Forming my What?

I get a number of emails each day that are sale notices for ebooks. Yesterday I happened to glace at one of the descriptions of a book that read, “…the Church contributes to society by forming the conscience of people.” I almost fell out of my chair! If that’s not a line straight out of medieval theology then I am the Pope. If the Church is going to form the conscience of the people the way she forms the conscience of her clergy, we are all doomed! There are other issues this statement raises that are at least as bad. Are we suggesting that only people who are members of a particular church have a properly functioning conscience, or that only Christians, or religious people, or any specific group are able to have a conscience that works properly?

The truth is that conscience, ethics, morality, and all similar human functions are not in any way dependent on religion, spirituality, or membership in any specific group. There are completely secular people who are quite ethical and very in touch with when they have transgressed their own values. Then there are religious people you wouldn’t want to leave unattended in your home! We need to move beyond the antiquated notion that spending an hour or so in a church building every now and then does anything for us other than perhaps cause callouses to grow on our buttocks. In fact, most churches do a God-awful job of teaching anything that would cause someone to develop a healthy conscience. You would be better to spend your time and money on a good therapist to explore your conscience or lack thereof.

Let’s do away with the notion that being a church member gives you a leg up on anything, any more than joining a golf club makes you a good golfer. In fact, the two are related. You become a better golfer by practicing golf. Your conscience becomes more functional as you practice qualities like empathy, compassion, and generosity. If you don’t put in the work, whether in golf or ethics, you will soon find your balls in a rough patch!

Behavior and Spiritual Credibility

To be completely honest, I have struggled with this issue for years. Living, as we do, in an era where a constant procession of spiritual leaders of all stripes have been outed as serial abusers of those in their charge, I don’t see how we can avoid dealing with the issue and asking the question:

At what point does the abusive misbehavior of a spiritual leader render their teachings invalid?

Craig Bergland

Suppose we attempted to construct a spectrum of abuse that started with a spiritual leader having an adulterous affair with someone not involved with his ministry in any way and progressing to whatever the most horrific offenses we might imagine. For the purposes of our discussion, let’s say up front that consensual sex between non-married adults is perfectly fine. What transgressions are redeemable and what transgressions invalidate a person’s spiritual teachings? It may help to establish some categories of offense for sorting purposes.

Can we agree that any sexual activity involving minors should preclude that individual being allowed to teach? Would it render their teachings null and void? Catholic priests involved in the pedophilia crisis would fall into this category, but so would Rumi due to his pederasty. Many of Rumi’s supposed love poems to God weren’t written to God at all but to Shams, his adolescent protege. To be honest, that turns my stomach more than a little.

Can we agree that teachers who engage in sexual relations with their students have crossed a line? Buddhism in particular seems to struggle with teachers who can’t keep their hands to themselves, assaulting female students during spiritual interviews. Others overtly create situations wherein sleeping with the teacher is presented as being spiritually advantageous, even when the student is married. Perhaps the most notorious example of this in Buddhism is Chogyam Trungpa, who established an entire lineage replete with sexual misconduct. Only recently has anything been done or said about this, but it has been an open secret for almost fifty years. Despite that truth, there is no shortage of former students of Trungpa who still speak effusively about his teachings. What are we to make of that? In the interest of candor, for me, Trungpa’s behavior does invalidate his teaching.

What about with colleagues or the parish secretary? We talk about imbalance of power as being an important factor in determining if a relationship is appropriate, but I suspect that power is much more complicated. There is power in hierarchies, but there are all sorts of power structures in social and cultural settings that muddy the waters. When Jim Bakker had an affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn, there were surely multiple psychological factors at play. It’s hard to know who was being manipulated more, but I suspect there was mutual manipulation at work. Then again, since Bakker’s teachings were vacuous at best, perhaps he is a bad example.

