Little Soldiers’ Little Shoulders

This article was re-uploaded in 2018. It is part of the archive restoration project

One of the most important articles I read this year was “When Shame Feels Mothering: The Tragedy of Parentified Daughters.” In it, the author explains how role-switching works with girls who have needy mothers. If a mother needs an emotional outlet, she turns to her daughter for support. The daughter, because she hasn’t learned any different, fills the role of comforter and pillar of stability, and she learns that “Mommy can fall apart, as long as I don’t fall apart.”

The child learns to suppress emotion and feign strength and stoicism. It’s the best way to survive, because keeping the parent stable is required to feel safe.

I want to make it clear that this happens with many dynamics, to people of all genders. Daughters learn to hold their fathers together, sons learn to hold their mothers together. It’s not just mothers and daughters, which is the only problem I had with the article.

I think about that article whenever I hear the other extreme: “Boys learn never to cry, because men refuse to cry in front of their sons. It’s one way that patriarchy hurts men.”

My parents did cry in front of me, but I learned never to cry. I sometimes wish they hadn’t cried in front of me. I have friends, though, whose parents never cried in front of them, and they also learned to suppress emotion. They wish their parents had cried.

I was eleven the first time I remember it happening. My sister Alicia had chosen to stop counseling sessions with my parents and Kevin Swanson. I walked past the door of my father’s office, and he had his head in his hands. His eyes were red, and he invited me to sit down across from him at his desk. He cried and said he was trying everything to deal with my sister’s rebellion, and she wasn’t being obedient at all.

I let him cry on my shoulder, and bit back my tears, and soldiered on.

I learned that crying wasn’t okay, because when my parents cried, it meant that nothing was okay. They were falling apart. My parents always cried with the words, “I might as well kill myself,” or “I have failed as a mother/father.” I knew that crying wasn’t okay because I couldn’t cry without expecting punishment for it, and, when I was older, having my feelings minimized and dismissed.

Meanwhile, the other half of my binary star was watching her parents hold back their emotions. The demonstration was different, but the effect was the same: we learned that our own feelings didn’t matter, and it was better not to express them at all.

So should parents demonstrate emotion to their children?

Yes. But.

I wish I could say something simple like “Children are people and people are children,” to answer this question. It helps to realize that children feel things very deeply, and they have complex perspectives. One of the most destructive things I hear about kids is “they’ll forget,” or “they don’t notice,” or “they’re resilient.”

We know scientifically that it’s not true. Children are more observant and sensitive than calloused adults in many ways. If children forget, it’s probably because they were traumatized, or they don’t trust the people who are asking. Lady Gaga put it this way:

“Clinical psychology tells us arguably that trauma is the ultimate killer. Memories are not recycled like atoms and particles in quantum physics – they can be lost forever. It’s sort of like my past is an unfinished painting, and as the artist of that painting, I must fill in all the ugly holes and make it beautiful again.”

But I can’t just say “treat children like people,” because adult-to-adult relationships are rife with improper emotional expression. It may be particularly cruel to make a child blame himself for the instability of a parent, but the same thing happens in marriages, professional interactions, and just about every other adult relationship in existence.

Let’s treat children like people, absolutely. And while we’re at it, let’s also figure out how to treat people. Here are some things I try to do, but this list is definitely incomplete – feel free to add in the comments.

1.    Don’t make your emotions another person’s fault.

2.    Cry when you need to – don’t suppress your emotions.

3.    Understand your level of involvement with a person who’s feeling grief.

4.    Give yourself the space to be alone, or surround yourself with people you can vent to.

5.    Don’t look to other people for stability. Nobody can give you that, except yourself.

Emotional abuse isn’t confusing because parents do or don’t cry. Emotional abuse is what it is because the abusers are looking for someone else to provide stability. Abusers do not always know what they’re doing, which is why I can see people who are abusive as complex individuals, while simultaneously calling out their abuse.

It Feels Like Creativity

This post was reuploaded in 2018 as part of the archive restoration project.

One way to describe depression is that there’s a disconnect between the cognition and the emotions. I can tell myself not to feel so down, that I have no reason to be unmotivated and groggy, that there are things to do that I would enjoy doing, but it’s like signals sent into a void. Apathy is there, and it sucks in the rational knowledge.

For me, telling myself something I already know doesn’t help. “You’re better than this, you don’t have an excuse for this, this doesn’t make sense,” can sit in my thoughts for hours, and my feelings stay in a loop.

I know it rationally, but I don’t know it emotionally. The solution wasn’t to keep sending rational, wordsy solutions to the emotionless no-signal-receptors part of my mind. The solution was to let the emotions do the talking, which is messy because emotions are unpredictable and complicated and exhausting, and they don’t use words, and I don’t communicate with not-words.

I hadn’t been kind to my emotions. I held back my tears and my anger, because I’d learned that such things were dangerous. I didn’t give my emotions the chance to breathe, so they shut down. Then I realized I needed emotion to get anything done – I had no motivation, no enjoyment, without them.

Awakening the emotions is masochistic. Pain doesn’t really scare me, though, so I sometimes talk or write my way toward whatever I notice myself avoiding. When I’m most distracted, or I most crave junk food, I know that’s when I’m getting close to an emotional belief. It’s not something I would agree with if I could put it into words or write it as a formulaic syllogism, but the belief is in my emotions, not my rational mind.

Then I send signals from the emotions to the cognition, and when I find the words, I feel again. And it hurts and it’s not fun. But I can identify the wrong belief, and that’s often enough for me to stop believing it. When I realize why my emotions are looping the way they’re looping, the belief holds no power over me anymore.

