Over three years ago, when I walked into Hamilton-Smith Hall, Rm 101 for the first time, I was already sweating through my shirt. Sure, I was accepted into the same Master of Fine Arts in creative writing as the rest of the room, but clearly they were the genuine ones and I was just a clerical error.
During a growing discussion about writing, I felt ideas percolate in my brain, but I squashed each one with the notion that I didn’t belong. However, it seemed that every time someone added to the conversation, I found myself thinking: I was just thinking that! Feeling energized, I raised my hand just high enough to hide the moisture gathering under my arm, and before I knew it, I was a part of the discussion. People nodded along, wordlessly mouthing “yes, that’s right,” and even using my ideas as a stepping stone to the next one.
I’ve found them, I thought. My people.
This past weekend, I experienced the same sweat-inducing moment of bigger connection. This time, instead of a room of aspiring poets and essayists, I was shaking hands and exchanging stories with people of different non/religious backgrounds—atheists, muslims, jews—and yet, that sense of connection returned in all its glory.
The occasion was the first annual State of Formation executive committee conference. I had the honor of speaking with and learning from leaders—emerging and established—in the interfaith movement and, it took a while to get over the fact that I was being counted among these visionaries. [To see another take on the conference, check out Allana Taylor's "We Transforming Me"]
And, so I found them again: My people.
There are few things more exhilarating than actually feeling those sparkling moments of connection, of cresting that hegemonic mountain peak after doubting there was anything beyond the thatched, knotted trees that blocked the path for so long. In Marxist terms, the dialectic of my narrative had pitted thesis against antithesis and somehow sharpened itself into a flint-edged resolution. With each powerful story of overcoming adversity shared by each participant at the SoF conference, I felt the pang of this discovery: the crusty-eyed dream-sleep of my lazy idealism was awakening into a semblance of mobile activism.
Yet, even after such a gong-crash of resounding hope, I still came home to disparity: to police firing rubber-cased bullets at Egyptian protesters; to a gay Ugandan man bludgeoned to death; to an inspirational figurehead of unity in poor health.
In many of the memoir-writing workshops during my MFA studies, my professor often pointed out the theme of being an outsider as something writers/artists return to endlessly. I thought about my upbringing in a cloistered culture of charismatic, 1970s-drenched Christianity, and how, as an adult, I find my role in that past as a bit of a master of disguises.
But, there were many times during those workshops where many were left puzzled over how I could possibly cling to what seemed to them as Freud’s “opiate of the people.” Though they could connect to my parsing of doubt, few could relate to what kept me giving up the search. It made me wonder: Am I an outsider amongst outsiders?
The answer is an unswerving yes. But I’m not trying to paint myself into the portrait of The Other. Rather, we are all outsiders amongst outsiders. We’ve come from somewhere, and no matter how "normal," the past is still an inside we can never populate again.
To reference Marx again, that process of thesis-antithesis doesn’t end with resolution. In fact, that resolution sheds its scaly shelter to reveal itself as the next thesis. And there it waits for a challenge. The only choices we have are to either ignore or acknowledge the tension.
And while it is inspiring and seems impressive that such a diverse committee, like we find here at State of Formation, can bond so tightly over ambitious strategies towards transformation, it’s actually quite easy because we want this. Bad. We are all outsiders amongst outsiders, and something about admitting that fact together creates a new inside, even if it starts as just a shack on the borderlands of normativity.
So, what about those who oppose this togetherness? And even less extreme, what about those who don’t necessarily oppose this work, but are comfortable enough ignoring the challenge of reaching outside oneself, not just to shape, but be shaped? Who am I to go home to my context and roll people off their easy chairs?
Recently, my fellow contributor Jenn Lindsay eloquently pieced out this challenge of intra-faith/intra-network relations in her post, “I Accept the Other, But I Fight with My Brother: Why intra-faith re....” Amidst a flurry of wisdom and honest storytelling, perhaps the most salient takeaway was this tension-affirming statement: “The bad real is always better than the false good.”
I must resist the urge to see myself as an activist, because it threatens to shut me down inside the comfort of “doing good.” As Lindsay points out, that good can quickly turn false. It doesn’t matter how many places and contexts I see myself as an outsider within, because with each realization I furnish a new, potentially damaging inside. Instead, activism is a revolving door—a spinning chain of outs and ins that demands we refute the lie that a back-and-forth has to be a stagnant tennis match.
Now that the conference is over, I have returned home. But, it would be destructive to think of myself as “back,” as there is a monumental difference between being back and going back.
As I type for an ending, I’m distracted by the live coverage of protests in Egypt. They are outsiders, and I’m inside my apartment. I will resist an ending and search for the nearest exit.