Female Genital Mutilation, Body Shaming, and The Secrets Women Carry

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  • Disclaimer: This post is me getting real – more than normal – REALER.  But, I will warn that I will be talking about some topics that might make you uncomfortable, so if you don’t like talking about sex, or anatomy, or women being cruelly mutilated in their nether regions, then you should probably just hold out for my next post and skip this one.

I’m currently wrapping up a graduate course at Duquesne University in Criminal Law and the Courts, especially in relation to sexual assault and sexual assault nurse examiner training. We’ve been hitting up the hard topics on this subject…rape, erotic strangulation, rape kits, and sexual assault exams…alot of conversations that would have at one time made me really, really uncomfortable.  I’ve got my final paper coming due in a few weeks, and I decided to write on a topic that I read about years ago in college, but am more horrified by now as a fully adult woman: female genital mutilation (FGM). This horrible practice still takes place in pockets around the world, and it has traveled to new locations as specific immigrant populations from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia continue to move to the West.  FGM in itself is a terrible and very culturally complicated practice, and studying it has caused me to think of similar constructs we have in the West, that while not nearly as physically or maybe psychologically excruciating, can cause microtraumas to build up within women that can be very painful emotionally. This post is me trying to work out my thoughts on this topic, and explore how body shaming in women has affected my own life, and the lives of women I know.

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When I was growing up, I accumulated so much shame around my female-ness.  There are some specific reasons that I can put my finger on for why this happened, but I don’t understand them all.  Suffice it to say that I would turn crimson with shame in even the most superficial conversations regarding intimacy, that time of the month, etc, and changing in the gym locker rooms even among my peers was horrible for me.  I think the main reason that I was embedded in shame until even my late twenties was the lack of conversations going on in my world about female development, sex, relationships, and what a normal and healthy body is supposed to look like.  I don’t blame anyone for these lapses; they just happened.  But that silence did some deep damage to me.  I’ve recognized over the years that I am not alone in this.  I’ve talked to woman after woman who have revealed their own shame to me, and shared alongside them the incredible relief to find out that we weren’t alone with our feelings of not being “right”.  I’m now convinced, as uncomfortable as certain subjects may still make me, that we need to have big, broad open conversations to help heal the women of the world of our collective shame, and to work to create serious societal change for the little girls now growing up into women.

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Let’s start with a brief primer on female genital mutilation, from now on referred to as FGM.  It involves the mutilation of the female genital areas and usually takes place in a ritualistic manner on girls from infancy to early teenage years.  I will spare you from pictures, but it probably wouldn’t hurt anyone to take a look at what is being done to girls to feel the full gravity of the issue.  Better a little nausea and horror than to let such a practice continue.

The World Health Organization separates FGM into categories based on the severity of mutilation:

  1. Type 1 (Clitoridectomy): this involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris, or removal of the prepuce (a skin fold surround the clitoris similar to the foreskin on a penis)
  2. Type 2: (Excisions): this involves removal of the clitoris and labia minora (the inner labial folds of the vulva); the outer labia majora may or may not be removed.
  3. Type 3: (Infibulation): this involves sewing together the labia minor (and sometimes labia majora) to create a smaller vaginal opening.  The clitoris may or may not be removed.
  4. Type 4: this includes all other types of mutilation to the genital area for non-medical reasons, including piercing, pricking, cutting, cauterizing, or scraping out of tissue.

Are you cringing yet?  Maybe if you aren’t it would help to know that sometimes these practices are done with sterile, sharp knives, but not always.  Traditional cutters in some regions of the world, who also serve functions like midwives, may use pieces of glass, razors,  or other sharp instruments that happen to be available.  And anesthesia….well……..

While FGM is frequently referred to as female circumcision, nothing could be farther from the truth.  I now completely regret giving into the social norm of having my boys circumcised as babies and wish I could go back and undo it.  But, I will emphatically say, that FGM is nothing like cutting the foreskin off an infant boy’s penis. Furthermore, the longterm ramifications of FGM can be horrendous for women.

Let’s talk about infibulation for a moment.  A woman has her own vulvar skin folds sewn together so tightly that there is barely enough of a hole for urine to come out.  In many cases, she has to be cut open again for intercourse or to be able to deliver a baby.  And then, she is frequently just sewn right back up.   It’s fucking chastity suturing.   And the consequences of this:  tissue infections, urinary tract infections, severe chronic pain, development of cysts, shock, hemorrhaging, urinary retention, and PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA.  Recent research has also shown a connection between infibulation and the development of obstetric fistulas.  This is where a woman is trying really hard to birth a baby but the prolonged obstruction causes a hole in her birth canal leading to the constant leaking of urine and feces.  Doesn’t sound like that big of a deal to you?  Check this documentary out: Furthermore, if the woman’s clitoris has been scraped off as well, she’s deprived of her human right to sexual pleasure.

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I didn’t go to the gynecologist until I was 25.  Sorry if this is way too much information for the world, but it’s true.  I really needed to go years before then because of problems I was having, but I was too horrified and embarrassed to go.  I couldn’t even talk to my mom about any of this. I was CERTAIN that I was not like other women…that I was a gross anomaly and that even a female gynie would be horrified to examine me.  But, I eventually had to go see a doctor to get birth control, and to my surprise….REALLY, to my surprise…my gynie displayed no overt incredulity toward me at all.  Like, she acted as though she saw people like me EVERY SINGLE DAY!

That first visit began the gradual breakdown of my shame walls surrounding my body.  Alot more of my extreme modesty crumbled when I gave birth to my three kids and there I was displayed for hours on end in all of my butt naked glory, and neither the doctors nor nurses ever flinched.   As I think about my angst about all of that now, I have to laugh.   But at the time….oh my word…..it was a really difficult growing process for me.

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I’ve gotten to the point that I am really angry at how much control men have exerted over women’s sexuality and bodies for…basically forever.   FGM is practiced largely because it is a social norm in certain places around the world and helps ensure a woman’s marriageability.  I understand why families would feel pressured to continue with the practice for those reasons, even though I don’t agree. Either way, it needs to be fully eradicated and so much work is still needed to ensure this happens.

But, we do the same things in societies where FGM isn’t practiced, just in different ways. We women are controlled through our own social norms…not through physical mutilation but through small emotional cuts.  I HATE how women in the hospital feel like they have to apologize to me for their unshaven legs when I go in to examine them. Geez!  I”m not even a man and they still feel shame for having hairy legs! I think in the majority of the cases women are more ashamed in the hospital of having hairy legs than having a bushy Va-J-J. How did this happen?! We have hair on our legs for a reason, and it’s not dirty or unclean.  But I fall subject to it as well….I’ve also been the woman apologizing to health care providers for having Christmas tree legs.

Or, women are too ashamed to wear a swimsuit that is bikini cut because God forbid some hairs might poke out and they will be seen as “unclean” or something like that. But, on the flip side, if they wear a swim skirt or swim shorts they are often accused of being prudes.

