What if you died and nobody cared?

My father died a couple of weeks ago. I found out last Thursday, but he died the Friday before that. The only reason I found out is that my brother’s ex-wife lives in Florida a few doors away from someone who used to live in the same town outside Milwaukee where my father and his current wife lived. Somehow this woman heard, and expressed her sympathy to my ex-sister-in-law, who then got in touch with my brother, who told me. As if that wasn’t convoluted enough, my father’s wife died two hospital rooms away from his and within eight hours of his death, but we aren’t sure if he knew she was in the hospital with him.

You might be thinking how sad and tragic this story is, but it isn’t. At least, that’s not why it is sad. It’s sad because, with the possible exception of my father’s sister-in-law, nobody cares.

You can’t live your life running away from every conflict and being concerned only with your addictions to work, booze, cigarettes, and money and expect people to be broken up when you pass away. I have been estranged from my father since I was eighteen years old. On my eighteenth birthday he flew into town, took me out for a drink, and told me he was never coming back. The next morning he told me he wouldn’t trade his travels for work for anything, even his family and children. Since that time I have had less than a dozen interactions with him. The last was especially egregious, but that isn’t really my story to tell. When people I met would occasionally ask if my father was alive, I would honestly say that he might have died and I wouldn’t know. It turns out that was prophetic. If my ex-sister-in-law hadn’t moved to that particular city in Florida, we might still not know.

My father was born to parents in their late thirties at a time when people didn’t have babies that late in life. It’s fair to say they didn’t plan to get pregnant. His mother was domineering and his father was a great man everywhere but at home, where he acquiesced to his wife’s demands at every turn. His father was a football coach and he was not a football player, setting up a dynamic where disappointment was a recurring theme. Not surprisingly, my father married a domineering woman. As they sunk deeper and deeper into addiction, she would verbally batter him every night and he would take the beating passively. Finally, he got up the courage to leave and never looked back – at any of us.

He was a man who could be wonderfully social, likely because his career required it, but the moment he left the party he forgot about everyone there. As he got older he developed a slightly paranoid bent, convinced that people were after his money. Perhaps he sensed that was all he really had to offer since he couldn’t feel, relate to others, or allow himself to become vulnerable. He is proof of the hole in the American Dream. He worked hard, made a lot of money, had a lot of toys, and found all of his validation doing those things. In the end, he died alone in a hospital room with nobody knowing he was there. Fitting, I suppose, but I can’t help but wonder how many others there are just like him. I suspect there are more than a few.

The Fall of Jerry Falwell, Jr.

Many may be tempted to see the fall of Jerry Falwell, Jr. to be a tragic, isolated incident of one man gone astray. It’s anything but. This isn’t about Jerry sitting in the corner ‘observing” while the pool boy cum business partner frolics on the bed with Jerry’s wife. (As an aside, since these religious right types preach against masturbation they have apparently taken to calling it “observing?”) The age old attempt by Christian religious types to blame the woman, as old as the story of Adam and Eve, rears its ugly head once again as the event is described as Becki Falwell’s affair with a pool boy. In truth, it’s the three of them engaging in consensual sexual activity. If it was people in your neighborhood you might think, “it’s not my cup of tea, but if it makes them happy who am I to judge?” Or, you might think, “where can I get a pool boy?”

I’m less concerned about the fact that Jerry appears to be a cuck who likes to watch than I am about the wider trend he represents in White Evangelical Christianity. (As an aside, I don’t believe that White Evangelicalism has anything to do with Christianity.) Allow me to explain. Jerry’s father was a founder of the so-called “moral majority” around the time of the Nixon administration. While that group no longer identifies by that name very often, it still exists. You know the type. They tend to believe that if something feels good it must be a sin, which is why they don’t buy Q-tips. Back in the day they crawled into bed with political allies in the Republican Party, gradually increasing their political power in America. On the religious side, they became Televangelists and Megachurch pastors. What this latter group has in common is sexual misconduct of epic proportions. A close second is financial misconduct, and coming in a not too distant third is substance abuse. In case you think I am kidding, here is a short list: Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Ted Haggard, Eddie Long, Bill Gothard, Tony Alamo, Bob Coy, Fred Phelps, Dave Reynolds, Robert Tilton, Marc Driscoll, Creflo Dollar, Bill Hybels, and the list goes on and on. Why?

Anything you repress will eventually come out sideways. It’s virtually guaranteed. Basic human needs denied don’t simply go away. If we are convinced that basic needs are abnormal, the shame we feel around them becomes overwhelming. Still they don’t go away. Eventually we act out, and the shame and guilt we feel for acting out intensifies our need to act out, and soon a classic addictive cycle sets in. Maybe the pastor is impregnating most of the Church. Maybe his repressed sexuality emerges in a cocaine induced frenzy with his gay meth dealer. Maybe he finds the only way he can express his sexuality is by flogging little Jerry in the corner while the pool boy bangs his wife – and we keep the pool boy in a diminished, more sexually satisfying state by continuing to refer to him as the pool boy long after he has become our business partner. Maybe the anti-LGBT Bishop is grooming teenage boys in his congregation to become his sex partners on his yacht. Maybe half of the choir tests positive for the pastor’s DNA. If you can imagine it, you can find it.

