My middle son came to me last night at bedtime, concerned about all that he has been hearing about COVID-19 at school, and worried that his school district might be closed like the neighboring district. His sweet worried face wrecked me, and I couldn’t think of anything that sounded good to say, because I’m a scientist and a nurse and I know this pandemic is not just going to go away. So I said what I could:
“Graham, do you see mama panicking? Don’t panic until you see mama panicking.”
He seemed satisfied with that answer and went to bed, waking up happy this morning and ready to go to school. But as I went to sleep myself last night, I lay in bed pondering at what point I might panic.
As someone who used to have prescriptions for Xanax and clonazepam with a diagnosed panic disorder, I know what terror and panic feel like. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re sliding down a vortex of despair and fear and there’s no rationalizing your way out of it. Granted, my panic attacks have always been about irrational things, but even so, fear is fear.
Ultimately, I thought about how I am a solid place for my kids…I’m supposed to be that bulwark that faces the biggest scary things in life for them so they know how it’s done. But, who’s parenting me? Who do I turn to when the world looks scary and I’m so tempted to join in with mass hysteria and panic? And then it came to me…I know exactly who will show me the way. It’s the same people that have been showing me the way for years, the same people who have taught me to trust my own inner voice and connect with Source deep within my own self instead of always in external places.
You know that story in the gospels where Lazarus dies, and Jesus shows up after the fact? And Mary and Martha were seriously like, what the hell, Jesus? You could have gotten here on time, you could have fixed this situation! Why are you crying now about him dying when this could have all been prevented?
I think maybe the key point here in this story is not just Lazarus’ resurrection, but the fact that Jesus didn’t panic. He didn’t come running in, blustering around, ready to cast away Lazarus’ illness and imminent death. Nope, he took his time in coming, and he held space for things to happen, so that he could show Mary and Martha and all the village of Bethany an even greater, reality…a greater glory than what they had asked for and hoped for.
How do we hold space when a pandemic is spreading and everyone is scared and uncertain about the future, and we all are kind of convinced that life as we know it has shifted forever?
Ram Dass died several months ago, and I have thought alot about how he would handle this strange new happening called the coronavirus. Would he be fretting or stocking up on toilet paper or all the other things most of us are tempted to do in situations like this? He and a friend wrote a wonderful book about death not long ago, called Walking Each Other Home, that has changed me deeply. This book has parented me because it has shown me the things that really matter in life, and that death is nothing to fear. By learning to live well and trust life, there is no sting in death.
I recall a story I heard of something that happened with Ram Dass in 2018. I can’t remember all the specifics, but in 2018 a false alarm was sounded in Hawaii that a missile was coming their way. Ram Dass lived in Hawaii, and so heard the sirens, along with his caretakers who lived with him. But instead of panicking that their lives were going to end, they remained calm, and they spent the time they thought they had left meditating. They just were. They didn’t fight what seemed to be reality. They allowed it to just be.
Another person who has “parented” me is the Dalai Lama. I can’t even really say so much what words have come out of his mouth specifically that have changed me. With him, it is about presence. Back in 2014 or 2015, the Dalai Lama came and spoke in Boston, and of course, I jumped on the train and rode into the city from where I was living so I could hear him talk. There were thousands of us sitting in the stadium, and the environment was magic. We were all literally sitting on the edge of our seats, just wanting to hear the Dalai Lama laugh. What he said was important, but what resonated the most was his laughter. Because his laughter told us that all is well. I’ve had a few people in my life, where when you sit at their feet you feel like you’re sitting with Jesus. The Dalai Lama, even in a crowd of people, feels that way. He laughs, and you hear divine love coming out of that laugh, and you know that everything will be OK.
I think of Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie and Mooji and Rob Bell and Richard Rohr and Michael Singer and so many others who have parented me, who have shown me what life is about, what matters and what is simply passing. I trust them, they’ve shown me the way; they are my great cloud of witnesses pushing me onward every day to be better, to love better, to trust the universe and its ultimate goodness.
I was listening today to Glennon Doyle’s new book, Untamed, – please run out to your nearest bookseller and buy this or listen to it on Audible. It has wrecked me from the first paragraph, because it is wisdom upon wisdom upon wisdom. About halfway through the book she talks about the Hebrew word Selah that shows up in the Old Testament Psalms. She describes it as a word that means to stop, be still, and hold space. It often came after a line of words in Hebrew poetry, and perhaps indicated that a moment of stillness was warranted…a time to stop, and just breathe, and know the words that had just come before.