Infibulation is used to control a woman’s libido….cut off her clit and sew her up and that will prevent her from having premarital and extramarital affairs.  Scrape out her vagina and she’ll be nice and clean and tight for her man.   That’s the external way to control.  But there are also internal, subtle ways to do the same thing: make women feel slutty if they don’t adhere to a certain version of femininity or if  they don’t maintain their bodies in certain ways, make rape and rape culture the woman’s problem to solve, designate the woman’s status in society based on whether or not she is married, etc etc.  Or how about….no one blinks an eye if a man has sex on a first or second date, but OMG…if a woman does that….she’s just a bona fide harlot.

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We women are taught to believe that our sexuality is not as important as men’s. I’ve met woman after woman who, in hushed tones and red faces, admit to me that they’ve never had an orgasm…and they’re well into their twenties and thirties.  Not for lack of trying on their part, but very frequently because of lack of any legitimate concern or effort from their partners.  And unlike men who are encouraged to say what they want and need, women are frequently terrified to express more than a few muffled suggestions….or they’re too ashamed and embarrassed to try to ask for anything at all.

Western women might not be literally sewn up, but our minds very often are.

And of course, I recognize that I don’t know every woman out there and that many are very uninhibited and free in the way they live and move in their bodies.  But I also know that I AM NOT an anomaly in this crazy shame carrying.

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A friend and I were talking the other day about how women’s health procedures are often suggested or pushed without any real education to discuss potential side effects down the road.  Women are still diagnosed as being hysterical over perceived health problems, even if nicer terms are used. And the unfortunate part is, women can unconsciously be complicit in perpetuating these behaviors.  We learn to accept things as normal (that are really not normal) and then we pass them on to our fellow women.

Here are a couple of examples:

After I had my third son, my monthly cycle never went back to normal.  It was dreadful and I was desperate. I met a nurse who told me that I should consider an endometrial ablation, and she painted a picture of a period free life, no worries of not having a spare tampon in your purse, no leaks or accidents….AND, insurance would cover it!  Sign me up, I immediately thought, and I had it done.  Looking back, other than the standard medical consent, my male gynecologist NEVER told me about the high rate of endometrial ablation failure that occurs, never told me that it was too good to be true.  And now, I’m dealing with the increasing physical pain and frustration that results from the mentality that “minor” procedures for women’s parts aren’t a big deal.  Yeah, whatever.  It appears that uteruses don’t like being cauterized, even for seemingly good reasons.

Or how about IUDs.  I know women who are told this is the best birth control option – just stick it in and no worries for years.  Oh, never mind that you might bleed through everything within five minutes for the next year as your body adjusts.  That’s a small price to pay for not getting pregnant right? Never mind that pill birth control might give you a blood clot or jack up your hormones…it’s the woman’s responsibility to give sex and avoid pregnancy, right?

Or, how about women who have cosmetic surgery to their labia because they are embarrassed about how they look and they are afraid their partners are judging them and thinking they are gross?  I think for me one of the absolute best things that has ever happened is that through working in a hospital setting I have literally seen just about everything genitalia-wise….nothing shocks me anymore.  And it makes me laugh at how afraid I was as a child that I was different down there than every other female.  The truth is….there is a HUGE AMOUNT of variability in anatomy both in men and women.  No one looks exactly the same and that’s the beauty of it.

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As you can tell by this post, I’m pretty angry.  But I want more people to get angry about these issues…I haven’t even covered anything to a significant depth here.  The point I want to make is that we need to keep questioning our cultural norms and the unspoken burdens we place on women.  Yeah, women in the West can generally vote, we can generally have credit, own property, get divorced, and a bunch of other meaningful things.  But our shame burden has not been delivered from us.

I want everyone to be horrified about the physical ways women are mutilated, and also the psychological ways we are mutilated. I want to be able to talk to my fellow women without seeing the shame and tears in their eyes as they reveal their pain to me.

So, as I write this paper on FGM, I’m committed to fighting against it and advocating for little girls here in the States that are still at risk for being mutilated because of cultural norms and peer pressure and the “that’s what we’ve always done” mentality.  But I also commit to teaching my three boys that there is nothing unclean or weird about the way girls and females naturally are. I will continue to impress upon them that girls are every bit as valuable as them, and their needs and wants are equally justified. And I will commit to teach them to question everything that has been done forever,  “just because”.

The Problem With “Instimacy”

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“You stretched for the stars and you know how it feels to reach too high
Too far
Too soon
You saw the whole of the moon”   –The Whole of the Moon, The Waterboys

Ok, who reading this post has tried online dating?  Raise your hand – figuratively or literally.

Or, who has ever headed off to freshman year in college and was so glad to find a friend that first day that you became inseparable besties for the first week of classes and then realized you didn’t even really like each other?

Or, who has sat next to someone at a table at a conference and the “hitting it off” vibes were so strong that you told each other your life stories before dessert and coffee were served?

Over the last ten years, I’ve thought ALOT about relationships we have with people….how we find people to be in relationship with, who we choose to stick with, and why some of those relationships just run off the rails as soon as they’ve begun. And ultimately, I think I’ve decided that so many of our problems in relationship come down to a weakening of our boundaries around our sacred space – our hearts, our souls, and all that we’ve experienced and treasure in life that makes us uniquely us.

This post is one of a three-part series I intend to write on this subject, the second being “Why You Should Stop Making Everyone Comfortable” and the final being “Unhelpful Platitudes and Other Stupid Things People Say”.

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We live in a horribly disconnected society even though we are all on social media, networking away and “sharing” our lives.  I’m not bashing social media; I have a very robust Facebook life that gives me alot of joy, especially through ridiculous daily meme posting.  And, I have friends who post about meaningful things, not just superficial ramblings about last night’s dinner or pics of duck-lip posing.

I think alot of people are just really lonely, and with the influence of our “get everything quick” culture, we want to build relationships and feel secure really quickly, too. I’m a huge fan of relationships and new friendships, but I have also realized that trying to build them too quickly – something I refer to as instimacy (instant-intimacy)- can really cause more hurt in the long run than intentionally moving slowly and steadily.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Online dating…in some ways, it’s a brilliant idea.  You’re able to narrow down the dating pool by honing in on the types of people you will most likely be compatible with, the ones who have similar interests, the ones who might be looking for the same things you are.  Basically, you can much more efficiently find a likely partner than just meandering through life hoping someone shows up on your doorstep, or doing the bar scene, or many of the numerous other ways that people try to meet each other.

So, you get on a site and find someone who seems to be in your tribe, and you start messaging within the dating site.  When that proves promising, you move on to actual texting. Then, you and this person text consistently until you finally decide to meet up.  Maybe you have a phone call or two in there, just to make sure the other person isn’t a real creep or completely making up what they’ve been texting about.

Then…you meet.  And you suddenly skip half of the conversations you would traditionally have on a date because you already had them via text. And you find yourself telling this person, that you really barely know, much more about yourself than you normally would.

Instimacy.

It’s great for a while….until it’s not.

The problem is, instimacy isn’t real intimacy because so much of it is based on the stories we have in our heads about who the other person is. They have stories in their heads about us as well. We take those texts, or those phone conversations, and a few dating site pics (or maybe you’ve advanced to Facebook and Instagram by then) and you concoct a whole narrative of who you think that person is. So, on those early dates, you’re having intimate conversations with an illusion.  The illusion you have of the person could, in fact, be spot on and true, but so many times it isn’t.

