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”.

Muck Fights, Immunity, Resilience, and JOY

 

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The Blue Hole                     Photo credit:  ME!!

I just returned from a long weekend in South Texas, where I grew up. Even though it was hot, with the temps reaching 95 every day, it was one of the best weekends I’ve had in a really long time. For three mornings in a row, my cousin/sister, my dad, and I sat at the breakfast table over coffee and talked for three hours about whatever came to our minds. Afterward, we headed out to romp across the ranches in the Dry Frio Canyon that are littered with countless memories from my childhood.  We each agreed that the weekend felt like nothing short of an emotional and spiritual retreat.

One of my goals for my solo trip to Texas this time was to hit up the Blue Hole, a fabulous swimming spot on the ranch that my dad manages. This was one of my all-time favorite places to go during the summer – a small length of river ranging from 8 to 10 feet deep bordered by two great rocks for jumping. This section of the Dry Frio is always warmed by the August sun, but because of underground springs and a good current, the water only five feet under the surface is ice cold.

While the river was running full and clear this particular weekend, there have been plenty of times in the past when a Texas drought was in full swing and the current wouldn’t be running fast enough to keep the water clean.  During these times, the surface of the river would develop a growth of brown algae/moss. This slimy stuff would line the edges of the banks and coat the underwater rocks.  If my brother and our friends/family swam in the river during these times, we would stir up this algae with our antics, causing it to break loose and float around us and down the river.  We called this stuff:  muck.

Being good country kids who didn’t mind a little dirt and grime, we embraced this grossness and engaged in raucous muck fights.  A big clump of muck would float by, and we would each grab copious handfuls of it to fling at each other. We would feel quite satisfied if we managed to slam someone in the face with a fistful of muck just as they were coming up out of the water for air.  Looking back, muck fights were yucky and I’m no longer game for them (even though my cuz tried really hard to get me to play with the little globs of muck that were present this weekend).

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Dry Frio River, Uvalde County, TX

As my cousin and I reminisced about our childhood muck fight days, we waxed philosophical about how that nasty algae, and all the other stuff we got into as kids, probably helped us develop the robust immune systems we currently both enjoy.  She has only thrown up two or three times in her life (a fortune on her part that I consider a little unfair to the rest of us), we’ve never struggled with asthma, allergies, or similar issues, and other than the occasional cold, we’ve faired pretty well overall.

My cousin and I are certainly not the first people to theorize about this.  In a 2017 book, Jack Gilbert, professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Microbiome Center, wrote a book called Dirt is Good describing the positive effects of letting kids get dirty and become thoroughly acquainted with their environments. In an interview with the New York Times, he suggests that early childhood exposure to microscopic critters like bacteria helps shape not only our immunity but also the various processes influencing our hormones and nervous systems.

Scientists have postulated for years that our extreme aversion to dirt, grime, and anything unsanitary in the United States has actually been a factor contributing to the development of some disease.  We have done a good job of avoiding some horrible epidemics, thanks to our advances in hygiene and sterility, but in our overzealousness, especially for new parents, we often remove germs that are necessary to help boost immune function in our children.

“Studies have shown that priming or seeding of the microbiome in the child is absolutely critical,” said Marsha Wills-Karp, professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “While you don’t want to go out and expose your child to aggressive infections, you don’t want to create such a sterile environment that their immune system doesn’t develop normally; it puts them at risk of developing immune diseases.” (1)

So basically, a clean, perfect, safe environment is not always as good as what one would think for adapting well to life and the avoidance of disease.

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I can’t help but think that this same hygiene hypothesis applies to our spiritual lives and the process of building resilience. Our tendency is to try to make life as easy as possible, because…well….pain and hard circumstances hurt.  But what if the frantic maneuvering to shield ourselves from every hard thing really harming us in the long run, or is minimizing our ability to live the most abundant, meaningful life possible?

I was listening to a recent episode of the Rich Roll podcast, where Rich was interviewing medical doctor (and a billion other things) Zach Bush. In this discussion, Zach mentioned something that scared him: the US has not had a war on its soil in a VERY long time.  Say what?!  Why would that worry him?  Sounds a little messed up, eh?

