I take up a lot of space. I often feel I take up too much space. At times, I can overwhelm the eyes and ears of my best friends, dominating their doorways and babbling on with no plan or point. I word-vomit onto some unforeseen conclusion about the latest crisis or question in my life, and they graciously face the phonic freight train before them.
When I sit on real trains and buses and stadium bleachers, my thighs balloon out, flooding over the invisible barriers of my seat and into the precious private space of others (they called me ‘Thunderthighs’ as an infant for a reason). And, I generate unnecessary heat and unwanted friction with whomever chooses to be brave and squish in next to me.
I make big hand gestures without reserve. I bop around from person to person in every room I enter. I take huge, distracting forkfuls of food and eat enthusiastically. I’m told that even in silence, I’m hard to ignore.
It’s challenging to convince people that this isn’t a strategy, a coping mechanism for some deep loneliness or a method to ensure my inclusion in all things. And, it all sounds a bit dramatic, except for the fact that I’ve come to peace with this part of myself – the part of me that fills the space all around. The part of me that spills out into the world. The part of me that you see.
I spent some time in India a few years ago. I was a giant there. Kids thought I was a WWE Superstar – John Cena or The Big Show. While there, I had to buy a new pair of sandals. I wear a size 12 US, but none of the small storefronts we visited carried anything above a size 9. I met a tailor there who offered to make me a custom pair of pants because, “they’d be the biggest pants I’ve ever made.” Every day, I would pile an Everest of rice and dal on my plate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I maintained a healthy weight of 100 kg, which was double the body weight of most of the students I lived and worked with.
There was a time, though, when I would become virtually invisible. In Phesama, Nagaland, my community had a practice of watching a news program on television after dinner. The Newshour, hosted by Arnab Goswami (think of an Indian Wolf Blitzer-type) was an absolute barrage of talking heads. Six, seven, eight people at a time, discussing – or, shouting at each other about – the latest political scandals across the country. The noise was indiscernible. They made no space for each other’s voices. My community-mates jumped into the fray, waving hands and pointing at the screen, at each other. I had nothing to offer – my intake of Indian politics was slow, and I didn’t know the rhetoric, the acronyms, or the names. I didn’t shrink back and avoid the scene – I was still the biggest person in the room, and I delighted in the chaos around me – but my presence slowly drifted away each night in the mountain breeze cooling me through the open windows of the parlor. There was no space for me. People closed in on all sides, and I was moved out of the way.
We all need space. We have bodies. We have stuff. We need places for them to be and to go. But, there are limits to the space we’ve got, and far too often, conflict comes when we hoard space only for ourselves.
A major jury trial has begun in Chicago. Members of the Hobos – a ‘super-gang’ accused of violent crime and homicidal retaliatory tactics – face life in prison for the deaths of rival gang members, FBI informants, and others. Their arms and backs are covered with black, looping letters: “The Earth is our turf.” I’m not one of the Hobos. To them, I don’t have turf, and I don’t deserve it. I only exist in their space, and if I reclaim a small part of it for myself, my reclamation may be short-lived.
August was the deadliest month in Chicago in 20 years. 90 murders and 472 gunshot victims. Scores of people who, to someone else, didn’t deserve the space they were in. People make these kinds of claims in word and deed every day. They don’t always lead to the ending of lives, but they can destroy spirits: I don’t have time for people with different political or social ideologies, different skin colors, sexual or gender identities that go against the teachings of my faith and my God. The earth is my turf. And I’m willing to shout and shoot until I’m the only one left.
I won’t survive this way. I can’t take up all the space there is. There are too many of us seeking a safe place in the world.
Years after shooting him dead, Aaron Burr said this of his most famous rival, Alexander Hamilton: “I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.” There’s enough space for all of us.
If I am truly a man of kindness and forgiveness, I suppose the call is to shrink – there’s only so much space. I won’t lose myself. I know who I am. But, giving up some of the space I claim will create more space for that which is most important – a place filled to the brim with the very best each of us can offer, surrounded completely in love.