How Do I Justify My Presence?

I came across a very interesting thread on Facebook over the weekend, and really feel compelled to respond to it in a longer form than is possible in a Facebook discussion. Here is the product!

To paraphrase the question raised, “how does a transgender man preaching in conservative Indiana justify his presence in the pulpit using the Gospel?” My answer: he shouldn’t try.

You see, to the extent that we continue to try to justify our very existence, no matter the reason anyone might call our existence or presence into question, we legitimize an illegitimate question. Can you see that? If someone says to me, “you have no right to be here,” and I respond to that nonsense then I make the very question of my right to be here seem legitimate. If someone said to you, “I see you have three arms,” and you started arguing that you only had two arms, you would be giving the question of how many arms you have credence. Rather than argue our arm count, most of us would either walk away or call the local mental health crisis line.

The world is full of diversity, and that diversity has threatened people since humans first crawled out of the primordial sludge. We are psychologically programmed to be suspicious of the different, to interpret it as a threat until we learn otherwise, as a basic survival instinct. Those of us who have learned to use more than our reptilian brain have learned to use reasoning to overcome those instincts when they are faulty. Our friend Bob might be profoundly unattractive, but we learn that doesn’t make him a danger. Despite this knowledge, we tend to want to keep crawling back into the sludge in the hopes that the reptilians among us will come to see that we are okay and admit that truth out loud. Guess what? It ain’t gonna happen, so it’s time to move on.

 

Give yourself credit

Give-yourself-some-creditSometimes I read articles or blog posts filled with references to what this or that authority figure has said about the topic at hand, and then the post ends. I suppose the opinions of authority figures can be interesting, but they can also be awful. There’s nothing about being relatively well known that automatically confers either wit or wisdom!

At times like that I’m reminded of a priest who served part time at an Episcopal Church I belonged to during the 1990s whose every sermon contained between three and five Gilbert_Chestertonreferences to GK Chesterton. This priest, a bright and eloquent man, never got around to telling me what he thought about the topic at hand. I remember thinking that if I wanted to know what Chesterton thought, I could buy a book – I wanted to know what he thought.

Don’t sell yourself short. Tell me what you think! I really want to know! By the way, I still don’t own a GK Chesterton book!

You should know…

You should know that you will meet many people who will purport to be your friend for precisely as long as it is to their advantage. The moment you do something they don’t like, they will disappear. They were never a friend. True friendship weathers disagreement.

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.

Let’s Be Honest About Religion

I know this is asking a lot, but I wonder if we might have an honest discussion about religion. This project will require laying aside our sacred cows for just a moment and electing to suspend knee-jerk reactions for a bit. I know those things are difficult for just about everyone, but the potential reward is huge.

infinite godBoth God and the universe are infinite. If you don’t believe in God, consider this discussion to be about the Universe. In truth, the two terms might be understood as interchangeable in many ways. We know that the universe is constantly expanding and traditional understandings of God have included the idea that God is infinite. The problem we run into is that the human mind has a hard time wrapping itself around either concept. We might know to answer “constantly expanding” and “infinite” when asked the right questions, but that is a far different thing than being able to conceptualize either idea. For example, when we consider that one-half of infinity is still infinity our minds really can’t conceive what that looks like even if we can recite the correct answer.

Traditionally, we have chosen a religion to attempt to understand God or find meaning in our lives. The problem is that religions are finite and so represent only one view of God. Religions are also more than a little territorial and almost all of them have asserted that they have the only correct view of God. This may have made some sense when the best humans could do in conceiving of God was to posit a very small God existing in a very small universe with only one inhabited planet. We now know that the universe is ever expanding, and so our little regional God with whom we all have a personal relationship, frequently inviting Jesus over for Cheerios (if I were Jesus, I would think bacon and eggs would be the least you could do) is an artifact from a bygone era sorely in need of updating. In fact, if that’s your view then you, too, may be an artifact from a bygone era sorely in need of updating.

let my people go 10 commandWe need to realize that if we are serious about developing a view of God that resembles the reality of God in any way, confining ourselves to one religious or spiritual perspective just won’t get the job done. I have heard people argue that we need to confine ourselves to one religion because the root meaning of the word religion is “to bind back.” We have been bound back by religion since religion was developed. Maybe what needs to happen is for humankind to develop a spirituality that will set us free! If you like to be bound, I can recommend a good dungeon in your neighborhood, but if you want to draw closer to transcendence you might need to consider ask your religious dominatrix to “let my people go,” Moses!