Or, maybe the stories you have about each other are so very true that you burn too hot too fast, and it’s not sustainable because you haven’t taken the time to build a foundation of trust and respect.  You know alot about that person, but you haven’t “experienced” them to know them at their core. There is nothing to tie that person to you or you to that person. So off you go in the world, if things don’t work out, knowing a crap ton about the other person and vice versa, wondering if the exchange was ever ultimately meaningful. Or you realize that you might have lost something that could have been really good because you were both hoping for way too much too soon

This is a hard lesson to learn…that to go slow and steady is better.  But I think in most cases it’s really true.

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I grew up believing that honesty was a paramount value in life.  The unfortunate part was that I was never really taught that honesty is nuanced, so I had to start learning it as an adult.  I now know that being honest doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to describe all of yourself in literal detail.  And, in most cases, the people in your life need to earn your honesty. The truth that you tell someone you’ve known forever and can trust should not be the same truth you tell someone you just met.  (I hope you all realize that I’m talking about personal honesty around who you are and your boundaries….not superficial things that every person in society really needs to tell the literal truth about just to be a decent human being).

I’m a pretty transparent person. Anyone who reads this blog very often knows I spill alot of gory details about myself and my emotional life.  I’ve grown to be this way because I’ve learned that 1) shame tends to naturally fall away when hard things are spoken out loud, and 2) other people need to hear your stories so they know they aren’t alone in their life experiences….they aren’t the only ones who have had “insert whatever here” happen to them….they aren’t the only ones to ever feel “insert more whatever here.”

Being open, transparent, and honest with people is generally a good thing. But maybe we all need to learn to hold our pasts, the things that are most important to us in life, our deepest secrets and hopes, with a little more reverence. Each of us have had hard things happen to us in life….things that radically changed us, or hurt us deeply, or in some way impacted us at our core. Those things are a part of who we are, and none of us deserve to have anyone trample over them, whether intentionally or unconsciously.  But because those people we are doing instimacy with don’t really understand us, they can’t know the things in us that need to be protected and held carefully.

It is up to each of us alone, as individuals, to protect ourselves. We have to parcel out what we reveal to people as they earn it, as they prove themselves trustworthy.  Words and promises don’t cut it here.  They have to show themselves trustworthy to handle the responsibility of seeing and experiencing the real you.

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I don’t think this dynamic of instimacy only occurs in romantic relationships; I’ve seen it with friendships before, and even work relationships.  In our desire to feel connected and a part of something, we allow others to be careless with us, and we are careless with others.

As I heard Richard Rohr say today, the goal is love, but the path to that goal is also love.  The means and the end are the same.  We can’t skip steps or rush building a good foundation to get the relationships we want.  We have to tread carefully with other people’s hearts and heavy stuff, and we have to insist that others who want to be in relationships with us do the same.

Building these foundations and earning honesty requires that we get out of the stories in our heads…our stories about the other person and our stories about what we think is happening at the moment. This means one conversation at a time, each marked by ample amounts of space and distance. It means recognizing that each of us is a unique, amazing person whose real self, not just a fabricated story in the mind, deserves to be seen and valued and treated with respect.

 

Why You Should Stop Making Everyone Comfortable

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Credit: Xavier Verges

I suffer from a chronic disorder.  It’s called: “Making Other People Comfortable At My Own Expense-osis”. The tricky thing about this ailment is that it typically presents first in childhood, and unless quickly nipped in the bud, it can wreak havoc on one’s ability to manage life well in the adolescent and adult years.

Symptoms of MOPCAMOE-osis include:

-a persistent weakening of personal boundaries and self-care constructs in order to accommodate another person’s desires or preferences

-an inability to feel completely comfortable in social situations because of the fear that somehow you are imposing on someone’s else comfort, even if you have no clue how you might be doing that

-a tendency to over-apologize for everything, and a tendency to offer a quick “That’s OK!” when a person has wronged you but throws out an insincere and thoughtless apology with impeccable timing

-a deep inclination toward hard and fast rule-following so that you can ensure you don’t break any social mores, workplace norms, unspoken relationship expectations, or arbitrary guidelines devised by others in your life for how you can interact with them.

-a reluctance to initially be too outgoing or “yourself” in case you’re not enough for people, or worse….too much for them.

-the insane urge to always explain yourself so that others understand your motives and that you never intended to make them uncomfortable when you were being yourself

As you can see, this is quite a serious condition to suffer from because it impacts every single area of one’s life. We who have it don’t develop it through any fault of our own, but the consequences can range from an inability to stand up for oneself and be authentic all the way to being outright traumatized by hurtful people.

My own case of MOPCAMOE-osis has regressed significantly over the last ten years, thanks to therapy, doing alot of shadow work, and learning to take the advice of the great actor Shah Rukh Khan: “Don’t Take No Shit from Anybody”….a line he so eloquently offered in a speech a few years back at the University of Edinburgh.  Ahhh….I adore him.

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Our society, it seems to me, does alot of teaching us at a young age to make others’ comfort a priority over our own. And not to be male bashing at all, but girls and women are certainly groomed in this fashion, much more in some contexts than others.

One of the first examples of this comfort prioritization that comes to mind is how we work with our children.  There was a post on Facebook yesterday covering an article about how girls should not be pressured to give out hugs during the holiday season.  I didn’t read the article because the headline said it all.  No child should be compelled to have any physical interaction with anyone that they don’t want to. But we are so conditioned to push them to do these things, aren’t we?  Billy, hug your great aunt that you’ve only met one time in your life. Sarah, let Bob (elderly friend of the family) give you a kiss on the cheek. Oh come on, Katie, it’s (insert whoever you want here)! You know them!  Give them a hug (or kiss, or handshake, or whatever other physical contact is being asked for). I can recall so many times as a child that I felt obligated to engage in some kind of harmless physical contact with an adult that I didn’t want to…but I knew the repercussions would be hurt feelings and disappointment.   While I was a very affectionate child, there were times my creep-o-meter went off strongly, but I believed that the other person’s comfort was more important than mine, so I ignored my personal boundaries and did what was asked of me anyway.

As a young mom, I initially fell into this same trap with my kids.  When I knew someone in their lives wanted a hug or kiss, I would encourage the boys to be friendly and do it.  Now days, though, NOPE.  I leave it entirely at my kids’ discretion.  If they want to hug someone, it is completely up to them.  If they want a kiss on the cheek, it is up to them. And other than offer a polite “hello” to a new acquaintance, I don’t insist on any interactions from them that they don’t feel comfortable with.   Kids need to learn early on that their boundaries matter, and their comfort level is no less important that those of other people. We need to be especially careful of this with our children who have a temperament that is prone to the development of  MOPCAMOE-osis. I also believe that we need to pay attention to the fact that our kids’ creep-o-meters might be more sometimes sensitive than ours as adults.

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It seems pretty apparent to me that in our society we unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, groom our daughters to believe that their job is to make other people comfortable.  This obviously is harder to do for girls with certain strong personalities and temperaments, but for others, this teaching is swallowed up whole and internalized.  I’m totally thinking of Type 2s on the Enneagram here, a group in which I happen to be a card-carrying member.

I grew up in the Church and have moved through numerous denominations and individual faith communities over the years.  Something that I have witnessed again and again is how prevalent rape culture is in these.  I’m not Christianity or church hating – far from it – but some of this just needs to be called out for what it is so we can all grow and heal from it. Rape culture happens when women are told that our job is to ignore our discomfort alarms going off to make sure that men feel at ease, that they get what they want, that their needs are more important.

