Bruce Jenner, the former Olympic gold medalist and former husband of Kris Kardashian formally announced last week that he is a woman, explaining, “It is who I am.” Our culture provides great liberty with declaring and acting on the choice to “be who I am,” a choice that is not available in most places and never has been. And this is certainly the case when it comes to gender identity. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/26/arts/television/bruce-jenner-transgender-diane-sawyer.html?emc=edit_th_20150426&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=71726985&_r=0)
Culture has one primary intent—to perpetuate itself and the “certainties” that constitute its bedrock. These certainties provide a culture’s children a template through which to view the world and this template tends to always legitimate the values of the particular culture into which one is born. And one of the simple little “certainties” that one quickly learns is gender identity and this originates when the child learns that his/her “plumbing” distinguishes himself/herself from roughly half of the population. Once that distinction is ascertained, the child then begins to learn what it means to be a “boy” or a “girl” in that culture and then has the task of following the mandate to “get with the program.” Yes, early on there are some children who have “contrary” impulses with respect to gender identification but the cultural mandate historically is overwhelming so that they dutifully obey the “law of the father” and subscribe to “proper” gender identity, repressing any impulses that might be “contrary.”
But Mr./Ms Jenner illustrates a huge cultural shift in my country and in the West. Certainties of the past are now often less certain, even those of gender identity. We are learning that the distinction between “male” and “female” is more nebulous than we were taught as children. And this is a frightening experience to those who cannot handle ambiguity and nuance and are accustomed to seeing things in black-and-white terms. And for many of those in my culture they have an immediate contrivance to rely upon—“It’s of the Devil!” It reminds me of the label ancient cartographers applied to regions of the map which had not been explored—“There be the dragons.”
The unknown is frightening. When faced with the unknown it is human tendency to retreat to what is already “known” and to “hunker down” with that little view of the world which one of my readers recently described as a “querencia.” With this “hunkering down” mentality, one clings even more desperately to what one has always believed and often will merely affirm it with more vehemence. This vehement affirmation often even leads to action, even violent action. Change cannot be tolerated to a hyper conservative mind.
Ultimately we must deal with human finitude and this gender aspect of our current “culture wars” provides us another opportunity. We are finite, fragile little critters running around on this little ball of granite, our frantic activities amounting to nothing more than the Shakespearean “tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.” But if we have the courage, and a healthy dollop of meta-cognition as Shakespeare was blessed with, we will be able to counter the nihilistic despair with the affirmation that, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.” In other words, there is always Hope. But hope is not mindless clinging to the dogma we were brainwashed with as children but to truth that has withstood our heart-felt, Spirit-led, mindfulness-inspired self-scrutiny.