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 this 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-abortion, 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 reside. 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 Christian literary 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 use 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 among 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 deliberating, I made the switch to a plant based diet. It was for the animals, not for health reasons (i.e. the suffering in factory farms), and I soon found myself in no man’s land yet again. You see, I’m 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 or marshmallows. 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/pasta, I’ll have a muffin/donut/cookie at social gatherings or cafés; and when visiting someone’s house for dinner, I might have 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 – and I don’t eat those things anymore.
Now, I could certainly contort and bind to join the 100% vegan club or be more slack and join the vegetarian club, but neither would be fully in-line with my values: 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; they 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 (well, pro-all-life, there’s a difference) and believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ. Basically I’m somewhere in the middle between liberal and conservative, depending entirely on the topic at hand. For some issues I’m right wing, for others I’m left wing. Therefore, 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 plant-based but… I’m progressive but…
If someone is unwilling to use qualifiers or to explore nuance, however (for fear of being judged by their chosen community), they end up stuck continuously trimming, editing, and revising themselves to fit into the outward identity they’ve created. They suppress their true views, believing they’re betraying their community and/or faith if their identity appears unruly in any scope. The result is rigid people who are far too predictable. It also makes them clones and automatons of one another.
In this woke society of ours there is a constant pressure to maintain a hard-line identity, to find that perfect (yet elusive) recipe required to emerge as a spectacular butterfly: as a whole and enlightened person that others can look up to. And this pressure is found equally on both the liberal and conservative side of the spectrum, and in every faith group.
So what can be done about this? What can a person do to be true to their convictions without being assimilated by the collective, without compromising on their conscience to stay securely in the fold? In my own experience, the answer is this: when your heart tells you that a specific note in the melody of your belief system is discordant, it’s time to pay attention. You’ve discovered an area for nuance.
It might result in you becoming an awkward “My Fair Lady” like me. We’re not likely to become graceful butterflies this side of heaven, but we get to be honest. We can admit it when we have a doubt about something, when we question something, when we see something differently than our collective does. Instead of turning a blind eye, we can reach out and catch nuance.
*August 2020 Update: I now eat a restricted variety of sustainably-sourced wild fish; but because I’m still plant-based in all food preparations, the label “pescetarian” doesn’t quite work for me (like vegetarian, it would still be wrongly assumed that I also eat dairy and eggs, which I do not). Yet another case in point. 🙂