Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sharing your scars can sometimes help heal them

Like most, if not all people of a certain age, life has beaten me down a time or two. A lot of the hard knocks schooling I’ve received has been accompanied by nauseating embarrassment. Some cases have resulted in deep humiliation; others merely left my ego scorched. On a few occasions the lessons have been life-changing. Most of these experiences have just been uncomfortable. From each, even when outcomes have seemed unjust or punitive, I have worked to uncover the deeper understanding associated with whatever I had to go through.
Several incidents have been purely physical. Now while I’ve never suffered the trauma of broken bones, I have subjected myself to injuries that resulted in nasty scars. Once as a bored kid, I climbed a fencepost and recklessly attempted a circus tightrope act - across a length of barbed wire. It wasn’t pretty. One day in high school, when late for marching band practice, I sliced my thigh while swinging it carelessly over the football stadium’s locked gate. (It was topped with barbed wire). Then there was the time, only a few years ago, when I performed my best Superman impression and sailed over my mountain bike handlebars during a downhill run; skinned my knee literally to the bone. No barbed wire was involved this time, thankfully.
Some physical scars carry deeper meaning. I recently was watching a tender scene in a violent movie in which two people were about to make love. As they undressed, one noticed the other had a long scar along her belly. When the man’s face changed, so did the woman’s – to one of shame and embarrassment. As it turned out, the woman had misread her prospective partner’s face; it was not one of disgust or revulsion; it was empathy.
The scene continued with the man removing his shirt to reveal his own physical scars. As she tenderly caressed the violence-engendered wounds on his chest, I was struck by how the simple act of sharing one’s ‘life wounds’ can bring people closer. Sadly, this seems to be something most folks in real life rarely, if ever engage in.
Most of us operate from a place of protective cover. That is, we tend to hide the physical, mental and emotional wounds we’ve accumulated over the course of our lifetimes. We do this in an effort to shield ourselves from possible ridicule, criticism or exploitation. I believe this practice can be, in many cases, practical and prudent. I also think that in keeping our deepest wounds bandaged in silence, we miss rare opportunities to forge meaningful connections with one another.
For most of my life I have discussed and actually shown off the physical scars I’ve suffered, doing so in a way that approaches silly macho bravado. I have done so willingly – even though in most cases I acquired the scars by acting stupidly. Yet it has only been in the last few years that I’ve also started sharing some of my mental and emotional ‘scars’. In my life experience, I have learned how beneficial it can be to share certain of my bigger mistakes, uncertainties and even insecurities with others.
In fact, some of my most meaningful encounters with human beings have been when I have revealed my life wounds and talked openly about the scars they’ve left. What I have found is that by initiating such sharing, a deeper understanding of myself and the person I’m talking to emerges. And it often opens the door to important dialogs that can really matter, which at least for me, can result in a healing effect of my soul.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Find the Inner Joy in Everything You Do