His point in saying this was that he fears Americans have become too inoculated against the hard situations, need for frugality, and the general paradigm shifts about life that occur when the reality of war is in your face on a daily basis.  (I paraphrased his ideas here). Truth be told, we are groomed here to pursue comforts and luxury, endless choices, constant frigid air conditioning, the latest and greatest toys, etc. We lack a solid wisdom culture in our country’s young life to teach us that suffering is necessary to grow us and build resilience.

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If I’m completely truthful, it’s all the hard things in my past that have gotten me to where I am right now and have made life ultimately meaningful.  Every time I look back through memories and recall the things that I hated, wished I had done differently, or wished I’d avoided….in almost every case, an erasure of those events would have potentially dramatically altered my trajectory in life.

-I didn’t want to do all that public speaking for school events or play the piano every week for church services, but doing so over and over again made me so much less afraid of getting up in front of an audience.

-I wish I hadn’t gotten so depressed in college or struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, but now I have so much more empathy for others, and in some cases, can help show people a way out

-I wish I hadn’t walked away from a PhD program in a field I loved because I was afraid another marriage offer as a young adult wouldn’t come along….but doing so brought me three fabulous boys, some tremendous life experiences, and the knowledge that I could be really brave when the time came and I needed to be.

-If I hadn’t been such an eccentric child with a crazy bent for all things God and spirituality, I would have been saved alot of hurt for internalizing teachings that brought shame, guilt and fear for years….but  now I can relate to others whose theological scaffolding has also crumbled, who are trying to find a God they can once again believe in and follow.

And on, and on, and on.  I can recall hard thing after hard thing that was terrible at the time, but it made all the difference for who I am now. Those little hurts and pains, the slights and wrongs done against me, my massive failures….they created a resilience in me that wouldn’t have otherwise evolved.

*************************************************************************************This process of building resilience has changed the way I approach pain in life.  At one time, when I was young, I avoided emotional and mental pain whenever possible. I certainly already had enough in my life as a child that I didn’t want to seek out more.

As I grew older, in my twenties and early thirties, I began to see the wisdom of necessary suffering, how some things just won’t grow without a fertilizer of pain.  Still, it’s not like I sought it out.  Who would do such a thing, right?  Deliberately make their life harder?

Now, as a youngster pushing forty, I actually seek out difficult things, situations that I know will be uncomfortable and unpleasant.  But my perspective is completely different.  I don’t seek out suffering simply for the sake of suffering.  I have to interject a thought by John Piper here.  I know, I know, you’re pulling yourself up off the ground, entirely shocked that I would quote him.  Way back in college, I was on a big John Piper kick with his Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist book.

Here’s the central verse that his book is based on, making the point that it is OK to be motivated by what lies ahead in the future:

[Look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

Now, I certainly don’t agree with all of Piper’s theology, but I love this principle theme.  Jesus did things because of the joy he ultimately knew it would bring him, and I believe that is just as valid a reason for how we should pursue our own lives.

“It is not unbiblical, therefore, to say that at least part of what sustained Christ in the dark hours of Gethsemane was the hope of joy beyond the cross. ” – John Piper

I do hard things and even set myself up for failure at times, not just because I know it builds resilience and makes me stronger, but because of JOY.  Jesus knew that the pain of the cross wouldn’t last forever. I, too, am being taught by life that my own pain and suffering won’t last forever.  It will eventually pass, and if it has been weathered well through hope and faith that the universe is benevolent, joy will remain.

While I can’t speak for everyone, I have found this to be true.  I have more joy in life now than I ever did when things were “easy”. In fact, I regularly have a deep welling up of giddiness inside me that can’t be explained rationally.  Much more than a superficial happiness that everything is just peachy, I think it comes from the same knowing that Jesus had, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (2)

 

(1) Klass, P. (2017, April 17). Too Clean for Our Children’s Good? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/well/family/too-clean-for-our-childrens-good.html

(2) Julian of Norwich

 

 

 

 

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.

