I am not afraid of death. Of course I don’t go looking for it, and I do a lot of things to prolong my life – like looking both ways before I cross the street, eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly – but more importantly: I do not resist its inevitability. I am comforted by the enduring finality of the ultimate conclusion. Steadfast, no matter what happens or doesn’t happen in my life, death is the only thing that's truly guaranteed. And that’s both comforting and freeing.
It’s the same feeling I had the day I finally learned how to fight with my back literally up against the wall. I spent years training a myriad of ways to avoid getting pushed-up against a wall, and countless hours practicing how to immediately fight my way off the wall if I ended up there despite my best avoidance efforts. Then I attended a workshop all about fighting from the wall. Instead of being a position of guaranteed failure, it became a supported position full of opportunities. The wall was just another tool at my disposal, so I could choose whether to stay there and for how long.
I do not remember a specific event that freed me from fear of death, but I remember when I realized mine is not the common sentiment. I was on a road trip with a close friend who shared that she had recently processed through some of her fear of death. It shocked me at the time because it never occurred to me that my smart, level-headed, and reasonably self-assured friend would be afraid of the eventual end of her life. But of course it's not about intelligence, reason, or rationality.
Obviously my friend is far from alone in her concerns. According to popular culture and the media, most people fear death. And for many reasons. Some are afraid of the actual experience of dying. Some are afraid of what will happen to the people they love after their gentle spirit takes flight. Others are afraid of what will become of their ambitions and projects and life’s work when they pass on. And for a lot of people, it’s a fear of the unknown, or of what’s waiting for them (or not) on the other side.
Most people also fear aging or getting old, which is another thing I am similarly not distressed by. When I was young I always wanting to be older. Not because I specifically wanted additional years under my belt, but because I wanted the societal respect and privileges that came with reaching certain age-related milestones. Consequently, I rushed a bit through my growing-up and did a lot of responsible adulty things “early” by societal standards.
For a while it served me quite well. Because I was living a slightly older person’s lifestyle, people generally assumed I was the age of humans who typically did the things I was doing. When I was in my teens I had a crappy service job and a million roommates, so folks assumed I was in my twenties. When I was actually in my twenties I had an important sounding government job and a mortgage, so people assumed I was in my thirties. Once I got to thirty I felt like my chronological age was finally catching-up with my perceived age, and I stopped trying so hard to constantly prove I was an adult.
I used to think I was just too young to appreciate the impending doom that is my own eventual demise. Now I think it’s actually because I am paying attention to the process. My boobs are beginning to sag and I have a few wrinkles even when I’m not smiling. My body aches and is quite stiff if I don’t move it enough or in the right ways every. single. day. And the other day I found my first grey hair.
Despite the subtle shifts of the aging process, I don’t feel like a once fabulous machine beginning to break down, or a sub-standard creature afflicted by the shameful weakness of inevitable obsolescence. I just feel like me. Every day I feel exactly like myself. And I am certain this is because I spend time every day connecting with my body through my Taiji practice.
Neil deGrasse Tyson said "we fear death because we are born knowing only life." Taiji says we can know something by knowing it’s opposite. I want to know the whole process of my life. Then I can know death through a lens other than fear. I am not trying to ignore aging as it happens. I am trying to savor every little adjustment and nuance, just like I do when practicing my martial forms. I want to feel the full experience of being in my body. I am practicing being present with today's body, so I’m not clinging to the body I had in my 20’s and pretending it’s not changing. Which means I’m a lot less likely to wake up one day in a 40, 50, or 60 year old body and wonder what the hell happened to me?!
Beyond the physical aspects of aging, there are also many ways in which people over various perceived ages are valued less by society, seen as less capable, or dismissed as irrelevant. Ageism is real, and just as insidious as racism and sexism and all the other isms. This comes up constantly in the contra dance scene because we are a multi-generational community. At any given dance before Covid, there were folks from their teens and twenties all the way into their seventies and sometimes eighties.
As one of the “young” community organizers, it’s critical that I regularly check my own assumptions about folks older or younger than I, and vital that I ask others to join me in those considerations. I hope to contribute enough effort toward changing the problematic narratives about “old people” that when I get to be an old people I will have less to contend with. I can’t count on all of society making the same positive adjustments, but I can plant the seeds of change I’d like to see in my community and encourage them to take root in other places too.