Until a few weeks ago I used to go riding with a guy named Carl. Not on motorbikes. Not mountain bikes or even road bicycles. The bikes we rode were stationary and at the gym. Mine was a spinning bike (like the ones they have classes for); his was a recumbent – the kind with a seatback you can use as you peddle.
Our rides together were by no means scheduled; it just happened that he and I often were at the gym around the same time and our workout routines were such that we ended up together. Then he did something I was unhappy about and it all stopped.
I didn’t really know Carl, but considered him a friend. Not in the sense of borrowing money or sharing secrets. He was just a friendly face that over time I had gotten used to in a familiar place. He was a lot older than me (as are most members at my gym) – early 70s, as I recall.
When I first ran into him a couple years ago, he was sitting in a chair at the end of a row of treadmills, apparently spent from his workout. We exchanged glances, maybe nodded to each other and that was about it. Over time though, we became used to seeing each other; nods turned hi’s, which led to short conversations.
Age aside, Carl was in the autumn of his life, physically. That his health was failing was apparent. He moved slowly and seemed to rest more than he worked out. Yet I found myself impressed by this little old man. Though his body was betraying him, his outlook remained bright. More than once he spoke, uh… enthusiastically of the opposite sex. It warmed my heart to watch him respectfully chatting up the ladies of his generation with the eternal vigor that stays in a man’s mind, even when his body no longer can keep up. But his eye for the ladies was trumped by his engaging sense of humor and apparent desire to engage his physical self on the various machines at the gym.
In many ways I respected Carl – not for how hard he worked out (his body was long past any kind of strenuous enterprise). Instead, he instilled me with a sense of pride in self. We never talked about his motivations for coming to the gym like he did – whether it was doctor’s orders, a social outlet or just a habit he’d acquired over the years. Whatever the case, Carl provoked the notion that working out can be a life-long endeavor, one that doesn’t necessarily have to be rooted in humdrum notions like keeping fit, losing weight or other preventive health objectives. Sometimes it can just be fun – a way of being. Then he did something really disappointing.
One day while working out at the gym, I found myself looking at the bike Carl usually rode and realized I hadn’t seen him in a while. I pondered that thought for a moment then returned to my workout. About a week later on the gym’s bulletin board I noticed a newspaper clipping that included Carl’s photo. It was his obituary notice. Blood drained from my face as I read it. For a time he had been a fixture in my gym world and now he was gone. At least physically. In the following weeks I came to realize Carl’s spirit remained. Through our brief but personal interactions, he taught me a few simple things. Among them was to do what you enjoy, even if it’s a losing cause.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Time to Stop Gender Profiling

There recently was a radio story about middle distance runner Caster Semenya of South Africa. Not by coincidence, Semenya carried her country’s flag during the opening ceremony of this year’s Olympic Games. That’s because three years ago, when she was 18, Semenya was embroiled in a gender-test controversy that jeopardized her career and forced her to sit out of competition for nearly a year. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) said it was "obliged to investigate" after she made significant improvements in her racing times that typically arouse suspicion of drug use. But the IAAF also forced Semenya to undergo a gender test.
What must it have been like for Semenya? She was subjected to the indignity and humiliation of dropping her drawers on the international sports stage for the whole world to see. The IAAF subsequently conveyed its regret at the way the situation was handled but the emotional and perhaps psychological damage had been done. The really sad part is it was reported that the IAAF conducted the gender test, in large part, due to Semenya’s competitors complaining how much she looked like a man.
This gender profiling reminds me of all the unfortunate ways in which we, as a society, subject each other to unreasonable standards. Sports aside, we do it in the name of what seems to be our struggle to define what’s ‘normal.’ Yes, there are averages: height, weight, etc. Yet on closer examination, there is no normal – at least not in the way most people tend to define it. People typically define a normal individual as someone who looks like them, talks like them, dresses like them, and perhaps most important, thinks like them. But consider: do you fit into society’s standards for normalcy in every way?
To be ‘different’ in our society – by choice (style of clothes), happenstance (job loss) or birth (skin color) – runs the risk of being subjected to prejudice, unconsciously at best. At worse, being different has been used in ways that systematically promote discrimination. This discrimination is often used when a majority of people do not understand and fear those who are different. It is also often employed when there are opportunities for financial gain.
History repeatedly shows how science has often been used to justify a wide range of injustices done to groups of ‘different’ people. So-called experts have again and again been called on to ‘prove’ who or what a person is. For instance, ‘science’ was used to prove Africans were not human when America participated in the institution of slavery.
Male or female - which is which? Hint: it's the same person
As it turned out, tests showed Semenya’s body naturally produces higher levels of the naturally occurring hormone testosterone than many females. Experts are unclear whether higher levels of male hormone in females result in a significant performance advantage. However, it was confirmed that elevated levels does not make them male.
Some critics contend that unusually high levels of natural testosterone is akin to having an oversized heart like biker Lance Armstrong, or double-jointed ankles like swimmer Michael Phelps. It’s genetic, biological, and it may or may not confer an advantage. What’s more, there is little conversation about male athletes who are taller, have bigger hands, better vision – or have unusually high levels of naturally occurring testosterone in their bodies.
It all highlights a cruel injustice: the policy—and the testing, treatment, and humiliation that can come with it—only applies to female athletes. Men who excel at, say, ice dancing or synchronized swimming, where success has more to do with grace and rhythm than brute strength or speed, simply aren’t questioned in the same way women are. Why is that?