Imagine you had a doctor who decided the only perspective he was going to adopt is that of colds and flu. No matter what your symptoms were, your doctor would diagnose a cold or the flu and send you on your way. How long would you remain their patient? I hope not long! What if your grocery store decided only to sell canned sardines, pickled eggs, and creamed herring while insisting you shop exclusively at their store. Would you listen to them? Why does religion seem to be one of the few areas of life that couples a limited perspective with a demand of exclusivity and manage to stay in business?

The reason is that institutional religion has excelled in thought and behavior control served with a large dose of guilt. For most of history humanity bought into this distorted vision, but the mass exodus of people from houses of worship of all stripes tells us that sales are sharply down and not likely to recover anytime soon. In response, people trying to make sense of their lives have often randomly tried new perspectives, many of which are heavy on flashing lights but short on substance. If you want to believe that you can attract wealth by thinking the right thoughts, for example, you might want to first ask why everyone following those teachings isn’t a millionaire. You would be better off to reject any spiritual or religious system that is constructed to reward greed.

The truth is that if we want to develop a spiritual perspective that works for us, the important first step is to be determined to explore aspects of whatever systems of belief interest you and not allow anyone to try to restrict your exploration. Unless you are a mushroom, those who would keep you in the dark and feed you manure don’t have your best interest at heart. The next step is to allow yourself to make mistakes, change your mind, and change direction. Exploration of every sort involves all of those things. Perfection isn’t the goal, in fact it probably isn’t even possible. Be gentle with yourself and you will be amazed at what you learn! Be bold, you are in charge of your own spiritual life and need answer to no one.

Holding Hands?

God help me, if you told me years ago that I would ever write anything about Justin Timberlake, I would have been forced to surrender my man card. I’m still coming to terms with it as I write this post. For the sake of this discusison, which is an important one, I am going to lay aside my disdain for the cult of celebrity.

What constitutes intimacy? That’s really the question here, as Justin was seen holding hands with Alisha Wainwright during a night on the town in New Orleans. His wife, Jessica Biel, is understandably upset. The holding hands issue raises a larger question, especially given that in parts of Europe and the Middle East friends hold hands as they stoll along the street and not a second glance is given.

hold handsSuppose we tried to generate an “intimacy scale” that ranked behaviors in degrees of increasing intimacy. I suspect holding hands would be rather low on the scale, while knee rubbing (allegedly Wainwright rubbed Timberlake’s knee under a table at which they were sitting) might rank a bit higher. Where is kissing on that scale? How would we sort out the various sexual acts? Where in the list would an intimate but decidedly non-sexual conversation fit? I would argue that people sharing their most intimate thoughts, feelings, and beliefs may well be an even larger danger to their other romantic relationships than a one night stand.

I worked with a couple many years ago who had engaged in a threesome, and one partner was devastated by the other having kissed the third during the event – nevermind that participants one and three had unrestricted access to each other while numbers two and three, by predetermined ground rule, were to have more limited contact. For this person, kissing was obviously highest on the imtimacy list. I suspect most people who had caught their partner patronizing a prostitute in their car would beg to differ, but it points out that for each of us there is a different intimacy scale at work. I believe that scale may flex a bit from situation to situation.

Then there is the alcohol factor. Timberlake says he had “way too much to drink.” Todrunk evaluate this claim, we need to understand what alcohol does. Alcohol disinhibits us as we drink. The more we drink, the more disinhibited we become, until at some point we are disinhibited and throwing up face down on the floor. It most decidedly does not cause us to do things we would never do if sober. It does make it more likely that we will do things that we might consider doing when sober but decide not to do because we see the consequences more clearly when sober.