So I listen to my emotions and I ask a lot of questions. There are a lot of lies, and I know they’re lies, but I can’t combat the lies, so my emotions keep quiet. I apologize to myself for being so stupid.

“Why do you believe this lie?” I ask myself.

“Because of that one time.” My emotions admit, and they bring back a traumatic memory.

And all the times. Over and over, the lie was reinforced. To the point that hearing a similar story, or even a certain phrase, can make me angry or anxious. That’s what a trigger is.

One of my favorite maxims is from the YouTuber Connor Manning: “Trust the process.” He has it tattooed on his right arm. It reminds him that even in mental illness, recovering from addiction, and fighting depression, he doesn’t have to get discouraged. [These pronouns reflect the time of writing, but I’ll let the 2018 update speak for itself.]

Each moment is part of the process, and I’m experiencing it in real time, so of course I’ll feel my emotions in ups and downs. During the past fifteen months of therapy, learning to express my emotions was about trusting the process. I just knew that I was trying this new approach where I was letting my emotions out.

After every therapy session, I was knocked out for the rest of the day. It took several months for me to get emotional in therapy, and then to cry, and then I was crying in every session. But I kept my promise to my starved and strangled emotions: I would listen to them, and not shut them off even if they made me hurt.

Then one day in therapy, I did what I had taught myself to do. I ran toward the pain, and sought out the thing I was avoiding. And instead of crying or dissociating, I channeled my emotions freely, and they weren’t “They,” anymore, it was me. I was saying how I felt.

“I feel like there’s something else here,” I said, and called out the lie I’d believed for so long. Immediately, I saw the inconsistency, and it lost its power over me.

“Do you know what you just did?” My therapist asked. “You just used emotion, and it didn’t knock you over.”

“But this feels so familiar.” I said. “It feels like I’m brainstorming, I’m just letting my mind free with ideas, and writing down whatever I think of. It feels like creativity.”

That’s when I learned that emotions aren’t a mark of failure and breaking, like I’d always seen demonstrated. I was using the intuitive, creative, emotional part of myself. I’m more creative and relaxed now that I know it’s okay to be emotional.

How Christianity Became Just Another Religion to Me

This is a repost from the archives.

Well, in case you missed it…I’m not a Christian anymore.

My religion officially died sometime in February this year, when, during a conversation with the Infinite One, I realized I didn’t need anyone’s permission to stop struggling with the theologies I’d been trying to reconcile and defend for years.

When I was a teenager, I constantly repeated the logical argument: not every religion can be correct, because all the religions are so different, and Christianity was unique among the religions.

Which makes logical sense, but the premises are untrue. I don’t think anyone who’s actually studied world religions can possibly conclude that Christianity is much different from the rest. No other religion has a divinely inspired book. Except Islam, and a bunch of others. No other deity would die for his people. Except Odin. The list goes on and on.

After I lost faith in the Bible, I still wanted to read some dense ancient books, because they’re really enjoyable and insightful. I started reading the Quran, the Rg Veda, and a variety of Hindu and Buddhist philosophical texts.

I still considered myself a Christian, which helped with my approach to these other holy books. It was a massive relief to come across something I disagree with, and to be allowed to disagree. Reading the Bible wasn’t like that at all. If I ran into a story that bothered me, like child sacrifice, I had to pray about it and submit myself to its truth, and somehow reconcile that it belonged in the Bible.

Now I could read about the Hindu caste system, and be open but objective about it. They have some great ideas, and I took notes. Whenever I saw something I didn’t agree with, that was fine. There was no obligation to be consistent and to believe everything.

What I loved most about Indian Buddhism was how honest it was about not having all the answers. It was peppered with the same sentiment that Socrates expressed in his trial – that he was the wisest man in the room because he believed he possessed no wisdom whatsoever. I liked that idea a lot better than the line from the Bible I’d constantly heard from people who wanted me to shut up and stop asking questions: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways.”

I found poetry, prophecy, philosophy, wise maxims and proverbs, and applicable insights. Kind of like what I’d found in the Bible, except I didn’t feel the need to explain and minimize the contradictions, violence, and hatred.

The other question that troubled me was this: why would a loving God only communicate with one small group of people on the entire planet? That’s the claim of Noah, Abraham, and Moses. I thought that while the Israelites were getting direct access to God, the rest of the world was lost in the darkness.

Someone told me about the Zend Avesta. She said that according to legend, the Arabian wise men who followed the star of Bethlehem were Zoroastrian. It’s difficult to actually back up this claim, but the Bible pretty clearly says that the wise men weren’t Jews. So while the Old Testament was being written, the rest of the world was also pursuing spirituality, and tapping into higher understanding and wisdom. It made anthropological sense, and besides, I don’t really want to have anything to do with a God that leaves most of the planet in the dark while favoring one small group.

One of my friends, who had been raised Christian and later became Buddhist, texted me one day to say she was also giving up on the Buddhist title. “I don’t believe everything about Buddhism,” she said. “I just like a lot of what it says.”

I liked that she could do that. I realized that I could do the same with Christianity. I don’t believe everything in it – I don’t think the god of the bible is consistent, I don’t believe in sin, and I don’t believe in an afterlife. My deity is the Infinite One, and I really love the myth of Yeshua, but that doesn’t make me a Christian.

I narrowed it down a lot, and I wouldn’t say my beliefs had ceased to be Christianity. It was still what many people might call Christianity. I just know that I was tired of struggling with a belief system, and I gave myself the space to explore, and I realized I’m a spiritual person who doesn’t adhere to any particular religion.

Part of the reason is that “Christian dogma” is suuuuuper inconsistent. If you self-identify as Christian, you’re a Christian. Most of the population of the planet self-identifies as Christian, but take it from a former apologetics researcher: good luck defining it.