I Won’t Eat Animals But I Still Can’t Let Go of Lab Rats

 

ear mouse

I have some major cognitive dissonance going on in my brain.  It’s been there for quite a while, actually.  As I’ve gotten older and really tried to learn to look at both sides of every story, I’ve realized that there isn’t always a pat solution that will make everyone happy.  There isn’t always a clear path that will ensure justice for each party involved.

This is probably why I like Taoism so much.  Life no longer seems to consist of black and white decisions, or clear right and wrong choices. Taoism, as my Western mind understands it, says there are two sides to every coin and life must exist in a balance. As Alan Watts has written, “Seen as a whole the universe is a harmony or symbiosis of patterns which cannot exist without each other.”

I have two primary struggles with what balance should look like in life right now.  The first is the balancing act of conservation and walking lightly on the earth versus the amazing benefits plastics and single-use medical devices have given us, and the fact that the latter have led to landfills and plastic-filled bellies of fish and birds.  I’ll talk about that one a different day. The one on my mind today is how on one hand I refuse to eat animals anymore, but I value and am so grateful for the tremendous medical advances we’ve seen because of drug and behavioral testing performed on animals.

I feel like quite a hypocrite, but I’m not sure what to do about it. I gave up eating meat about four years ago, and with it I have worked hard to be as non-violent as possible with my life. I instruct my kids not to killbugs just because they can.  I refuse to set out mouse poison or traps anymore.  A couple of days ago I accidentally smear-killed a bug on my computer screen when I simply meant to flick it away….and I felt a twinge of guilt for flippantly ending a life that was only days long to begin with.

 

But on the other hand, I cannot deny that the sacrificial lives of so many mice, rodents, fruit flies, and pigs have led to the most incredible medical breakthroughs. (I should clarify here that I’m NOT talking about cosmetics testing on animals). In the last decade or so, a novel method in genetic engineering called CRISPR has been developed and has gone gangbusters in the biotech world. It is a method for editing harmful pieces of DNA sequence in genes associated with diseases. This technology is offering new hope for devastating diseases like Huntington’s, hemophilia, and malaria, just to name a few. But at the very heart of CRISPR and other gene therapies and almost all newly developed pharmaceuticals, there are countless animals who have suffered and given their lives. Their lives were taken so we could know when something was safe enough to try on a human.

 

You may be thinking I’m nuts.  They’re just mice. Or, they’re just fruit flies, they don’t mean anything. I used to feel this way. But now, when I see that we are all interconnected, that all of us came from the same stardust, I can’t help but wonder what gives us the right to cage and experiment on other beings.

I don’t have a solution to my dilemma, but I’m beginning to feel very strongly that just like indigenous peoples would pay respect to animals that gave up their lives to be food, so we in the medical and science communities should pay serious respect to all of the critters in creation who have suffered that we might not have to.

 

That just like patients are made aware when someone has donated blood or organs to them, they should be made aware of these other sacrifices made for them.

That when we do ridiculous yet groundbreaking feats like growing human ears on the back of mice, we offer thanks in humility.

That when we clone animals without completely understanding how they will live and age and die, that we still call their lives valuable.

That when our lives improve because of medical and drug treatments, we remember to not only be grateful for scientists and health care providers but also the animals those treatments were first tested on.

I don’t know if there is any harmony at all in the way we are striving so hard to stay alive and free of disease at the expense of other sentient beings. Is it possible to find some sort of balance in this?  I don’t really have any answers other than that I don’t believe at all that creation was simply handed to humans to do whatever they want with. And maybe this is all a part of the journey to increased consciousness. Maybe this is a struggle we must go through to reach the next planes.  Or, maybe there is no ultimate solution, no ultimate way to be.  Maybe the whole point is to be grateful, and humble, and to recognize on a daily basis that life is not all about us.

I’m Pretty Sure I’m Harder On Myself Than You Could Ever Be…

 

shame
Photo credit: Frankieleon

 

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. 

