“I’m just delighted and also terrified, and I wanted you to know that in advance,” Kai Cheng Thom began, before adding, “maybe, some of you are also terrified.” She asked the audience to raise their hands if this was the first (or one of the first) public events they had attended since the beginning of the pandemic, and a forest of hands quickly sprouted up before her. “Okay, let’s be terrified together,” Kai suggested, inviting her audience in the Coach House into an hour-long talk that wove poetry, psychology, meditation and comedy together into an experience that was intellectual, emotional and healing.
Being terrified together, it transpired, was the moral and theme of Kai’s talk. The author of several books, whose most recent work I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World is a collection of essays with titles ranging from “Rediscovering Identity at My Grandfather’s Funeral” to “Chronicle of a Rape Foretold,” has been self-professedly obsessed with the end of the world for five years now. “I wrote a book about the end of the world shortly before the pandemic began,” she pointed out lightly, before continuing on a serious note. “But, for many Indigenous peoples, the end of the world happened when colonization began, and for many peoples around the world, the end of the world, or the ends of their worlds, have been ongoing for quite some time.”
Kai’s primary work is currently as a mediator, a role that has given her a greater understanding of what conflict looks like and how it is resolved. One of the first things that happens when beginning the work of addressing or resolving conflict, she said, is naming the problem in the room. The problem in the room, the problem resonating throughout the Coach House that evening, that she began by naming was that “we are in the end of the world as we know it, and maybe some of us have been our entire lives, maybe some of us are just starting the end of the world and maybe some of us are in the fifth or sixth cycle of a particular world ending.”
But by identifying the end of the world less than ten minutes into her talk, Kai did not immerse the Coach House into any overwhelming sense of doom or gloom. The cloud of the imminent end of things as we know it was shot through with rays of light by the question she posed to her audience shortly thereafter: What does it mean to love one another when the world is falling apart?
Helpfully interspersed with somatic exercises that her audience could choose to participate in or not (“I am all about choice here,” she reassured everyone), Kai offered a number of ways of reconceiving conflict through a lens of radical love. Common definitions of conflict, she pointed out, are based on the idea of it emerging from the competition for resources, care or attention. “It is a struggle to have our human needs met in the face of other people’s human needs, which may be in competition with our own,” she explained. Yet, this definition lacks an understanding of internal conflict, which is the “struggle within ourselves, the battle between parts of us that are driven in different directions at the same time; care for others versus care for ourselves, forgiveness versus righteous anger, selfless sacrifice versus self-preservation.”
In light of these two definitions, conflict, she theorized, is a “crisis of faith.” Interpersonal conflict brings about a crisis of faith in other human beings’ capability for offering and receiving love. To what extent can we trust others to be capable of loving and of being loved? Internal conflict is likewise apt to bring about a crisis of faith: about our own goodness, our own capacity for loving and being loved. Interpersonal conflict, Kai argues, is almost always going to bring about internal conflict as well.
Kai’s discussion of conflict also attended to its role as a cause of and a result of trauma. “If interpersonal conflict is the competition for resources,” she explained, “trauma is the lived experience of being denied or deprived of the resources that are necessary for life. And if internal conflict is the struggle to know ourselves as worthy of love and capable of loving, then trauma is the lived experience of being treated as though we are unworthy and incapable of that same love.”
What Kai ultimately outlined in her talk at Green College is how these understandings of conflict could help us address and resolve crises in our communities and lives. She did this by raising a number of difficult and emotionally-charged scenarios before asking the audience for ways of addressing harm in transformative, rather than punitive, ways.
She asked the audience, for example: what is the best way of helping someone who is in conflict to be their best self, to find the capacity for change? “Breathe,” said one audience member; “A hug,” suggested another. While admitting both to be valuable propositions, Thom suggested that it is by finding our own best selves, that we might be best prepared to help others find their best selves in turn. “The best way to help other people be ready for devastating change—which might involve the transformation of self-concept, acknowledging that we and our collective might have caused serious harm to others, might still be causing serious harm to others—is to be in that space ourselves,” she said.
Apart from her essay collection I Hope We Choose Love, Kai Cheng Thom is also the author of Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir, a children’s book entitled From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea and a poetry collection entitled a place called No Homeland. The entirety of Kai Cheng’s talk will be available on Green College’s YouTube page. Patchworks podcast, sponsored by Green College, will feature Thom as a guest on its next episode in conversation with members of the College, which can be streamed on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
Kai Cheng Thom spoke at Green College on March 21, 2022 in a Green College Special Lecture, presented in partnership with UBC's Social Justice Institute Graduate Student Society Abolition Panel Series.
Post by: Jane Willsie, Department of English Language and Literature, UBC and Green College Work Learn Content Writer, 2022.