Women in the Church, and in contexts of society that are influenced by “Christian values” are very frequently told what a little girl, grown woman, and wife should look like.  We need to be cute, feminine, calm, hospitable, nurturing, selfless,…the list could go on and on. I know it could seem like I’m slapping huge labels on this and broadly stereotyping, but I think if you look at overall patterns and the big picture, what I’m alluding to rings true.

Rape culture can sound harsh, too, I know.  But here are some examples, in no particular order, that I’ve seen or experienced in my own life that make me know that it is present.

1. As I mentioned quite a while back in a post on divorce, women in our culture know, either consciously or unconsciously, that marrying a man (and in some cases just being in a relationship with one) offers them a step up in status. This was externally very true in the recent past, but it is still true regarding how we are perceived by others. I personally experienced a dramatic up-tic in the respect I got from others in all spheres of my world when I got married. I’ve met a ton of women who know this happens, and who have admitted that they pushed aside their discomfort and married, not because of love, but because of the social benefits it brought them.

2. I went to a marriage conference once, years ago, by the authors of the well-known Love and Respect book authors.  I know these are good people with good intentions to help marriages, but I will unreservedly denounce the message in this book and all the other ones like it.  It irks me to no end that people can take a few lines out of a letter written almost two thousand years ago, from a patriarchal society, and use it to definitely outline how men and women should interact with each other today – especially when they are telling women to make themselves uncomfortable so that the men in their lives feel respected.  Disgusting.  During the conference, during a special breakout time for just the women, Sarah Eggerichs (the author’s wife), admonished all of us to just give our husbands sex whenever they wanted, because it “only takes a few minutes, ladies!”  This talk went on to include that men didn’t need to “earn” our respect….we have to treat them “respectfully” so that they can, in turn, be capable of giving us the love that we want.  Again, it all comes down again to women stroking men’s egos and making them comfortable, all the while having to weaken our own boundaries.

3. Why is the onus always put on women to moderate men’s behavior through our own actions and behavior?  Still, so frequently, when women are assaulted they are asked what they were wearing to provoke the attack?  Or, had they had a little too much to drink?  Or, were they out running late at night? Or, were they overly flirtatious?  In so many churches I’ve attended, girls and women are told to dress certain ways so that they don’t tempt men or cause husbands to stray.  The men can’t help the way they feel, and can’t control themselves because of their biological constitution. These kinds of statements blow my mind, because amazingly enough, I know SO MANY good men who are entirely capable of controlling themselves around women. And when did it become the responsibility of all females to protect the virtues of men? I’m pretty sure it goes back to a mythical story about the inherent sinfulness of a woman named Eve who caused her man to do wrong.  When we allow our girls to be taught this kind of logic, we are only perpetuating rape culture and giving men a scapegoat for their inappropriate behavior.  We should not be teaching girls how to dress to make other people comfortable.  We should be teaching our girls to dress in ways that make them comfortable, that gives them self confidence, that makes them feel self-respected.

4. Sex trafficking is a huge problem in this country, but one that doesn’t just happen in a bubble. There are real societal dynamics that help support it – dynamics that are rooted in so many of our “traditional values” and bad theology. All of us need to be careful that we don’t promote and normalize the dynamics that directly enable the sex trafficking industry.  Consider the following:

“But I don’t make rape jokes!”

While rape jokes are the most obvious example of rape culture, they are not the only things that perpetuate rape culture. Things like :

  • Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)
  • Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
  • Sexually explicit jokes
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Inflating false rape report statistics
  • Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Pressure on men to “score”
  • Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
  • Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
  • Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape

https://encstophumantrafficking.org/rape-culture/

And while I know this song/video isn’t perfect and it makes women look a little weak and in need of saving, I still love it:

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In this post, I’m not trying to make the point that we as individuals should live our entire lives in a completely comfortable state.  I’m a huge believer that discomfort and obstacles are the paths that lead to change and growth.  In many cases, we have to learn that we ultimately don’t have control over much, and we have to learn to let go of our attachments to things. However, I believe our comfort surrounding our individuality as persons, our emotional health, and our physical wellbeing are things that we should hold as top priorities.  We are not obligated to make other people feel emotionally better. We are not obligated to give anyone physical contact. We are not obligated to ease another’s discomfort when it hurts us.  If we possess the self-agency to choose to do those things, that is another matter entirely. But the important point is that we have to be able to “choose” and have our “yes” or “no” respected. Every. Single. Time.

Other people may become angry or hate us for not putting out what they think we should. They may tell themselves stories about our motivations and who we are. But this ability to maintain autonomy is, I believe, one of the most important parts of being human.

It’s really hard for me personally, to put my own comfort level above others’. Part of it’s my personality and childhood wounds, part of it is the messages I’ve heard from people, the Church, and society, part of it is because I genuinely care about how other people feel and want them to be happy.  And, part of it is a lack of practice in strengthening the belief muscle that I will in fact not die if people think I come off as a bitch or cold or self-absorbed when I’m firming up my boundaries.

But I now know, where I once didn’t, that my boundaries as just as valid as others’. I have the same right to exist and feel safe and pursue my dreams as every single other person does. I am a legitimate part of the universe and existence.  I have the right to say what is OK for me and what is not. And so do you.

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After all this on maintaining your own comfort level, it needs to be said that we need to respect the comfort of other people and their physical and personal boundaries. Though so much of this seems like common sense, we seem to miss the mark again and again. We make excuses about why it’s OK to step over boundaries and invade others’ personal space.

There is a great video that was made several years ago using the analogy of making someone tea to getting consent for sex. The video is simple and brilliant, and it applies to SO much more than sex.  Respect the personal boundaries of others, let their “no” be no, and don’t force others to become uncomfortable so you can get what you want.  It’s pretty basic, really.

Anyway, check out the video, and better yet, pass it on to your kids when they’re old enough to understand it. Maybe even pass it on to the adults in your life who think that what they want is more important than the things that make you uncomfortable.

 

 

When You’re Raging in the Kroger Parking Lot

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Photo credit: Madstreetz

One of my kids and I ran to Kroger this evening to grab a couple of things for dinner.  It was just one of those quick in and out trips that should have been uneventful.  As we were pushing our shopping cart to the back of my SUV to unload the groceries, I looked over to see the guy parked next to me loading up his truck with his own bags.  And then, I saw that his open truck door was firmly smashed up against my driver side door.  The door that I JUST got fixed when a driver backed her SUV into mine a couple of months ago. The exact same door that I had to take back to the body shop and have them redo the decorative metal strip because they apparently didn’t know to use a level when applying it, and instead of being parallel with the ground, it crept upward at an annoyingly obvious angle.

Of course, as it would turn out, the paint on my driver’s side door was damaged.  Chipped, not just a paint smudge that could be wiped off.  I was LIVID.  Livid at the man for knowing I was watching him and actively ignoring me.  Livid that the man knew his door was hitting mine and refused to do anything about it.  Livid that he decided not to take responsibility and at least apologize to me.  And livid, because what the heck?!  Why does life give you these freaking exasperating experiences when your week is already stressful enough?  It’s like God knows you are teetering on the edge of losing your mind and he thinks it would be helpful to offer you the last little shove necessary to finish the job…

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I know, you are reading this and thinking, wow Julie, you need some serious therapy.  It’s just a little paint chip.  And yes, it is just a little cosmetic flaw on a 10-year-old SUV.   In the grand scheme of things, it is a piddling little problem.   Except…..I was already angry.  Like…really, really angry.

