI sessions, we were shown videos not dissimilar to the cheesy ones we watched in high school class: videos revealing the social pressure for young women to be beautiful, innocent, yet sexy; about a media landscape awash with objectifying imagery of women, about the fear of rape and sexual harassment from teachers, family members, friends, strangers. Then we watched videos of men talking about how they couldn’t cry without being called a sissy or a wuss, about the pressure to go to war, and untold but prevalent stories of sexual harassment and rape in the military, about the inability to be “soft” or emotional without being told by their fathers to “not be a girl about it”. The content was gut-wrenching, yet I was desensitized. This is the same track we’ve been running around again and again in circles. The same cycles of trauma re-lived. Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill.
But the truth is, it also made me annoyed. Why do I need to be re-exposed to tired social commentary reinforcing once again my identity as a woman as “lesser than”? Why is this course forcing me to feel the futile bitterness of otherness all over again? I think to myself: I’m here to transcend these binaries, not reinforce them.
In one of the later sessions, a man in the group shares that all he wants to do is to be able to cry, but he doesn’t know how to. He is tortured by this, his voice is cracking. He knows he needs it, he senses it will heal him, free him from the prison of his loneliness and anger. But he simply cannot. So he’s stuck, feeling lonely and separated. He is so fucking lonely, he is shaking.
My tears show up in tender response, in solidarity. When someone shares a story from vulnerability, the armour begins to crack and melt. Vulnerability is such a profoundly precious and fragile thing: it shows up in the tremble of a voice. Trembling, shaking, and quivering, cracks something open. It makes you fall to pieces for a small and infinite moment – atoms, particles, vibrate, scatter apart. You fall apart into the void. This experience is fucking scary, because it makes you feel small and fragile, and you have no idea whether you can piece yourself back together again.
But falling apart a brief pause in the story of separation. It is a small death, an out-breath, a momentary return to the primordial ocean. My body shatters into particles that are freed to dance and interpenetrate with others, and for a moment, we are all one.
When it is my turn to speak, I say to the men that I love them. That they are not alone.
“As the community stays with the uncomfortable tension of contradiction, individuals begin to perceive the truth of “the other” as their own experience, and the polarities of conflicting positions often dissolve into an unexpected emergence of a deeper underlying unity: a profound recognition that, ultimately, there is no “other”. We are all one.”
― William Keepin, Divine Duality: The Power of Reconciliation Between Women and Men
Act 2: The Fattening
Why don’t we allow ourselves to tremble and fall apart?
When I fell apart, I allowed the profound loneliness of the men to devastate me, and contaminate me – all the men who want to feel, who want to relate and love, to cry, and break, and be soft, but are not allowed to. I’ve cried my entire life; it is such a deep condition of catharsis and letting go of grief and trauma, of how I process and heal. To be denied crying is to be denied healing. Men literally need to blow up out of their shells, with rage and anger, in order to feel. This is not to excuse men’s toxic violence and anger, but when I reach into my own complicity in reinforcing social conditions that freeze men into stoic ice-statues; the subtle ways in which I reinforce the expectations – “Get over yourself, white man.” “It’s not about your pain” – I realize I’ve also trapped them in a double bind of Shame.
The root of what angers me is not about the subjugation of women. It is the denial of softness in our society, for both men and women. It is that being soft, emotional, receiving, is seen as less powerful. It is that women and men still feel the pressure to be more masculine, that these qualities are scripted into the systems that we inhabit, in the incentives designed into the pursuit of success. I am rooted from a Chinese culture where we hold the balance of yin and yang in our core cosmology. Yang is associated with masculine, with light, strength, and hardness. Yin is associated with the feminine, with darkness, softness, receiving. It is part of Doaist wisdom that yin and yang are part of an integrative, indivisible whole.
I’m not stating anything revolutionary when I say that our social-cultural systems are heavily tilted towards the Yang. The tip of the iceberg just happens to show up most prominently in our gender identities, where we simplistically couple yang-qualities with men, and yin-qualities with women.