-Brené Brown

You know how Jesus famously told his followers in Matthew 7:1 not to judge? And then how we have only taken that half seriously?  Because we often give others tremendous grace and then lash our own backs with a cat-o-nine tails whip of shame, self-deprecation, self-loathing, and repeated mantras of how unworthy, stupid, and ridiculous we are.

OK, maybe YOU personally don’t do this, but trust me, I’m not the only one out there who judges themselves more harshly than the rest of the world could ever possibly. I meet people on a very regular basis who fight a constant battle against demons within their own minds about their self-worth. I once thought that Satan was a real being. But now I know what the Accuser really is: it is all the lies that we’ve been told about ourselves, and all the traumas we’ve experienced and were never counseled through; it is all of our internalized fears and failures that have never had an avenue for expression and the chance for the light of truth to be shed on them…all of these tangle together into a dark web of, dare I say, evil?, in our minds that taunt us and judge us and hinder us from grasping on to the divine within us.

Some days, like yesterday, I sink into a state of despair where all I can see when I look back on my life is failure upon failure upon failure. It’s the kind of despair that paralyzes your breathing and your mind plays a non-stop reel of memory after memory where you could have done better, acted more kindly, been more patient.  And after the reel slows, you teeter on the edge of panic, knowing that you won’t get a do-over.  Your kids won’t get younger; you can’t undo the decisions you made that have lingering consequences; you can’t ask the questions of your dead loved ones that you should have asked years ago. As far as we can tell on this side of death, we only get this one shot at this life. (Who knows, maybe there are parallel universes where we’re living the same lives but making different choices…I find that doubtful.)

I called my best friend for help; she is brilliant, is a therapist, and knows these places of despair intimately. She reminded me using the rational mindset she always takes when dealing with my life drama, that my despair and self-judging of myself to be a failure is a learned behavior.  The reason my mind can only remember my mistakes and failures in the past is because that is what it was trained to do. The neural grooves of my brain have been firmly set over the years, and so the paths of self-hatred and judgment are much easier trails for electrical signals to travel down then trying to forge new paths of self-acceptance, and reframing, and learning to focus on the things I’ve done right and well.

I am getting better over the years at being easier on myself, and not sitting in self-judgment for as long as I used to. But I still face the same triggers again and again and know that only by being aware of the pain and discomfort that comes with them will I be able to rise against the shadow monster in my mind.

Here’s an example, maybe you can relate:

This last week I had a nursing clinical to attend based on a varying schedule. On the day of the clinical I looked at the schedule twice, but somehow managed to misread it twice, and thus retained incorrect information about where I was supposed to be and when.  I’ve prided myself on the fact that so far in this program, barring ice storms with resulting standstill traffic, I haven’t been late or missed any school or clinical events.

On this particular clinical day I made my way to my afternoon session only to find that I was 45 minutes late – and all the while I had thought I was 15 minutes early.  I made a quick explanation to my preceptor, who I don’t think was particularly thrilled with me….and the self-judgment commenced.

For the next hour and a half I struggled against the lies and self-deprecating thoughts that came flooding down my brain’s pipeline:  “Julie, how could you be so stupid; Julie only horrible people are late for clinicals (this is a stupid thought from the start because I don’t generally judge other people for being late to clinicals); Julie, you’ve just defined your character to your preceptor – you’re irresponsible, have substandard morals, and possess poor character.”

It’s totally like the “devil on one shoulder and angel on the other” image.  My brain projects an untruth out in front of me, and the little bit of me that is learning to discern my true-self musters up the courage to refute those accusing comments.  And it really seems like a battle…I have to force those signals in my brain to go off-road from their traditionally laid paths and forge new connections that are based in new beliefs.  I can almost feel my brain heating up in exertion when I do this.  Anyone feeling me here?  Know that I”m talking about?

The good news is, this struggle is getting easier over time.  If the above scenario had happened to me a couple of years ago, I would have shamed myself for the next three days before finally feeling some relief.  But that particular day I was able to let go of my self-judgment after only two hours, accepting that I had made a mistake but that it offered no real reflection of my true character and intentions. I simply needed to apologize and make corrections for the future to try to make sure similar things don’t happen again.  And my preceptor – she may or may not have formed a poor opinion of me for the rest of my life, but that’s really out of my control.