In fact, for the last couple of months, I have been furious.  Deep, dark, seething anger that has risen up out of nowhere….or so I thought.

Now, don’t get all upset on me…I’m not homicidal or anything, and I’m not about to go ballistic on anyone.  The point is this:  I’ve realized I had some intense pent up anger that built up over a decade, and I now finally have the space to deal with it.   At least, that’s what the universe seems to be telling me.

Anger is a tough emotion to deal with.  Growing up a good Christian girl, I was always taught that anger isn’t OK….you’ve got to eradicate it before you go to bed at night, and geez….who can really do that?  It’s not exactly possible to have all your frustrations and wrongs addressed during daylight hours.  As far as I understood for years, the only justifiable long0term anger is righteous indignation, like when you’re angry about injustices that occur in the world.   I’ve noticed, however, that people usually have limited patience when individuals feel angry about injustices or wrongs personally done to them, and they aren’t able to get over their anger quickly enough.  We tend to be uncomfortable allowing others to grieve or be angry for very long.  We want them to fix it or get over it.

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I have a super wise therapist friend who once taught me that anger is a secondary emotion.  It really is a front for four or five other primary emotions:  fear, embarrassment and shame, guilt, frustration, etc.   One of my kids was having real struggles with anger a few years ago and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.  Once my friend explained this concept to me, it was much easier to ask my son the right questions, dig deeper, and find out the underlying cause of his anger.  And she was right. He was usually embarrassed about something when he became angry, or afraid of looking incompetent.

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I’ve been doing some digging now into my own anger.  I don’t like it honestly.  The raw, human part of me wants to feel and flesh out my anger because anger makes you feel validated, and justified.  But anger burns you away from the inside.  Frankly, it is also exhausting.

It became clear that I carried years of pent up anger from my 12-year marriage.  Like, ALOT of anger.  For the first couple of years after I got divorced, I was trucking along just fine, and then BAM!, a volcano of all kinds of vile emotions started pouring out from the recesses of my mind.  As you recall, I grew up a good Christian girl and I still have enough of that in me that it makes me control my outward behavior and I can present myself appropriately to the world.  🙂  But my best friends know my struggle – they know how I want to yell and rage and stomp and throw things, and that I’ve used the word HATE on multiple occasions, and all the shame that comes with that because good Christian girls aren’t supposed to hate anyone.

But this is real life, y’all.  Which is why it needs to be written about.  Because we all have situations like this. And we all get angry.

So why all the anger now? I think that this is part of the healing and grieving that comes from going through hard things in life.  God knows the dark parts locked away inside of us that need to be dealt with, even if our conscious minds don’t.  And God clearly knows that I have some stuffed up emotions and a big pain body locked away within. And until I deal with them, they insidiously poison me and control other areas of my life, limiting me from being the best me.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t know I was angry for all those years, because I had developed coping mechanisms to survive.  We all do this at times in life.  If we are faced with difficult situations that we don’t think we can escape, we construct stories or ways of dealing with things to avoid the despair and frustrations that we don’t think can be resolved.  I know I felt this way.  For most of my life I thought divorce was wrong in pretty much every circumstance.  I knew I wasn’t happy, but I also knew if I was going to be married for the next forty years I had to figure out a way to make things work so I wouldn’t be absolutely miserable.

And so I justified, rationalized, created stories, overlooked wrongs, etc etc, etc, to try and cope with a life situation that I absolutely didn’t want.  I couldn’t be angry at the time because that certainly doesn’t help create an easy forty-year path.

But now, I am no longer in what felt like a seemingly hopeless situation, so all of that suppressed anger has come up.  And believe me, you can build up alot of anger over 12 years.

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Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk who you should absolutely acquaint yourself with if you haven’t already, wrote a book on anger called Don’t Bite the Hook.  Actually, I think its an audio recording of a talk she gave once. ( I have it on audible). In this book, she talks about learning to see anger as a teacher, not as an enemy. She offers that if we learn to work with anger and be open to it, it can teach us to be more compassionate and wise instead of just escalating on autopilot into aggression and violence.

There is a concept she discusses called shenpa.  Literally, it means “attachment”, but the idea behind it is the same as the theme of her book title:  “getting hooked.”  A review of her book in Tricycle magazine describes it well.  Something happens to you that you don’t like, and a shift happens deep inside you, and you’re suddenly hooked.  Or, as Eckhart Tolle describes it, the pain body, that was lying dormant within, suddenly wakes up and begins to arise, taking over your thoughts and emotions.   A couple of possible examples to illustrate: My ex-husband says something that irritates me and suddenly I tighten up inside and feel snarky. A colleague drops the ball and I have to do extra work, but instead of just letting it go and doing what needs to be done, I latch on to the “unfairness” of the situation and seethe until my ego is soothed.  Or, I come out of Kroger and find that a stranger wasn’t diligent with his own property and allowed mine to be damaged.  And, instead of giving grace for it, I clench my teeth and latch on to the angry emotions arising.  This is shenpa.

I’ve been thinking about Chodron’s idea of working with anger alot lately.  Other Buddhist teachers discuss similar ideas, like inviting difficult emotions in like they are good friends, not fighting against them. Apparently, when this practice is done regularly, those emotions begin to dissolve and don’t seem to be quite the toxic invaders they once were.

There are many emotions that are easier to sit with than anger.  Give me some sadness, grief, joy…  But anger is harder because you either want to feed it with delicious fantasies of getting revenge on the person or thing that wronged you, or it makes you want to retell your stories to everyone who will listen and revel in their assurances that you were treated terribly and you poor thing and how dare someone do that to you and…..you get the idea.  Shenpa, as the Tricycle writer wrote, is very much an itch that yearns to be scratched.

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If there’s one thing I know about life, it is that is it is very patient and generous in helping one learn lessons.  God will keep bringing the same lesson around again and again in different forms for you to learn until you finally learn it.  It is really, really aggravating.

However, since I’ve learned this, I’ve also gotten smarter and recognized that if I want to decrease my suffering, I might as well learn the lesson early on.  God has no problem waiting me out.   But, I’ve also learned that you can’t be sneaky with God.  My first tendency is to pretend I’m not angry about anything and act all kum ba yah with the world.  God sees right through that and will promptly allow something to happen that proves to me that my anger is still ripe and ready for picking.

My second tendency is to run straight to therapy and try to fix my anger asap:  a little EMDR, a little talk therapy, maybe even a little primal screaming.  Yeah, nope.  While therapy is brilliant, it is not a quick fix.  We have to do the hard work, and the hard work insists on sitting with things, creating space, and just allowing things to be for a while.

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So, I’m totally writing this post from an unenlightened state. But I’m giving myself a billion points for at least being aware enough and willing to admit that I’m really angry about alot of stuff that has happened over the last 15 years.  But I’m also giving myself another billion points for knowing that my anger really isn’t all about my ex-husband, or the Kroger parking lot guy, or any other person or event.  My anger is really rooted in all the stories I believe about life and myself.  It is rooted in underlying emotions of shame and feelings of incompetence and fear.