I’m asked in the GERI group to respond to “what makes it hard to be a woman”. I share how I wanted to be a boy when I was a kid, that I felt like an ugly and undesirable immigrant kid in comparison to other (white, english-fluent, confident) girls, so I hid myself in baggy clothes and behind books to mask my insecurity. That I was horrified when I got my period when I turned twelve, by the sheer awkwardness of contending every month with my alien gut twisting like a towel being wrung out of blood. That I carried anger and unfairness around the fact that I was a child trapped in the thick and unsafe flesh of a woman’s body, a body that invited unwanted stares and touching. That I was tormented by the contradiction I was living: of both resenting and desiring to be attractive, to be a tomboy, the attention of men. That on some deep level, I despised the sheer embarrassment of being a woman.
The reason why I wanted to be a “boy” when I was younger was for the same reasons why I wanted to be “white” when I first moved to Toronto: I had assumed that being part of this “dominant” identity meant that I could just just live freely, safely, and openly myself. I could belong. The irony is that I equated “woman” and “chinese” with otherness and dirtiness, the qualities of my identity and selfhood that are inescapably part of who I am.
Thank goodness that I grew out of the painful self-loathing of my teen years. But even as I write this, I still feel the sting of this suffocating Shame at the muddiest, subconscious depths. This spiteful part of me co-exists with, and in fact is entangled with the part of me that wants to take pleasure, pride and sensual enjoyment in being a woman.
I’ve been trying to heal this shame for a while by getting in right relationship with my embodiment, femininity and sensuality. I’ve been attending talks like High Pitch, where women working in complexity talk about mid-wifing potentiality. I’m leaning into authentic resonance with the wisdom and power of yin, moon, goddess, witch. For so long, I’ve avoided it, or indulged in it shamefully, sensitive that I was reinforcing “problematic” gender roles, the same gender trap. I hear from other women in the GERI course that they hold the same tensions and contradictions, and we collectively express the desire to take joy in the messiness of our selfhood.
One of my kin shared the triple-goddess Jungian archetype of Maiden, Mother and Crone. One is missing in the middle, she says, it is the Queen. She reminds me about Bayo Akomolafe’s description of a ceremony of becoming woman:
An ancient Efik ceremonial practice in Calabar, southeast Nigeria, called Nkugho or Mbopo (for the Ibibios) comes to mind. The Nkugho, a dying art, is a fattening room. To prepare girls for womanhood, they were taken to a fattening room where they were fed delicious meals. Becoming fat was a sign of prosperity, abundance, and chastity. Fatness was a sign of beauty. In a sense, sanctuaries are Nkughos we are being invited into to become ‘wide’, to meet our intergenerational bodies, and to perform other shapes of aliveness and attentiveness to the world around us.
Beneath the surface of my skin of my women-hood is a thick, fluid, messy space that is always shifting, moving, rippling, transgressing, trans-mutating. I want to become fat with the dripping abundance and richness of contradiction and complexity.
Act 3: Losing my shape
I’ve been marinating in the thick and messy middle of my identities. I want to hold the fleshiness of my human skin in my hands and stretch it until it’s thin and flimsy, until I can see through the film of it.
One of the identity skins that I wear and align myself with is the social justice and activism of BIPOC folks. We’ve oriented the mapping of identity through the binary relationship of the victim vs perpetrator, oppressor vs oppressed, included vs excluded. The naming of this dynamic is part of the vital truth-telling around the historical and present context of patriarchy, colonial violence, Western cultural supremacy and systemic racism. These are layers of intense betrayal, shame, and hurt that are enfleshed, that require deep-tissue healing. We are living the intergenerational traumas of our ancestors on the landscape of our damaged bodies.
With the passionate care and sore anger of bruised fists against a system that refuses to see those on the margins: we create categories to say, “Hey, We exist! Women exist! Indigenous peoples exist! Black people exist! People of colour exist! People with disabilities exist! People who are neurodiverse exist!”
But what happens when we get stuck in these categories and these bodies? What happens when the identities that make us “seen” end up being the very boxes that imprison us?
Bayo Akomolafe spoke to this paradoxical problem so beautifully in my We Will Dance With Mountains course. He describes a dangerous moral dynamic where in order to lock down the “enemy” and the “oppressor”, one has to lock oneself down into the same epistemological prison with no escape. We become “a zero-sum game, a Mexican standoff”:
The shape of the human is the rent that we have to pay to stay within Modern power. That is why fugitivity is required today. Most activism seems to be stuck in a human narrative, because we’re incarcerated within the modern within-human relationships. It’s about me countering you, it’s about my identity overruling yours, it’s about getting the language right in the moment. So we’re stuck within ourselves, and so there is no spilling out into the world. We are incarcerated in an epistemology of being. The only dynamic that is present is that of inclusivity versus exclusivity.
