Note: whenever I start to veer into the topics explored in this post, some people feel defensive or angry. Perhaps they feel like my words are a judgement of their own complicated lives, which is never my intention. Because of this, I want to premise this article with saying that this is about me, not about you. If you read my words and feel like they don’t map onto your own experience as an LGBT+ person, then chances are good that my words in this post don’t reflect your reality. They aren’t a judgment or an expectation. As with everything, my story fits within an intersectional lens, and it would probably be different if I were a person of color, trans, or of a different economic status. If, however, you do feel like my words in this article resonate, then I’m glad you are able to take something from my story and apply it to your life.
Back 2013, I rose to prominence as a gay Christian blogger fighting for the inclusion of LGBT people in the church (incidentally, my blog was called Sacred Tension, which is now the name of my podcast.) I was hell bent on creating a better world for LGBT Christians, and I’m still convinced that my writing from that time is some of the best I’ve ever done in my life. However, I was also incredibly fragile. I suffered regular breakdowns, and I do mean genuine, horrifically painful breakdowns, in which I would self-harm, plummet down suicidal abysses, and go on reckless, compulsive sexual benders.
The source of my torment was the many Christians who would politely disagree with my vision for the church. They were on the fence about LGBT equality, or gay marriage. This, quite simply, tortured me. It burned me down to a husk until it felt like I was had no skin left and was nothing but nerve. I blamed the church for all of my pain. If only they agreed with me, I would feel less excruciating agony.
It did little to help that I was also a survivor of ex-gay therapy in my teens, which has left me — I’m convinced — scarred for the rest of my life. There were multiple layers of torture, all directly related to being gay. Looking back on that period of my life, I’m honestly surprised I made it. I could very nearly have been taken away by my trauma.
It was the gentle, firm presence of my gay elders who probably saved my life. One of them — an older, chain-smoking, working-class plumber — took me out to coffee and told me, while chainsmoking, “Stephen, there will always be assholes in this world. There will always be people in this world who think you are less than, and your pain is doing nothing to change them. So stop giving them your pain. They aren’t worth it.”
Another gay elder, a country lesbian who lived out in the hills of North Carolina, told me, “Stephen, I’ve lived my whole life without rights. We will keep fighting, but I also can’t let my lack of rights ruin my peace. You have to be strong.”
I kicked back against these words, because at the time I felt like my elders were blaming me for my own pain. But over time, I started to see that they were correct. The greatest “fuck you” I could give to the homophobes was to be resilient, powerful, and completely myself without apology.
So, I withdrew. I decided to stop letting the homophobes control my life. I stopped arguing with them, stopped writing about LGBT issues in the church, and committed myself to just living my life as a gay man.
Paradoxically, while retreating to my safe space, I also committed to being more resilient. I set a new litmus test: as long as someone did not threaten me with violence or have the power to limit my freedoms, I didn’t care what they believed. If I walked down the road and I could see people noting that I was gay, fuck them. They could deal with it. I would not allow myself to be so weak to let the thoughts of others destroy my well being. I refused to let the homophobes lay claim to my well being and let their private feelings exert such great force over me.
I now realize that I was intuitively applying the principle of Antifragility: a concept I just recently stumbled across while reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukionoff and Jonathan Haidt, which is an interesting book with an incredibly annoying title. As the authors explain,
Taleb asks us to distinguish three kinds of things. Some, like china teacups, are fragile: they break easily and cannot heal themselves, so you must handle them gently and keep them away from toddlers. Other things are resilient: they can withstand shocks. Parents usually give their toddlers plastic cups precisely because plastic can survive repeated falls to the floor, although the cups do not benefit from such falls. But Taleb asks us to look beyond the overused word “resilience” and recognize that some things are antifragile. Many of the important systems in our economic and political life are like our immune systems: they require stressors and challenges in order to learn, adapt, and grow. Systems that are antifragile become rigid, weak, and inefficient when nothing challenges them or pushes them to respond vigorously. (pg. 22-23)
By making the two seemingly opposing rules for my own life, I was reinforcing the principle of Antifragility:
- Encountering homophobes, or beliefs that undercut my existence, didn’t have to make me weaker; they could make me stronger. I could refuse to forfeit my wellbeing to the homophobia of others. I could, in fact, shine brighter and become mightier because of the challenge. I could refuse to let people’s beliefs determine my well being and tell them “fuck you” by flourishing.
