Wednesday, May 30, 2012
How and Who We See
Last week, at a downtown intersection, I saw three young adults carrying a large banner. The message, printed in big block letters, called on folks not to hang onto or teach prejudice and hate against transgendered people.
Now, I support efforts to ensure the safety, well-being, and equal rights of all individuals, regardless of sexual identity or preference. I smiled to see these folks declaring their right to be. And then I noticed myself automatically and semi-consciously trying to figure out the gender of those carrying the banner. And that got me thinking about the way we unconsciously try to fill-in-the-blanks about who others are (which no doubt is part of how we unconsciously calibrate our inner or outer responses to them.)
I’ve recently been reading Born Liars by Ian Leslie. Leslie looks at how our brains, drawing on past experience, take necessarily incomplete sensory data and create a continuous, coherent picture or story that allows us to predict what’s likely to happen next, and guides our response. It’s a useful and necessary survival adaptation. When I see a car ahead of me speeding up to make a yellow light and another vehicle moving to make an intersecting left-hand turn, I slow down. I don't have to think about it- it's how our brains are wired.
But this ability to create a whole from incomplete bits and anticipate a trajectory can also stop us from being aware of those things that do not fit with past experience and the resulting picture or story we’ve developed about reality. And one of the biggest stories we are taught from early on is what it means to be male or female, a boy or a girl.
One definition of “transgendered” is someone who feels their inner gender identification is different than the one which they were assigned at birth based on their genitals. But the Oxford English Dictionary also includes: ". . . a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender roles, but combines or moves between these."
Hmmm. . . . .In the early '70's I wanted to go to university and was told I couldn’t because I was a girl. I was a long way from unambiguously identifying with conventional notion (within my family and community) of what it meant to be female! And yet, gender clearly remains a way by which I seek to identify others- no doubt linked to unconscious and semi-conscious beliefs about what it means to be male or female. I’m grateful to the three young transgendered individuals for bringing this to my awareness, for helping me question what I look for and to consider both the roots and reprecussions of my selective looking.
Becoming mindfully aware of what we look for and the story or picture we create from what we see, might just make us more aware of what we’re missing. And that could prevent a lot of unnecessary suffering for individuals and help us find creative solutions for collective problems that we seem to futilely approach in the same way again and again.
So, next time you meet someone or are just people-watching, notice what you watch for, what intrigues or preoccupies you. No need for judgement- just gentle curiosity. Because in my experience, curiosity is the doorway into mindful awareness that really does let us think "outside the box" of our previous experience and unconscious assumptions. And who knows where that might lead!
Oriah (c) 2012