One of my friends asked, “Have you found a title that fits you?” I told her that I liked my own name a lot, and I do. I don’t know whether I’ll try to find another title for my spirituality, which right now looks like lots of meditation, prayer, and chasing my obsessions and dreams.

I’m okay with people picking and choosing what feels right to them. That used to seem like such a bad idea, because Christians told me that they were doing something different. Then I realized that Christians weren’t doing anything different. They just said they were.

And Yeshua saved his choicest words for the hypocrites.

Telling the Quiverfull Story – An Interview with Jennifer Mathieu

This is a repost from the archives. My updated thoughts on the subject as of 2018 can be found here

When I was a teenager living in my parents’ house, I held myself to the highest possible standards, and consistently fell short. I didn’t like the music I was supposed to like. I was constantly exhausted from getting up earlier than my mother to take care of the children. Nothing was enough, but I never let myself get inside my own feelings to recognize that maybe I wasn’t the problem. Maybe I was playing an unwinnable game.

I couldn’t feel it then, but that’s what stories are for: resonance, empathy, processing, and escape.

That’s why I’m excited to promote the first teen novel about a teenage girl living in a Quiverfull household. It’s called Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu, and the author recently joined me for an interview. Here’s our conversation.

Q. My first question is about 19 Kids and Counting. You’ve written that you were curious about the Duggars, and that’s part of what sparked your interest in researching Devoted. At what point did you find that 19 Kids and Counting wasn’t entertaining anymore?

There were still some aspects of it that were entertaining until I actually sat down and started writing the novel. Because I was in Rachel’s [the main character’s] head, and I was hearing all these voices of the young women whose blogs I’d read – like you, or Hännah [Ettinger] who I knew in person. As I actually started writing the first draft, I started to feel more of what she was feeling. While I was doing the research I had more of a research mindset, I was more of a reporter, kind of getting the information, and then when I started actually writing the story, I would try to put on the show, and I’d be like, “I can’t find anything entertaining about this anymore.” It just started to feel depressing, actually.

Q. What did you see in the story beforehand in watching the show?

One thing that I found really compelling and heartbreaking also as I was doing the research was – I didn’t really understand initially until I started doing more intense research – that there is a disconnect between the way that the characters, or the people on the television, how they portray themselves, versus how they might actually be feeling on the inside. When I watch it now, they all seem very very happy, and obviously I’m not a mind-reader and I would never go so far as to say that I don’t know for sure that they’re not, but I know based on the women that I interviewed and the blogs that I’ve read, that a lot of you young women in quiverfull families sort of exude happiness, but inside they are really troubled. So when I watch the show now, I think that’s what bothers me about the show now, is that they seem really happy but in my mind I’m wondering “are they really happy?”

Q. For me, the topic of the Quiverfull lifestyle is gigantic. And I was impressed when I read your book, that you managed to keep it both simple enough for a teen novel while maintaining a good deal of the emotional depth and cognitive dissonance it takes to escape. How did you prioritize and condense your information for the story?

Writing this book was very very difficult for me. I have written five drafts of novels, two of which are unpublished, one was my debut – The Truth About Alice – one, Devoted, and one which is coming out in 2016. Devoted is hands-down the hardest book I’ve ever had to write out of those five books. I wrote one draft, and just destroyed it basically and started over from scratch. I have an amazing editor, Kate Jacobs over at Roaring Brook Press. I did a lot of checking in with Hännah, who was my number one source, I did a ton of checking in with her. I’d be like, “What do you think about this? How did you feel about that?” She was my true north as I was writing this book, because she could guide me on top of all the research that I’d done. But I think ultimately what helped guide me is that – at the risk of sounding corny – I wanted a hopeful ending for Rachel, and I knew I had to get her to a place where that would be the case. And I knew that that was gonna be hard. I think because I’m an outsider to the movement, maybe it was “easier,” relatively speaking perhaps, because I was trying to examine it from all angles. But it was just really hard, because I was trying to strike a balance between being sensitive, but not to be critical, while being engaging, I mean this book just took a ton out of me.

Q. Well I appreciate that you stuck with it, because it’s a good book and I’m excited that it’s going to be released soon.

Thank you so much, Cynthia, that means a ton.

Q. That actually brings me to my next question because you said you were an outsider to the movement – what aspect of the Quiverfull lifestyle was the most difficult for you to wrap your head around?

Oh gosh, wow, there were a lot. I would say personally, it was the very prescribed roles for men and women. Because I am married to a man, and we have a very – I mean, I was raised Roman Catholic, I went to Catholic school, so I was raised with religion, and I grew up in a fairly traditional home and my mom stayed at home and my dad worked, but as a child, and now as an adult who’s married, the relationships that were modeled for me growing up were not so prescribed. Like my dad was really active, he would make us lunch, and he would do those things, but my mom is the money manager. In my family, my husband was a stay-at-home dad for the first, like, eighteen months of our son’s life, and I’m the primary breadwinner.

So it was very difficult for me to wrap my head around how people are so focused on “this is what the man does, and this is what the woman does.” I think it makes it really really challenging to have such prescribed roles for men and women. Just for a lot of reasons – I don’t agree with that personally as a feminist, but I just don’t understand it. That was one of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around. Of the many, many, many things. I would also follow that up with, although we see this in not just Quiverfull cultures, but the whole modesty element in overdrive was really just – I don’t know if those are the right words, I don’t want to be to demeaning – but we do see in our culture still, even in mainstream culture that it’s the woman’s responsibility to keep the man at bay, you know, slut-shaming and all of that. So we still do that in mainstream culture, but the overdrive of modesty culture was also a very unusual thing.

