“Don’t speak too soon, for the wheel’s still in spin.”
The quote is from Bob Dylan. Do you know the song?
And here’s a Taoist story along the same lines.
There once was a farmer whose horse ran away. On hearing of the misfortune, the farmer’s neighbor arrived to commiserate, but all he got from the farmer was, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
This proved to be true, for the next day the horse returned, bringing with it a drove of wild horses in its train. This time the neighbor arrived with congratulations, only to receive the same response. “Who knows what’s good or bad?”
This too was so, for the next day the farmer’s son tried to mount one of the wild horses and broke a leg.
More commiserations from the neighbor, with the same response which was again validated, for soldiers soon came around commandeering for the army, and the son was spared because of his injury.
Another way to think of this concept is: God is still speaking. More will be revealed and it is not for me to judge in the present what is best for the future.
I once saw someone accept bad news as neither good nor bad, just news. I once saw someone accept bad news as truly bad, yet remain open to things turning good; open to unimaginable twists of fate. I once saw someone receive awesomely good news, yet not get carried away with illusions of grandeur. “There are no big deals,” this person used to say.
These three people showed me that I always have a choice to accept whatever comes. I have a choice to react with moderation. I have a choice to make peace with whatever is happening now and simply be curious about whatever comes next.
To many people, new pronouns and newly-visible gender identities can be confusing, intimidating, or even alarming. I’m talking about when a person asks be referred to as they. Or someone who looks like a man asks to be referred to as she. Or a feminine-looking person wants to be called a he.
There are lots of terms and definitions out there and for me it was too much to learn it all at once. Here are some basics.
Assigned Sex – An anatomical thing, the description that a doctor assigns to a baby based on their body. Typically referred to as male, female, or intersex.
Gender – What your core spirit feels like. Whether you feel like a man or a woman or something else deep inside. Some people have two spirits, or more, and those deep inside feelings can change from day to day. Typically referred to as man/boy, woman/girl, nonbinary, or queer.
Sexual Orientation – The sex or gender you want to get cuddly with. Typically referred to as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual.
Old Ideals Coming Out
Most Americans, especially older Americans, have a traditional mindset that if a person looks like girl she is a girl and she likes boys. Or if a person looks like a man that means he has male anatomy and that means he should want to date women.
Not true today. Or ever, actually. And as much I might long for tidy alignment among sex, gender, and attraction, it’s not okay for me to pretend or ignore that a colorful variety of genders and orientations exist today. It’s not okay for me to assume that every person, or any person, is aligned that way.
I’ve found that it works well if I easily allow for anyone I meet, however they look, to align their stuff however they want. It’s a Quaker ideal: listen and act on the light of god within you. And it’s an American ideal: we love our rights to individual freedom and self determination. We pride ourselves as a nation of self-made people!
And did you know that using the pronoun “they” to refer to an individual is not new in the English language? Shakespeare used it that way, for instance.
Four Things I’ve Learned
This is not a whole big explanation of pronouns. There’s a lot to it. I’m simply trying to pass along some basics that I’ve learned only in the last few years. And I’m open to corrections, clarifications, and other views. We’re all just trying to figure this out.
1. Make an effort
It’s hard when someone asks you to change how you think of them. For example, “I know I’ve been your female-looking co-worker for years, but I actually identify as non-binary and prefer using they/them when referring to me.” It’s also hard when someone looks feminine but asks to be thought of and referred to as masculine, or visa versa.
These things can be really hard, actually. Gender-based cues and instincts have been hard-wired into us. Having to change this “hard wiring” can feel like an imposition. Yet “because it’s hard” is not an excuse. I have to make an effort. And you know what? It’s not actually hard-wired with actual wire. Old instincts exist in your brain cells and brain cells can change.
The effort I have to make is mostly a spiritual one; to actually really see every person as a unique individual who gets to define themselves. If that’s what I’m walking around with – that spiritual attitude — I’m not likely to accidentally show disrespect.
Yet I also have to make an effort with specific people who have asked for they/them pronouns or pronouns that don’t immediately “register with me.” Most people who want specific pronouns tell us what they want. It’s my job to keep track of that and when I am about to write to or talk to such a person, or about such a person, I am actively trying to keep in mind that when a sentence calls for a pronoun, I will say the right thing. I practice in my head.
2. Catch your mistakes
When I realize I have made a mistake, I look for an immediate opportunity to fix it. I don’t pretend it didn’t happen or that no one noticed, even though there may be no reaction whatsoever. At the next break in the conversation, for instance, I might say, “I realize I called you a she just now and that’s not right. Sorry about that.”
Then move on. No need to make a thing of it. Demonstrate respect by actually NOT making a thing of it. A quick look-in-the-eye genuine apology can go a long way. And look for a chance to use the correct pronoun in the future so we can all see that you are serious about wanting to get it right.