And then I also thought about my life mantra that I shamelessly stole from Richard Rohr….”Everything belongs”. For my 40th birthday coming up I’m finally gonna get this tattooed on my arm because it is what I live by. It is how I hold all things together that don’t seem to go together. But today I realized that one thing about this tattoo idea I’ve had forever for my arm was missing….I can’t just leave it at “Everything belongs.” It has to be “Everything belongs….selah.” Trusting that all is interconnected, everything has it’s place and it’s time, there is good in all things and all people, and then…..hold….just sit and breathe the truth of that. Live the questions without striving to find all the answers, rest in uncertainty, listen for divine laughter – wherever or whoever it may come from.
I don’t know how this pandemic will turn out. I don’t know if it will just be an inconvenience in my own personal life, or if it will rock my world and dramatically affect how my children and loved ones and I do life. But I’m choosing to not freak out. I’m choosing to look to the wise ones that have never yet failed me. I choose to trust the ageless words of Jesus, not to worry about tomorrow. Just focus on now, be here now, trust in the goodness of the universe.
Maybe I’m naive, maybe I’m not grounded…that’s OK. The ones I trust the most aren’t panicking. So I choose not to panic. And hopefully my boys can look to their mama not panicking, and not panic, too.
*Spoiler alert: I’m probably bordering on controversial in this post, and might discuss things that make some uncomfortable,.
When I was in college, I took a graduate summer class called “Anthropological Insights into the New Testament.” This class was a mind-broadener for me, because it was one of the first times I had been taught how to view the Gospels out of an entirely new lens, one that was not a literal, Western reading of the text. The parables and wise sayings of Jesus, which I had heard since I was a toddler, came alive to me in fresh ways that were much deeper with meaning than the interpretations I was so familiar with. One of the professor’s goals was to show us how to approach these parables through different filters or sets of cultural values that were relevant to that time so that we could get a better understanding of what Jesus was actually trying to say to the disciples and crowds he was speaking to.
One filter that I remember us talking alot about was the idea of honor/shame cultures. Much of the Middle East is grounded in this paradigm of honor/shame, and to more fully understand the motivations, beliefs, and actions of people from this region of the world, we need to understand the dynamics of honor and shame in their family life, social structures, etc. I am not an expert on the Middle East, nor on honor/shame cultures, but I can now at least understand to a small extent how Jesus was attempting to address shame in the context of the Gospels.
I’ve heard many people say that the United States is not a shame culture, and that the West, generally speaking, does not operate off of honor/shame dynamics. I’m not entirely sure that I believe this anymore. Yeah, maybe we don’t engage in honor killings, or go to great lengths for family members to save face, or have formal societal constructs to deal with shame and maintain honor….but I think we all carry around alot more shame than we know. I don’t intend to prove this here, because all of Brené Brown’s writing will do it so much more adequately than what I can. Shame is pervasive and universal.
I reached adulthood carrying a ton of shame baggage. This is due to a couple of things: I’ve had some shitty things happen to me in the past, many of which I’ll just keep to myself because, thanks to shadow work and alot of therapy, speaking them out loud just isn’t so important anymore. Second, I apparently have the perfect combination of personality and temperament to soak up shame without much effort on anyone’s part. Finally, I grew up within a faith tradition, cultural setting, and a worldview belief structure that inadvertently and very unintentionally, I believe, supported shame’s ability to stick on to me.
One of the greatest struggles with shame for me personally has been with my body. This shame grew out of a whole complicated mishmash of things that people have said to me, done to me, my own ignorance, and the deeply ingrained belief I held for decades that I was broken and wrong and not OK…as though I didn’t have a legitimate right to be alive and on this earth. This sounds very melodramatic, but I’m sorry to say it’s true. Thank God I’ve since come a very long way in letting go of all of that crap.
Suffice it to say, due to my body shame, I have been extremely modest in the way I dress and act from my childhood up. I remember in gym class all the way through high school even, I hated changing in the locker rooms because God forbid, someone would discover that something was wrong with my body and I was different from everyone else. I had no clue what that thing might be, but I was sure whatever it was, when it was found out, I would be shamed for it. I went to the gynecologist for the first time at age 25, because I was too terrified to go before then and just have someone tell me I was “weird’ or “different’….again, how, I had no clue.