Q. Dating is a lot different in the Quiverfull world. What was it like to write about those different expectations for teen romance?

My editor really had to push me there because I think initially when she [Rachel] meets the character of Mark, who’s the young boy that she meets outside of her community, I made it a little – she was like, “whoa there, slow down, Jennifer! Rachel would be weirded out right now,” She had to kind of keep me in check because, I’ll be honest, there’s a part of me that wants to write romance, so it’s like, “Oh this is so cute,” and she was like “No, this isn’t cute to Rachel.” You know, my editor was not raised Quiverfull, but she’s a really smart editor. She was like, “You’ve gotta slow this down, she’s not checking herself enough, she’s not unnerved enough.” So I had to go back and sort of slow that romance part of the book down, because I knew for a young woman like Rachel, coming out of that culture, it would be something that would be much more intimidating for her than perhaps I kind of selfishly wanted it to be as the writer of a book that wanted more romance, you know? I remember at one point I said to my editor, because I loved the Little House on the Prairie books when I was a kid, “But even Laura Ingalls and Almanzo kissed before they got married, and they were alone when he would take her in the sled, even they were unchaperoned!” I was so confused by all of it, you know.

Q. But that was okay because he had her father’s permission.

That’s right, exactly. But that was the hardest thing – I wanted to speed up the romance, but I had to remind myself how totally overwhelming it would have been for Rachel to be interacting with a teenage boy alone for literally the first time in her life.

—-

For me, reading Devoted was emotionally trying, because it brought back so many memories for me. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know what it’s like to be inside the head of a kid being raised in my world. It’s released today, so go order your copy! Jennifer also wrote a great piece on Quiverfull families here. http://www.cosmopolitan.com/entertainment/books/q-and-a/a41047/growing-up-quiverfull-interview/?visibilityoverride

Painting One-Dimensional Abusers

“I’m sorry, momma!
I never meant to hurt you!
I never meant to make you cry;
But tonight, I’m cleaning out my closet.” -Eminem

Last summer, I had a dream about my mother.

In the dream, I was in my first consensual, trusting sexual relationship. My mom walked in on us and started screaming.

“How dare you not wait for marriage?” She demanded. “I told you, I tried so hard to not let you make the same mistakes I did!”

Sometimes in dreams, my emotional reactions are truer to my subconscious self than they would be in real life. If this had actually happened, I think I would have felt angry and defensive, and embarrassed for my love interest, who was standing there awkwardly. But in the dream, I saw her hurt with profound clarity. I felt nothing but compassion for my mother.

She got pregnant for the first time when she was just fourteen. She blames herself. She told us that she “made mistakes.” She told us to never have sex, to save ourselves for the one-and-only. She carries shame for her past.

It’s almost impossible to imagine that a 14-year-old girl in the year 1982, living in a trailer park of the Midwest, knew anything about consent or how to assert herself. It’s the story of many of our mothers in fundamentalist movements. They feel shame for something they probably couldn’t control. They tell their daughters to do differently.

I feel my mother’s pain. I know she was more than likely a victim. I know it wasn’t her fault, and she blames herself, and projects that guilt onto her own children. She’s just doing what she knows; she’s trying to protect us.

It was with this compassion and empathy that I started blogging about my parents’ abuse.

For the past several months, I’ve been challenging myself to examine my motivations in writing about my parents. I explained already why this has to be public, but I want to avoid the traps of venting in anger, or publicly shaming, or making my parents into purely evil human beings.

I’ve been following what Monica Lewinsky and Ron Jonson say about being publicly humiliated for mistakes. I just finished reading an article called “Abusers are people too.”

On another level, I know that the capacity to do harm is within myself. This isn’t just about parents who shame their daughters for having sex drives, or about children being paddled. It’s also about the darker things humans are capable of doing, like genocide and rape and war.

Ordinary people do bad things. These situations are complicated. I refuse to excuse what’s been done, but I also refuse to paint a one-dimensional, inhuman face onto my abusers.

To see them as human is scary. It means abusers can be anyone, anywhere. That’s why so many people don’t believe me, it’s why so many people don’t believe so many other victims who’ve spoken up.

I don’t tell my story just to be vengeful. I tell it because I know I’m not alone. I tell it because I’m trying to make sense of the complexity, to bring healing to those who haven’t dared to forsake loyalty and broadcast their truth. I do it to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.

And I hope that there are some mothers out there who can realize that they’re breaking their children with shame they don’t have to carry.

You didn’t do anything wrong, mom. Sin isn’t real. Your young motherhood wasn’t your choice, mom. That matters, mom. You don’t have to blame yourself, mom. What I’m doing is by choice, mom. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure, mom. I wish you knew that I understand, mom.

I know you won’t understand, mom. You were too busy making us sick to keep us close. We kids came cheaper by the proxy for your Munchausen Syndrome. My whole life I was made to believe I was sick when I wasn’t, that I was broken and dirty when I wasn’t. I get it. I got so used to being sheltered from the rain that always followed you, but I won’t come back to the wet, cold, sniffling comfort of your cloud.

“It seems like you’ve healed,” one of my most trusted friends, Lael, said to me a few weeks ago. “But the situation with your family hasn’t.”

“Maybe that’s just proof that I didn’t instigate it,” I replied. “Besides, if an ex-husband had done what my parents did, nobody would ask, ‘when are you going to seek reconciliation?’”

Understanding is not excusing. Explanation is not forgiveness. It’s possible to see people as complex and human, and still to acknowledge that it’s not healthy for me to be around them.