3. Learn stuff on your own
When I first started encountering people who wanted me to call them they instead of he or she, my instinct was to ask them to explain themselves. Really, I wanted to learn from them what this was all about and why they were asking me to make such an accommodation.
Blaaak. That notion – that I wanted people to explain themselves – sends shivers now that I write it. It reminds me of “Explain yourself young lady,” or other phrases I heard as a child.
And that’s exactly what it might feel like to a person being asked to explain: demeaning. Perhaps “justify yourself,” is a good translation of how it might feel.
Curiosity is good and if you feel close enough with a they/them type person to talk about stuff like gender then ease into a conversation and be ready stop at any moment. But don’t expect someone to teach you from scratch. Learn some stuff on your own first. Use the right words. Have good questions. Show some respect. Be the ambassador who arrives in a foreign country and even though clumsy, tries to greet people in their native language.
4. Embrace the opportunity
Rather than look at someone with they/them pronouns as a burden, I can make a choice to see it as an opportunity. What an easy way to show someone instant respect! All I have to do is pay attention to what someone wants to be called and do what they ask. They will notice. Using the right pronoun is an easy way to build instant mutual rapport.
I can have a bad attitude about gender-neutral pronouns or I can embrace them like I embraced computers, cellphones, and zoom. Actually, I should embrace gender-neutral people way more than those things. Those are machines. Gender-neutral people are people!
As in may of these articles, I need to check my privilege. My sex, gender, and sexual orientation are all aligned in very traditional ways. I don’t get questioned. I don’t get asked about my pronouns very often. But I broadcast them anyway as a show of support for others, and to show you that I COULD be a they/them but happen to be a he/him; no better or worse than a they/them or a her/she, just all of us sharing our pronouns.
As a practical matter, I have a lot to gain by making an effort on pronouns and little to lose.
See right there? That’s the first step: admitting the mistake.
I walked away from a conversation last week feeling uneasy. Angry actually. It didn’t go well. My first reaction, as usual, was to blame the other person. But as I tried to explain away the discomfort in my head as the other person’s fault, it didn’t go away. It’s often like this. And if I stay with it and remember that I’m supposed to practice humility, I often come to that bittersweet conclusion: I made a mistake. It was me who messed up.
I hate that. Opening the gates of regret. Having to admit, even if only to myself, that I was at fault. Embarrassed. Wishing I could take something back. Wanting an impossible do-over. That’s the bitter part.
The sweet part is that now I have a way out. Because I admitted the mistake, there IS a path to peace. I know that if I do something about my mistake, I will be able to move forward untethered.
1. Sometimes the thing that I have to do is to simply admit my mistake out loud. If I use the wrong gender pronoun for instance, I’ve learned to immediately acknowledge the mistake and move on. Sometimes it’s making a statement to your team or your family. Sometimes it’s called a confession, or a fifth step. Just saying your mistake out loud to another human being can be hugely freeing.
2. Sometimes the thing I have to do is make an apology. With a degree of reverence or formality I say words directly to someone who was harmed by my mistake. It’s a way to let them know I noticed, and that I wish it hadn’t happened that way. A genuine apology doesn’t care if it’s accepted or not. It’s not conditional in any way. A genuine apology is never followed with a but.
3. Sometimes the thing that I have to do is to make an amend; make an offer to fix the mistake, and follow through. Sometimes it means you have to pay for something or actually take responsibility for something. Sometimes the problem that you caused can’t actually be fixed because someone’s not around or perhaps raising an old wrong with someone might do more harm than good. A solution here is to give time or money to a cause related to the mistake you made. Perhaps you can’t make peace with a person from the past but you can help other people in the future. I like the term “living amends.”
4. Sometimes I simply make a vow. A promise. A prayer to my future self: “Don’t ever make that mistake again!” But it’s more than just saying that once in a fit of frustration, it’s actually imagining future scenarios over and over again and imagining myself NOT making that mistake. I work at it. I try to train my brain to be different in the future. I actually practice different words in my head; the words I will use next time. I can’t change the past but I can try my best to turn that mistake into a lesson learned.
For me, realizing that I have made a mistake often comes with guilt and anguish. My mind races about it. What I should have done differently? What does someone think of me now? What’s really behind what happened? My neck and back muscles tighten. I think about it WAY too much.
And for me, the solution is usually to turn that nervous energy into actually doing something about it. I work hard to accept what happened and then I try to focus on what I need to do to feel okay about what I did. I turn from the past to the future. And do something.
The hard part of admitting a mistake is the voice from within that says: “Damn. It’s true. I did a bad thing. I wish I could have that moment back.” The wonderful part of admitting a mistake is that it’s the first step towards making peace with it. In fact, I can’t actually make peace with my mistakes if I’m not willing to say they exist.
I made a big mistake last week. Really. It brought me to tears. Writing this is one of the things I’m doing about it.
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