I could never feel comfortable in my body and wanted to remain as invisible as possible. I always liked my shoulders and arms, but that was about it. As such, I took to sleeping in my bra at a very young age, and always wore shorts when wearing a swimming suit…sometimes with a tank top as well. The less people saw of me, the less chance they would see the shameful self that I was.
The thing about having babies in a hospital, especially when you have to have emergency C-sections, is that your body shame protection gets ripped off pretty darn quickly. The advantage here is that you’re so tired from hours of laboring and so grateful to finally be numbed up from your chest down and you so badly want that baby OUT!, that you suddenly don’t care who sees your nether regions.
Maybe this was God’s way of pulling off all the bandaids I’d applied to protect myself: I had to have three C-sections, 2 of which weren’t planned and each came after 30 hours of med-free laboring. I think by the time I actually delivered those two boys, I’d had a minimum of twenty people seeing me in all of my glory. Having kids did wonders for helping to melt away my tightly held modesty. And as weird as it is to say, and maybe really silly to some, having those babies in the hospital gave me alot of healing. No one thought I was weird, no one thought my body was “off”, no one looked at me with disgust. All of these lies I had carried so tightly inside me since I was a very little girl began to lose their grip on me.
There’s a line in the New Testament that really pisses off alot of people because of how they interpret it to depict women and their role in the world. I totally get their anger about it; the value of women does not solely lie in their ability to grow babies and be mothers. But, the verse means something entirely new for me now. 1 Timothy 2:15: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing…” I really was saved in a way through giving birth….not because it validated my existence on this planet or fulfilled me in the eyes of God, but because my boys’ insistence to enter into life forced me to face one of the darkest, shame-filled beliefs I held that was really keeping me from being fully human and alive myself.
Rape culture is still very prevalent in our society. I’ve written about this elsewhere in my blog, and don’t intend to expound too broadly on this or prove that it exists. This culture has led to so much shaming of girls and women, and caused us to carry the brunt and responsibility for rape, sexual assault, adultery, and so many other indiscretions on the part of men. We are told, either explicitly or indirectly, that the way we dress causes men to stray and sin. We are told to be benign and almost asexual at times, and then expected to suddenly become sultry, sexy seductresses at other times. It’s OK for men to have sex on a first date, but for women, that’s just slutty behavior. Women ask to be raped, or whistled at, or groped, or whatever – by their behavior and dress, our culture tells us.
I can’t even remember how many times growing up and as a young adult that I individually or in a group of girls was admonished, especially in church settings, to “protect” the men and boys in our lives, to keep them from stumbling. We are supposedly the weaker sex, but apparently, we hold all the power to ruin a man’s life simply by how short our skirt is or whether or not we show a little cleavage. Ginormous eye roll here.
Then, we as women are the ones responsible for also protecting ourselves. If we don’t want to get raped, then when need to behave ourselves. Don’t ever drink too much, don’t run outside by yourself after dark, be very mindful of what you wear, don’t flirt if you’re not asking for it…. There’s a reason there is such a high percentage of unreported rapes and sexual assault in this country. Women aren’t convinced they’ll be believed when they tell their stories of what has happened to them. And if they do report, they know they’ll likely face unbearable shaming by naysayers. Thousands of completed rape kits just sit around in storage for years gathering dust, never getting the chance to serve as evidence to bring justice for the women who needed them.
There’s a ridiculous amount of responsibility placed on women: we have to not only protect our own sexuality, but we also have to protect the sexuality of every man we encounter, maybe even we the ones we never even know exist. This is wildly unfair, unjust, and a huge contributor to the shame we as women carry.
As a mom of three boys, I have made a huge effort to raise them in such a way that they have immense respect for women and girls. They have known since they could talk that if I ever caught them treating a girl or woman badly, in a disrespectful or dismissive or objectifying way, that they would have to deal with me and that they were not going to want that to happen. And somehow, so far, I’ve gotten this right. My boys LOVE girls and women; some of their best friends are girls, and they notice when girls in their classes and social circles are being treated unfairly.
I’ve taken the boys to the Women’s March in Indianapolis, we have conversations about menstrual cycles and how they should never shame girls about these. We’ve talked about how girls and women are just as smart and capable as their male counterparts. We’ve talked about the struggles that women face to achieve equality, and my boys came to me with angry indignation when they learned that women often make significantly less than men for the same jobs. I’ve begun having conversations with my 13-year-old, about consent and all the nuances of that.