It’s also the only way to stop the cycle of abuse: acknowledge that we’re capable of doing the same, and choosing to be more self-aware with our decisions.

Children are people…and people are children

This is a re-upload from the lost archives.

 “That was childish.” My friend said.

“Not very smart, perhaps,” I replied. “But childish? To call something childish – implying inexperience, stupidity, or lack of self-control – is an insult to children. It wasn’t all that uncommon, a mere century ago, to say ‘womanish’ in the same derogatory way that we use ‘childish’ now.”

A couple of years ago, I wasn’t quite so radical about respecting children. That’s because I bought the lies. I believed that spanking was the most effective form of fabricated consequences. I thought of my siblings in terms of their progress in obedience and submission. I preached about my parents’ training techniques, inspired by Michael and Debi Pearl, enthusiastically.

I love the theme in blog posts like Libby Anne’s “Yes, I’m a Mom. I have also been a child.” And Samantha Field’s “the radical notion that children are people.” Because they’ve already said much of what I’d like to say on the subject, I want to introduce another concept: people are children.

There are many positive and neutral phrases for children in our vernacular, too. We say “inner child” when we’re talking about wonder or creativity. We say we’ll “never grow up” or “I am such a child” when we do something risky or ambitious or fun. It’s not a bad thing, and the people who seem ageless or forever young are to be admired.

I just wish we could see the children in each other. I want to look past age. I want to cut through the barrier of pretense, the one that acts like we’re not all a little scared, a little naïve and curious, a little lost, a little eager to ask “why” about everything.

There are a lot of things that kids do, and that I can do with kids, that shouldn’t go away with the isolating barrier of age.

I get on my knees and look into the eyes of a 7-year-old girl.

She’s shaking.

“You don’t have to do this,” I say.

She bites her lip and makes a little determined frown. “I want to try.”

I tell her I’ll be beside her the whole time, and we run alongside the trotting horse.

She jumps, I spot. She’s on the horse.

“Salute!” I say.

She’s still frightened, but she breathes and balances.

The horse slows down.

“You did it! You made it!” I bring her back to the moment.

She takes my hand and smiles at herself.

I’ve been in this moment many times with children.

I wish that when I’m working with a 50-year-old with PTSD, he had the freedom to be so open, so needy, so trusting. I do not see his age. I see a frightened child who’s endured too much violence, and I want to be his friend and support.

Many barriers keep that from happening, though.

Age and sex and status and wealth put him above me, and we cannot be children. It’s taboo to see him as a child without insulting his life experience.

People are children. We’ve denied our own right to be ourselves by making children unimportant and unwise. That is to say, we do to ourselves what we do to others.

Let’s admit that children are people. We might, in the process, realize that people are children. It might help us rediscover our abandon, our presence, our freedom, and our dreams.

Here in this Moment

This is part of my restored archives.

http://www.jeubfamily.com/2009/03/13/above-fulfillment

https://web.archive.org/web/20150529063223/http://www.jeubfamily.com:80/2009/03/13/above-fulfillment

When I started blogging, I wrote about being haunted by the words in a song (I still do that all the time). The song is called “More to Life” by Stacie Orrico. It goes like this:

Here in this moment
I’m halfway out the door
On to the next thing
I’m searching for something that’s missing
…I’m always waiting on something other than this,
Why am I feeling like there’s something to miss?

So six years later, I’m happy to report that I don’t open blog posts with Bible verses anymore as often as before, I use ridiculously cringeworthy Christian clichés a bit less, and most importantly, I’ve finally resolved this conflict for myself. At the time, my answer was to pursue what’s eternal, and to realize that it’s pointless to wait around for things to change.

One huge thing has changed, though. I don’t feel the need to be seen anymore.

I feel like we writers and artists are particularly susceptible to the problem of projection, of imaginary friends, of getting caught up in an imaginary interview or improvising an acceptance speech for some award. When I’m alone, I fill my head with thoughts of things that aren’t this moment. I’m halfway out the door, I’m thinking about what’s next – whether it’s an ambition in the distant future or what’s on my to-do list for the next hour.

A few years ago, I wrote about the cutting room floor. What other people see is edited footage, and what people don’t see is the day-to-day, the boring stuff in between, the hours of film covering the floor under the editor’s desk. I came up with that analogy to motivate myself in doing those things that seemed unimportant. Those tasks didn’t feel real because nobody could see me doing them.

I told myself that everything people don’t see me doing is valuable because I’m preparing for what they do see. I worked quietly so people could see the results, not because I enjoyed the work itself. I distracted myself from the tedium with the end goal in mind.

It sucked. I never felt like I had enough time to get to everything I wanted to do. I needed distraction to deal with the drudgery.

Since January, I’ve been meditating and practicing mindfulness regularly. There are a lot of different types of meditation – there’s the kind where you sit still and gently enter the fourth state of consciousness, clearing your head of distractions (there’s an app for that – I’ve been using Headspace). There’s also Transcendental Meditation, which involves a personal secret mantra, apparently. Mindfulness is about taking the meditation-focus into each moment.

I practice mindfulness when I feel and notice everything. I practice with the boring things – I don’t read or listen to music or get on my phone or laptop anymore to distract myself from eating. I just eat, and notice the flavors and the dishes my food is in. Whenever my mind starts to drift toward what’s next, or about anything but being here in this moment, I gently refocus and taste everything.

After practicing this for a while, it occurred to me that I was alone, and that wasn’t a bad thing. All these things I did alone – eating, exercising, writing, reading, thinking, experiencing, feeling – weren’t just things I did begrudgingly, waiting for whatever I was preparing for.