Welcome anger, come in and sit for a while. Teach me about the deepest places in myself. Tell me about my fears and insecurities. Help me to become more compassionate and wise. And may I enjoy a deeper sense of connectedness with every other person who has also struggled with their own shenpa and anger.

 

When Maslow’s Pyramid Tips Over…

You know how when you’re sitting on your back deck, drinking coffee before the hot of the day, listening to your favorite podcasts and audiobooks, and all of a sudden…BAM!!!!…..an idea suddenly hits you….a convergence of the many different voices and ideas that speak to you on a daily basis…and it feels kind of mystical?

I had one of these moments today – when I was jumping back and forth between Richard Rohr’s The Univeral Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Beleive the latest Robcast episode, and reflecting on my job as a med/surg nurse.  This is a regular “spiritual practice” of mine; my ADHD daily races along the rails of words and ideas, trying to make obscure connections between the most seemingly unrelated things…all the while trying to balance my left-brain scientific side with my sometimes “woo woo” right-brain spirituality. I’ll try to explain in the next little bit the “aha” moment I experienced this morning while enjoying the cicadas, a cup of coffee, my beloved shade trees, and a comfy Adirondack chair.

Two of the things that are constantly on my mind are what it means to be human, and the underlying connectedness of all things. Taking these concepts further, what is our responsibility to others while remaining true to ourselves?  How do we live out our true selves in a temporary space-time construct, while at the same time loving and serving all creation and all sentient beings?  (This is a rhetorical question: there are no tidy answers to neatly wrap this one up. I’m skeptical of those who try).

While I’ve always been a bit eccentric, with a bent toward spiritual and theological things,  I started out life like most people…trying to build a safe, secure world with comforts, toys, options, and defined goals to pursue. As Richard Rohr has so often said, the purpose of the beginning of our lives is to build up a “container”, to learn who we are and create an “external self”.   Rules, defined limits, and boundaries help create security and a sense of identity in life, according to Rohr, and are a necessary foundation to lay for the successful transition to the “second half of life”. (Side note: Rohr derived many of his ideas about the halves of life from Carl Jung).  As Rohr describes it, our first half of life, this building up all the things I just mentioned,  is a strengthening of the ego.  It is a way of grounding ourselves to this material world, which is a good and necessary step.  But, this ego and the first half of life can only take us so far. In the end, it offers only disillusionment because it is encouraging us to constantly chase what is really just vapor, simply the ghost of a non-existent reality, Only when we can begin to transcend our ego containers can we learn to taste what being a spirit-human is really all about.

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Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is pretty well known, I think. It was discussed in almost every introductory psychology or health class I’ve sat in, ranging from undergrad liberal arts to counseling courses to nursing school.  You’re probably pretty familiar with it yourself, but just in case you’re not, here’s a graphic:

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Basically, Maslow is making the point that we as humans have fundamental needs in order to thrive, and those needs must be met in a sequential order to be able to move on to more and more abstract ideas….or to become our highest, most actualized, most creative selves.

There are certainly exceptions to this hierarchy, but in general, it really rings true with what I’ve seen and experienced in life. One particular area that I’ve thought alot about is back when I was in high school and college and I would go with my churches or other groups on mission trips to third world countries.  There were basically two camps of thought among the various leaders of these groups:  1) preach Jesus and salvation as paramount importance, because being “saved” is better than physical or emotional security in this life, or 2) meet people’s felt needs, because a hungry belly isn’t capable of listening to talk about the sweet by and by or admonishments to radically change ways of doing life in the here and now.

I’m no longer trying to proselytize or get anyone “saved”, but I do believe this:  it’s disrespectful and unfeeling to preach to people about anything if we aren’t willing to step into the grime and horrors of their lives and try to help them with their immediate hurts.

So all this to say, I’m totally on board with Maslow’s hierarchy…..except for maybe the idea that sex is a physiological need. I’ve still never yet met anyone who died from not having sex, although there have been plenty among us who insist it is true. (Tongue in cheek here).  Sexual intimacy, on the other hand, does seem in my mind to be a legitimate need in the love and belonging category.  OK, away from that rabbit trail and back to building my primary thesis…

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…..which is:  Maslow’s Hierarchy as we traditionally view it is only the FIRST half of the story.

Having now reached my 39th year of life and having done a bit of shadow work, I believe that Maslow’s upward rising pyramid of needs is absolutely necessary to build the first half of life container, per Rohr and Jung.  But, it fails to explain the second, and maybe most important half of life that not everyone reaches…..where the pyramid flips over. The needs that were so fundamental suddenly become the least concern. When we were once so worried about and centered on our environment and relationships, we now learn that true meaning, wellbeing, and joy spring forth from within us; we don’t ultimately achieve them from what is on the outside.

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Ann Voskamp, author of one of my all-time favorite books (One Thousand Gifts), uses the phrase “the upside-down Kingdom of God”. I love this; I think it describes succinctly how the divine works in the world – directly opposite of much of the conventional wisdom that we hold so tightly to.  This alternative way of looking at life says that the most important thing is for us to know who we truly are at our core, and to move, act, and live out of that inherent knowing.  However, the wisdom that most of us live by tells us that we must first build an external life and hinge who we are on it. We judge the quality of our lives by what we own, what we’ve done, and who we do it with.

What is so interesting to me, and what most of the great spiritual teachers I have read say, is that to get to this upside-down kingdom, you first have to live in reality as we currently experience it,  where things, success, goals, and safety are the most important.  Then, as if by moving through a worm hole into an alternate universe, something causes our perspectives and paradigms to change….we suddenly see that what we once thought was so damned important for our happiness really isn’t so necessary after all.   Sometimes this happens to people by methodically moving up Maslow’s hierarchy through socioeconomic and emotional development.  Others shoot through the worm hole rather quickly because of some intense suffering they have experienced that brought them to the end of themselves.  A few, like Rohr admits about himself, have somehow made this transition for no explainable reason other than a great insatiable thirst to know the truth of Life.  Still, many others never reach this transformation, never know it even exists. As a side note, this is the salvation that I firmly believe Jesus was offering: to tell those who were desperate, hopeless, and willing to hear…..that this upside-down Kingdom exists and is accessible to all who will learn to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.

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As a nurse, formerly on an orthopedic floor, and now on a general medical unit, I love to watch and talk to patients.  I actually think I could never work on an ICU floor….patients on ventilators don’t tend to talk back to you. My interest in gabbing with patients and learning their life stories is my biggest time management issue: by the end of a shift I may be rushing to check off all of my tasks, but I can definitely offer a good commentary on my patients and their lives outside the hospital.

It seems to me that Maslow’s hierarchy is very tangibly experienced when people are in the hospital.  Here they are usually stressed, afraid, in pain, and overwhelmed.  As such, the level they are on seems to stand out.  If I pay close enough attention, I can tell which patients are most concerned with their physical environments and making sure their physical needs are met in just such a way. I can tell which patients are most craving solid relationships or struggling with how to do relationships well.  I can often tell which patients have deep-seated insecurities that are holding them back in life.  And then, there are the patients (usually elderly, but not always) whose pyramids have tipped over.  They know what is important in life and how to do life well.  They know what ultimately matters, and what is temporal and superficial.  These are the people I have the hardest time pulling myself away from; I may be nursing their physical bodies, but they are nursing my soul.