In truth, I am much more afraid of what life will be like on this planet when I am older. The climate change predictions are pretty dire and there is a lot that needs to change about the way we all live and work and play. Society as a whole needs an overhaul, right down to the foundation. If we have any hope of making it out of all the upcoming catastrophes, we'll have to make a substantial shift in every corner of our collective lives.
I am most afraid of living a life in which I could have accomplished something and didn't. I’m not attached to what specific legacy is attributed to me after I’m gone, but I am attached to leaving a positive change in my wake. I don’t need to be known for great things before or after I die. I need to have done great things and contributed to great things. I need to have made a difference, whether or not anybody remembers it was me.
Information and Inspiration
What makes someone worthy of something? In adventure stories, a hero is worthy of great honor once they defeat a mighty foe or survive a perilous journey or learn an important lesson. They are worthy to embark on their quest because they were born at a particular time, in a particular place, of particular parents, or because they are chosen (by someone or some thing). But real life is much more complex.
In modern society, everyone worthiness must be judged for everything. People with lots of money are worthy to live an opulent life, with yachts for their yachts and totally unnecessary space travel. Politicians are worthy to make policies and law that affect every aspect of citizens' daily lives. People with jobs are worthy to judge whether people without jobs deserve jobs. People who need any form of government assistance to survive must be needy enough - and in the right ways - to be worthy of food stamps, housing, or medical treatment. A person's skin tone determines whether they are worthy of humane treatment from police, teachers, supervisors, neighbors, and friends.
Although this practice of constantly assessing individual and group worthiness is ubiquitous, it's not good for humanity. I believe everyone deserves opportunity and access to love, kindness, recognition of the fullness of their humanity, connection to self and community, health, peace, and well-being. Not because they meet a set of criteria; just for existing and being human.
I also believe that in our modern society everyone deserves food, shelter, education, health care, a voice in societal governance. There is plenty to go around. But so many people don't have some or any of those things because we have decided that dollars determine deservedness. You must exchange your money for food and shelter. You must pay your way through the education system. You must fund your own health care. And you must pool your dollars with like-minded constituents to bend the ear of elected officials.
Our system of capitalism systematically syphons wealth from the middle and bottom income tiers and pools it at the top. And it isn't working for most of humanity. Government could act as a check and balance, taxing the excess wealth of the top tiers and redistributing it to the folks not making enough to meet their basic needs. The math checks out. But it hasn't happened yet because the people in power would rather create jobs programs or boost the economy in ways that have only served to widen the current chasm of economic inequality. They do not yet see that everyone is deserving.
Deserving is a construct. It's important to consider who constructed it. As Mab Segrest says in her essay Of Soul and White Folks, "People don't need to respond to what they can pretend they do not know, and they don't know what they can't feel." As long as the people making policy are insulated from the effects of that policy, they can avoid feeling the devastating sadness at the plight of their fellow humans or guilt for their hand in it, either of which might spur them into immediate action.
Workers deserve better pay and working conditions. They deserve to share in the bounty of their labor. No one is worthy to acquire their wealthy and prosperity by depriving others of it. Hungry people deserve food. Ailing people deserve healing. Humans of color deserve equality. Consumers deserve to fix and maintain appliances and electronic devices instead of being held captive to planned obsolescence. Humanity deserves a planet with a stable and healthy climate.
We all deserve to set the record straight. With ourselves and each other. If we cannot tell the truth about what we're doing, how can we heal? We all deserve a healthy and rewarding life. We are all worthy of love and humanity and a future. Not from the world, but from ourselves and from each other. It is possible to feed and house and clothe everyone. It is possible to give everyone access to education and healthcare. We just have to realize everyone deserves it.
Information and Inspiration
Forgiveness is a gift. Sometimes you give that gift to yourself, and sometimes you give it to someone else. In my life, whenever my forgiveness has been for someone else it feels like I'm grounding their trauma. A human hands some of their trauma to me (accidentally or on purpose) through some hurtful act or speech. Forgiving that harm is basically assuming the role of conduit, receiving the electrified expression of their trauma and allowing it to flow through me into the ground (hopefully without leaving too many scorch marks).
