At three years old, my daughter MacKenzie became best buddies with a little blond boy named Jacob. Jacob was blind. But MacKenzie was unphased, and embraced Jacob into her world without hesitation.
It never occurred to MacKenzie that Jacob’s condition could be limiting in any way. She saw no handicap, and no label. So they played, swam, caught bugs, and ran around outdoors just as any two children would do.
Some years later, MacKenzie met Annabel, a rough and tumble child with twigs in her hair and a wildish glint in her eye. ‘He’s coming over later,’ she announced one day through a mouthful of peanut butter and jelly. I was confused but tried to be subtle. ‘Annabel? Isn’t she, er… a girl? ’
‘No,’ she replied. ‘He’s a he.’
‘Oh,’ said I nonchalantly, secretly congratulating myself for being so cool and progressive. ‘You mean he thinks he’s a boy.’
MacKenzie tried to be patient. ‘No, mama. He is a boy.’
I was struck how MacKenzie honored Annabel’s identity, not only in front of him, but also when speaking about him in third person. If someone made a disparaging comment about Annabel, MacKenzie would boldly come to his defense. If someone called him a ‘her’ behind his back, she’d quietly yet firmly correct it.
At seven she had not yet been exposed to the politically correct approaches to gender identification. She’d not been formally taught about ‘diversity’. So her attitude was natural, not learned.
Yesterday I asked her more about this. ‘All things are different. That is just a fact,’ she said. ‘But it’s not for me to say what is ok and what is not ok,’ she paused while considering her words. ‘See, I can hate the taste of beans. I can say beans suck as if that were the ultimate truth; or I can realize that beans suck for me, not for you. Who am I to say what beans really are?’
She is describing what LinkedIn executive and Conscious Business author Fred Kofman coins as the ‘knower vs. learner’ mindset. The knower mindset aligns with fear, and holds opinion as fact. The learner mindset navigates through curiosity, and is grounded in what Kofman calls ‘ontological’ humility.
My perspective is that even though MacKenzie’s attitude feels like ‘no big deal’ to her, it is an enlightened way to live in the world. It’s not that she is inclusive—which requires acknowledging differences, and then embracing them. It’s that she recognizes difference is inherent to the whole. In other words she is not buying into separation.
MacKenzie now attends an amazing interdisciplinary arts boarding high school. The school touts a student body representing over 30 countries, and dozens of languages and religions. As a community of highly creative students, they naturally respect diversity in sexual orientation and gender identification.
One of MacKenzie’s hometown friends is a transgender girl, meaning she was born into a male body, yet identifies as a girl. Another left the country, had a sex change, and is now happier than she’s ever been. Another has just come out. Mac tells her friends’ stories and victories with the same equanimity as when speaking of their summer vacation.
She has been a stalwart teacher to me about the real meaning of diversity and inclusion. In her world, and in the world of those like her, identifying differences (if even to celebrate them) is less important than living inside a world view that accepts difference as a basic existential fact, just like gravity. Difference is not something to ‘grapple’ with.
Yet even with her impeccable modeling, I’ve been slow to catch up. Last week seven transgender women entered the horse paddock to experience the work of EQUUS. While MacKenzie instilled in me a commitment to examine my own prejudice, I had to admit that the transgender population ‘perplexed’ me — a judgment cloaked in intellectualism. I had little curiosity. I was in effect being a ‘knower’.
So what the horses and the women showed to me was profoundly humbling.
I’ve learned over the years that horses know so much more than I do about who people really are and their inherent gifts. I’ve grown to trust their assessments above my own. As animals of prey, their biological imperative is that they strongly sense intention, congruence and trustworthiness.
Of particular interest is their pull to congruence and authenticity. Horses read their world as either congruent (things being as they are) or incongruent (things pretending). This is because a predator, when hunting, will shift from congruency (I’m just here, I don’t need to eat you), to in-congruency (I’m not really here, you don’t see me, I’m hiding and pretending not to be here so that I can hunt and kill you).
It’s not the predator per se that feels dangerous to a horse, it is his shift to incongruency that alerts them. And it’s not our negative emotions that unnerve them (as in fear or anger), but our masks we place over those emotions.
This is an amazing teaching to a culture that fears difference, and therefore promotes mask-wearing.
So when the women entered the paddock and the horses immediately moved towards them, circled around and embraced them into the herd, I knew without a doubt that not only were these women deeply authentic, but were so authentic that they attracted even our most reserved, nervous and aloof horses.
In response, the women lit up. Some began to weep. How did it feel to be so unconditionally met, I asked. I pointed out that the horses respond to authenticity, that they experience it as safe, and that together their group created—according to the horses—a powerful field of trustworthiness. So tangible was their shared authenticity, I said, that it managed to inspire an entire herd to circle around, and then remain with them.
This started a passionate dialog about being trusted, and therefore a safe and reliable source of advocacy for all transgender people. Then someone else spoke up, ‘We can be a source advocacy for all disenfranchised people, not just transgender.’
The horses were, as usual, sublimely accurate. Here was a group of people, some of them people of color, who live on the front lines of our society’s most entrenched intolerance, discrimination and bigotry. Not only have they had to show up as who they authentically are in the face of unspeakable danger, some have even been willing to alter entire body parts, have multiple surgeries, take medications, and lose everything they love in order to do so.
As we all remained there, immersed in the deep acceptance and validation of the horses, a visceral sense of love began to pervade the space. It shook me, and I began to cry too. Where we found ourselves was a realm beyond diversity and inclusion. We were in the space of no separation. Love.
There’s a lot of pop psychological talk about being authentic. Authenticity ends up like a kind of commodity, something you pull out of your hat when you’ve grown tired of faking it.
But the horses, and the women, and my daughter, have taught me something else: authenticity is the willingness to be different, knowing you are part of the whole. It is the expression of, the trust in, the vehicle of, and the channel for, love. I will even go so far as to say that authenticity is the holy spirit—that which moves through us as divine expression.
If we knew that our difference—our authenticity—was sacred, would we honor it more? Would we cherish it, and protect it from distortion and compromise? If we could all, each one of us, find and have as much commitment to our authenticity as these women had to theirs, then we might discover that there are over 7.3 billion different expressions, orientations, identities—all as unique aspects of the whole—of love. All in need of inclusion. Or better yet, no separation.
I’ll leave you with this quote —
In times of change, the learners will inherit the earth while those attached to their old certainties will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. Eric Hoffer (in Kofman, 2006)