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I personally live a very wobbly existence.  What I believe to be true on my good days doesn’t always translate to my bad.  Some days I feel very in tune with the upside-down Kingdom, and other days I’m the most ego-driven, selfish person I know.  My pyramid will start to get a little top-heavy and tippy, and then some fear or insecurity of mine will cause it to come crashing back down with a resounding clunk, reminding me that there is much shadow work left to be done and that I have not yet fully escaped my first half of life container.

But I suppose this is the spiritual path.  Maybe instead of a one time all or nothing flip,  our pyramid of needs will turn back and forth like a magnet searching for true north. Rohr even discusses something along these lines: the stages of spiritual development, in his book, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See.  Or as Ken Wilber, Don Beck, and others have described, spirituality and increasing consciousness is a spiral dynamic. Ultimately, I think the path is never a linear one, due to the extreme complexity of life.

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As a final thought here regarding all my pontificating in this post….

I am SO glad that my pyramid is tipping and threatening to permanently topple one day.  It is so freaking liberating to not be quite so tied up in all the things that I used to believe made life meaningful.  It is SO good to have experienced that being married, or having alot of money, or owning a nice house aren’t things that automatically bring happiness.  It is SO good to have learned, even if only to an extent, that having strong relationships is more important to me than my own safety, or looks, or possessions, or physical comforts.

However, I am equally grateful that I had people in my life that helped me build a strong first half of life container.  I am grateful that I’m learning to transcend and leave behind the things that haven’t served me well, and yet include those things from the past that are still serving me.

And most of all, I’m grateful that I have the freedom and time to sit on my deck under a canopy of shade trees to drink coffee, listen to some great teachers, and ponder life.

Coming Home to Yourself

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Photo credit: Tim Haynes

*I was inspired by the reflections of others at church today. This is my response to our collective conversation.

When I was young, I truly believed there was something wrong with me.  Something wasn’t right about me being here in the world. I recall, as a child, having moments where a feeling would pass over me – a tangible sense that I don’t belong here, that I’m not fully legitimate.  This feeling would come out of nowhere and usually last no more than a couple of minutes, but it was powerful and had a deep influence on how I viewed myself for a very long time.

A child isn’t usually well equipped to understand these kinds of phenomena, and I certainly wasn’t an exception.  I don’t think I ever mentioned these transcendent moments of gloom to my parents. I would simply try to shiver the feeling off like a chill up my spine and move on.  Eventually, and thankfully, these feelings stopped coming over me – probably about when I was in junior high.  However, beliefs about inadequacy and not fitting in were firmly entrenched in my psyche.

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In one of my last posts, I wrote about how it feels to lose one’s sense of home. You know that Bon Jovi song that was popular a few years back “Who says you can’t go home?”? The thing is, sometimes you really can’t go home back to a physical place, or even a group of people. Your family may move on from the house you grew up in. Maybe you’ve changed so much since leaving home that when you come back, there are only faint glimmers of recognition towards you in the eyes of those you once knew so well. Even those things that were part of “home” that once belonged to you might no longer be yours.

I’ve experienced this sense of “losing home” for years now, a little at a time, and then with increasing rapidity.  After moving around the country frequently over the last 13 years, I struggled to find a solid, physical home.  Who are my people? Where is my tribe? Is there a piece of land I can anchor myself to? Who am I without external labels of what constitutes home?

Others have told me that they consider home to be wherever their partner or spouse is, or where their kids are – physical locale doesn’t matter.  This has never been helpful for me – you can be married and still feel more lonely than at any time ever in your life.  Your kids can be snuggling up to you and telling you how much they love you, and still, you can feel lost and uncertain of where you belong.

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During this Lenten season, my church has been looking at the story of the prodigal son, from the Bible.  For most of my life, sermons I’ve heard about this parable have focused on the depravity and pure selfishness of the son who spurned his father and left home. The older son was always offered a mild rebuke for being callous towards his penitent sibling. However, as we took several weeks to take a longer look at this story, more and more grace rose to the surface as we threw the traditional interpretation of this story on its head.

As one of my pastors said so wisely today, sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate home. She recalled how, as a new college graduate, she was so eager to jump off into her own life and away from her family. It took being away for months to begin to truly appreciate where and what she came from.

These days, I don’t judge the prodigal son much at all.  The fact is, we all do stupid, thoughtless things when we are young.  We are driven by our egos and we can become enchanted with the systems of the world. We are compelled to strive after those people and things that promise us happiness and meaning. This is just what we do as humans; we just vary a bit on how extreme we go.  In fact, I might argue that the prodigal son was living out an essential component of authentic spirituality – he had to come to the end of himself before he could find who he truly was and what truly mattered. Call me crazy or a heretic, but I’m convinced that sometimes the greatest grace we receive is God allowing us to become completely wrecked at some point in our lives.

*************************************************************************************I think that more important than establishing a physical home, or finding where we fit among a group of people, we have to find “home” in ourselves. As the mystics have said, “I” and “me” is all there really is.  Everything outside of me is ultimately my stories about the world and about people, based on my own beliefs and projections.  But, “I” am the only one who will always be there for me, even when everyone else and everything else is gone.  As such, it seems to me that if that’s the case, I should probably dig deep and find out who I really am.  We’re going to be spending alot of time together.

*************************************************************************************The great journey of this life is to seek after one’s authentic, real self – to move past illusions of what are around us and appear to be real, down to the purest ultimate reality.’Most of my  own life has been spent trying to be what I thought others wanted of me, and then failing miserably anyway. I didn’t explore the deepest realms of myself because the spirituality of my youth taught me not to trust myself, not to trust my instincts and gut reactions. When you think about it, not being able to trust yourself is a dreadful way to live.  Everyone, I mean everyone, in the world, will offer their opinions and judgments on what you should do with yourself, how you should act, who you should be.  But how do you know which of those people to trust to make your decisions? How do you discover the right path outside of yourself if you can’t trust your own reasoning?  It’s all a very circular mess.

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Coming home to yourself is a recognition, a learning, that you’re OK and you have all you need within you. When we are finally able to accept ourselves, love every part of ourselves – even the weirdness and quirks and cellulite and crow’s feet and all of our epic mistakes -this is actually the greatest freedom we could ever attain.  Coming home to yourself also brings the life-changing realization that the Source of Ultimate Reality, God, or whatever you want to call her, is within you – not somewhere “out there”.

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I have never been the prodigal in the popular sense of the word.  In fact, I resonate the most with the son who stayed behind with his father. But like the older son, I didn’t stay out of altruistic loyalty but out of fear of stepping too far away, crossing the wrong boundary, and losing God’s love and good pleasure. But I think the sons were alike in that both of them were seeking external affirmation for their lives.  One, the older son, was bound to an honor/shame code of what it means to be family, and the second was lured away by all the illusionary glitters of life that he thought would make him happy. Both needed to come home to themselves, to discover what made them tick apart from anyone else’s opinions, and to find the steady love of their father no matter their actions.