Besides, if I can’t be present in the present, I won’t be present in the future, either. I’ve missed incredible victories and ecstasies because I’m distracted.

Drawing myself into a moment is what redeems the moment. What’s on the editing floor is mine, nobody will ever see it, and I’m okay with that now. I’ll be the person who sees it, and I’m somebody, and the audience of one – myself – is a worthy audience. I’m not splicing film and throwing all the boring stuff on the floor. I’m observing carefully, and cherishing each event as it passes.

My work is better now that I’m paying attention to all of it.

Rethinking Nonviolence: An Interview with Jeriah Bowser

What if the great heroes of nonviolence didn’t totally support nonviolence? What if the widely hailed “successes” of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. were not actually a step forward for oppressed people? What if their nonviolent resistance movements were only effective due to lesser-known violent resistance? What if the people in power want us to think that nonviolence is the only acceptable way to resist oppression?

Jeriah Bowser posits that if we knew the truth about the history of resistance, we’d threaten what he calls Business As Usual. We don’t know the nuanced details of effective resistance because we’ve been fed a narrative that immobilizes us. In his new book, Elements of Resistance: Violence, Nonviolence, and the State, Bowser gives a brief but dense overview of oppressive power, and what it might look like to live in a society without oppressive authority or hierarchy.

After reading the book, I had some questions for Jeriah. I wanted to know about his background and credibility, and what informed his radical notions. He told me about his experiences with oppression and resistance throughout his life as an inmate, a wilderness therapist, and a staff member for a juvenile detention center, and shared his narrative of human origins. Here’s the conversation we had.

Q. Jeriah, you say in your book that we think nonviolence is effective because the State – essentially the people who are in power – want us to think that. You listed Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. and say that they were what the State needed: people who were against really threatening the system. Then you make a case for violent resistance. Can you explain in simple terms why it’s not okay for the State to be violent, but it’s okay for you to be violent?

To start with, the State is not an actual being. It’s a social construct, a legal fiction, it’s something that only exists because we all agree it exists, it’s a cultural entity. So when you say “the State,” what it looks like in reality is one person with an imaginary fictitious power over another person. So, as an example, you could say a judge has fictitious power over someone who broke a law or a policeman has fictitious power over someone who broke a law, or a soldier has fictitious power over someone from another State, etc. So why is it not okay? …My personal belief is oppressive violence of any sort used by anybody against anybody else is destructive, therefore I choose to resist it. Every person needs to, in the moment, whenever they feel like something is happening that is unjust, think, “am I okay with the terms of this relationship? Is this acceptable? Do I agree to give a third of my labor to this entity (aka taxes); do I agree with giving my life to this entity (aka military service or legal execution); do I agree with the terms of this social contract?” And if you’re not, then I would advise you to resist. This also takes place on a personal level, with abusive relationships, families or significant others; if someone is abusing you, violating your boundaries and your well-being, you have to ask, “Do I accept the terms of this?” And if you do, then keep accepting it. If one day you decide that you don’t, then you can stop accepting those terms, hopefully. That’s what I mean by resistance.

Q. One of the most interesting things you talked about in the book is “Privileged Pacifism.” For me – especially with a lot of the issues lately in the news, I’ve seen people saying “violence is never the answer” –

Can I pause you right there? So whenever I hear that, I always insert the word “sanctioned” into that sentence. Because what people who are saying that are actually saying is “unsanctioned violence is never the answer.” Only sanctioned violence is acceptable, and by “sanctioned,” I mean “declared acceptable by the State or by power.” So when a cop murders a black teenager, that’s okay because that’s sanctioned. What’s not okay is unsanctioned violence. So whenever you hear the phrase “oh, violence is never the answer,” always insert the word: “unsanctioned violence is never the answer” in front of that, and that will help make a lot of sense in deconstructing power.

Q. Do you think power should ever exist?

There’s this concept that Noam Chomsky talks a lot about: power having to justify itself, and I’ve found that to be super helpful. What that means is that any rule or any power structure can be challenged at any time, by anybody, for any reason. So what this looks like practically is my very first wilderness therapy job that I had many years ago. My field manager told me that any rule that we had there, if a kid asked why we did it and I couldn’t explain it, then that rule didn’t need to be there. If I can’t explain why, then it’s rule just for rule’s sake. In Christianese it’s called legalism, and I created my own term for it – Hierarchal Personality Disorder: people who depend on rules and laws just because they’re rules and laws. For every rule, and I let my clients know this every week, I’ll be like, “If there’s a rule that you don’t understand, let me know. Talk to me about it. None of these rules are here just for rules.” And the kids will do that, they’ll be like, “Why do we…why does a guy have to be in front when we’re out mountain biking?” You know, I’ll explain why. For safety, for monitoring, because we have a first-aid kit on us, there’s always a reason. And they’re like, “Oh, okay, I get that, that makes sense.” They understand that I’m using my power – which I do have, I’m not going to deny – I’m using my power to enhance their experience and to help them, and at any point they can question and challenge that. There’s no rules that exist just to contain them. All the rules that I have make sense to them and they embrace, and they get.

Q. It sounds like you work with dealing with oppression on a personal level, rather than a macro approach to overthrow the government. Do you think that’s more effective in freeing people?

Yeah. All anyone has is what’s in front of them, and the people in front of them. I mean, writing and ideas and philosophy is fun, but ultimately change happens on an individual, personal level. I don’t know of any revolution that happened from a book being written. But at the same time, I see my two worlds as incredibly and intimately linked and interrelated. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book – my years spent in the mental health industry, working with people who have been severely abused. My experience working in that industry merged with my growing political awareness and social awareness. I was seeing a lot of things that connected, like how the same exact dynamics apply whether abuse is happening on an interpersonal level or a geopolitical level.

