Categories in the Second Half
“I could never have envisioned what my second half of life has brought, nor could many reading this. I could not have conceived of my work as an analyst, writer, teacher, and administrator. As disparate as these roles may seem, they have one thing in common—the requirement that I work as a mediator, a go-between, an interpreter. It is my vocation to work with complex material and simplify it, make it intelligible, translate it, communicate its values. Apparently I was born into service of Hermes, the god of in-betweens, or hermeneutics, and knew it not.” James Hollis Amor Fati, The Love of One’s Fate Winter 2015-2016 Parabola Magazine
This really resonated with me. I, as well, feel like a translator. I am good at explaining algebraic concepts to intimidated college students, for example. I am good at translating complex ideas into easily understood prose. I believe that I have something of genuine value to offer this world, if I ever exit this caretaking phase of my life and enter the workforce in a serious, non-dabbling manner.
The world needs go-betweens. The world is also full of us, but we go unrecognized for the most part because people do not see us. They see their opinions of us, their own projections.
The concept of intermediary is simple: someone who understands both sides or categories of people they are speaking to. Such people understand that most human categories are simply linguistic conveniences: good for making distinctions but not actually real.
Let me give an example. Back in 2012, it was a hot August night. I was channel surfing. I stumbled across the Republican convention. I watched five or ten minutes. My jaw dropped to the floor and I started laughing. I had never seen so many old white people wearing cowboy hats in my life—in Minnesota! Why was it so funny? Because I don’t live in that America. I live in a world with whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. A world with Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims. A world with straight, gay, lesbian, bi, and transgendered folks. A world with wildly overlapping and fuzzy-at-best categories.
Don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with being older, white, or wearing cowboy hats, for that matter. But if everyone you know is older and white and wears a cowboy hat, you do not live in the real world. Period.
Some of these categories are pure fiction. The “one drop” rule determining who is black is a perfect example. I have a brother that married a bi-racial woman. He did not know that at the time, but when I saw her standing next to her obviously bi-racial brother, I knew. They have two children, one of whom is a young man looking exactly like his dad. My nephew is pasty white, with blonde hair and blue eyes, and is a “quadroon” by antebellum standards. He would be classified as “black” and taken into slavery back in the day. The racial categorization of people is more fantasy than reality.
And, today, you cannot assume anything. I have seen articles about gay Muslims trying to get along with their families. And black Buddhists. And Arab Christians, because they are likely to be Antiochian Orthodox and not Muslim like everyone assumes. Most American Buddhists today are white and middle- to upper-class, and former Christians. That white man you are looking at just might be on his way to being a roshi.
This creates some paranoia among the people that do fit the stereotypes, and rightfully so. Conservative Christians lead the fear parade. For example, I have a friend with two lesbian sisters. Everyone knows they are gay—except their extremely conservative Christian mother. Why bring it up at family get-togethers? Why argue? What’s the point? One of them even lives with her partner. Are they honoring their mother by not arguing with her, or simply not seeing her as worth arguing with? Also, some Christians want to keep terrorists out of the country, which is perfectly understandable. However, with the Syrian refugee crisis, is it truly possible to make sure only the law-abiding Christians enter? (Antioch is in Syria and Syria used to have far more Christians than it does now.) The point is simple: you can’t tell by looking.
Authenticity is an issue. For example, I understand where Hollis is coming from to some extent. I can hardly believe what my life looks like in its second half. My choices are perfectly authentic, for the 25-year-old Cindy. I am married and not working. Externally, I could be any wife of a retiree. But I am also Buddhist. With an MBA. My life will not feel authentic until I enter its next phase, if I ever do. I am honoring choices I made over twenty years ago. I am trying to see things with a new perspective and set myself up for a decent future, one that I no longer assume I even have.
This moment is the opportunity. We cannot let our fear run our lives. And we need to listen to everyone, not just the people that look like us. People like me fit into greatly diverse and surprising categories. We have a lot to offer. Can you see me?