I gotta be me, but I must blend

I gotta be me, but others must like me

The banquet hall was spacious with high ceilings. Round, white-clad tables were scattered across the dark floor like dappled pools of sunlight. A glittery gaggle of youths gyrated to bhangra beats on the dance floor, their jeweled and embroidered outfits shimmered with the strobe lights. This was an Indo-Canadian wedding as lavish as any in India. I was overcome by feelings of detachment, even isolation. They were first generation from India whereas I am fourth. While they looked like me, they spoke differently, moved differently, and had somewhat different cultural values than I was raised with.

It turned out I was not alone in feeling alone. Others there felt equally disconnected. Some were less wealthy, others felt self-conscious about their age and disability, and a few kept to themselves because either they had married into this ethnicity, or they were of mixed raced.

As I sat in that surreal surrounding it occurred to me that I had lived most of life with this type of conflict. It is a basic human paradox that we need to fit in socially but simultaneously we want to be authentic to our uniqueness. We value our individuality (because that is what makes us human) but we also require that our uniqueness be validated by the others.

Talk about having your cake and eating it too! But we try. One common way we resolve this conflict is by seeking out others who are similarly unique. We form sub-cultures, little brotherhoods of uniform quirkiness. We show allegiance to our brotherhood by adopting a similar style of clothing, gestures and lingo. In my distant youth we youngsters expressed our individuality by streaking our mullets with fuchsia, back then even the boys wore eyeliner. Hey, it was the Eighties. Frankie Says…. Well, we did whatever Frankie told us to But of course our  expressions of individuality were actually submitting to the uniform of fashion.

This kind of seeking out ‘oddballs like me’ never quiet satisfies because our individual differences arise no matter who we team up with. Take any sub-culture, such as gay men, while they find validation for their sexuality within the gay community, there is little room for validation of diversity of race, of religion. I know one very political gay man (now in his sixties) who fought fiercely for gay rights back in the Seventies and Eighties. He now feels invisible within the very community he helped to create. This is because the reasons we feel like outsiders is always in a flux. Our uniqueness changes with our age and the situations we find ourselves in.

At this stage in my life, when I think I am personally at peace with my uniqueness, I still find myself resisting outside pressure to conform. As a visible minority, almost every stranger I meet seems to require some kind of narrative from me about my skin tone. They require a label, some group they can equate me to. If, out of politeness, I tell them my heritage is Indian, I usually get small talk centered around that and nothing else. They tell me about that nice Indian restaurant they ate at last week. Or they chat about some headline from the news about India: Wasn’t it terrible about that flooding? they might ask, as though I must have some personal connection to the event.

People do the same with my disability. They want to understand my confidential medical history, some quick and easy story they can understand. I have now learned how to deflect the attention back to the person making that unwelcome inquiry. I deftly shift the attention back to them. People love talking about themselves and all it takes is a small nudge to get them speaking. They soon forget about you and their intrusive query.

As I sat in that banquet hall with this uncomfortable but familiar conflict it occurred to me that perhaps my approach was all wrong. Embracing our uniqueness, I gotta be me, being true to myself, etc. aren’t all these just assertions of the the ego? When you think about it, isn’t the urge to blend in, to conform to the dress, the language and the lifestyles of the majority also artificial and acquired?

What if I was to give attention to the more authentic commonalities I had with the five hundred or so people in the room? All of them: men, women, youths, babies, shared the same air as me. Each of us was united in time and space, we shared common sounds, sights, tastes and smells. Most wonderfully, each of us was alive with the same light of consciousness. To give attention to that was wholly satisfying, completely unifying. And it did not disrespect my authentic self.


Is This Man Saying F-You?

Once a year the streets of downtown Toronto are taken over by the Gay Pride parade. Over a million spectators line the streets to see the flamboyant floats and the outrageous costumes (or lack of). It is meant to be a political statement: a very public rejection of the shame and guilt thrust upon gay men and women. Some participants make a spectacle of their ‘queerness’, a grand F-You to those who beat them up in the school yard, those who shunned them within the family, those who bullied them in the workplace. But does this act of retaliation cancel out the  the original insults? Beneath the bravado, is pride really all that different from shame?