I was not so skilled or lucky during my first marriage, I left pretty scorched. The dynamic my spouse and I established included my receiving a high volume of his trauma through our interactions. Some I excused and let go of in the moment. Most I just held for him because he didn't have the skills to manage and process his own emotional experience and I thought it was my responsibility to pick up that slack.
Without anywhere else to go, it sometimes came spilling back out of me in unexpected ways or at undesirable moments. Sometimes directed at my spouse, sometimes directed at myself. After the divorce, I invested significant time, energy, and effort to work through what was mine and cast off what wasn't. None of that work felt like forgiving my former spouse for the mean things he did and said to me. And forgiving him doesn't actually feel necessary because I put down most of what he handed me.
I have spent time in a similar conduit role during much of my early martial arts training. Frequently my training partner handed me something extra in class along with their part of whatever drill we were assigned. The first time I realized what was happening still shines clearly in my memory. The instruction was to feed a straight punch or a push down my centerline so I could practice meeting it with my body, grounding, and rotating to slip the strike.
My partner pushed and punched and I focused intently on the forward, drop, and rotate I was supposed to be accomplishing. It was challenging. My partner hit me just a little too hard or too fast or just enough off-center that many times I almost got it... but not quite. I dismissed these irritating inconsistencies as part of the learning process. After a few rounds, I finally succeed with that partner and felt the embodied understanding of what we were learning.
When we switched roles, the punches and pushes I fed my partner were consistent and he got the idea after a handful of tries. Once he got the basic move, I could then dial-up the challenge - so he could learn more. He seemed to skip that first step in what he provided me, not allowing me the space to establish a baseline before attempting to thwart my efforts, despite my repeated requests for greater consistency until I got the basics of the thing.
I thought I was just better at being a partner for that drill. Then we switched partners and I saw him work with someone else. Suddenly he was right on target with all his movements. Every one of his pushes and punches at a consistent speed, angle, and strength. The difference was: his new partner was someone he respected. Someone who out-ranked him. Someone who could (and eventually did) call him on his bullshit.
It turns out I was a better partner, but not for the reason I initially assumed. I was not simply a more consistent practice buddy; I was making a cleaner offering. There was no extra emotional baggage dangling from my punching and pushing arms. I did not need to prove to my partner that I was better than them at this drill in order to affirm my own value or expertise. I only wanted to facilitate my partner learning what we were being taught.
On that day, my first partner could not reciprocate a supportive learning opportunity for me. I had to receive both the punch or push as well as his need to win. Then I had to drop the emotional piece on the floor and execute the technique to deal with the simulated attack. Since our teacher only gave us direction to deal with the physical portion, it was up to me to double my effort and work it out.
Recently I stopped enjoying an interpersonal dynamic between me and a long-time friend for similar reasons. During Covid our relationship took a different form, and the curves and edges of that shape formed in an uncomfortable way for me that felt like I was continuously putting in double-effort so as to not absorb the extra handed my way from my friend. I didn’t bring it up because once I realized what was happening, our relationship was imminently scheduled to go back to the way it was before lockdown.
It didn’t seem worth the effort and potential conflict to raise the issue so close to a forced readjustment of how we relate. I have now learned it is always worth bringing up the thing. The opportunity for that particular unsavory dynamic is gone now, but I still have to process through my discontent so my resentment doesn’t bubble up into our newly-revised relationship. Which seems more like forgiving someone else for me rather than forgiving them for their sake.
Truthfully, forgiving someone else for me doesn't feel precisely like forgiveness. It feels like a completely different phenomenon, with a different mechanism than other flavors of forgiveness. I want to call it something else because it's more like letting go of an attachment. It’s more like forgiving myself than forgiving another person. I may need to forgive my friend for their part in fostering an unhealthy layer in our relationship. But I will definitely need to forgive myself for not being a better advocate for the kind of relating I would like to do and the kind of friendspace I would like to cultivate.
Sometimes forgiving someone else is actually forgiving myself.
And sometimes forgiveness is premature. For instance, when I have experienced significant or prolonged hurt there is a period of time after it's over when I feel like I must hold on to it. In those instances, it feels important to build some kind of monument to that hurt. Otherwise the gravity of my traumatic experience may be diminished. Or some portion of my suffering may go unnoticed and I will remain unseen. Or the causer of harm will somehow get away with it and I will have suffered in vein.