When I’m at work, I’m teaching my clients how to draw boundaries, how to keep themselves safe, how to assertively communicate, how to draw boundaries in relationships and step out of an abusive relationship. In my own life, I’m starting to do that with the State and with agents of the State, and I’m doing the same exact thing politically that I’m teaching my clients to do personally. So I try to use a lot of language from the field, language that I’ve learned in the books when talking politically, trying to merge the two worlds, because ultimately I do think it’s the same concepts, the same dynamics at play. Someone who can learn to draw boundaries and resist on a personal level is going to be better at resisting on a macro level.

Q. If I want to minimize violence in my own life, what are some keys to finding the least violent and most effective methods?

There came a time when I realized my pacifism was doing more harm than actively engaging was. There were moments of cognitive dissonance where I had to deal with the fact that my pacifism was ineffective and even complicit, and my immediate desire to remain nonviolent was creating and perpetuating more violence. I have a deep desire to heal, to do no harm, and to live in the most nonviolent and best way possible, which means that I must be violent sometimes. I honestly think the biggest thing people can do is learning to connect with other people, and learn to see others as sacred beings instead of objects, whether they be oppressors or victims. I really do think the most merciful and compassionate thing you can do for an abuser is to hold them accountable for their violence. That can look like a million different things – it doesn’t necessarily mean kicking the shit out of them, but it could be. Once you see somebody, once you’re able to look at the world around you and recognize the people in your life as people; once you’re able to not connect with them and see their hurt and their pain and what’s going on for them, I think you’re naturally – I guess I can say for myself that I’m naturally driven to try to help, heal, and connect with them. That in itself is what drove me on this quest in my life to write this book and try to educate others and talk to people about this.

Q. That really resonates with me, but I think there are a lot of people who ask, “Why can’t the State do that?”

‘Cause that’s not its job. The role of the State is to enforce private property and hierarchy. The State exists to reify those two concepts. That is its primary function, that is the reason that the State exists. Both of those concepts are built on inequality and oppression.

Q. Why do you think so many people live under the impression that the State exists to promote justice and freedom?

One, because that’s all they’ve ever been taught, and two, because they need to believe that in order to validate their own existence. Not believing that is a super scary thing, and you have to question pretty much everything you’ve ever been taught, and everything you’ve ever been told. And quite honestly it’s easy to believe that, it’s simple. It’s a very simple way to view the world and it doesn’t require a lot of work or challenging or action, really. It absolves you of responsibility. As long as you pay taxes and vote, and do what you’re told, you’ll have a nice, easy life with a home and retirement and garage door opener and all that. But yeah, ultimately the State’s job is to do the exact opposite, and as long as we continue allowing the State to do its job, it will continue to do its job, and it will continue doing its job no matter what, but it’s fun to resist.

Q. Do you think that humans can exist without separating into leaders and followers?

Of course! 98% of our existence has been just that. I mean, thousands of indigenous communities today exist in that way. Our culture – and by “our culture” I mean the culture of civilization – is one out of perhaps hundreds of thousands of human cultures, and if you extend that into non-human cultures, it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions, and ours is the only culture out of these hundreds of thousands of cultures that exists in this way. And we’ve only been doing this for one to two percent of our history. This way of being is an incredibly anomaly…and this isn’t even radical anthropology, this is anthropology 101.

Q. Do you have any other thoughts to add?

Another idea I’ve been playing with lately is the difference between rhetoric and action. I have several acquaintances – I should say former acquaintances – who are pretty ignorant, straight up racist assholes who in a lot of ways are actually resisting State oppression in a lot more ways than I am due to the fact that they don’t pay taxes, and they don’t participate in any State activities. As ironic and as cringe-worthy as it is, I am actually contributing to racism more than these pretty racist people because they, for their own reasons very different from mine, choose not to participate in taxes or consumerism, and I do participate, obviously as little as I can, but I haven’t gotten to the place where I can free myself from purchasing things or paying taxes, so where’s the line? Does it really matter if you say stupid asshole-ish things if you’re actually contributing less? I remember there was this really good interview in the wake of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, where this reporter was interviewing Derek Jensen, asking about whether he supports the use of violence in furthering ideas, and Jensen responded with an incredibly brilliant retort, he said, “Actually, you’ve killed way more people than Ted Kaczynski has, because you’ve been paying taxes for the past 10 years, and he hasn’t.”

I don’t care what you call yourself, as long as you’re actually not participating. I don’t care if you’re the most radically educated person in the world, if you’re contributing your life and your resources and your time to systems of oppression, does it really matter?

Bare Feet on Broken Ground

Archive restoration note: in this post I referred to God as “Infinite One,” but I no longer believe in a higher power or intelligent design. -Cynthia, July 2018

Today when I stepped outside, I felt the words, “Take off your shoes and make this ground holy.”

I grinned and thought, “It’s been so long, Infinite One!”

And then I walked down the road and back, being ever present and creative and mindful of the music and the ground I walked on.

I thought as I walked, perhaps those who go barefoot are more present with the earth, and they feel pain on rough ground, especially paved roads, because the earth is in pain. Then I wondered if we feel the pain of others when we are in pain, when we get close. Shoes protect our feet from getting up close and intimate with the energy of the earth. We shield ourselves from the positive energy we could gain. We also do it to keep the pain out. We don’t want to feel the broken glass we’ve carelessly littered upon her surface, we don’t want to taste the way gravel and tar is too tightly packed for her to breathe.