But, I have been realizing over the last couple of years that there is a significant area where I’ve been failing my boys, and through extrapolation, failing myself and the girls and women that my boys will encounter in life. By not dealing with my own shame, I’ve unintentionally passed on some of that shame to my boys, and I know that if I don’t address it now, it has the potential to affect their relationships, perpetuate shame through their families, and maybe hurt their future partners if they decide they are into girls.
This is what has happened: while I’m much less prudish and modest to the extreme like I was in my teens and early twenties, I still act in ways that either suggest I’m carrying shame or really do try to cover some lingering shame that I still hold on to. Some of these patterns are just hold-overs from my conservative ways of being when the boys were younger; my entire worldview belief structure has changed radically over the last five to ten years, but my actual behaviors have experienced some lag in trying to catch up. I’m learning that all the “great talks” we have don’t do nearly as much as me living out what I believe to be true, even if it is difficult and uncomfortable to me.
Here are some examples; sorry if they are embarrassing to anyone reading this, but I’m more concerned about being real and authentic than in embarrassing myself or other people.
I almost never go without a bra on around my boys. Since they were each toddlers, I’ve pretty much slept in one if they were around, and certainly have never gone around the house without one. This was clearly my issue not dealing with my own boob shame (there are stories behind this, but I’m going to table them right now), but I can see now that it has actually been a bad thing for the boys. I’ve recognized this when I see them being embarrassed about seeing a woman’s nipples through her T-shirt. And somehow through my extreme past modesty, they have internalized it themselves – they are often ashamed to go swim without a swimshirt on, concerned someone might see their own nipples. I somehow achieved equality between men and women here with them, but definitely not in the way that I meant to.
As an adult, I hardly ever wear a swimsuit without shorts, and certainly never a two-piece. This is mainly about my dissatisfaction about how my body looks…my tummy isn’t as tight as I’d like, thanks to three pregnancies. My belly button looks weird thanks to a laparoscopic gall bladder removal. My butt sports saddlebags that never seem to decrease no matter how much yoga or running I do. But then, I’ll hear my boys make comments regarding pictures of women they see, wearing two pieces, or showing their stomachs, and the adjectives that accompany their comments are words like “gross” or “weird”. Their statements are not coming from a place of being mean; what I hear in their voices is the sound of being uncomfortable, of unfamiliarity and unease….and realizing I contributed on accident to this hurts me deeply.
My boys are oblivious to alot of things. It sometimes takes them days to recognize that I dyed my hair or chopped it all off. But I have taught them to notice things that shouldn’t be an issue. In the past, I have found myself apologizing to them when they brush up against my unshaven legs. I cringe now when I think about these things because it is just teaching them to believe something completely arbitrary and inconsequential is a matter of right and wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly.
I really, really want my boys to know and believe that women’s bodies are good and beautiful, with nothing shameful about them. But I’m realizing that as the primary, most important woman currently in their lives, it is my job to live that out for them. They are learning more from what I do or don’t do than what I say. And what I’m avoiding because of my own discomfort or shame is molding them in ways that could have lifelong impacts.
I DO NOT want to perpetuate shame from my own life into my boys’ lives, and I do not want to add new shame to their lives. I would rather do things that are hard for me than to avoid pain and end up hurting them. Which is why I’ve decided it is time for me to let go of more of my modesty. Contrary to all of the stuff I was taught growing up, I think that in many ways the way to have healthy relationships with our bodies is to normalize them, not just simply hide them away and make every single thing taboo unless you’re behind the closed doors of a marriage or committed relationship. It’s too late by then…shame has already had a chance to catch hold.
Now for everyone reading this who is starting to hyperventilate, I’m not talking about living like I’m in a nudist colony, strutting around topless, or intentionally behaving in ways that will humiliate or mortify my kids. I’m talking about learning to be more comfortable with my own body so they know there is nothing about a woman’s body, or a man’s body for that matter, that is embarrassing or shameful or wrong.
As a quick side tangent, since becoming a nurse I’ve decided that it would be a great idea in theory if everyone worked in a hospital for a short time. The main reason for this is because an inpatient hospital setting helps to normalize things, especially the human body. I’ve seen so many people stark naked, I’ve seen every size and shape of penis, every size and shape of breast, every size and shape of body. I’ve seen bodies that were missing parts, I’ve seen thin bodies, I’ve seen very large bodies. There is more anatomical variety for nether regions than I ever once imagined. Nothing much I see body-wise shocks or surprises me anymore. And I’ve learned this: my body is just pretty darn average. After all the shame carrying of my youth, I am very, very happy to just be average.