Some years ago, Mel Gibson tried to justify one of his drunken, antisemitic, DUI rants by appealing to the alcohol. Sorry, Mel, it doesn’t work that way. Alcohol doesn’t put ideas into our head that otherwise wouldn’t reside there, it tends to lubricate the release of those ideas through word and action. Sober Mel might have had enough sense to keep his vile beliefs to himself, drunken Mel clearly did not. Interestingly, he tried to crucify Jesus to make up for it, and his strategy failed. Let’s hope Justin’s apology will make such drastic action unneccesary.

I believe that it would have a beneficial effect on our relationships to consider what out own intimacy scale might be and discuss it with our partners. Questions such as, “what is the most intimate thing you can imagine?” would not only help us understand each other, and ourselves, more fully, they might give us some good ideas for our next date night. You might be surprised to learn that many things offered in response to that question can be done fully clothed and in public without fear of being arrested – especially if you happen to be male.

The End of Hate

I find it amazing that, in a civilized society, it would be necessary to write this post. Although we may at one time have been a civilized society, we have slipped off the mark in an orgy of selfishness that is the result of a profound distortion and perversion of rugged individualism.

The first time I wrote this post, about four hours before the second time, it was very different that the post you are about to read. Then I read something from Pema Chodron that made me see that I was way off base. I was going to tell you how we could stop people from hurting other people and stop the ignorance that caused hate. Those are good and noble goals I still endorse, but my thinking was all wrong.

hate-has-no-home-here-bumper-english-print-2-2Have you ever been forced to do something? As children we all were, or at the very least we were forced to not do something we wanted to do. How did you respond? You probably complied at the time, and then once whoever told you not to do the thing wasn’t looking you did it anyway. When I was young I heard Richard Prior tell a story about his uncle telling him, “Don’t ever eat a pussy, boy.” Richard admitted that as a result of that instruction he couldn’t wait to do precisely that! The truth is when I heard the story as a young teenager, I couldn’t wait to do the same thing – once I figured out what it was!

Can you see the irony in that when we want someone to stop doing something that hurts people our first instinct is to force them to stop? And can you see from your own experience just how ineffective that strategy is? Most of us have probably seen someone protesting war with an angry expression on their face. While we might not be able to articulate right away why that leaves us feeling uncomfortable, the fact is we are uncomfortable with the incongruence between a person’s behavior and their message. A parishioner of mine used to say, “that’s like screwing for chastity!”

If we want to change wht we see as negative behavior, in ourselves or in others, we needdalai_lama_10_15_2012 to understand why the behavior occurs. Maybe the person feels misunderstood, or ignored, or cheated, or that they have been the victim of injustice. Negative behavior and belief almost always originates because the actor feels hurt. The precise cause isn’t all that important when formulating a response.

I always shake my head when I hear people who have expressed admiration for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or the Pope, or any of the great spiritual teachers turn around and advocate violent intervention or forcibly restraining people who do things with which they don’t agree. I’m not talking about someone who poses an immanent threat to the physical well being of another, they do need to be restrained. I’m talking about Republicans, or Democrats, or Protestants, or Catholics, or Chicago Bears fans, all of whom might be seen to have taken on an unreasonable belief that is detrimental to others, or in the case of Bears fans to themselves. I’m talking also about antisemites, bigots, racists, NRA members, abortion protesters, and any number of objectionable characters who act out in ways we find unacceptible. If you want to lock these people up or force them to do as you wish, you don’t really respect the spiritual leaders you claim to respect. You haven’t listened to them.

The only thing that heals emotional pain is love and acceptance. The only way I can heal you is to heal myself, too. We need to learn to avoid knee jerk reactions, to avoid criticizing the person of the other even when I disagree with their behavior, and to always look for way to reconcile and make the other person whole again. As the great Hindu master Neem Karoli Baba taught, never put anyone out of your heart. This take a tremendous amount of practice and patience. We better start right now!

