Love in Conflict: Seeing People, Not Problems

A troubling trend that I have been noticing as the days go by is the punishment of individuals for the sake of a collective or institutional evil. When we are confronted with a person who espouses or represents an ideology we don’t like, that person often ends up on the receiving end of our (often malicious) disapproval. This is not a justifiable practice, as it is attacking symptoms rather than causes. Furthermore, we are unable to actually affect change when we go into “attack mode.” When one person attacks, the other defends, and a beneficial exchange is rendered all but impossible.

During and after the Vietnam Conflict, military service members were treated like garbage due to strong anti-war sentiments that surged through the American public. Nowadays, due in part to our post-Vietnam guilt, service members are at the very least paid vast amounts of positive lip service regarding the selfless deeds they perform for the sake of our nation’s freedom. Both of these instances forge an unhealthy connection between what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Military service members join the armed services out of a patriotic desire to make a positive difference for their country, as well as to provide for themselves and their families. Such intentions, however, are manipulated when our fellow citizens are inevitably wielded as extensions of the United States government and its various economic and political interests. Both of these statements are true and merit consideration. The soldier cannot and should not be blamed for the misuse of their devotion, and the Powers that Be cannot and should not be sanctified by the sacrifices of others as they rest on capitol hill.

Another example is seen in the world of law enforcement. Let’s say an officer pulls over a person who becomes hostile. Perhaps it comes in the form of a taunt, putting hands out the window and telling the officer not to shoot before an interaction has even begun. Maybe it comes in the form of shouting obscenities, reminding the officer that his salary is paid by the offender’s taxes. In other more extreme instances, officers have been shot in their cars while on break or ambushed on domestic violence calls.

In each of these interactions, the individual officer is seen as a representative of all that is wrong in law enforcement, even though that officer may have never abused the badge. The civil servant becomes the recipient of all the rage and frustration caused by a problem of systemic proportions, and this is as grave an injustice as the inequitable treatment of people of color in the American justice system.

These are two broader examples of something that can happen anywhere at any time. A prisoner can become the means by which a corrections officer violently vents his frustrations. An undocumented Mexican immigrant becomes the face of all that is economically and socially wrong in the eyes of Americans who need someone to blame for a world that scares them. Certain friends, family members, and even strangers become incarnations of racism, sexism, and homophobia to be scolded, maligned, and used to show how virtuous “we the enlightened” are by comparison.

Why is this wrong?

It changes absolutely nothing.

While we are busy laying into one another, the power structures and ideologies that affect us remain strong. Whether it’s killing a terrorist, antagonizing a soldier or police officer, racially profiling an individual, or swearing at loved ones or strangers, the lesson remains the same: violence of any kind toward individuals cannot undo collective or institutional evils. If anything, those evils are strengthened and rooted deeper into our world.

So what is the answer?

I am merely one human being, and I cannot prescribe a foolproof, universal cure for so diverse and widespread a problem. What I can offer is some “everyday wisdom” that any person can apply should they choose to do so. I believe Saint Paul said it best in 1 Corinthians 16:14.

“Let all that you do be done in love.”

It is imperative that we take a stand for all that is decent, kind, inclusive, beautiful, generous, and equitable. We should stand against violence, bigotry, fear-mongering, greed, oppression, and hate. All of this, however, can and must be done with love.

Love can be firm and maintain boundaries. Love can call out that which is unacceptable or problematic. What’s more, love can do these things without contributing to the very negativity and violence we are trying to resist!

If we are driven by anger, fear, or hatred, no matter how justified we may feel it to be, our actions will only feed the world’s evils. Yes, we might “get some bad guys” here and there, and we might feel better, but none of that actually reduces the amount of violence and vitriol present in the world. We are just more comfortable with these negative forces because they exist in the name of our cause.

With love, however, we must take responsibility for our feelings. We must process them in a healthy way and recognize that the person in front of us matters. Just as we are shaped by our experiences, so are all other people, and this understanding should inform our actions. This allows us to be more compassionate, more loving, even in the midst of conflict. We can still stand in our truth, but instead of attacking the other, we can connect with them, putting a kind heart and face to their opposition (and our own).

Will this always be well-received? Or will it always end in some beatific vision of reconciliation? Of course not. Yet we cannot attempt to control how others respond to us. All we can do is make sure we respond in a way that best represents our own ideals, not allowing the darkness of the world to determine how we behave.

Imagine a world in which we voted, debated, donated, invested, legislated, and reformed with love in our heart. Imagine a world in which we were able to recognize the humanity in even our worst enemy, choosing to interact on that basis rather than on the basis of our animosity. Imagine a world in which the Powers that Be are starved of our fear and hatred, rendered powerless by our love for one another.