Complicating all of this is the truth that nobody is perfect. All of us make mistakes on a regular basis. That being said, abuse is a mistake of a different stripe. I am not concerned about clergy who fall in love with the parish secretary. I would be concerned about clergy who fell in love with every parish secretary they ever had. I wouldn’t necessarily be concerned about a spiritual teacher who once fell in love with a student. I would be very concerned about a teacher who slept with many or most of his students. These issues are important because we all share a responsibility in ensuring those seeking to develop their spiritual life can do so free from harassment. They are also important because they speak to the character of the teacher, which has a direct impact on the teacher’s ministry and teachings.

Our Histories are Cyclic

santayana learn from historyWestern culture tends to believe that history is linear. In truth, at least as far as our personal histories are concerned, it’s more accurate to believe they are circular. We keep returning to the scene of our trauma by recreating it with a new cast of characters and hoping it will turn out differently this time around. Of course it doesn’t and so we recast the play and have another go at it. Because we tend to choose that new cast because it resembles the original cast, the effort is doomed from the start.

Are you a heterosexual woman who finds herself repeatedly in relationships with a certain type of ruggedly good looking, athletic, rather narcissistic man who ends up treating you poorly and at times abusing you? Find the man in your past, likely in your family or very close to it, who fits that description and you will have found the reason you make the same “mistake” over and over. You will never succeed in your efforts because this kind of man is constitutionally incapable of treating you well. The excitement you feel when you meet another one of these guys isn’t attraction, it’s danger – but you have come to conflate the learning_from_historytwo. You have somehow come to associate danger and being treated poorly with being loved, and that simply isn’t true. Ultimately, the answer to “why does this keep happening to me?” lies in the bathroom mirror.

If we take an honest look at our history and discover we keep making the same mistakes, it’s a good time to pause and examine that tendency more deeply. We need to unpack our histories and discover the roots of our unhealthy tendencies so that we can sever the connections and start making better choices. We may well find that there is a part of us that doesn’t believe we deserve to be treated in a kind and loving manner, quite likely because we believe we have a horrific defect. We haven’t yet skeleton closetfigured out that everyone has a defect they believe is horrific but that very few other people would notice if the owner of the defect didn’t keep pointing it out!

In truth, we all have skeletons in our closet. If we examine them and come to terms with them they will stop being problems. If we come to see that everyone has the odd bony inhabitant in their closet, we will stop feeling the need to hide ours. When we stop hiding ours, something decided different than showing them to everyone we meet, we will stop feeling compelled to replay the unsatisfactory parts of our collective past in the hopes that things will turn out differently this time. When that happens, Cowboy Bob won’t seem appealing any more. Imagine!

Let the Cleansing Begin!

It is almost predictable. Watch the White people scramble to purge the record of racism and White Supremacy in America. Scrub the history books and convince yourselves that you have done something worthwhile. No more “Gone With the Wind,” get it out of here so we can pretend that never happened. For the record, I never watched that movie anyway so I won’t miss it, but that’s not the point. Then there is a sketch from “Whose Line is it, Anyway?” that lampooned racist police practices but is now seen as racist because, after all, we can’t have any record of any racism in America! Oh the liberals gather appearing skynews-gone-with-the-wind_5010033to want to do something about racism, but in truth what is happening is an attempt to remove the evidence of racism so that we can look good without becoming vulnerable enough to effect actual change.

Country group Lady Antebellum has apologized for having “antebellum” in their name because the word refers to the pre-Civil War south in America, a time in which slavery was legal. They are now “Lady A,” something their fans (who may or may not be able to spell “antebellum”) have called them for some time. There is an unfounded rumor that the name “Fucking A” came in a close second in balloting for the new name, both because of doubts about spelling and a desire to avoid being known as “F-n A,” but I digress.

The point is that when we remove every trace of bad behavior from our memories we become complicit in perpetuating them. Ask you kids if they learned about the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s in school. You may be shocked to learn they didn’t. Ask them if they really know why Martin Luther King, Jr. is important and you may find out your kids believe it’s because streets and plazas are named after him. It’s vitally important that we work to eliminate racism in our society today, but purging records of racism from the past is counter productive and uses energy that would be much better expended in addressing what is happening in 2020!