Doing the Same Thing…

There is a very human tendency to, when we find one approach to a problem doesn’t work, do the same thing over and over and hope for a different result. That’s known as insanity, and we seem to excel at it. We might change our approach ever so slightly, but in truth we don’t change it substantially. Then we sit around, throw our hands up in disgust, and wonder why we can’t seem to change anything. We might even feel sorry for ourselves. I believe a great deal of this repeated pattern exists because it’s easier to repeatedly try the same approach than to come up with a new approach and implement it. I don’t believe that we are consciously aware that is what we are doing, but we do it nonetheless.

sewing frustrationImagine that you were trying to sew something with a sewing machine but didn’t have any thread. Imagine that a few years ago you had thread and everything worked out just fine, but now you are out of thread and nothing you “sew” seems to hold together. You read an article a few weeks ago that said you don’t really need thread, so you keep on trying but nothing changes. Would you run out to the store and get some thread, or just keep poking tiny holes in fabric? Many of us would end up with very artistic renderings of Swiss cheese made of fabric.

In the early part of the last century, despite the fact that there was plenty of land, we tended to build homes right next to one another. Then, after the second World War, we decided we liked yards around our homes and so small, postage stamp lots became the nosy neighborsnorm. Kids played in the yard and we still had regular contact with our neighbors. We put up three foot picket fences to keep the kids and pets in the yard, but we still socialized over and around the fences. Then bigger lots became a status symbol, as did homes with attached garages. Privacy fences went up, because we were sure our neighbors had nothing better to do than monitor our behavior. Soon it was possible to avoid our neighbors completely by coming and going through our attached garages, retrieving our mail from the car, and wearing huge hearing protection headsets on our riding mowers or hiring a landscaping service. We retreated behind those privacy fences, not recognizing that we had become imprisoned in a fort of our own construction.

friends we don't need noWe sacrificed community on the altar of privacy, not realizing that all people need community. The Church started to shrink, as did service and fraternal organizations. We disassembled community piece by piece. We didn’t know the neighbors, we didn’t like or couldn’t trust our coworkers, and we didn’t get out enough to meet people we wanted to associate with away from the context in which we met them. We sat in our castles behind our moats and were lonely but didn’t understand why. We might talk with the other parents at our kids’ soccer game, but that was more to pass the time than to build relationship. The more we retreated the unhappier we were and so we retreated even more.

Most if not all problems have multiple causes, but I would like to suggest a remedy to the isolation we all seem to feel. Say “hi” to the neighbors. Walk to your mailbox to retrieve the mail and greet everyone you see. When you do to the grocery store, greet people that you recognize, even if you don’t know them well. Practice being social again, and encourage your family to do the same. Stop isolating. You will be amazed at the difference it makes! Oh, and yes, you do need stinking friends! Well, at least friends who smell nice!

 

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.

Did You Ever Wonder?

Did you ever wonder why some religious folks just can’t seem to take a step away from some of the most repugnant beliefs of their otherwise quite lovely and compassionate faith? Mind you, I don’t have an answer to my own question, I was hoping you might.

rage

Recently I was listening to an audio book by a lovely man of great charity and compassion who has done incredible good for disadvantaged people. Everything about the program to which I was listening was beautiful and moving – and then he said it. My personal deal breaker is when someone writes or says some version of “thank goodness God tortured God’s only son because God was surprised and pissed off that the very people God created aren’t perfect, and because God isn’t very creative or very bright couldn’t see any way out of this massive angry outburst (like, maybe, forgiveness) and so tortured that same son to death to slake his rage-filled fit and to show us what love is.” Sure enough, in the audio program I had been enjoying the deal breaker eventually arose and I had to shut it off.

Ideas like this one don’t even make any sense, and the fact that I could explain to you how such ideas arise, why they become popular, and why people are afraid to let them go doesn’t change the fact that I am mystified how any reasonably intelligent person would insist on hanging on to them. Much like hitting your own knee with a hammer and then deciding to stop, letting these beliefs go brings tremendous relief. It would seem that people get more pleasure out of hanging on to a misguided notion of “how things have always been” than they do from having their beliefs make sense – which makes no sense at all!

Are there similar things that leave you mystified?