Shame begins as guilt. People condemn or criticize you for a defect, something you did or said (or didn’t do). Guilt is a nagging sense of yearning to rewrite the past. It is so persistent that with enough repetition you start to own that guilt. When that guilt is complete owned, when it invades your identity it is called shame. Shame is a sense of worthlessness, of being defective, less than everyone else.  You feel self-conscious of your difference and cut-off from others. This non-belonging is deeply uncomfortable because it is unnatural. The truth is all of us are part of the one indivisible whole, therefore banishment from the whole is painful. Not so bad if you genuinely erred, if it is behavior you can correct, but devastating if it is “shame” about something you cannot change — perhaps you look different from others, your nose is too big, you are too short, or your skin too dark. You may have many other talents, but this one trait defines your identity, and along with it the pain of being excluded.When I was young I was made to feel guilty, then ashamed of being brown (colonial attitudes  still prevailed in my English school).

Then there is being proud, which at first glance seems harmless, beneficial even. People are routinely proud of being American, of being tall, of being white/black/Asian. But hang on, doesn’t  pride require that you identify so completely with one particular trait over all others? A trait over which you might have no control. Perhaps you were born with a certain, popular look, you cannot change it? Pride is membership into an exclusive club, and it necessarily involves exclusion of others. Pride may feel energetic, rousing when you are with others of the same club, but it too isolates one from our natural oneness with all humanity. In fact pride always requires an audience: it is impossible to be proud all alone. Sometimes pride makes a man feel so special he gives himself license to hate, to oppress, to kill ‘the non-members’. The neo-nazi’s are an example of this. Just read the latest headlines, if there is one thing we learn from the bombings and murders going on in retaliation for an anti-Muslim video, it is that pride is a fragile, highly volatile emotion, it easily gets contaminated with other strong emotions. How pathetic that sometimes we hear of families killing their daughters who “brought shame upon the family”. The irony here is that the killers feel they are restoring family honor, but to the rest of us the murder is the family’s real shame.

This is because both pride and shame depend on your perspective–whether you are in the club or a non-member. Pride and shame operate out of the same isolation mechanism, both involve allowing one trait to dominate over all other abilities and characteristics. In both pride and shame one trait defines who you are. But if you are among a sympathetic audience, you experience the euphoria of pride, if however you are deprived of that sympathetic audience, you feel isolated and vulnerable (shame). I wonder whether the fathers responsible for those ‘honor killings’ still feel proud of themselves when they are alone in prison? Do they feel shame?

So if pride is not the antidote to shame, then what is? Perhaps it is self-acceptance. A sedate, respectful acceptance of yourself in all your totality — your flaws, your quirks, your talents; all that makes you unique but also all that intrinsically links you to all of humanity. Along with that is the recognition of the flaws and contradictions which make up humanity itself. None of which is something that causes anyone to march in the streets. In fact self-acceptance is a deeply private emotion.

How do I feel about being brown today? I recognize now that my ancestors came of a region of the world which was among the first to be civilized. Those ancient cultures not only traded their wares and ideas with each other, but also their DNA. The reality is that our bodies are a melting pot of many cultures and races, and hence all of human history is our history also. When you view your race in the context of history, society, and the wholeness of your being, it becomes absurd to feel either pride or shame about your ethnic origins. Sure, others may still have a problem with my skin tone, but now I am able to dismiss it as their stupidity, their ignorance. Their derision no longer has the power to topple my self-worth. I have reached self-acceptance, a Gestalt context for my skin color and my self-identity. Do I feel the need for ‘brown pride’? Absolutely not. A parade in celebration of brownness? I think not. A murderous hatred for non-browns? Now that would be shameful.

The Secret Life of Desire

January 23, 2012

The chatrooms are full of men looking for NSA, no-strings-attached, sex. But is there such a beast? Once upon a time, in the boyish days of puberty, sex was a solo act and purely a physical sensation. Then over the years other, more complicated needs crept silently into sex, bloating it into something big and important. This change occurred so secretly that we did not even notice, not until it was too late anyways.

