When Shelter Fails

There is an old Celtic wisdom which asserts that it is in the shelter of one another that the people live. This is a layered truth—not merely that we exist within and are surrounded by the community of others, but that it is precisely because of and in the caring keep of others that we come dynamically to life. We transcend simply being human beings to become humans being through the fact of interdependent and relational connectedness. We are born into communal relationship. To the degree that the common manifestations of our relationality—family, kin, neighborhood, community, school, church—are truly sheltering, the people live. Where connectedness covers the people with nurturing care and protection, the people thrive.

When, however, the communal features of our relational nature become distorted, the people suffer—individually and collectively. In the ever-weaving web of inherent interconnectivity, the realities of socio-cultural transmission of codes, norms, beliefs, and accepted knowledge intersect with the very forces out of which they are also born:  our inherent bent toward kinship-seeking and our ability to distinguish unfamiliar and potentially threatening others. These instinctive processes produce ways of behaving and of thinking about the world, other beings, and ourselves that are, with equity and impartiality, as potentially brilliant, beautiful and beneficial as they are dreadful and destructive. We are made this way: from the way cells communicate without bias or ideological conflict, to the way we differentiate smiles from fangs; from the ways neuro-chemicals assist us in fleeing or herding, to the ways we more actively determine kin from strangers. When our communal attributes move from the beautiful and beneficial to the dreadful and destructive, the problem is not so much in our nature as it is in our attention and intention—what we emphasize, nurture, and manifest in our perceptions and beliefs about the world, circumstances, ourselves, and others.  When we forget that shelter of community is the outward enfolding of an inward, innate interdependence—one in which the good of the individual arises within and from the good of the many, when we forget that this is the true nature of sheltering—we are doomed. Usually, the culprit is some perfectly and proportionately natural fear that becomes perversely and dangerously expansive. Our chemical capacity for fear is designed to protect us (…perhaps, to move us to shelter…), to help us sense something is amiss, perhaps, perilous. This is so even for the fear of seemingly fangless things like rejection, or shame, aloneness, pain or despair. These, perhaps, even more so.

As our current times attest, when fear is stoked by other psycho-social factors, that which is meant to get our attention becomes our attention. Like wayward embers lifted on the breeze from a fire meant to warm us, the social realities of economic insecurity, competition for resources, systemic racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, classism, and religious fundamentalism are winds fanning a blaze of uncontrollable emotive flames, igniting all manner of dry fodder and, eventually, consuming us all. Fire-starters and bystanders alike. Under such conditions, the communal embrace that would shelter us becomes the heavy arms of intolerance, hatred, and distorted self-preservationism that choke and suffocate. The cover of connectedness becomes a crushing cage of constructed codes, ideologies, proposed natural laws and universal truths in which systems exclusion, negation, marginalization and extermination are the bone-breaking bars. When we give our attention to the forces that distort and twist our natural gifts for survival and kin-seeking into elements of division, when communal shelter becomes exclusive and insular, it fails to be sheltering. And the people fail to thrive. Sometimes, they die.

These realities tug at the threads of my thoughts these days, at least, in the days since the shooting at Pulse in Orlando. The event, itself, is a lingering thing—lurking in the shadows of our personal, and collective, consciousness; creeping around the edges of our daily routines; whispering the reality of our vulnerability; calling attention to the illusory nature of whatever sense of safety and normativity we have created, as persons and as communities. The shock, devastation, and grief sit with us. Palpable. Near to us as our clothing. And, if we are not now more profoundly attuned to the realities of intersecting oppressions, marginalizations and vulnerabilities for violence that are daily realities for (in particular) people of color, persons of varying immigrant status, women, and transgender persons, then we are greatly in need of examining and addressing our own blind spots.  As details and personal stories continue to emerge, the thing I can’t get away from is a difficult and daunting truth—one we have  learned over and over:  when shelter fails for even one of us, ultimately, it fails for all of us.

In Omar Mateen‘s ranting cries and gunfire, I hear the course, death-dealing crackling of internalized homophobia—the insidious virus of self-loathing, railing against the instinctive desire for love from others and from self, sputtering and gasping like drowning lungs unable to resist the smothering inhalation that ends it all. In his shouts of desperate fundamentalism, I hear the constricted code of fractured sense-of-self, like mechanical Morse dit-dah-dits, forced outward into compensatory bluster, bullets, and destruction—the face-saving need to be better, to be more faithful, more man-ish, more hetero-normative. More something. More anything-other-than who he could not accept and allow himself to be. I could be wrong.
But, as pieces of the larger story emerge, (selectively, through a biased and irresponsible media, but that’s another topic for another time), it seems clear that the familial, religious, and social structures that should have offered Omar nurturing protection and cultivated a flourishing personhood, failed him. His would-be shelter became a choking cage, squeezing the conflicted selfhood out of him until, like a human-big-bang of anti-creation, it exploded. In heartbreaking irony, his disturbed sense of self shot outward, repeatedly, into the one place that was sheltering sanctuary for so many—including, the stories suggest, even him. It seems that unresolved conflicted identity, rage, and internalized self-loathing, are also relational.
One shelter fails; another falls. And, all the people suffer.

In this case, 49 people died as one man’s wounding cage made a killing field of the shelter for a whole community. In his exploding turmoil, Omar Mateen also lost his life. All this loss: a grotesque and terrible testament to the interconnected consequences of failed shelter.
The grief in all of this is huge. Almost daily, I find myself asking the same questions I ask in the midst of other tragedies—the all-too-frequent murder of transwomen; the increasing number of suicides among transgender and LGB youth; the bullying and beating of our queer young people. What can we do—what must be done—to prevent these things from happening? What do we do, here and now, to create a sheltering world where the people can live?
Sadly, I do not know the answers. The only thing I know is that I must keep getting up each day and greet the world I inhabit with some measure of hope. What I know to do is to continue trying to cultivate spaces of caring-keep, however small, and make room for those who wish to come inside. Dorothy Day said, to paraphrase, that we find grace in never being separated from the people. I believe this to be so. And, I am inclined to think that, in practice, it means that I must endeavor to be the shelter I also seek to find.


About liammichael

I am a gender theorist, theological activist, writer, trans activist-advocate, and educator. I also work directly with trans and LGBTQ persons through workshops, support activities, and community-building. My work is informed and shaped by a deep concern for addressing the intersecting layers of disenfranchisement and oppression which stymie our efforts to create a just and meaningful common good. I work with, consult with, educate, train public sector groups, secular groups, and faith groups seeking to be affirming, accommodating, and celebratory of trans/non-binary and gender non-conforming persons. This space is a small part of the work.
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