- However, persistent exposure breaks me. Being trapped in a home saturated with homophobic beliefs broke me and left me scarred. Exposing myself nonstop to homophobes on the internet eventually led me down a dark path of self-destruction. Put another way, running three miles a day keeps me healthy, strong, and sharp. Being forced to run all the way across the United States without rest would kill me.
Now, let’s pause. We are all in different places and this is where it is particularly important to remember that I’m telling my story, not yours. Perhaps you are recovering from a lifetime of hardship as a trans person: that means you probably shouldn’t engage with transphobic ideas right now. Maybe you just came out of the closet, or you are recovering from the torture of ex-gay therapy. Exposing yourself to more opposing viewpoints probably wouldn’t make you stronger, they would make you weaker. And that’s ok.
Or maybe you are like me. Maybe the challenge for you right now is not to protect yourself from opposing beliefs, but to not allow yourself to become so insulated and brittle that you break the moment you encounter a challenging idea. The world is full of challenging ideas, and not being destroyed by them is the first step to defeating them.
How I Practice Antifragility now
So how do I practice antifragility now? On a regular basis, I:
…read challenging books for long periods of time.
I force myself to read a lot. I notice that the amount of happiness in my life correlates directly to how much I read, and I think this is because reading is exercise for the brain. Sometimes I commit myself to reading books by people I loathe, or I read difficult theological texts, or I read long books that require an investment of time and focus. And then, periodically, I give myself a break, allowing myself to indulge in some lighter fare.
…deliberately expose myself to opposing, challenging, or toxic ideas.
Every so often, I go out of my way to explore ideas that I’m directly opposed to. I force myself to listen to Ben Shapiro, or Joe Rogan’s conservative guests. I listen to TERF podcasts, or I read books by homophobes and fundamentalists.
I don’t do this because I’m a masochist, I do it because it makes me stronger, wiser, happier, and more resilient. But I also do this to push back against the shallowness of our broader culture. I think Cal Newport said it best on his podcast:
I think a lot of what we see on social media is basically what I call intellectual groupieism. Like, I don’t want to do the work, someone else tell me the cliffnotes. What are the basic ideas we all agree with, and more importantly, what’s good and what’s bad, and what do I do to make sure I do the good thing and not the bad thing? like great, I’m with it. And now I’m going to, with great fervor, push this philosophy, but there is nothing below it. You haven’t read any of the things, you haven’t done the hard reading, you haven’t confronted the criticism, you haven’t read the alternative and let that collide and then let your roots grow deep. On social media you are often just a groupie for intellectuals, and say, “I just trust you. Just give me the cliffnotes I need, because I just want to go around with your metaphorical jam band and make sure I have bootleg tapes from your concerts…” We don’t do this anymore – we don’t build philosophies from scratch, we don’t go to the sources. Social media says “don’t bother with that. In fact, if you do bother with it, we might yell at you, so just come on, we will just give you the cliff notes.
I don’t want to be an intellectual groupie. I want deep roots. Growing those roots is frequently painful and always hard, and requires going down intellectual paths that often makes me and others uncomfortable.
…have conversations with people who disagree with me.
I will never create a better world if I don’t change minds, and I will never change minds if I don’t talk to them, and I will never talk to them if I’m afraid of opposing beliefs. (Allow me to reject, here and now, the misguided notion that conversation never changes minds. When I was working to further acceptance of LGBT people in the church, I was stunned by the changes of heart I witnessed, simply through conversation and relationship.)
I have to be comfortable with the discomfort of conversation, even public conversation. This comes with unavoidable hazards. People might feel hurt that I am engaging with a particular person, or I will sometimes find myself in uncharted territory, unsure of how to proceed or push back. (That’s what happened, by the way, in my conversation with Benjamin Boyce. A lot went wrong in that conversation, which I take full responsibility for, and I hope to discuss that episode more fully in the future.)
I think if I avoid these practices, I become weaker. I become more emotionally distressed, less confident, and less capable of affecting positive change in the world. If I don’t practice antifragility I become brittle, more likely to break at the slightest hint of pressure.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below. And by the way, most discussion of my posts takes place on my discord server, and I invite you to join in the conversation there. You can also become a patron and ensure that I bring you interesting content every single week, forever.