Privilege Comes in Many Forms

Whenever I read about a super model’s experience with body shaming over the course of her career, my initial reaction is sympathetic. I am sure that such incidents are terrible and can have a negative impact on a person’s self esteem. I absolutely believe that when your multi-million dollar career depends on what the scale and the tape measure say you can easily become preoccupied with weighing yourself and checking your measurements. I also know that you have an ability the average person with faced with the same challenges doesn’t have. You can walk away and not worry about having a place to live or enough to eat.

When a waitress at the local nightclub is confronted with those same issues, she can’t walk away because her earnings are barely enough to live on and certainly not enough to invest in such a way that she can retire at thirty-five years old. When the receptionist at the local modeling agency is told she is getting too chubby to represent the agency well, she likely has to remain in her position and lose weight as fast as she can because she needs her job to keep a roof over her child’s head. To be clear, all three women are being treated inappropriately and have the absolute right to be upset and seek to redress their grievances. Only one has the resources to make real choices about how to respond. That is a form of privilege we don’t hear many people talking about, but we definitely need to talk about and recognize privilege in all its forms.

In our culture money is perhaps the ultimate privilege. It does cover a multitude of sins, both our own and those of others. Money affords us choices that the average person doesn’t have available to them. It doesn’t remove the sting of mistreatment, but it does offer many escape routes not enjoyed by the average person.  You will have to excuse me when a millionaire wants to carry on about their struggles, because I am not that interested. I would much rather hear about and address the struggles of the average person. Sorry, Chrissy.

Pedestals, Perfection, and Disappointment

I read an article the other day that reported the late Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche International communities for the cognitively disabled, has been accused by five adult women of sexual misconduct in that he had what they describe as coercive sexual jeanvanierrelationships. Prior to these revelations, he was considered a solid candidate for sainthood. Since the revelations, quite the opposite has happened, with organizations falling over themselves to retract awards and recognition granted him during his life for the work he had done. The author of the article said that Vanier had been a hero to him, but now he had to change his mind about Vanier’s hero status. This raises several questions for me, none of which are new.

The first question I have is, “how shall we define a hero?” I grew up thinking that a hero was someone we admire because of some example they set. If I had to gauge today’s definition of a hero, I would say that a hero is someone who is seen to be perfect, flawless not only in their area of expertise but in all areas. They must never have passed gas in church, had a relationship end badly, not kept a promise even if through no fault of their own. In short, they must be everything we are not. That is impossible for any human being, and so when we define our heroes that way and place them on a pedestal we will eventually have to take them off the pedestal and destroy that pedestal in a very painful public ceremony. I do, not believe such falls from grace serve any of us well.

I am not making excuses for sexual misconduct of any sort. I would just caution us that we all have likely made choices in our dating lives that we later elected not to repeat. I believe the vast majority of males over the age of fifty have said things to prospective partners that were acceptable in their time but by today’s standards are not. We must always err on the side of believing those who report abuse. We must also display compassion toward the accused, especially when the relationships in question did not involve minors. Adults who act out most often have been victims at some point in their lives, and if we run about chopping off heads we will behead victims as well as perpetrators.

The question I keep coming back to is, “why we find it necessary to dismiss every good thing larchesomeone did when we discover they may have done something wrong, too?” I feel that how we treat those who have transgressed depends on the nature and number of their transgressions, and so some people have clearly crossed a line from which their is no return. That being said, if our standard is to be that those we admire must be perfect then the days of admiration are long dead.

We also need to discuss how we are to deal with the work that the accused have done. If someone were to cure cancer or AIDS tomorrow and then next week be accused of some sort of sexual misconduct, would we refuse to use the treatment they discovered? I hope not, but I hold that hope with very little certainty. Surely no reasonable person would argue that the L’Arche organization should be disbanded, especially since Vanier’s alleged transgressions occurred outside that community – but that doesn’t mean some won’t call for precisely that. At what point does someone’s misdeed mean that everything they ever said or did must be discarded? I’m not sure there is a hard and fast answer to that question, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking about it.

Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, and Bigotry

Shakira-J.-Lo-Blow-Minds-at-Super-Bowl-Halftime-ShowOh, the outrage! Jennifer Lopez and Shakira have asses! Son of a bitch! What am I going to tell my teenagers – they don’t know about asses! Not only that, they had the audacity to shake their asses! Jennifer Lopez climbed a stripper pole? How do I explain that to my kids? These women were both dancing as if they were from some sort of Hispanic culture – we can’t have that! Where are Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers when you need them? We can’t have these brown people running around doing the things they do, or the next thing you know our teenagers will be humping like rabbits (n.b., they already are)!

Patriots Rams Super Bowl FootballThis reminds me of last year when Adam Levine made me uncomfortable by taking off his shirt and moving his hips like a male stripper! Jesus Christ! My kids didn’t know that men had hips! My teenage boys weren’t even sure how they walked, but now I am going to have to explain it to them. Then there was the fact that I went through two Hitachi magic wands trying to get over what I saw!

Okay, ladies, let me help you out. First, there was nothing inappropriate about what either Jennifer Lopez or Shakira were doing. They were dancing, expressing themselves, and just because it wasn’t boring doesn’t mean it was wrong. As for the pole, you can take a class at the local gym or dance studio to learn pole dancing. It’s not reserved for strip clubs any longer, and hasn’t been for some time. Furthermore, if your teenagers have been to homecoming or prom, they jlohumpspolehave already been having sexual contact in the backseat of the family SUV – or have you forgotten your youth?

Here’s the real deal. I have a question for you. Why is it you are fine with your teens playing video games in which they kill other people but are upset with them watching two women old enough to be their mothers shake their asses? I will tell you why. It’s not likely because you are a prude, although your reaction proves you are a prude. It’s because somewhere in your past, in a place you don’t want to look at, you have been sexually traumatized and this is triggering you. The problem is neither Shakira nor JLo, nor both or them all lathered up. The problem is that you need to get yourself to a therapist post haste, and no amount of outrage is going to change that truth.

When did it Become Acceptable?

pompeoWhen did it become acceptable in America for a man to mistreat a woman? When did it become acceptable in America for an American government official to take a woman in a back room and scream profanities at her? How does it come to pass that an American Secretary of State, a position that traditionally seen a diplomatic, is reduced to profanity laden back room thrashings of not only a woman but an educated woman with a Master’s Degree in the very field he then presumes to demand a pop quiz on, which she of course passes with flying colors – and then the Secretary of State turns around and lies about it? When did integrity become a thing of the past? When did honesty become optional? When did it become 1952 again?

When did guys like the guy pictured at right start to have even a sliver of a chance at getting angrymanelected or appointed to national office? When did guys like him start calling the shots in national elections? When did people who claimed to be people of faith start trading that faith away for a chance to grab temporal power and then still have the audacity to show up at a place of worship on Sunday claiming to be a believer? When did it become acceptable to slap on your snazzy Nazi uniform and stroll down to the park for a festive rally with your Nazi friends? When did the ability to burp slogans in an alcohol induced haze become more persuasive than informed discourse?

When did oaths stop meaning anything? When did it become perfectly acceptable to slander a decorated purple heart recipient, but unacceptable to expect the United States Congress, President, and his cabinet to be true to their oaths to protect and defend the

grab-my-pussy
I will take a pass.

Constitution? When did it become perfectly fine for Congress to decide to deliberately not do its job by taking up legislation? When did it become okay for the President to “grab them by the pussy?”

I am not an old fashioned guy. I’m actually pretty forward thinking about most social issues. I am just wondering where common courtesy and common decency have gone. And before you start saying, “yes, but he did this and she did that,” you should know that you are just proving my point. We do lack self respect and a sense of self worth that we are more than willing to denigrate ourselves at the drop of a hat for a shot at momentary fame or momentary power. I want us all to understand that the bill is going to come due on these self destructive practices, and when it does we all will suffer the consequences of realizing how little regard we have for ourselves and each other.