The problem is this: no spirituality that is based upon a poor understanding of human psychology can possibly be healthy. If our beliefs lead us to try to deny our psyche what it needs, our religion become soul killing. If our religion is constructed in such a way that questions and dissent are not allowed, we (and our religion) are doomed. The products of our religion will be unhealthy at best and outright pathological at worst. In my opinion, the entire prosperity gospel movement is the result of a religion that represses sexuality and pleasure. Those energies get twisted and redirected into the acquisition of wealth, which will never really satisfy the needs that have been repressed, and so there will never be enough money, never be enough external signs of wealth, because inside we are completely impoverished. Pastor needs a mansion, a private jet, a fleet of luxury automobiles, homes around the world, all because these things are justified as necessary to emulate a Jesus who by all accounts was impoverished and homeless. If that doesn’t strike you as odd, perhaps you should stop drinking the Kool-aid.

While I certainly don’t subscribe to a sacred/secular divide, I do believe that it is patently unwise for organizations that claim to be religious to covet power and wealth. In fact, a close, honest, and educated reading of the religious texts of any tradition will reveal that power and wealth are barriers to spiritual attainment, not assets. Wealth and power feed the ego, and the ultimate goal of spirituality and religion is first the development of a healthy ego and then the dismantling of the unhealthy ego. Climbing the career ladder, wealth acquisition, and accumulating power all stand in the way of those crucial spiritual goals. While some segments of the religious landscape believe that setting up their pastor with the trappings of a CEO reflects well on their communities, the truth is that such preoccupations are unhealthy and destructive. We create Jerry Falwells every day through our own skewed priorities and them refuse to look at our role in these tragedies, preferring instead to blame the monster of our own creation. It is time to look a lot closer to home.

That’s What Friends Are For?

There seem to be some pretty distorted notions of what constitutes friendship floating around lately. It seems a lot of people have bought into the notion that a friend just approves of every decision you make, no matter the consequences that are clearly going to arise for you from that decision. If you walk out of the house with a big green booger hanging from your nose, your friend will remain silent because apparently that’s what friends do. Do you have half a roll of toilet paper caught in the back of your skirt dragging behind you like a tail? Don’t look to your friends for help. Are you involved in an argument and making a fool out of yourself? Apparently your friend’s job is to enable whatever foolish behavior you wish to display.

I was on Facebook the other day and ran across a discussion that hit on one of my pet peeves. The substance of it was that clergy shouldn’t criticize people, and if they claim to be a friend to all then they really can’t say anything about anything. The first premise is patently absurd and reflects such a profound ignorance about clergy and prophetic voice it would be laughable if it wasn’t so stupid. My concern in this piece is the latter, however, this notion that a friend tolerates whatever nonsense you wish to dish. By extension, it implies that a friend doesn’t have your back and won’t tell you if you have food stuck between your teeth on your way to that first date with your special someone. It says friends should lie to you.

I am not suggesting that we need to bludgeon each other with the truth, but a friendship based on lies is no friendship at all because trust cannot develop in a deceitful environment. If we are going to share our thoughts, feelings, and dreams with our friend, we need to trust they won’t take out a billboard ad tomorrow revealing what we discussed to everyone in the morning rush hour. Is the truth sometimes uncomfortable? Of course it is, but when difficult truth comes from a trusted friend whose motivation is loving it is easier to hear that truth. The benefits of friendship are innumerable, as is the damage that wolf in sheep’s clothing can do in the context of friendship. Let’s be clear about our expectations in all of our relationships. If others can’t meet those expectations, it may be time to cut them loose!

Morality and Your Genitals

The Puritan streak that remains deeply embedded in American culture would have you believe that morality and your genitals are intimately connected. The resulting attitudes are perhaps among the most unhealthy ones possible. They lead us to see the physical as bad, as somehow distinct from the spiritual and the holy. This view has caused more damage to the American psyche than any other allegedly religious truth, and it is a lie. After all, if it weren’t for genitals, none of us would be here.

Reproduction aside, the problem with a morality that has as its primary focus human sexuality is that it creates a disconnect between human and their bodies. They have a name for people without bodies: dead. We suffer a kind of death when we become disconnected from our bodies. When we start feeling bad about the truth that we need our bodies, we ignore signs and symptoms of illness and disease or – worse – come to see illness as a punishment for being embodied. Many of us were taught there are certain parts of our bodies we should never touch. That kind of teaching leads to some serious hygiene deficits, to say the least.

The truth is that our bodies are a blessing and not a curse. So is our sexuality. Unhealthy attitudes toward our bodies and our sexuality destroy relationships at a frantic pace. Quite simply, there is nothing you can do with your body that is morally wrong as long as any other people who might be involved are able to consent and do so. Those who would rail against “premarital” sex need to realize that marriage as we understand it in America today (as a legal institution in which the State is involved) began in 1913 CE. That means that everyone who has sex prior to 1913 had, by definition, premarital sex. Do you see the problem here?

