SELF-MADE MAN #20: On Dignity

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On train platforms and slushy sidewalks, I find myself feeling strangely tender toward people bundled up against the cold New England winter. It’s humbling to have to wrap oneself so tightly in wool just to join friends at the bar down the street, the sky so clear you can see Orion, the wind circling your neck or numbing your hands no matter what you do.

I’m struck by the ways we show up for each other, knowing that we will confront the limits of our bodies just by walking out the door.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about dignity as a kind of tension: there’s the understanding of reality—not your ideal imaginings of hot cocoa and ice skating, but the flutter of your heart as you’re walloped by that first cold blast, the knowledge that the man holding a sign near I-95 is exposed in a way you will never be, his body ragged in ways you are lucky not to understand, and if you are willing to look you will really feel the luck, your selfish, animal gratitude, the truth of the dollar you give him—so hopeless, so essential.

So there are the ways we map it, in real time: knowing your own dignity is bound in not visiting indignities upon others; seeing the ways the ideal makes you blind to the shivering truth of it; allowing the exquisite earthquake in your chest at the sight of a flock of geese, squawking merrily across the sky.

Dignity makes us witnesses, aligns us with what’s essential. It shows us where we draw the line, but that isn’t all. If we stop there, we become rigid, righteous. There’s the dignity of limits and then, more tenderly still, there’s the dignity of knowing how to love yourself past your best defenses.

***

Each Saturday morning there is a moment where I wonder if I can do it. I hold the needle, poised, and I wait. I don’t say to myself, “Quitting is not an option.” I don’t ignore the primal part of me that does not want me to stab myself in the thigh. I know that this practice, this stubble, this muscle, this life I’ve built is an exercise in delicately pushing past fear to whatever lives beyond it.

So I wait.

I wait until I can feel my muscle relax, until my mind can see the needle’s smooth flight into this tender place, and I’m so grateful, each time, for a body that surrenders to the daring of my mind. Dignity is in the resistance and the relenting, the part of me that cares for the boundaries of what I know to be true, and the part that respectfully insists that there’s so much more.

***

For my 30th birthday, I went scuba diving in a cenote—an open pool of clear blue water, part of a winding mass of interconnected caves leading to the Pacific. I was deep into the Yucatan, suspended in scuba gear among the wicked stalagmite and serious divers and cave mappers, speed-learning how to clear water from my goggles, how to not surface to quickly so as to avoid the bends.. This was a few months before I began injecting testosterone, a period where I lived like a kite, open to wherever the next gust took me, dreaming myself bearded each night, awaking into a more and more dissonant reality each morning.

But my waking hours weren’t any less real than my dreams, even if two years ago feels like a lifetime now. If dignity is a core sense of inherent worth, than I won’t deny any part of myself. Back then, I softened faster, I fit into smaller spaces, I was more easily held, and held often, by my wife, my mother, my friends.

Back then, I wanted to see what my body was capable of, and so I took the black rubber mouthpiece in my teeth and learned to breathe underwater. As we practiced in the shallow end, I panicked and returned to the surface, again and again—staying under a little longer each time.

“I’m not sure I can do this,” I told my wife, so embarrassed. I’m not sure I’ve been as embarrassed since, but that’s part of it, too, the blush of pride and terror, finding that authentic place between the two that allows you to move, with honesty, toward your best self. The rakish instructor smiled sweetly at me and said, “Let’s go.” As he did, I did; I dove because I knew, somehow, that I could.

I could hear my Vader breath, see the delicate reality of my body. My flat chest felt smooth against the wet suit, and I realized that I’d transition, saw I could be frightened and let go all at once. Because dignity isn’t something you manufacture, it’s something you find, tough and fragile, alive as the coral that the instructor motioned us toward, the baby barracudas with tiny teeth bared, the suck and release of my breath, nevermind how foreign—always, only, mine.

***

When I was 12 I fractured my leg skiing, and never got on a mountain again. I was gangly and out-of-touch with my body anyway, and the shock of hitting the tree, the ski paramedics snowmobiling me down the mountain—it soured me on a certain kind of speed.

By then my body had already been subject to a violence so profound that it’s hard to fathom, even now—years of my father’s searching, humiliating hands and then the sudden earthquake of their discovery, the therapy and the infinite adult concerned looks, the boundaries of what made me a kid shrinking faster and faster.

But the tree: it rattled me, confirming concretely that I was fragile and subject to the whims of a world, and even sometimes a body, I didn’t always understand.

So for my birthday this year, two years after I learned to breathe underwater, I dangled my rented snowboard off a ski lift in Rhode Island. I’d fallen down the bunny slope enough times to move to falling down the green trail, which I did, unceremoniously, as soon the lift deposited me at the top.

I fell epically: I toppled, I slid, I flew backwards into ditches. Snow found its way up my back, into my gloves, behind my neck.

But I also went fast, faster than my body wanted but as fast as I knew I could, fast as the two years that have past since the dive in Tulum, fast as the 80 injections since, fast as anything’s been taken from me, fast as I’ll fall again, fast as it’s all been redeemed.

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Thomas Page McBee’s Lambda award-winning memoir, Man Alive, was named a best book of 2014 by NPR Books, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, and Publisher's Weekly. His new book, Amateur, a reported memoir about learning how to box in order to understand masculinity’s tie to violence, was published in August to wide acclaim. Thomas was the first transgender man to box in Madison Square Garden, a “masculinity expert” for VICE, and the author of the columns “Self-Made Man” for The Rumpus and “The American Man” for Pacific Standard. His current column, "Amateur," is for Condé Nast's Them. A former senior editor at Quartz, his essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times, Playboy, and Glamour. More from this author →