Unusual. Out of the ordinary. Strange. Does not belong. Weird can be wonderful. But what’s considered weird is often unwanted, too.
Everything from the kid who doesn’t fit in, to the marginalization of entire ethnicities of people, the categorization of “weird” has done a lot of damage. Mostly, I think, because weird has been misunderstood.
The word has Germanic roots and comes from the Old English word “wyrd”, which means “destiny”. Later, “wyrd” was used as an adjective to describe “the power to control one’s destiny”, according to the Oxford Dictionary.
It traces back to Greek mythology. The Fates were three sisters (also called the “Moirai” in Greek) who were the daughters of Nyx, an entity above the gods. Nyx’s other children included Death, Sleep, Doom, and more. The Fates, however, were the most powerful. They controlled the fate of every human being on earth. There was Klotho, the spinner who spun the threads of life when a child was born, Lachesis, the apportioner, who decided the length of someone’s life, and Atropos, which means “inflexible”, who decided a person’s cause of death. If you’ve seen Disney’s classic movie Hercules, this may all sound somewhat familiar.
Homer, the great Greek author of epic poetry like The Odyssey and The Iliad, referred to Fate (“Moira”, singular) as a large, impersonal deity, also above the gods.
Throughout literature, the trope of three sisters who controlled destiny, and therefore, knew the future, continued. William Shakespeare’s Macbeth was partially inspired by a text called Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland by Raphael Holinshed, originally published in 1577. It features three women, the Weird Sisters, who issue a prophecy in the beginning of the tale. And in Macbeth, Shakespeare refers to these characters as the three witches. Modern adaptations of Macbeth portray these witches as old, ugly, frail, and outcasted.
Higher than the gods. Women weaving the threads of destiny. And then: witches at the fringes of society. The evolution of “weird” shows how much its meaning has degraded over time, to our detriment. Those original three sisters, Klotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, offer one way to see ourselves: that our future is predetermined, written in stone. But the adjective form alone, which means, “the power to control one’s destiny”, offers a chance for reclamation, unlocking the power to create a more inclusive, just world.
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What if the things we think are weird (a.k.a., strange) about ourselves or about other people are the key to our destinies? And not just quirky habits or idiosyncrasies, but those suppressed qualities that if brought to the light, can be exalted and transformed to become our greatest assets, tools, and catalysts for positive change?
I’m talking about radical authenticity. Dr. Brené Brown, an acclaimed research professor at the University of Houston who studies shame, vulnerability, authenticity, leadership, and more, says, “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make everyday. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
I believe that when we authentically express ourselves, through our words and actions, we make the greatest positive impact on those around us and on the world at-large, even in ways that may not seem concrete or measurable at first. It creates a ripple effect larger than any one of us and through it, we can create a shared destiny that’s better than any of us could have ever imagined.
The cost of letting others, especially those with power, control the narrative of “weird” is dangerously high. As mentioned, William Shakespeare’s Macbeth depicts the Weird Sisters as three witches. His depiction is connected to the term “unearthly”, meaning not-of-this-earth, supernatural, and other.
We’ve seen the implications of othering play out in history. Around the year 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, some women were gradually gaining more social and economic power in a society where patriarchal and religious tradition prescribed strict gender norms, placing women in more subservient roles. But some ventured outside of that structure, pushing against the long-established status quo. This caused friction. And what better way to squash a burgeoning revolution than to call it an unholy rebellion. To label powerful women not just weird, but witches, and burn them at the stake.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a revered civil rights hero today, but in the 1960s, many in white America found his message of racial equity and economic justice too extreme, despite his nonviolent approach to civil disobedience. In fact, according to a poll in 1968, MLK had a 75% disapproval rating by the public. Detractors thought he was either doing the wrong thing, or doing too much, too soon. Outside of Black circles, he was labeled an agitator who was too outside the norm. Too “weird”. It also is well-documented that the FBI had him under surveillance.
MLK changed the nation for the better in innumerable ways. Without him and others like him, our country would have been on a completely different trajectory, a whole other destiny—one that is difficult, and painful, to imagine. But he stuck to his ideals, no matter how they were perceived, bending our fate, and with it, the arc of the moral universe (as he put it).
But the way he is revered now, compared to the way he was widely disliked then for being so different begs the question: Who today is a weird witch that, later, history will remember as a hero?
The trans rights movement has made incredible strides, thanks to heroes like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Lana Wachowski, Brandon Teena, and more. Increasingly, there are more options for gender-affirming healthcare, more representation in the media, and more inclusion in the workplace. But while these milestones and hard-earned accomplishments should not be understated, the current marginalization of the transgender community cannot be overlooked, either. In the US, transgender people have a lower life expectancy and, according the medical journal The Lancet, are twice as likely to die prematurely than their cisgender (people who are not transgender nor non-binary) counterparts, pointing to a lack of access to quality healthcare and other disparities. The transgender community also faces alarming rates of violence, especially against those that are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color). Additionally, transgender people also continuously face discrimination in the workplace, and sometimes, are paid less than their cisgender peers.
A key part in creating better health, safety, and social outcomes for transgender people is for cisgender individuals, like myself and others, to listen to and uplift trans voices, use our privilege to champion causes important to the transgender community—and to radically rethink the structures and mindsets that have pushed our transgender neighbors to the fringes of “normal” and “acceptable”.
We should also remind our cisgender peers that it’s us who should learn from the transgender community’s bold commitment to authenticity.
A hunger for authenticity is brewing. Ideas that were once branded as “weird” are gaining mainstream traction, especially in today’s labor movement. This fall and winter saw historic, widespread strikes across industries, with workers demanding better pay, better working conditions, and better on-the-job protections. In states across the country, local governments are experimenting with guaranteed basic income initiatives, safer ways to approach the intersection of public safety and mental health, and so much more.
We need to reclaim “weird” and restore it to its original glory, using it as a tool to unlock our personal and collective destinies—destinies filled with authenticity, peace, justice, and understanding.
But I understand. It’s really, really hard to stay true to yourself and your beliefs, and to stand up for those who are deemed “too different”. It’s harder than any of us would like to admit, including myself. But as poet E.E. Cummings wrote, “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, day and night, to make you everybody but yourself–means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight–and never stop fighting.”
So go forth. Be “wyrd”. It’s our divine right.
My friend Nia re-posted something on her Instagram a few months ago about the origin of the word “weird”. I did some research and found out the graphic was correct! The word has such a fun, complicated, twisty history.
That got me thinking about how much more empowered we would all feel if we knew about this history and used “weird” as a badge of honor: “I, (fill in your name here), am weird. I have the power to control my own destiny by being myself.” And how this power can inspire more inclusive communities.
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— Cynthia Betubiza. January 18, 2022.