This is what I’ve concluded: like so many other secrets, when you bring shame to the light, it begins fade away. When you pull it out of the dark, closets, and hidden corners and show it the truth, it leaves…it has to…because there is no longer any way for it to keep lying to you when you’ve got evidence right in front of you proving otherwise.
Bodies are bodies, all different and unique. We may be drawn to some and not others because of our individual brain wiring and genetics, but when it comes down to it, everyone’s body is valid, good, and has a right to be here.
I was irritated by the Super Bowl this year. I actually didn’t watch it, and I only saw a few photos from the notorious half-time show. What irritated me was the shame that I saw my boys pick up from watching it because of the comments of the people they watched it with, decrying it as inappropriate and bad.
There was alot of hullabaloo about the outfits and dancing by the half-time performers, and plenty of articles came out afterward discussing their impropriety and whether or not it was OK for celebrity moms to dress and act in certain ways, especially seductive and revealing ways.
Since when did women suddenly have to transform into asexual, tame beings when they become moms? Like it’s OK to be super cute and flirty and sexual before you have kids, but then you gotta suck on the mom jeans and act nurturing and proper all the time once the babies come. I think the real issue with the half-time show is the labels and stereotypes we continue to put on women in this culture, and much less about what they were actually wearing, or not wearing, or how they were dancing.
I will admit that I think there are times and places for different kinds of behavior and dressing. But what I will not tolerate is grown men saying things like the half-time performance are going to cause them to sin, or that boys will be scarred for life is they see a woman in an outfit that reveals without any uncertainty that she has boobs and a butt.
So here’s the whole point of me writing this post: I’ve decided it’s time for me to change…to face the uncomfortable in order to protect my boys. I want to protect them from carrying their own shame about human bodies, and I want to protect them from internalizing lies about women that would in any way propagate rape culture. I want them to be proud of their bodies, to respect and value the bodies of others, and I want them to believe that each of us has the complete and total right to do what we want with our own bodies as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others.
I’m gonna get practical: I’m going to suck up my embarrassment and make myself start wearing two-piece bathing suits. Not because I have a ripped, hot body to show the world, but because I want my boys to see that I’m proud of this mom-belly that carried each of them for 9 months., proud of this rear end that gives me a soft place to sit every day, unashamed of cleavage and softness and the stretch marks that have multiplied with time.
And, I’m going to stop wearing this damned bra all the time so that they realize that just because I’m a mom pushing 40, I do have boobs that look like something other than nipple-less mounds stuffed in a bra under a Tshirt, and I’m never going to apologize to anyone ever again for unshaven legs – even though I do prefer to have shaven legs. I’m also not going to heed society’s advice that women of a certain age stop wearing short skirts or other types of clothes…I’ll stop wearing them when I want to and not because I’m admonished by shame.
I didn’t create rape culture. I didn’t create or ask for the shame that I’ve carried for years. And I’ve still got alot of work to do on myself. But I”ll be damned if I’m going to contribute to the propagation and support of rape culture and body shame because of my own fear My boys deserve better than that.
Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing; Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.
Ample are time and space—ample the fields of Nature.
The body, sluggish, aged, cold—the embers left from earlier fires, The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again;
The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons continual;
To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible law returns,
With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn.
I’m almost three and a half years out from my divorce. It kind of amazes me how fast that time flew, and all the big changes and events in my life that have happened between then and now. Something I’ve alluded to in previous posts over those years is that dating after being out of the game for over a decade of marriage is no joke. Alot of this is because I’ve changed so much as a person, and the old dynamics of the way my dating life used to go don’t fit anymore. Furthermore, the kind of people I’m interested in is so vastly different than when I was in my twenties. I’m much less driven by my fears and childhood wounds than I used to be. Also, I ain’t got time or patience for unnecessary drama.
I have a dating policy that I implemented about two and a half years ago. It’s something I take pretty seriously. : my policy states that barring really, really dreadful first dates, I will always go on at least two dates with a person.
Because so much can be weird and go wrong on the first date that isn’t representative of who the person really is. Nerves play a big role in feeling comfortable, it takes time sometimes to figure out a conversation flow, maybe you or the other person is still hung up on someone else and isn’t completely present. And, if you’ve been texting the person for a while after meeting them online, it takes some time after meeting the “real” them to undo the stories in your head that you’ve created about who they are.