What the Neighbors Think

I suspect there are more of us out there than we might expect who grew up with parents who had one level or another of preoccupation with what the neighbors might think. There are any number of reasons that happens. None of them are legitimate. Whatever the real reason for neighborly preoccupation was – narcissism, competitiveness, or a convenient way to control the kids – I can assure you that the neighbors really had no healthy reason to be concerned with what you and your family were up to. You didn’t know that, however, and despite the fact that you know that now you still probably have lingering corners of your mind where that message hides.

The key to the freedom we all deserve as adults is to stop caring what other people think. Part of getting to that point may be realizing that nobody is watching, anyway. As kids it was reasonable to think that others were watching us, even if it was only the crabby old guy down the street waiting for us to step on his lawn so he could jump out and start yelling at us. We are adults now, and the old guy is long dead. Nobody is going to scream at us about stepping on their lawn, and even if they do we can handle it. Unless we are sacrificing virgins in the backyard or sword fighting naked with the boys from the golf club, nobody cares.

If you catch yourself with that old feeling of disapproval, I have found the best practice is to refuse to yield to it. If you want to practice your tuba in the front yard but hesitate because you worry about what people think, blow anyway. If you want to go jogging with your shirt off but worry that your belly looks like claymation animation singing the alphabet song, jog anyway. If you want to tell your beads on the front porch but worry someone might think you are a member of the religious secret police, pray anyway. Each time you do it anyway, it will get easier. I promise.

What Has Happened to Us?

Somewhere along the way, our society has gone to hell in a handbasket. We drink and drug ourselves into oblivion on a regular basis, a horrifying number of us have been sexually assaulted either as children or adults – sometimes both. Corporations are people, kids are bringing guns to school on an almost daily basis, airports get nudie pictures of us as we go through security and we haven’t increased safety, racism is rampant, politicians of all stripes are corrupt, and we aren’t quite sure where Richard Simmons has gone.

second_industrial_revolution_gettyimages-51632462I truly believe that the industrial revolution changed our lives so fundamentally that we have been unable to adjust. From a schedule that was based on the rising and setting of the sun we moved to an alarm clock timetable. From the time we came off the farm, workers have been exploited and abused by corporations – which have now been declared “people,” perhaps the surest sign of judicial corruption we have seen. As we struggled, and failed, to adapt to these changes our stress increased and in many cases came out sideways in the form of abuse, assault, and self-medication that created disinhibition and made it easier to act out.

As a realist, I don’t believe we can put the genie back in the bottle. Nor do I believe that we can continue for much longer with the status quo. I believe we can learn to adjust to some of the changes that have caused us to struggle, but others we will have to walk back. We will need to ask ourselves, and others, tough questions. How much is enough? Can we see that working sixty hours a week destroys our relationships, and no amount of money can adequately compensate us for those losses? Do we realize that our rampant rates of sexual abuse and assault are crippling our relationships? Might we see that sexless marriages are doomed, and that marriages are sexless largely because of the impact of abuse and assault? How can we not see that our love of guns over the safety of our children is not lost on them – nor is our impotence and inability to do anything about it lost on them?spirituality

We have to come to a new spirituality, by which I mean a new way of understanding and making sense of our world. We must realize that self-care and the care of our relationships is a huge part of that spirituality. Selling our souls for a paycheck is creating a world that is polluted, and that in turn is having an impact on our environment and our climate. Those who would hide behind the facade of the flat earth society may be the largest victims of our worship of corporate big daddy, and we need to educate and heal them, too. We need to shift our primary question from “how can I screw you over?” and “how can I force you to comply with my perspective,” to “how can I help you?” We can do this only if we understand how interconnected we really are, and through that awakening come to see that what I do to you, I do to myself. We need to start right now.