In the musical, My Fair Lady, by Alan Jay Lerner, a professor takes on a cockney flower girl as his protégé and gives her speech lessons until she can pass in public society as a lady. And indeed he succeeds. Yet in the end this young woman finds herself caught between two worlds: she no longer fits comfortably in the cockney world she came from (a world she can never fully return to for her speech has forever been altered), but neither does she feel at home in the posh world.
I’ve come to see myself in a similar way, as a “My Fair Lady” of sorts. I would rather be myself, authentic, instead of pretending to believe this or that just to fully fit in on one side or another. But it means sometimes journeying through no man’s land. I will be misunderstood. A lot.
It’s my experience that people don’t ask questions, they just write me off. If they hear I’m a feminist they assume I’m pro-choice, if they hear I’m an evangelical, they assume I’m anti-LGBTQ. You get the drift. But I wonder … how many times have I made similar incorrect assumptions about others?
See, the only way to really get to know someone is to first resist branding them, and then second, converse, ask questions and look for nuance. Nuance is the gold found in the in-between, in the so-called desert, in no man’s land. It is where individuality and uniqueness resides. It’s where we must go, if we truly wish to get to know one another.
Allegiances and labels are necessary at times, but they’re also restricting. They can be unintentionally dishonest as well, if it means hiding part of yourself. For example, when it comes to my novels, I’ve been told by two different agents that my work falls into the territory of “no man’s land.” i.e. Too Christian for mainstream readers and too racy for Christian readers.
Sure, I could conform and censor myself neatly into one land or the other, but then I’d be a dishonest writer, and what good is that? I have to write from my heart in a way that I feel is realistic and believable yet inclusive of my faith; even if the result is that my work dwells amongst tumbleweeds. So the past couple of years I’ve focused on short stories instead – serendipitously discovering in allegorical fiction a niche in which I can appeal to both markets without being disingenuous.
Another example. Back in January 2018, after many years of indecision, I decided to make the switch to a plant based diet. I quickly found myself in no man’s land yet again. You see, I’m technically disqualified from being called a vegan because I still eat local honey, and occasionally eggs from my parents’ backyard hens. I also don’t worry about obscure ingredients. If I’m eating in public, I’ll make concessions if I feel it’s necessary (e.g. I don’t ask restaurants what’s in the bread/buns, I’ll have a muffin/donut/cookie at friends or cafés, and when visiting others, I might have some mashed potatoes). But I still avoid all overt dairy, cheese, and factory farm egg products, so that also disqualifies me from accurately being called a vegetarian. Now of course, if you asked the vegans, they would say, she’s a vegetarian. But if I called myself a vegetarian, everyone would offer me dairy, eggs, and cheese – things like mayo, egg salad, lasagna, Mac n’ Cheese, and ice cream.
Now, I could certainly join the 100% vegan club or the vegetarian club, but neither would be fully honest: qualifiers are always going to be needed. “Plant-based” seems vague and requires qualifiers too, but the vegan tribe just doesn’t accept the concept of a flexible vegan; many even despise it. Think No True Scotsman. So I find myself once again in the in-between.
Another example. I’m a Christian who supports gay marriage. To the majority of evangelicals, this means I am no longer a “true Christian” as the position is seen as antithetical. But neither am I a fully liberal Christian. I’m pro-life and believe (perhaps “progressive” is a fitting term but it’s often seen as a synonym for liberal)in the divinity and resurrection of Christ. Basically I’m somewhere in the middle between liberal and conservative, depending on the topic at hand. I’m not conservative enough to be called conservative, and not liberal enough to be called liberal.
To fit in I could indeed feign to be fully one or the other, but it wouldn’t be the truth. To join the liberal club I would have to hide my conservative beliefs, and to join the conservative club, I would have to hide my liberal beliefs. Again, qualifiers are needed for every label.
I’m a Christian fiction writer but… I’m vegan but… I’m progressive but…
All that to say, if my beliefs are so nuanced, surely yours are too. It’s easy to put people in compartments based on their various labels; but chances are we’re sorting one another in ways that are misleading, incorrect, or at the very least, inaccurate.
Until we start asking questions from fresh angles and looking for nuance, misconceptions will continue to abound. Wouldn’t life be a lot more interesting if we stopped obsessing over the externals and looked a little bit deeper?