On Labels, Lightly Worn: It’s Okay to Flinch

“You were the only one that flinched,” she says.

I’m unsure if my friend’s trying to comfort or criticize, but I appreciate this information. I couldn’t have otherwise known how, or if, the room reacted to my confession, not with my eyes clamped shut and head tucked down as though somebody’s response might include thrown rocks. My body stayed that way for just a moment, but during that moment one thing became very clear: there are some personal truths of which I’m still ashamed, some parts of my experience I’m afraid to claim.

We were at a diversity workshop for educators, playing a game that was supposed to reveal how erroneous our assumptions about others can be. We sat in a big circle and responded to a barrage of prompts about how we identified by raising our hand when our preferred label within a given category was named. Many of the prompts, like those involving race and gender, were wholly unthreatening… at least to me, with privileged light skin and comfortable femaleness.

Other prompts ventured into more tender territory, where strategic omissions and outright denial gather like pages ripped from a journal and stuffed into an unsuspecting shoebox on the floor of your closet. One of those pages identified me as a Buddhist amid the room’s non-Buddhist majority, and another as Queer among mostly non-Queers. As I reluctantly raised a hand to claim each of these minority-status labels, a subtle shift in posture occurred: my head lowered and tilted to the side, my eyes closed, my back rounded and chest caved. It was like I had dipped out, not of the room, but of the present. It was like my anticipation of disapproval had jerked me from a dignified upright position into the beginnings of fetal position.

Flinching is defined as an involuntary response to pain. It’s also defined as a withdrawal from that which scares us. If someone can endure a terrible situation while maintaining apparent equanimity, we compliment them by saying, “You didn’t even flinch!” Hence, not flinching is seen as an indicator of bravery, self-mastery, and strength. By this metric, publically giving an honest response to some questions about my identity is no strength of mine.

Jerome Bruner likens identity to the stories we tell ourselves (and others) about ourselves. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Therefore, every story is finite, just like any identity we may claim. This simple fact is used as rationalization for the choice by some to eschew labels altogether. Labels, the argument goes, are too limiting, too static, too binding. But this rebellion against labels, at least in my case, is sometimes more of an excuse to avoid owning certain parts of one’s self – namely the parts that mainstream culture has marginalized or shamed – than a truly liberated way of being.

On the one hand, it’s a strangely dubious sensation to publically claim an identity that entails the labels Buddhist and Queer, knowing full-well that Buddhism and Queer Theory alike lead to the conclusion that no such thing as a fixed identity exists anyway. On the other hand, these labels allow me to name some of the more profound aspects of my unique experience and thus add one more voice to that which has historically been repressed, if not condemned, by family and culture. Neither the irony nor politics of the situation has been lost on me, but the surfacing of shame, the flinch, is what interests me more. What was my body trying to say? What story was it trying to tell?

I’ve heard that when you slouch or slump over, it’s because you’re subconsciously trying to protect your heart. You’re trying to shield it from others, possibly even yourself. The “rocks” I was shielding my heart from weren’t physical ones, obviously, they were emotional ones that result from fearing other people’s judgments. They come in the form of a slur, or maybe a disappointed glare, a face crumbling with shattered expectations, a condescending smirk. And at the heart of my story, of my identity, is this very struggle: to be more shamelessly honest, to fully inhabit my experience without fear. And maybe this struggle, which seems to define me, actually defines all of us. Maybe it’s another example of how we’re not so far apart.

Although universality is much more compelling to me than individual identity, the paradox is that truly comprehending human universals seems to only become possible once we’ve fully embraced our particularities.

They say that Jesus used the phrase “come out” when raising Lazarus from the dead, and that Lazarus was hesitant to come out of the tomb, just like we’re hesitant to come out of our own tombs, or closets as they’re more often called. We all have these closets. And labels, I think, can help liberate the parts we’ve locked away, the parts we’ve disowned, which surprisingly often end up being the best parts of all. Labels can help resurrect and celebrate what’s been buried alive in shame. They can help us come out with way more than sexuality or religious affiliation. They can help us come out with authentic self-understanding, and the humility that accompanies it. One of the biggest taboos, after all, is knowing who you really are and communicating it with clarity.

Labels can also distract us with such heavy thoughts about who we are that we forget to simply be who we are. Some are heavier than others, coming as they do with centuries of stigma attached to them. In the interest of wholeness, it may still be necessary to wear them, especially if they accurately describe your experience, but also in the interest of wholeness, it’s necessary to wear them lightly.

To sit still and observe myself breathe, without turning away for fear of discovering something terrible or embarrassing, is the ultimate practice of simply being me. To sit upright in the dignified posture of meditation is to practice laying down the shield in order to fully expose my heart. To flinch is to have stepped beyond my comfort zone, to have confronted a fear – maybe even stumbled upon one I didn’t know I had. To recognize a fear, like that of publically owning some of the more pivotal chapters in my story, is to initiate a process of self-inquiry. For example, why am I afraid to own up to certain labels? To begin asking honest questions is to begin getting honest responses. And with enough honest responses, I’ll be living an honest life.

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About Ryan Shelton

While I'm currently married to a beautiful woman while teaching physics at Padua Academy, these descriptors fail to capture the totality of my adventurous life. I have hiked over 1700 miles, traveled to 5 continents, managed a bakery, started a meditation center, counseled troubled teens, attended Duke, UNC, and Harvard, protected forests as a wildland firefighter, volunteered thousands of hours with Americorps, rafted the Grand Canyon, SCUBA dived on the Great Barrier Reef, and continues to find new adventures. I hope my writing encourages you to pursue your dreams and be the best version of yourself while supporting your communities to work together to solve the current challenges in our world.

One thought on “On Labels, Lightly Worn: It’s Okay to Flinch

  1. This is very interesting topics and it is connected with our fears; there are many – existential, fear of others, fear of ourselves. This is the main reason we pretend to be somebody ‘better’ or different. We are just afraid that we are not perfect. And we are not – we know our weaknesses and we do not want other people to know them – because than they can hurt us – and we are afraid of the pain too.
    But as we know ourselves better and better – through experience, meditation or interactions with others we are more willing to accept ourselves – and love ourselves with all weaknesses that we have and then we are able to remove the ‘fence’ that surrounds us and accept ourselves and the others around us.

    Like

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