If your idea of morality is completely defined by your genitals, you have a mighty tiny morality. The things that really damage society and its members aren’t done in the consensual bedroom. War, violence, poverty, hunger, lack of the basic necessities of life, neglect, abuse, pollution, selfishness, greed, hatred, exclusion – these are among the great harms that humans inflict on one another. All of these things become much easier to do when we are disconnected from our bodies and spend most of our time in our often rather distorted thoughts. When we live at a distance from our feelings it can be very difficult to act in a compassionate way. Selfishness follows close behind, and before we know it “genital morality” becomes a very efficient way to distract others from the awful things we do to one another with our clothes on.

The next time you hear someone (even yourself) being critical of our embodied nature, ask yourself what they are trying to hide. Ask why they are so uncomfortable with the bodies we all live life through. Peek into their closets – literal and metaphorical – but step back as you open the door. The odds are that some skeletons will come tumbling out, and you don’t want to get hurt.

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!

Becoming Well Informed

Irony of ironies, now that I have more time for social media, I find that I struggle to tolerate it. With people having more time to post, and posting a lot about the current pandemic, their ignorance is coming to the fore. I find this to be especially true about geekmillennials, and it has nothing to do with their intelligence. Whether they are smart as a whip or dumb as a box of rocks, it seems they have little idea of how to think critically. Added to their tendency to isolate from the news cycle, what we are left with is a recipe for disaster.

At least in part, it’s not their fault. Our educational system has become obsessed with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). The reason is that corporations say they need more people in these fields, and I believe them. However, in true American fashion, we have exercised little moderation in this effort and so tended to cut what we in the old days would have called a solid liberal arts foundation from our education. This is true not only at the university level, but also in primary and secondary education. We teach to the test, restrict our curricula to so-called common core materials, and teach to the test. To be quite clear, this is the fault not of teachers but of school boards and administrators across the country. What we are left with is technological social misfits who lack common sense.

One result of this is that news is boring, somehow less than important, as so we pay little attention to it. When we do pay attention to it, we don’t go in depth because we don’t find it very important, and so we are easy prey for the misleading headline. When our friends say something it carries as much weight as the New York Times. We “hear” things and pass them along as fact, revealing our ignorance with startling starkness. We don’t stop to think about the impact of passing along what we have “heard” or questionable memes on our friends, as I witnessed on one person’s Facebook page when he passed along a conspiracy meme that was critical of healthcare workers in the corona virus struggle, suggesting they never get sick and so it’s not real. Of course neither assertion is true. He handsome-man-reading-newspaper-street_23-2147694649never considered that one of his friends is a Registered Nurse on the front lines of the battle.

The biggest problem in all of this may well be that it cannot be corrected overnight. You can’t just pick up tomorrow’s paper and become well informed. It takes time, and it takes practice. It starts with learning the difference between credible sources and propaganda mills. It continues with implementing a healthy skepticism to everything you hear or read, taking care to look at the source from which it came. This is important because if you aren’t well informed you can’t be a responsible citizen. You simply cannot go to the polls and cast a vote in your own self-interest if you lack the ability to discern which candidate represents that self-interest. This doesn’t take hours each day. Ten minutes a day reading news from a solid source, or listening to it, is a good start. It takes work, and you have to commit to it, but if you care anything about your life and the lives of the next generation, it isn’t optional. In fact, I can guarantee you will feel better about yourself.

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.

Pet Rabbits?

man yellingFrom the Huffington Post:

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER RESIGNS AFTER GUILTY PLEA  Duncan Hunter has submitted his resignation, about a month after pleading guilty to federal charges. The Californian Republican and his wife, Margaret Hunter, were indicted for misappropriating $250,000 in campaign donations for personal use, including luxurious family vacations, private school tuition, and airfare for pet rabbits. He also used campaign donations to fund his extramarital affairs.

Pet rabbits? As in more than one pet rabbit? I suppose they do breed like, well, rabbits, and the horse you rode in onbut seriously? This isn’t a guy who is a few bucks short and so skims ten bucks off the fund to get McDonald’s. It’s not even a guy who has always scrimped and slips up and decides to finally take the vacation to Disneyland he never could afford. This is a guy screaming at the top of his lungs at every American taxpayer: “Fuck you!”

This is what happens when wealth becomes your god. You will go to any means necessary to look like you have acquired wealth, because wealth means you are a good person. In this belief system, your behavior doesn’t really matter as long as you end up wealthy – or at least appear to be wealthy. It’s the prosperity gospel writ large and secularized. It is the antithesis of any historic understanding of morality, and it rules the day in contemporary western culture.

food bankYou might be wondering, “whom does it hurt?” It hurts everyone. Perhaps most importantly, it hurts the people who run around frantically doing whatever is necessary to grab on to the appearance of wealth and it hurts their family. It hurts the family because they are the ones who really pay the price in terms of the absence of the wealth worshipers. They are also the ones who will pay the biggest price should the family scammer get caught and do time.

Ultimately, it hurts all of us. It hurts economically, it hurts in terms of the price we pay socially for the fallout from this behavior, and it hurts because it asserts a morality that is profoundly immoral. We will be paying generations from now for the human cost of this behavior. That may be the saddest part of all of this.