At some point in our journey through adolescence we began to contemplate sex more and more often. We imagined creative new scenarios, began to anticipate them, plan for them. It is said young men think about sex every four minutes. What started as entertainment grew into a hobby that perhaps came close to an obsession. Have you noticed that with sexual desire, more than any other, it feels pleasurable merely anticipating it? This may sound harmless enough, but there’s a serious catch. We each experience the world through the colors of our thinking and not objectively. For example, a musician hears rhythms in city sounds, a politician sees voters. Spend too much time thinking about sex and soon people are either ‘attractive’ or ‘not attractive’. You may have observed with your friends that when they are with those whom they find attractive, they are at their charming best. Conversely, when with those whom they find unattractive they make no effort to behave well, as though the undesirable are invisible to them. May I suggest that if sex becomes a thing of importance in our lives we may begin to confuse admiration, respect, even friendship with sexual desire. It is easy to forget that love for another human need not involve sexual attraction at all. Of course, when people are viewed through the prism of sex, they can easily turn into labels: tops, bottoms, femm, butch, chubs, twinks, Rice queens, curry queens and on and on. Then where is their humanity?

Then there are the complication that come with the secondary pleasures of sex: approval and acceptance. One reason cruising for sex is so addictive is because of the buzz of being ‘selected’. The chase is more thrilling sometimes than the win. Although this thrill too comes with a hefty price: any man who subjects himself to the gaze of others soon hits the gym, dresses a certain way, preens endlessly. It is as though more efforts are put forth toward getting sex than enjoying sex.

Perhaps because being considered attractive by strangers is so pleasurable, we forget its shadow – rejection. In bar rooms, chat rooms, clubs, baths, men size each other up in a matter of seconds. Judgements are quick and harsh. We reject others at a glance but don’t forget others also reject us in an instant. Handling rejection is never easy at any age. Add to this the narrow societal ideals of desirability with regards to masculinity, race, height, weight, facial features and its no wonder many men find themselves feeling inadequate in ways they cannot change. Naturally their self worth and confidence pay the price. As if the fear of rejection was not enough,along come other fears. We could catch something, something possibly incurable that may kill us. We have to be ‘careful’, be ‘safe’. Sex, once a pleasant distraction, has now become dangerous. We could meet the wrong person and we could be robbed, beaten perhaps, even killed.

As a man matures he may come to believe that being in a committed relationship is the way to enjoy fearless sex. After all, cultural norms, religious upbringing, peer expectations all point to this ideal. But now the committed man finds that sex takes on yet another layer of significance: as a communication of love. And in the bargain he enjoys a sense of security for companionship in his old age and illness, perhaps even financial security. Sounds like a good deal, but hang on there: what about the jealousy if other men flirt with his partner? Then there is the partner’s jealousy about other men also. If a man strays he fears losing the companionship and the security of his relationship. There are even men who are lonely within a relationship, they feel unloved and unappreciated. Suddenly not having sex now has as many consequences attached to it  as having sex used to.

Is there some way to strip away all these add-ons and restore sex to the innocent pleasure it once was? There are men, either because of illness or because of age, who no longer crave sex, their minds no longer lust. If such men are at all self-aware, if they are sensitive to their desires and interested in their own well being, they will discover this fact about sexual desire. It coagulates, it co-mingles with other unrelated urges till it becomes big enough to dictate whether we are happy or miserable. By skillful observation, we can segregate and hence discover new ways to satisfy all those other needs ( security, companionship, approval, acceptance, love) without ever using sex. By cultivating the habit of honest observation, awareness without judgement or condemnation, we can free sex of with its cultural, religious, political and social trappings. It requires one to be highly sensitive, to be keenly aware of what is going in the mind, in the body, in life itself.  We might then discover a new kind of freedom. We might then be free to observe other desires also gang up against us and similarly dictate to us joy and sorrow. This alertness then opens the gateway to freedom. The freedom to choose which desire to indulge and which to ignore.
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