What if bad isn’t bad?

First, a disclaimer: The ideas in this post are under development and not finalized in any way, shape or form. I reserve the right to denounce the entire contents at any time in the future.

What if bad isn’t bad? Asked another way, what if the things that happen that we identify as bad are in fact neither good nor bad, but rather represent challenges and opportunities for growth? What if stuff happens, and our job isn’t to feel sorry for ourselves or wonder why a “bad” thing could happen to someone as marvelous as I, but rather to work through whatever it is? What if that process of “working through” is nothing more than the challenge of a human life and the vehicle for growth?

I am thinking here of the old question that gets asked and reformulated about every thirty seconds – why do bad things happen to good people? Religious people ask why God doesn’t stop these things from happening. Eastern religions tend to explain away the bad things by attributing them to karma, which means we deserve them and so have nobody to blame but ourselves. It’s a tidy package, but one that I find ultimately unsatisfying and incomplete. Is there anything about life that is tidy? The other problem with karma as a theory is that it can’t be disproven. We can’t go back into the past and see whether or not we did anything that would require that we die in a house fire in this life. It is sometimes said that a theory has to be falsifiable, which means that just because you can’t prove something is false doesn’t mean it is true.

Suppose the biblical writers were correct when they suggested that the challenges of life are opportunities for growth? Considering that almost everybody encounters some tragedy in their life and that for all our attempts to eliminate tragedy it keeps on happening, perhaps those attempts are an exercise in missing the point. Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” questions and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” question and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Craig Bergland

When I think back to my days working in mental health, I recall a huge number of people who were stuck on the “why me?” question. Maybe the answer is, “because everybody.” What if all the time we spend going over and over the wrongs that were done to us needs to be countered with the truth that really ugly stuff happens to everybody, and so a better focus would be “what is this shitty experience meant to teach me?” In this way every tragedy could be redeemed and the energy we expend trying to decode the impossible could be turned toward moving forward. That’s not to say that the lousy things that happen aren’t painful. They are indeed painful, but we magnify that pain when we assume that we have been singled out and are alone in our misery.

This ends the pity party and removes any excuse to wallow in what may well be an essential part of life as if we are a victim. It also frees me from being defined by misfortune because misfortune leads to opportunity. I will never see that opportunity if I can’t move beyond the victim role, and this gives me the vehicle to do precisely that. We will still need to take time to understand our history, but our history no longer defines us because we all share similar histories. What tremendous freedom!

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.

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.

Trust Yourself

People may say all kinds of terrible things about you – even family. People may run you down, treat you to a seeming endless list of what they perceive to be your flaws and short comings, even to the point where you start to believe them. If this happens to you, ask yourself one question. Ask yourself if what they say is true, why do they keep coming around?

Should you find yourself in this situation, trust yourself – and kick your critics to the curb. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, has the right to continually heap criticism and abuse on you.

Change

If you want your circumstances to change, you are going to have to take the first step and change how you relate and react to what is happening. If you are not willing to do that, the only one you have to blame is yourself. Nothing can change if everything stays the same.

Discarding What’s Not True

Most of us, I would even venture to say all of us, have been told things about ourselves that are not true. Sometimes we were told these things due to an honest mistake. Other times people wanted to manipulate us or to get their way. Some of us have encountered evil personified, a person wanting to do damage to us for reasons that are not clear. Even if those reasons were clear, they would not be sufficient to justify what happened to us.

crazy-woman-angry-look-her-face-31397102The way out of this lies in the old adage that the truth will set you free. By asking ourselves some questions about what was said, we can begin to move through our pain toward healing. We might ask ourselves, “Is what was said true?” Even if we believed it was true at the time, from today’s perspective we may well see that what was said was not true. If it was true, we then should ask ourselves, “So what?” In other words, is this truth really something bad? In my case, I was repeatedly and drunkenly told that my problem was that I was a “goddamn adolescent.” In point of fact, I was an adolescent. The statement was true, but the rage and accusatory tone with which it was delivered was not justified by the truth that I was an adolescent. Neither were the seemingly endless hours it was repeated at full volume, with great regularity, for hours in a drunken rage at our family dinner table.

Often times we need the help of a trained counselor to help us with this work. We need to see that there was no substance to our “crimes,” and to stop believing the people accusing us were in any way right. I would even say we need to come to the place where we see no merit whatsoever in that person’s opinion so we can begin the hard work of deciding who we really are. It’s a long road, but it begins with the truth – which will set us free!