That seems applicable in the wake of societal atrocities or when public figures cause mass harm. As citizens, we don't need to offer forgiveness to dictators or politicians or business moguls who hurt people or deprive them of liberty or opportunity. Even if that forgiveness is not for the benefit of the perpetrators. Instead, we need to make sure the truth is widely available and circulate it publicly. We need to ensure Justice is served and those harmed have space and support to heal. In these cases, forgiveness can wait.
Information and Inspiration
When I worked for the IRS, my job was to figure out what happened during a particular year and then apply the tax law to that situation. Through interviews and document review, I sussed-out what the tax return should have looked like. If the taxpayer got it right, then no adjustment was needed and everybody was happy. If they did something other than the correct reporting, I proposed an adjustment and they owed more or less tax. Sometimes everybody was happy; sometimes not.
The law itself is complex (thanks to Congress who writes it), so it's several someones' job at the IRS to craft volumes of explanation to clarify the law. These Tomes of 'Splaining are called Regulations. Tax law has a great many moving parts, so the tax preparer then uses the regulations to play whack-a-tax-mole, fitting all the parts of life and business into the structure provided by the government. Eventually, it's the court's job to decide whether the regulations are correct and reasonable when John Q Public challenges the IRS interpretation of the law.
When drawing my conclusions and writing my reports, I relied on and cited legal precedent. I spent a significant amount of time looking up what the court had already decided was the most appropriate application and interpretation of the law. I carefully considered the theories and choices of those who came before me. I took great care explaining to the taxpayer how the facts in the court case aligned with or differed from the facts in their own situation.
Some people agreed with my findings gladly, others agreed even though they did not like the outcome. Not very many disagreed entirely, and those were always the most outlandish and entertaining cases. I had people who didn't like the standard mileage rate, so they mathemagically calculated their own. Not allowed. I had a human who claimed their whole life was tax deductible because their existence was entirely in service of their career. Also not allowed. I even met with a conspiracy-entrenched human who earnestly insisted the bizarre punctuation they added to their signature unlocked the secret government bank account reserved for each citizen who cracked the access code. Definitely not allowed (or real).
No matter how reasonable or unreasonable the taxpayer position, my job was to apply the law handed to me by the people who wrote it. I was to carry out the Agency mission in the way my supervisors decided was best. I was supposed to perpetuate the precedent and I was very good at it. I was so busy applying my utmost effort in executing that assignment, it was a long time before I realized I might not be using my powers for good. I was perpetuating one of the many broken systems in our society. I was perpetuating a system that breaks people.
Clearly we need some new precedents. In tax and many other places.
It turns out there are plenty of other precedents to rely on. Unfortunately the ones not aligned with the dominant narrative are hidden away, deliberately or through neglect. Historian Rebecca Hall spent years painstakingly uncovering stories of women who incited and led slave revolts in the US. Each of those femwarrior's story is incomplete because they were dismissed or undervalued by the record-keepers of America.
But they were there. They were real. They rose up in opposition to their mistreatment and they stand as precedent we can follow today. It's amazing what treasurers of inspiration are lurking in the cob-webbed corners of history if someone has enough time and an inclination to seek them out. Just like all the classical literary usage of they/them pronouns for singular individuals I learned about this week. Language for a gender identity beyond the binary is not new, it's use was just hidden away for a while.
Like tattoos. Which are not simply a counter-culture emblem of rebellious youth in the modern era or the mark of a criminal lifestyle, as certain popular and disparaging narratives would have us believe. They are cultural, spiritual, and religious symbols. They are healing rituals. They are art, connection, and belonging. And these kind of tattoos were obscured by the erasure efforts of colonialism and white supremacy.
Once we start to question any of these long held societal conventions, it suddenly makes sense to question all of them. Like the point of having sex if lovers don't want children, which materials we use to make clothing more sustainably, and how we heat and cool our homes in the face of more extreme climate conditions.
The current conventional ways of moving through the world and relating to each other are only prevalent because they have been popular with the dominate caste of the moment. But it’s just one set of conventions. There are many ways to human. More than I thought. And there are many more examples to follow than most of us know. Seek them out and lift them out of obscurity. We can all benefit from their wisdom.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.