For the population of we people who are cruel and harsh with ourselves…it’s because we’ve never learned to question our thoughts. We think we ARE OUR THOUGHTS.  But there is a real YOU, and a real ME, that reside beneath our thoughts, separate from them.  Our thoughts are simply streams of consciousness that pass through our minds, random lava flows of miscellany from all the stored up memories, knowledge, and experiences bound up in synapses.  And all of those stored bits and pieces are there in particular forms because of how we perceive the outside world and what happens to us – they aren’t definitive truth and reality.

Back to Jesus and judging…the end of his statement is “lest you be judged.” I really don’t think here that he means God will judge you. And I don’t necessarily think he means that you will be judged based on a one to one ratio for every time you judge.  I really think it’s all about attitude and perspective on life. Even though it may sound a bit woo-wooey, I believe on some level we manifest stuff in our lives.  Or maybe, as a different way to frame it, we unconsciously seek out those things that align with the way we understand the world.

For example, if we believe the universe to be stingy and stacked against us, we will project that onto everything we come across and thus truly experience it as stingy and mean.  But, if we perceive life to be one of abundance and the universe as good, then we will see those qualities in everything we encounter.  The same is true in our interactions with people: if we view ourselves or others through a lens of judgment, we will see whatever comes to us through that same judgment lens.  So ultimately, Jesus isn’t just giving us another injunction to govern our external behavior. He is trying to teach us that how we see the world and approach the world is how we will perceive the world is treating us.

So, if you’re anything like me…if you berate yourself regularly, if you are harder on yourself than any other person has ever been with you, if all you can see are your mistakes and not your wins…you need to commence with some hard questioning of all that comes down the thought pipeline that you grab onto without thinking. A huge help to me with this has been The Work of Byron Katie. This systematic inquiry practice has shown me that if you relentlessly question everything that happens to you, it is easier to see what is really true and what is just the story we believe about ourselves and the world around us.

 

 

 

 

It’s Actually An Interesting Process to Donate Your Body to Medical Science

cadaver
Photo Credit: Shannon Carabajal 

Disclosure: For those who avoid morbid light-heartedness and sarcasm, perhaps you won’t enjoy this post.

Over the last year and a half, since getting divorced, I’ve been getting my  “affairs” in order.  I don’t plan on kicking the bucket any time soon, but in case I do, I want things to be in place for my boys.  So, I’ve designated a power of attorney, set up an estate trust, gotten ample life insurance, and set up a living will and advanced directives…you know, adulting kind of stuff.

Having gone to about a billion funerals in my life, and helping plan a few, I realize how expensive and stressful funerals can be. Even the cheapest, absolute bare bones funeral home services and coffin package costs several thousand dollars.  Even cremation comes with a noticeable price tag.

In many areas of my life, I’m pretty frivolous and excessive.  But when it comes to me dying, I have always aimed to be as practical as possible.  Salvage what you can for those needing transplants, and let medical students hack away on the rest of me. Morbid as it may sound, I’ve just never been keen on being stuck in a box in the ground or set in an urn on a fireplace mantel somewhere.

I made my wishes clear to my power of attorney in the unforeseen event of my demise and may have daydreamed a tiny bit of how my earthly self might help further the causes of medical research.  That is until I talked with a local hospital marketing employee who told me that in Indiana, it’s actually sometimes more difficult than you would think to bequeath your freshly dead self to science.  I was really disappointed, both regarding my fantasies of my altruistic sacrifice, but also because my plans to make things super easy on my kids and family when I die shriveled up before my eyes.   Just to be on the safe side, I decided to look into the process, and here are a few random but interesting facts I stumbled across on The Google.