This is an idealistic vision, but pursuing it can lead to very real transformation in this world if we would only be willing to try.

Peace be with you!

Self-Acceptance

I’ve been fighting myself a lot over the last few weeks, maybe even longer. For a long time, I’ve thought that being a Christian would make me narrow-minded, and that it would mean accepting dogma and doctrine, else I would just be “faking it.” As such, I’ve tried to drop it all and carve out my own spiritual identity.

The problem is that I’ve already friggin’ done that.

There was never a time in my journey as a Christian/Quaker that I accepted all of what orthodoxy mandates. I’ve never believed adherents of other religions went to hell, just for being different. I stuck to 6-Day Creation theory until I was in 5th grade science, then I left that behind too.

In seminary, I realized I don’t believe God is some external being or person, and I rejected the idea that signing off on the metaphysical DNA of Jesus was necessary for discipleship and connection with God. I joined the Quaker tradition because I reject divinely ordained hierarchy/priesthood/pastoral ministry. I believe all righteous paths are valid, and I believe God communicates with others according to the language they will understand, even if it means meeting an atheist with the silence needed for them to fully live out their path and keep the rest of us honest.

I believe Jesus is a pattern for all of us to follow, not some item on the checklist of orthodoxy that gets me into “the good place.”

My language of spirituality has always been Christianity, but I never allowed that identity to negate my mystical experiences of the divine in myself amd in others. That is, I never did until recently. I have been so preoccupied with finding “the truth” that I completely forgot about my own experiences with that truth and all that those encounters have done for my life.

The truth is I use Christian symbols and tools to express my spirituality. What I’ve learned is that this doesn’t mean I have to swallow all the crap that has nothing to do with God and everything to do with power. This experience has taught me not to read the Bible, pray the Rosary, or attend services in a way that replaces genuine experience of and communion with God.

Am I going to do these things? Yes, but only insofar as they edify and inform my spirituality rather than becoming idols that dictate it. The same can be said for my Tarot cards or the silent worship of my Quaker Meeting.

All are tools, none are God.

The fact is that Christianity is the faith of my people. It’s what I know and understand. Is God bigger than this religion? Oh yes. Does that mean I need to reject all specificity so I can make some kind of statement? No. Does it mean I need to swallow all related doctrine and dogma to be authentic? Also no.

There comes a point when we must accept ourselves. We all come from a specific location in space and time, with our own culture and spiritual language. Instead of fighting to make something new, find something new in your own rich tradition. You have the authority to reject that which is harmful or confining as you embrace that which is healthy, life-giving, and liberating. Recognize that as long as you live with love at the center of your being, your own specific way of relating to the universe is perfectly acceptable and will yield beautiful results.

Peace be with you!

Putting a Face on It

By the end of high school, I was a lot of things. Anti-abortion, pro-death penalty (ironic?), anti-gay, pro-gun, creationist, pretty much fitting right in with the Republican state in which I spent my teen years. Now, however, I am none of these things, much to the chagrin of certain family members and friends.

So what the hell happened?

Well, I went to college.

I don’t mean that in a liberal, “holier than thou, educate yourself” kind of way. To be honest, my professors had very little to do with my change of heart. I actually changed so much because I met different people and grew to genuinely care for them, on top of being free to think for myself.

I met gay people who were kinder and more compassionate than most Bible-thumpers I knew.

I met and grew to love nonreligious people and people of non-Christian faith backgrounds.

There were faithful scientists who believed in evolution and God.

There were women who had abortions or who had been raped and didn’t seem evil for wanting to not start a family with their rapist’s baby.

I realized I didn’t really agree with what I had always thought I was supposed to believe. The idea of my classmates carrying guns into class made me feel less safe and more likely to be shot if someone decided to go on a rampage. I realized that I would never want to force a woman to have a baby she didn’t want. I found that my faith didn’t have to be challenged by science, and even if it was, it’s okay to think things through. I found the idea of killing someone to show killing is wrong made no sense to me. Finally, I could never believe that God would be so petty as to cast good people into hell because of who they loved or what they believed when they were some of the best people I had ever met.

All of this change happened not because college is a “hotbed for liberal indoctrination,” but because I met and loved people who challenged my perceptions.

I think our world would benefit greatly from “putting a face” to what we believe. We should meet and get to know the people who are affected by our decisions and ideas, and we should grow closer to those who think differently from us. Only in such a context can our beliefs truly be tested and reduced to what is kind, honorable, and just.