Perhaps it is the same with each other – when we are in pain, we are feeling the pain of another. We inflict pain because we are in pain. The earth is only communicating what she knows, she’s simply trying to tell us to stop hurting her, but we wrap up our feet and so we can’t hear her cries.

Maybe nothing is silent. It’s just all speaking a different language, and we need to reach out beyond our senses, beyond habit. Ask your intuition what it knows. Feel with your bare feet. Listen to what the earth is telling you.

Anyone who hurts me is in pain. Some of them tell me it’s my fault, when it isn’t. I know they are in pain, and I recognize it, but I do not accept their pain and pass it on. I do the same with the earth. I did not throw that bottle there, I cannot uproot the roads. But I can be there with her, and feel with her, and notice what others do not.

Paying attention is what leads to change. I will not numb myself to her messages.

It only hurts to feel her skin because someone else hardened her surface – like an abused child, she does what she was taught. She doesn’t blame me, she’s sorry, she begs me not to get close because she’s ugly and ruined now – and I say no, Earth, you’re beautiful. I don’t mind the rough surfaces. I want to know you, even with the bruises and brokenness, and I want for you to get better.

So I bare my feet.

Purity Culture and My Sexuality

Re-upload note July 2018: I originally pissed my family off by coming out as a Christian ally to gays and lesbians, notwithstanding the education I had yet to receive on the fully inclusive LGBTAIQP community. Within a year, I realized that I was bisexual, and had suppressed and minimized any feelings I had toward femme and nonbinary people, in addition to the attraction to masculine expression I was expected to have. This is my coming out post, finally online again after 2 years thanks to the archive restoration project, originally uploaded on April 17, 2015.  

I know that it’s a secret,
And that I gotta keep it,
But I want the lights on
Yeah, I want the lights on
And I don’t want to run away anymore
Leave the lights on, leave the lights on, leave the lights on
What would they say, what would they do?
Would it be trouble if they knew?” –Meiko

I had my heart broken twice before I realized I’d been in love. That might sound like an exaggeration or melodrama, but it’s actually possible thanks to the wonders of purity culture.

When I was a teenager, I read and re-read books like Sarah Mally’s Before You Meet Prince Charming, Eric and Leslie Ludy’s When God Writes Your Love Story, and Debi Pearl’s Preparing to be a Help Meet.

They kept me strong in my dedication to never think about sex, or to think about members of the opposite sex. I had my obsessions and celebrity crushes, but if the image of seeing someone naked ever entered my mind, I’d fight it out with quoting the Bible.

I knew I would only ever give my heart to one person – the man I would marry. He must show interest in me; women don’t initiate. The concept of mutual consent, mutual interest, was never introduced. If he didn’t reciprocate my feelings, it was a meaningless feeling, and feelings were worthless. I needed to control my very thoughts, so I could give my whole heart to my husband, along with my first kiss. Just toeing the line of saving sex for marriage was too low a standard for me.

Blame doesn’t fall on any one person for how I controlled my thoughts. It was a personal choice, something that was very important to me. The people around me reinforced the notion that I was doing the right thing. Some people were better at the game of self-thought-policing than I was, and they made me feel like I could never be good enough. Some people saw me as unapproachable because I was so sincere. Every failure looked like rebellion and felt like despair.

Surely I didn’t love my best friend when I started college. He didn’t love me, so I told myself to “guard my heart” and push away all emotions of attachment. At the same time, our late-night conversations kept me going through my darkest depression and most intense stress. I finally told him that I needed space to figure out why the sight of his name gave me such indecipherable pain.

It would take me months to unlearn what purity culture had taught me to do: conceal all desire, even from yourself.

So it was that I fell in love with a man, and didn’t realize what had happened until afterward. I just assumed I was straight because I was attracted to men. It never occurred to me that I might make the same mistake twice, equally blinded to my desires toward a girl.

It was similar – I had a crush on her, but didn’t know it. She once kissed another girl in front of me, and I desperately wanted to kiss her. Even that feeling was not enough to make me think I wasn’t totally straight. I figured I was just curious, having never been kissed. Giving gifts is something I rarely do and often feels like an obligatory chore, but I gave her thoughtful things that I knew she’d like.

When we had a fight that ended our friendship, I was devastated. Another friend asked if I’d been in love with her. I said no, of course I wasn’t.

A few months later I got an email, and was instantly interested – this person, who hadn’t revealed their gender or identity, matched me intellectually. I assumed the sender was male, and entertained thoughts of meeting, and we exchanged lengthy emails.

The person who wrote these intelligent, complex, and beautiful emails revealed that she was a girl, and I realized it made no difference to me.

I started asking my friends questions – you don’t see both the male and female body as equally attractive? I’d assumed that everyone appreciated the aesthetic differences between the genders.

In the world I grew up in, there were two kinds of people: straight, and broken. Nobody was born gay, the church and chapel services insisted. The idea of other identities on a spectrum was far outside our reality. The idea of romantic and sexual relationships other than marriage was blanketly labeled as “sin.”

Of course I’d think I was straight. If I could close off my feelings for men, I could certainly close off my feelings for women. It was only after I started to learn what attraction felt like, that I knew I liked girls. I always had liked girls. I just didn’t know that my experience was any different from anyone else’s, because we never talked about our feelings. We never defined our terms.

Humans are beautiful to me – whether they’re male, female, or non-binary.

You could call me sapiosexual, in that I love people for their intelligence, and my level of attraction depends on how smart and interesting the other person is. Many sapiosexuals, though, don’t find the human body sexually attractive, and I do. It’s also accurate to call me pansexual, because I’m open to dating non-binary or trans people, in addition to the binary genders. For me, the title I’ve chosen is bisexual.

I’m bisexual. There, I’ve come out, now you know.