  1. You have to apply to donate your body, and…you might be rejected.  In general, having things like cancer, arthritis, or dementia won’t exclude your bodily donation from being accepted.  However, if you have a communicable disease, hepatitis, HIV, are taller than six feet, or weigh more than about 200 pounds, your chances of being selected to grace the cadaver table of a med school gross anatomy lab are slim to none.  Apparently, the embalming process adds another 100 to 150 pounds of weight to a corpse, making them wieldy to handle.
  2. Who would have thought that airline mergers would have any bearing on gifting yourself to a research institution? But it does. According to US Funerals Online, the changes in major airline companies have made getting donations to where they need to go more costly and cumbersome. If you’re concerned about the transportation industry ruining your post-mortem travel plans, consider pre-registering with a for-profit cadaver company to donate your body so you’ll know ahead of time what your options are.
  3. Donating your body to medical science isn’t free. In some places, like Indiana, where I live, there is a 24-hour phone line to call with inquiries about donating a recently deceased person. A quick phone screening by the Anatomical Education Program of Indiana University School of Medicine will determine eligibility for donation. If the family of the deceased requests it, the program will come pick up the body, use what it can, and cremate the remains.  If the family doesn’t want the ashes back 18-24 months later, there is a cemetery specifically designated as an eternal resting place for them..the ashes, not the family.  This is all done with no expense to the family.  However, it costs the School of Medicine significant funds to carry out this program.  But an added perk?  You can donate funds along with yourself when you die to ensure that the program will be able to afford to dissect you, for educational and medicinal purposes, of course.
  4. Supply of cadavers for research and medical school is low, even as many medical schools are moving away from using cadavers. In the past, it was legal to use unclaimed bodies as research cadavers. Perhaps you’ve even heard stories of grave robbers and body snatchers. Here’s an interesting bit of history and social injustice surrounding that. Now, in states like New York, years old traditions have been upended by new laws requiring explicit consent by family to use a body for research.
  5. Body farms – enough said.  A few years ago I started reading Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by science writer Mary Roach. In one chapter she described exploring an outdoor scene where corpses lay in various degrees of decay.  I had forgotten all about the detailed imagery in her book until reading articles for this blog about body farms.  This is the less glorious side of donating one’s body to science.  Rather than be sliced and incised by a fresh-faced doctor wanna-be, bodies are laid out on plots of land so forensics specialists can learn about how bodies decompose over time and when exposed to the elements.  However, the noble side of body farms is they can help provide justice for victims of abuse. Also, on a lighter note, if you get rejected as a body donation by a medical school, you might be welcomed at a body farm.
  6. You might not be accepted as both an organ donor AND a whole body donor. Organ donors are more common than whole-body donors, and it seems more culturally accepted here in the United States.  But many places, like the Mayo Clinic, won’t accept a body for donation after organs have already been removed for other purposes.  So, another reason to plan ahead of time which rite of passage is most important to you?- transplants or research.
  7.  There are alternatives to traditional funerals and cremation through funeral homes. Apparently, there is a trend called “green burials“, which is legal in all 50 states, where one can be allowed to decompose naturally without the use of embalming chemicals like the carcinogenic formaldehyde.  There are 30 or so specific “green burial” cemeteries across the United States.  And unbeknownst to me, you can still be buried in your backyard on private land as long as proper protocols and rules are followed.  This sort of necessitates pre-registration as well to ensure all the necessary paperwork is filed before you die.  Finally, only seven states require that a funeral director presides over the comings and goings of a person who has died. In all the other states, body preparation and services can all be performed at home.   Kind of like a home birth…but the other direction.

In reading up for this post I found quite a number of humorous articles related to body donations, as well as sites of companies that ironically make money off of body donations by taking them and piecemealing body parts out to needy institutions.  But the overall lesson? Body donation is not always a firm guarantee, so deciding on a backup plan for your body’s final destination is a good idea.

As a last side note, consider setting up an advanced directive for how medical care should be organized in the event you can’t make decisions for yourself.  It’s not difficult, it sure helps healthcare professionals and your loved ones when hard, emotional choices are required, and it’s a good way to maintain your self-agency in death instead of letting the courts have authority over who makes decisions concerning you and your care.