Do I think you have to agree with my points to be kind, honorable, and just?

No!

What I mean is that kindness, honor, and justice are only possible when we are driven by concern for others. Therefore, we can’t go on supporting ideas just because they keep us comfortable.

Even as my newer, more liberal self, I live my life surrounded by conservatives. I don’t see these people as hateful, backward racists and you shouldn’t either. The reason I can say that is because I’ve spent time talking with them and listening to their concerns, fears, and values. I see the faces of people I love when I consider these ideals that run counter to mine. Honestly, we all have a lot more in common than you might think.

So whatever you think or believe, test it. Challenge it. Look into the eyes of that death row inmate. Put yourself in the shoes of a gay couple trying to live life together. Try telling a woman to her face that you would force her to have an unwanted child. Listen to the stories of those who bust their asses every day for an “American dream” they’ll never afford.

But also…

Have coffee with that supposedly backward uncle that still supports only “traditional” marriage. Listen to the fears and insecurities of someone who looked up and saw a world they couldn’t recognize. Get to know the family who lost a loved one in a brutal capital murder by an unrepentant killer, or the proud gun owner who never did a thing wrong in his life.

Difference is not the enemy. Indifference is. Being challenged is not evil. Complacency is. Having strong beliefs is not a problem, but a problem arises when we fail to think or care about the ones who are affected by those strong beliefs.

We have to stop drawing battle lines and start crossing them. Only then can we see ourselves in our “enemies” and love them as we wish to be loved. It’s only when that happens that we can expect to see a desperately needed shift in how our world currently works.

Peace be with you!

Last Night

I need my alone time to recharge and process. My parents and brother visited this weekend, so the apartment was full of people, life, sound, and love. It was awesome, but I needed to carve out some “me” time.

My wife took my son to my in-laws’ home for dinner, so I took the opportunity to visit the prayer labyrinth at SMU. As I walked the winding path, I had a lot of distracting, cloudy thoughts. Once I reached the center, I finally asked God to focus my mind and speak to me.

Now, I have prayed this for years. It’s almost a formality. This time, however, I looked straight up to the sky. There, directly overhead, was Vega, the brightest star of the Lyra constellation.

In my mind’s eye, I saw Vega as though from “orbit.” A blindingly bright, burning body of light and energy and pull. There was the expanse of space and the knowledge that all of this is eternal. The same materials that make up this star, this universe, are within me. When I die, those materials will be released and go to form someone or something else. There is an energy, a movement that enables and comprises all of life and to me, this is what we call “God.” It is the Source of all being, ever-contracting, ever-expanding, ever-transforming, and ever-present.

I was overwhelmed with humility, gratitude, and the driving need to dive back into my life. As spiritual and “out there” as this experience was, it grounded me and gave me a renewed appreciation for the time I have. I want to spend the rest of that time loving everyone and everything in my life with all that I’ve got, because just as it is a miracle that I get to exist and be a part of all this, so it is a tremendous blessing to have the people in my life that I do.

I get that not everyone will agree with my perspective on God. Some will say this “force” isn’t conscious, others say this description is blasphemy. Think what you like! For me, this force of Life is always tending toward itself, producing and creating and calling for us to participate in its activity. For me, this participation is what we see in Jesus, embodying the power of life, death, and renewal in a way that is inspiring and delightful.

Am I nuts? Maybe, although people who are psychotic don’t usually think they could be psychotic. I do have a rich, imaginative inner life, but all I can do is use my experiences to shape my understanding, so that’s what I am doing.

Life is a gift, and it is a gift to have you as a part of it. I hope you can learn to see things this way. Further, I hope you will take advantage of every opportunity to share your gifts, love your people, and live your life.

Peace be with you!

Leaving Self-Harm Behind

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS POST DEALS WITH A SENSITIVE TOPIC RELATED TO SELF-INJURY DISORDER

My habit of hurting myself started young. Emotions became too intense or unfamiliar and I would hit myself, usually on the head. I had received messages of being bad, and bad kids deserve to be punished, so I would punish myself in a twisted attempt to become a better person. On top of this, I was taught certain emotions shouldn’t be expressed, so an entire range of feelings became unrecognizable and overwhelming to the point that I could only vent them in anger and misery.

Interestingly enough, this behavior didn’t make me a better person. As I punished “the bad kid,” I settled more into his role. Destructive relationships and behaviors became the norm, even as I was able to put forward a clean image when it mattered. Eventually, as an adult, those behaviors cost me a career, a sense of calling, and my sense of self at the time.