When we incarcerate ourselves in the identity shapes of our own making, we’re also trapped in what Gregory Bateson (introduced to me by his daughter, Nora Bateson) calls the double-bind: the context collapse of conflicting messages around what is “right” and “good” in the messy entanglement of our selfhood.
There is a zen koan that illustrates the no-win situation of the double bind: “If you say this stick is real, I will beat you. If you say this stick is not real, I will beat you. If you say nothing, I will beat you.” Similarly, I feel like the social identities of “men” and “women” are also stuck in this double bind: “If you say that gender exists, I will beat you. If you say that gender does not exist, I will beat you.” Or race: “If you say that racial identity exists, I will beat you. If you say that racial identity does not exist, I will beat you. If you say nothing, I will beat you.”
The beatings we put each other through is what my kin called the purity test: “Prove that you are good, that you are pure. If you pass this test, you’re on the “good” side.”
There is satisfaction in knowing who the “bad guys” are in the oppressor-oppressed dynamic – when we empower ourselves through collective solidarity (the “good”!) to call out the enemy, retributive justice can finally prevail, vengeance can be deliciously served. But what happens when the “bad guys” are also part of me, existing within the complex ecology (or family system) of my selfhood?
Shame. The kind of suffocating, festering, shame that doesn’t allow me to heal, because I don’t deserve healing. Shame that tells me, “I am bad”, rather than “I did something bad.”
The context collapse of the intersecting purity tests of our social identities means that no one is pure, no one is good, no one is perfect. Holding myself to the perfect ideal of “feminism” or “activist” only imprisons me in debilitating shame, because I will never pass the purity test, with my thick, messy, imperfections and contradictions. The ghosts of my past selves (the little girl who wanted to be a boy), of my ancestors, inhabit my haunted body; secret monsters with impure thoughts creep under the floorboards. In Against Purity, Alex Shotwell warns about social movements that focus on “purity”, which is “simultaneously inadequate, impossible, and politically dangerous for shared projects of living on earth.” She writes:
“If we want a world with less suffering and more flourishing, it would be useful to perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid.”
So back to the Mexican standoff. My hands are up in the air. I am a bad feminist. I am not good, but I want to be whole. So I ask, can we stop beating each other, please? Can we end this noxious cycle of self-flagellation for salvation? Can we slow down, and just heal our damaged bodies, the damage of our collective body? Can we stay with the trouble of our wounded messiness, with the “enemy” that lurks inside all that we love?
The Zen koan illustrates a way out of the double bind. The student “changes the lever of communication”, walks up to the teacher, grabs the stick, and breaks it.
I am ready to break the binaries, but I’d rather melt them through warmth of love. I don’t want to beat up on men (on whiteness) anymore – I choose love as “the will to nurture our own and another’s spiritual growth” (bell hooks). I want to help men, support them, love them. Because it also means that I can help, support and love myself – the “yang” and the “masculine” in me, that co-exists and dances in balance with my “yin”.
Someone in my kinship group shared the article: “Why Male Baboons Benefit From Female Friends” and it made me tear up again. We need friendship to survive. We need kinship, in order to cultivate what Anna Tsing calls “the arts of living on a damaged planet”. We need to collectively navigate the arts of living and dying in damaged bodies.
But you can’t bypass the painful work of witnessing Truth. “First Truth, then Reconciliation’’, they tell me.
As my fingers gently trace the sensitive scar tissue, the stitches, that map the surface of our collective body, I start to wonder: Okay, but what happens after Reconciliation?
Something is starting to whisper to me that we lose our shape, and we transform.
“The essence of the process at its best is basically the same: women and men join together as equals, they get deeply honest with each other about their experiences, and through this process they heal past wounds, awaken to new realisations together, reach a place of reconciliation and forgiveness, and are thereby mutually transformed.”
― William Keepin, Divine Duality: The Power of Reconciliation Between Women and Men