Monday, September 8, 2014

Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are!

Some paths are scary...
Lately there have been several recurring themes in my life and therefore, my writing: coincidence, fate, purpose, choice, self-acceptance, and "coming out."

But worth it.
First of all, I don't believe in coincidence. I'm a person of faith and I've had too many strange things happen in my life to believe in "coincidence." I believe that everything happens for a reason, so you could say I believe in a kind of fate and that things - and people - have related purposes.

That said, I also believe you can choose to ignore or follow your purpose. In order to actively make that choice, many times a person must engage in self-exploration. This often leads to the discovery of both pleasant and unpleasant elements of the self (history, talents, preferences, personality traits, etc). This also leads to the possibility of self-acceptance (or not).

The process of discovery and acceptance in turn leads to the possibility of "coming out."

When encountering the phrase "coming out" most people think of an LGBT person openly declaring their gender/orientation, however "coming out" is not exclusively an LGBT act. Any part of the self that has been hidden, dormant, or laying in a deep recess can be brought to the light of day and shared with others. The process, and often the implications, are the same.

It is the implications of "coming out" - of a change in identity - that piques my interest. It also keeps me up at night.

Coming out is hard. It isn't like going from the identity of coupled woman to mother. That identity is clear and easy to see. It is one most people encounter on a regular basis, and for most people, there are no loose ends or questions raised by such an identity change.

The nature of coming out means the hidden identity or issue being brought into the open is uncomfortable, otherwise it wouldn't have been hidden. There is something shameful or uncomfortable, or difficult about this identity or issue, usually for both the self and others. It calls some fundamental thing into question - roles, relationships, actions, all shift to a new and strange place with this new identification.

Sometimes such identifications become the person. Literally, these difficult identities are so hard to get past for most other people, the self becomes two-dimensional. Suddenly the self is only lesbian, is only an addict, is only poor, is only an abuser, is only a victim, is only a criminal according to the other. Pigeon-holing abounds when the new issue comes to light. In order to overcome this shallowing process, the self must work extra hard to show up this new identity: I am green, progressive, Christian, athletic, multi-racial, multi-lingual, educated etc. These other identities are forced into competition with the "shameful" and marginalized new identity.

Some people choose to embrace their marginalized identity and center their lives around these things, for example a once battered woman turned activist who works with battered women. Another example would be a recovering alcoholic choosing to support others in their quest for sobriety. The centering of this identity surpasses a volunteer level, but moves to paid work as well as possible volunteering. Literally, life in these situations is entirely focused on this "shameful" identity.

The other possibility is to downplay such identities and to focus on something else. I think of the case of Maya Angelou who could have focused much of her writing and energy on the fact that she was molested and raped as a child. She could have written much of her work about - and championed victims of - sexual abuse and assault, however she did not. She chose a wider platform that included socio-economic, race, gender, and orientation identities rather than a single pigeon-holed identity of "victim."

Of course no one is a single thing. Each person has multiple facets, each informing the other. Experiences, preferences, and inherent abilities all contribute to the people we are. Often, however, one aspect or set of aspects stands out. One or a set of identities speaks to us more. We identify with a given set more strongly, and there are reasons for this (our experiences and preferences, for example).

This is where a given person's purpose lies - surrounding those identities of utmost importance.

However there is tension in balancing a person's purpose with the potential of pigeon-holing. There is tension surrounding that question of pigeon-holing and acceptance by others. Will I be stereotyped if I come out? Will I always be only this one thing? Will my identity overshadow my purpose? Will it interfere with achieving my life purpose? - asks the self.

Inevitably, the answer is: I don't know. We cannot know. The other is the one who answers these questions by their actions - their acceptance and rejection. It is only when the self is made vulnerable by coming out that the answer can be given and received. Until then, there is only anxious speculation.

We all have secrets. We all have hidden parts of ourselves. With every hidden piece, there is a debate regarding with whom we render ourselves vulnerable. For those who live more public lives - bloggers, writers, pastors, politicians, celebrities - the debate is more intense. The revelation of a secret self has more lasting and difficult implications. Will my brand be impacted? Will my image be impacted positively or negatively (because it will be impacted one way or another)? Is it worth it? Is it more important to be honest and authentic than to worry about the potential fallout? How strongly do I identify with this part of myself? If I decide to come out, how should I do it? Will it be quiet? Will it be for maximum impact? If so, what would create maximum impact?

These are the questions we ask ourselves. These are the questions that keep us up at night because there are no easy answers. There are no right answers. There are only answers that align with a person's purpose and those that do not. So it comes down to choice: what is your purpose? Who is your secret self? Will sharing your secret self with others further your purpose in this world? If the answer is yes, then it's time. It's time to come out.

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