I actually think first dates really shouldn’t count for much unless there is a glaringly obvious red flag or sign that makes you know with a gut feeling certainty it’s not going to work. I’ve only had one date like that in the last few years, but I went on a second date with him anyway because that’s how important I think my policy is.
I hate being judged on how I come across the first time I meet people. Some days I can be incredibly charming and things click right away. But other times, when I meet people, I can be stressed or insecure, and I have this horrible problem of looking ticked off and angry when I’m really just concentrating hard on something.
Once, in college, a girl who later became a close friend, told me that when she first met me in an English composition class that she thought I was one of those super shy people that won’t dare say anything to anyone because God forbid they might answer me back. Too bad for her, she realized soon enough that there are plenty of times where I’m not capable of shutting up.
Another person, more recently, who became my workout buddy, thought after our first very quick conversation, that I must be a bitch. Apparently, in my shyness and insecureness about the new unfamiliar situation I was in, I came across as quite the snark. Fortunately, she soon figured out that I’m actually a pretty decent person and we became good friends. I will admit that I was horrified, as a strong 2 on the Enneagram, that anyone thought me a bitch. If only people could see inside my head and know right away what I was thinking, my good intentions and sincere motivations, how I genuinely like most people, and……this is exactly why romantic interests (and potential friends for that matter) need second date chances….because I clearly cannot read their minds or immediately perceive their motivations either.
I just started up the latest semester of graduate school. Currently, I’m taking an advanced forensic nursing class. During the introductory video, my professor made what I consider to be a fantastic connection between trauma-informed care and a well-known approach to disease within healthcare.
In healthcare, there is something called “universal precautions.” This makes the assumption that every person we encounter potentially has some sort of pathogen that could be spread via contact or airborne droplets, so gloves, face shields, masks, and gowns are used as safety measures to prevent unnecessary transmission of disease.
A central tenet of forensic nursing is trauma-informed care….that is, when we work with victims of violence or social injustice, we are mindful that they could have been traumatized by their other people or experiences in their life and are carrying around the effects of those traumas in their minds and bodies.
Here’s the connection and point she made…which I love: We should extend the idea of universal precautions to trauma; when we encounter anyone new, we should automatically assume that there is the possibility that they are carrying around unseen traumas that we don’t know about and we should mind how we treat them through that lens. This doesn’t mean that we need to handle every single person we meet with kid gloves, but we should remember that a person’s past influences who they are now, how they communicate, how they interact with others, how they present themselves, etc., and we need to offer them grace for those moments when they aren’t so great or don’t immediately impress us. Our responses likewise need to be gracious, because we don’t know how we can trigger old wounds or dig them into deeper holes of despair through our thoughtless words or callous treatment of them.
The thing that strikes me funny about people is that Life clearly never gave us a manual, yet we always judge the hell out of each other and point fingers and categorize the people we think are doing life right compared to those we think are completely screwing up. When you stop and think about it, the way we harp on each other all the time is really stupid and never gets anyone anywhere.
I really hate it when parents get all judgy with each other. Moms are so good at doing this; we pit ourselves against each other all the time, comparing working moms versus stay at home moms, this parenting style against that parenting style, “my kid always looks amazingly cute and stylish” versus “thank God my child has pants on today.” We rarely seem to stop and give consideration to the fact that we all grew up in different environments with different degrees of nurture, so clearly, we are going to approach life and parenting differently.
I remember, before I had kids, I could be judgy of moms who didn’t seem to have their shit together in public places, or the ones who seemed to make little effort to discipline their unruly kids, or OMG, the ones who unashamedly fed their kids ice cream for dinner. Nowadays, after having been through the trenches myself with three boys, I ALWAYS try to give those kinds of parents a second chance…..because, well…..I’ve been there too. There have been days I’ve been so tired that I bought them fast food for each meal of an entire day. There have been days when I’ve reached the end of myself and locked myself to nap in my bedroom while my kids sat on their butts in front of the TV while watching grown men doing stupid stuff on YouTube all day. I’ve yelled at my kids in front of people at Target, seethed through my teeth at them at the grocery stores, made ridiculous threats like, “I swear to the living God, if you do “…” one more freaking time, I’m taking away every piece of electronics in the house until you’re 25!!!” at the top of my lungs. There have been days where I thought I might run away if I had to wash one more piece of pee-soaked laundry, or had to rewire one more electrical socket that somehow got poop in it, or had to dig around in the recesses of the minivan to find that one-month-old sippy cup of soured milk that was stenching up everything to high heaven.