 

 

Subluxations and Where the Light Gets In

 

ligh
Photo credit: Bipin Gupta

 

I used to think that chiropractors were quacks – until I visited a chiropractor who specialized in prenatal care, when I was 10 months pregnant with my third son and miserable with back pain. Not only did she relieve much of my discomfort by ever so carefully realigning my spine and hips, but I went into labor within 24 hours. By that point of my pregnancy, I was DONE, and very grateful.

Fast forward several years. I was doing alot of running, and at some point developed a sharp burning pain along the IT band of my left leg.  It would start hurting after only walking a few blocks, and so I let my running regimen fall to the wayside. No amount of noodle rolling, stretching, massage, or rest would keep the pain away.  I decided at one point to go visit a local specialized chiropractor who emphasized more than just adjustment – she was into holistic care – nutrition, lifestyle, all of it.  During my first visit she took X-rays of my back to find out where kinks were. Meanwhile, she explained that we usually come to the chiropractor for help when we are experiencing physical pain.  However, this is a later stage in our injuries.  Nerves that supply our muscles also supply our organs, and the same pinched nerves that cause noticeable pain also cause impairment in organ function. Furthermore, pain in the body that seems unrelated to our backs might actually be directly related.

This, as it turned out, was true in my case.  As I visited her regularly over several months, she would make gradual adjustments and apply traction to reverse the multiple kinks in my back. Lo and behold, my relentless leg pain went away and has never returned, even after I started running again.  Moral of the story?  I’m now a fan of quality chiropractic care.

This week Rob Bell interviewed a holistic chiropractor that he had met on tour, and they discussed the philosophy and history behind chiropractic.  It was a really good podcast…you can listen to it here. Early on, Dr. Beuerlein talked about the root meaning of the word subluxation, the term used to describe structural displacements within the spine. “Sub” means less than, below, or beneath.  “Lux” means light or illumination.  So, put together, subluxation means “not enough illumination” or “not enough light”.  Or, you could say it this way – there’s not enough energy getting through. Restoration of proper electrical conductance (or energy flow) through the nerves requires gentle manipulation of the injured places on the spine. Kinks must be straightened and the skeletal components must be positioned into correct symmetry for ideal nerve signal transmission once again.  Taking a pill won’t help.  The specific injury needs to be addressed in order to regain full original function.

Of course, when I heard this, my mind insta-beamed to Rumi. Love me some Rumi.  One quote attributed to him is as follows: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” I started chewing on both of these ideas in my mind, considering how this physical idea of subluxations is also analogous to places we get “stuck” emotionally and spiritually.

Our backs acquire subluxations from physical traumas – sometimes from big massives ones, and sometimes through small, reoccurring ones. The same is true for our psychological selves. Emotional traumas can cause kinks within our minds and hearts. They cause tangles of fear and beliefs that block love and life energy from being able to pass. As a result, we become disabled – handicapped in our ability to move through life with ease and freedom.  If we don’t address these kinks, we are more likely to grow bitter, resentful, and hateful towards life and those around us.

When we have injuries, physically or emotionally, we usually want people to leave our pain well enough alone.  Don’t touch it. You’ll make it worse.  And so we nurse our pain, and pull in tighter to ourselves, guarding our wounds.  The problem is, this guarding and pulling inwards only restricts energy flow more. We become more contracted and our pain increases.

Pain is actually a gift to us, even though we prefer to avoid it at all costs.  It shows us where we are hurt and the places of our lives that desperately need to be addressed. It reveals the kinks that keep our life energy blocked and hinder us from being who we are meant to be.

The trick to dealing with pain in life is to go straight to the subluxations, the source of pain. Attempting to fix my hurting leg where it actually hurt didn’t yield any progress.  My pain only dissolved when its root cause was addressed. It is the same with emotional pain. We can treat symptoms out on the periphery all that we want, but this won’t bring long-term results.  Light and life energy can only get in at the site of injury.  And this requires that we stop contracting ourselves, admit and accept that we are injured, and work with that injury so that it can be healed.

One more quote from Rumi:

“Don’t get lost in your pain; know that one day your pain will be your cure.”