I have given a lot of bad advice. I never meant to do it. It just happened.
I was trying to help. I was trying to stop the pain.
Aren’t we all?
This morning, I went down the rabbithole of a Twitter thread begun by a physician who identifies as non-binary and who wants people to stop asking other people about their pronouns. They began the thread with a list of 6 reasons why it’s wrong and essentially injurious to ask about a person’s pronouns. As you might guess, these assertions gave way to a lengthy exchange of pushback, of questions, of concerns about doing it right and doing it wrong. Examples of times when it was a lifesaver in a classroom to invite students to share their pronouns were followed by examples of people who were not yet “out” feeling traumatized by the question.
And on it went…and it’s still going as I hear the echoes of the advice I've offered to kind humans who want to get it right: "Just ask, but think about why you're asking."
Reading the thread was a fascinating opportunity to watch my body respond and to gently resist the ping pong that could easily be inspired by such passionate defenses in all directions. Good points. Unsure points. Genuine interest in coming together. And a lot of pain. Inside me and inside my fellow Tweetfolk.
Here’s the thing. Humanity has reached critical mass of unmetabolized trauma. That is what we're seeing. Everywhere. It's not unique to trans people or pronouns.
We have been harming each other deeply, fundamentally, accidentally, blatantly for centuries. And we just keep moving on. There is never a slowing down to allow for real and justified pain. There is never a gut-check that makes space for the harm that is done to oppressors and oppressed in the ways we relate. It’s an ongoing Olympics of Suffering wherein my pain is always worse than yours or where you brought your pain on yourself, but I was a victim. Where your pain happened a long time ago or maybe “only” to your ancestors, so you should get over it. Where your privilege makes you incapable of feeling how unwelcome or marginalized I feel.
Why are we so invested in that gold medal? Worst. Olympics. Ever.
We have lost any ability we may have ever had to love each other by default. Every act, every word, every action, is a jockeying to be seen, to be cared for, to be validated. I do, I say, I feel so I can be deemed Good and Worthy. And you?...your motives are selfish and harmful. Why can’t you see me? Why don’t you understand? I’m trying so hard over here.
We. Are. Full.
Our bandwidth is tapped out. We do what we can in every single moment to muster something that looks like what we’ve been told is kindness. We strive for compassion, but our centuries-old exhaustion finds it eluding us again and again. Keeping an open heart feels unsustainable and from this place, tipped back on our spiritual heels, we expect others to be bigger, to be better, to care about our tender spots and the ways we’ve been unloved and ignored. And they fail us over and over. You fail me. I fail you. Again and again.
We don’t see it for the hall of mirrors that it is. The reflections and refractions of wounding and anger bounce and bounce until we can’t find the way out.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to write a piece about humans and death for a trade journal. I’m not in the habit of quoting myself because, well…eeew…but turns out I did say something that may bear repeating here. “You don’t have to believe in your breakability for my awareness of it to matter.”
What would it take for us to remember how deeply shattered and fragmented that person across from us is? To remember that we come from ancestors who were literally torn from each other and even from their own limbs and livelihoods? There’s not one of us who is playing with a full deck. Not me and not that person who just forgot my pronouns. We can and must bring grace, even to those who would die denying that they lost their "two of hearts" years ago.
It's all busted, so take this and apply to anything that hurts and makes you feel wrong for being human. When it comes to pronouns, what we hate, as humans, is that the system that makes them necessary doesn’t work. It’s not real. It’s not useful. So, our attempts to create new pronouns are like sticking a wet matchbook under the wobbly table leg of society. It’s a band aid. It doesn’t solve the problem of trying to define each other. It doesn’t prevent us from creating and imagining distance where there is none. That’s not a pass for people who are “annoyed” to have to learn new pronouns. It’s an invitation for every single one of us to make the invisible visible.
It’s a clarion call for us to blow it up. All of it.
Creating new categories is a distraction from the real work ahead of us. The work of questioning how we got here and committing to healing together. There is more harm ahead and there is more uncertainty than we can fathom, but we must lift up our heads so we can notice that we’re all wounded and confused and that, more than anything, we want to stop hurting.