Parents really, really need to be offered second chances. Never underestimate the traumas they have experienced in raising children.
I don’t really give up on people. Sure, there are people I don’t want to be around, people that I don’t trust, people whose hearts I think have really become hardened over time for whatever reasons. There are people that I intentionally refuse to do life with. But I don’t believe anyone is ever lost forever.
And actually, when we reach the point where we completely write off a person as hopeless….I think that might be when we are in our own hell…because we have lost faith in the redemptive creativity of life. When we think anything real or good can ever truly be lost, that’s when love has gone. On the flip side, I think heaven is about realizing that nothing is set in stone forever, that even those who seem the farthest gone can be rescued.
I’ve seen radical changes in people that, for decades, looked like would never, ever happen. I’ve personally experienced shifts in myself that I could have never imagined, out of beliefs and perceptions that I thought at one time were absolute truth and concretely ingrained in me. And, because I no longer believe in a linear progression of life and death where we get this one infinitesimally short shot at life and then go plunk ourselves down to sit for an eternity in heaven or hell….it seems to me there is all the time in the world for hope and love to work their magic.
I can hear some people’s responses here. Julie, people are CHOOSING not to change. It’s through their own fault and their own poor choices that they are where they are right now.
Maybe, maybe not. I think that we actually have far less agency over the trajectory of our lives than we automatically assume. I don’t think everyone consciously makes all the stupid decisions they make, and I think we often unconsciously and unintentionally make really good choices. My overall point here: we can’t cavalierly judge that everyone’s lives turn out the way they do because of their conscious thoughts and choices and that all of the responsibility for that should fall squarely on them.
To give people second chances, we need to be willing to listen to their stories. I think about this alot working as a nurse in the hospital. I’ve had so many patients who, at the start, came off as completely disagreeable, unpleasant, and unlovable. But to my constant surprise, in almost all of those people, when I took the time to listen to their stories and showed that I cared, I would begin to notice the soft parts in them, the hurts that they carried, their fears and insecurities. And through that simple act of genuine listening, the dynamics between us would change, trust would build, and our interactions from then on would be completely different. We would find commonalities between us, and my perceptions of them would shift. Maybe they’d still drive me nuts with their particular quirks, but I would be able to see them through alot more grace and much less frustration and irritation.
I mentioned earlier that I don’t tend to give up on people all that easily. This is maybe one of my few good strengths, but it has also gotten me hurt on more than one occasion. Something interesting, and kind of sad, is that frequently some people don’t know what to do with people that won’t give up on them. I’ve had people push me away because they couldn’t believe that they could be cared about by someone who had no ulterior motives, no manipulative agenda in place. I’ve known people who revealed to me they were never really sure if they had ever been loved by anyone before, and felt pretty confident that no one had ever truly “seen” them.
These, I believe, are the people that are most in need of second, and third, and fourth, and fifth chances. Everyone, I fervently believe, deserves to been seen in life. Everyone deserves to know that they have been deeply loved by at least one other person, that their existence matters, that their worth is not based on what they look like, or what career they have, or their social status, or how clever and witty they might be.
In general, I think the people that are most hurtful to other people have never really felt seen or loved. Those who lash out at others, or withdraw from relationships out of fear, or those who are constantly in the comparison game trying to prove they are better than others….these are the ones in greatest need of more grace and second chances. These are the ones with the biggest heart wounds and the greatest disconnection with their true selves. Instead of hate and disdain, they need our compassion.
In the Gospels, when asked by his disciples how mnay times forgivness toward a person was required, Jesus replied “seventy times seven.” Not literally 490 times, but rather, forgiveness after forgiveness after forgiveness. Grace upon grace upon grace. We ALL need it.
Whether it’s a first date, or a new friendship, or an encounter with a complete stranger…let’s all make the attempt to let go of our stories about people and really see who they are, forgiving them when they don’t meet our expectations or impress us or fail to give us what we think we need from them. Forgive the quirks, forgive the awkwardness, forgive whatever possible, because we’re all just doing the best we can, trying to make it through a world where there are no clear rules but there is alot of hidden trauma.
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.
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.
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:
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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).
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.
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.
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)
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.
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:
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…
…..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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.