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As I am, step by step, coming home to myself, this is what I’m finding: my oldest, biggest fears are gradually falling away.  The questions and concerns that created those fears no longer seem so pressing or relevant. I’m discovering that every time I make a decision based on what is truly “me” and not based on someone else’s opinion of what I should do, there is continual grace for the outcome.

The best thing of all is that I enjoy being with myself now.  I used to be embarrassed by my very nerdy tendencies, my lack of interest in things that intrigues so many of my peers, and qualities in me that set me in stark contrast to much of my family.  Now, having given myself permission to be me, I have settled into a delicious relief – no more exhausting struggles to be someone that I’m not.

Yesterday in church a friend of mine shared something that her son said as a two-year-old, years ago, when his father was putting him to bed one night.  “Daddy, you be you, and I’ll be me.”  I LOVE this. Yes! This is what it’s all about.

You be you, and I’ll be me, and God will be all in all and there is grace for everyone and every moment.   Stop being afraid of all the “what-ifs” – just come home.

Bit Rot and the Difficult Task of Curating Your Past

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Credit; Antonio Roberts

I occasionally hear of people who have degrees in library science.  This has always puzzled me – I could see how someone might get a bachelors degree in such a field, but a PhD?  What would the dissertations cover?  Reconfigurations of the Dewey Decimal System? Strategies to improve database search efficiency?

A couple of weeks ago I finally met someone who had degrees in library science, and now I finally GET it.  She explained some of the in’s and out’s of storing data, the process of archiving, and the tough job of knowing what to throw away and what to keep. Library science also seems to require some conflict resolution and negotiation skills to help people let go of items, books, and documents that are no longer relevant.

And where I once thought that library science might possibly be the most boring degree path possible, I now think it shall be a path for me to pursue in a future incarnation.

During my brief lesson on the need for and usefulness of library science, I was introduced to a phenomenon I’d never heard of. Bit rot.  For some reason, it strikes me as really funny, and I laugh every time I say it out loud.  Bit rot is the gradual degradation of data and information in storage media – also known as silent corruption, a phrase that is even funnier to me.

Electronic data in these storage mediums isn’t really decaying the way one would typically imagine when envisioning a rotting material. To put it very simply, storage media contains tiny metallic regions that hold an electrical charge. Sometimes, through various factors that contribute to decay, these regions can change their electrical charge, known as flipping. These charge flips can cause data to be corrupted or lost. Bit rot can cause small issues, such as clicks or pops in audio files, to the extreme of entire files becoming completely unreadable by software.

My amusement by the idea of bit rot got me to thinking more about a topic that is always at the forefront of my mind: knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.  And, if you keep something, how long should you keep it?  How important is what I’m keeping and this will affect the type of storage I use?

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I read a really great little book a couple of years ago called Experience Curating by Joel Zaslofsky. (By the way, it is ridiculously cheap on Amazon right now – this is my own personal endorsement; I am not receiving any kickbacks for posting this.) In his book, Joel makes the point that with all the information we have flying at us every day, we have to come up with a way to sift through it, isolate what is most important to us, and store the information in such a way that we can easily retrieve it. Just how a museum curator might select and display only the best and most relevant pieces to represent certain ideas or historical periods, so we must be ruthless in how we gather and deal with the information in our own lives.

I don’t think most of us are very good at curating our lives. We try to convince ourselves that we really can take in all the information available to the world, we can read all the books, we can listen to all the music, and so on.  But, this is entirely impossible. According to a recent Forbes article, 90% of the data currently existing in the world was only created in the last two years. Mind boggling, much?!

This begs the question, can everything really be meaningful?  Or does everything start to lose its meaning when there is too much of it? And with the wealth of ideas and “stuff” in the world, how do we determine what is most meaningful to each of us personally?

Here’s an example.  With the development of cheap digital cameras and smartphones with good camera capabilities, people take insane amounts of photographs. But really, how many of those photographs are quality work? Also, are the myriad of photographs we are so quick to snap really helping us to remember an event or special moment? There’s something called the photo-taking impairment effect that says our frantic need to photograph everything might actually reduce our ability to fully appreciate and remember the subject of the photograph.

How many of us go through all those photos stored on Facebook and Instagram and actually organize them in any useful way?  And how many of us have SO many photos that the idea of culling our collections seems completely daunting and overwhelming?  I should add here that all of your old photos sitting away in files somewhere are subject to bit rot, too, so you might not want to wait too long before deciding which ones you really want to save long term.

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Besides the ninja-skill requiring job of sorting and sifting information that is shoved at us every day, sometimes curating our past can be equally difficult. I’ve been struggling for a long time to figure out what to do with old photographs and possessions that I no longer want…but they aren’t entirely my possession to make decisions about.

My mother passed five years ago, and so I’ve made alot of difficult choices about what things of hers to keep and what to throw away. Some of her prized possessions hold little meaning for me because I don’t know the stories behind them or the emotions stored within them. However, it still feels rather cavalier on my part to just dismiss the gravity those things carried for my mom by giving them away or throwing them away.

My dad is about to remarry and is also deciding what possessions from his “previous’ life should continue forward and what should be left behind.  And again, I’m asked if I want this or that, and should this be thrown away or kept? I struggle with knowing whether I will one day regret the choices I am now making about those things.  Right now, simplicity and minimalism resonate with me – will I always feel that way?

I wonder too about how my children play into this curation game. I had not thought about it until recently….that what I am throwing away and keeping impacts them, what they know about their heritage, the stories and photos that would have contributed to their shaping.

I have been divorced for almost two years, and I felt a great need to get rid of as many things from my old life as possible.  I no longer wanted the furniture, kitchen items, or house decor that my ex and I had once bought together and shared.  Those things only kept me tied to something I am very happy to be free from.  But I am heartbroken now to realize that I never took my children’s feelings about those things into deep consideration.  I thought of how I desperately wanted to be rid of things, but not that they might desperately need to stay attached to those same things from the years that their father and I were married.

I’m glad I came to this realization before I tossed out all of the old photos I had of our family when I was still married. I’m glad I didn’t delete all of the digital photos I have stored on Facebook that still have their father in them.  I credit this to an article I read a while back.  Those old photographs and even the household “things” I got rid of don’t belong solely to me – they also belong to my children. Tossing old photos is kind of equivalent to erasing their past, and saying that those years didn’t matter.  But they did. And it is not my job to curate my the information and memories that are important to my children and their lives.

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Like most things in life, I think we have to pursue the middle way in deciding what to keep and what to throw away.  Keeping nothing or just very little has the power to rob loved ones in our lives of stories, items, and memories that they are entitled to.  At the same time, keeping everything take away meaning, reducing what is special and unique to the realm of the commonplace.

I think what I’ve learned by chewing on all of these ideas is that, like all things, nothing that I do impacts only me.  My actions, what I consider meaningful, and how I curate my own life ripples out and affects others, most importantly, my children. I’ve been quick to throw away so much because it reduces my stress and makes me feel more comfortable. But that is not necessarily true for them.

Perhaps we should approach our lives a bit more like archivists. The currently trendy idea of minimalism tells us to discard with abandon, while our consumeristic culture is also telling us to buy cheap and buy fast.  Maybe we need to put the brakes on both of these ideas by taking the time to determine what we really find most meaningful in life, and then carefully preserve just those things.