Now some might have let things end with that loss, but I was fortunate enough to have the support and access to help that enabled me to put some of my personal demons to rest. My behavior improved and I thought I was making real headway… Until my son was born.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to be his father. I love taking care of him full-time, with some part-time personal training to help pay the bills. I have found, however, that those feelings of not being good enough, that self-perception of being broken and inadequate, were all just waiting for a time to resurface. They did so with a vengeance.

I never hurt my son. Ever. But the hitting started again, and this time I have a couple of knots on my head to show for it. Fortunately, I have an amazing therapist who I was able to see yesterday morning for what became the most powerful step in my healing process that I have encountered thus far.

The thing is, Self-Injury Disorder is far more common than we’d like to think. Maybe you don’t hit yourself. Maybe it’s cutting, burning, scratching, breaking bones, or pulling hair. Perhaps you emotionally wound yourself with harsh words or thoughts, refusing to see the good in yourself but harping continually on any mistake you make. Some of us refuse to take compliments, berate ourselves, put ourselves in abusive relationships, or isolate ourselves from any intimacy, no matter how much we might want it.

My point is that even if you don’t fall within the most commonly held extremes, there is a good chance that you are not loving yourself the way you should. Many of us find creative ways to hurt ourselves, all because we learned somewhere along the way that we are undeserving of love.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

In my session, I was asked to describe the hurt I carry. How heavy is it? What color? Where is it located? Finally…

What shape does it take when you picture it on the couch?

It was my 6-7 year old self. It was a little boy with dark brown hair, bright blue eyes, and a sad smile.

I was asked to talk to this boy. He was asking why he was being hurt. I told him that sometimes those who are hurting hurt others, but it’s not his fault. I was asked what I would do or say. I hugged him and just held on, as words didn’t seem necessary. I was asked how he responded. He cried and settled into me, and I told him it was okay to cry.

I told him I loved him, and I let him go. He needed to go be himself, knowing he wasn’t alone.

At the end of the session, my therapist asked if I would ever hit that boy.

I had never thought of things this way. I’m not big into such exercises, but this one got to me. I would never hurt my little boy, no matter how much trouble he got into. I don’t want to hurt anyone, so why does it make sense to hurt myself?

It doesn’t.

If I truly want to be a good person and live a good life, I can’t keep punishing myself for being human. I’ve made mistakes, many of them, but so has everybody else. It’s okay to feel things, intense things. It’s okay to not be okay, but if I have a habit of treating myself as “bad,” then my behavior will mirror that perception. The time has come for me to change the script of my life and understand that all I can do is be the best person I can be in every moment, and that is going to have to be enough.

I didn’t write this to give you some quick fix for your issues with self-injury, and I certainly haven’t been “cured.” I simply wanted to share my story thus far and let you know that you’re not alone. We all have something we need to heal, to make peace with, so that we can live happier, more fulfilling lives. I’ve decided to get help and make this cycle end with me. This won’t be something I pass on to my little boy, and I hope you will take steps toward wholeness for yourself.

There is no shame in telling a friend or family member what’s going on. If they make you feel ashamed, they weren’t much of a real friend/relative anyway. There is no shame in seeking professional help from your clergy, a counselor, or psychotherapist. There is no shame in therapy, medications, coping strategies, or other forms of self-care.

The only shame would be if you kept yourself from experiencing the beautiful soul you already are.

In my spirituality, you are precious and worthy of love because you exist. There is nothing to earn, punish, or harm that will make you more lovable because you yourself, as you are, are a beloved creation and a beautiful part of this world. The only thing left is to get the help needed to help you understand this basic, fundamental, and powerful truth. It may seem daunting, but rest assured that you’re not alone, and there is always hope.

Peace be with you!

** If you are having thoughts of harm or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255; if you need immediate help, call 911. Don’t wait.**

 

 

 

When Love Hurts

Time and again he rescued them, but they went on defying him deliberately and plunging deeper into wickedness; even so, he took pity on their distress each time he heard them calling. — Psalm 106:43-44, JB

We are surrounded by an idealized, misleading, unrealistic culture of love and it sucks. It sucks for people like me who have needed a lot of grace and do-overs to become a supportive, loyal partner. There’s no room in this culture for mistakes, forgiveness, personal growth, or compromise. If it hurts, it isn’t love.

I can’t help but feel that we are setting ourselves up for failure. Standards are good, and you should never accept hurtful behavior. If, however, your partner is flawed (they are, as are you), that doesn’t mean things can’t work… Unless you’ve already decided that’s the case.

In any relationship, romantic or not, pain comes standard. Those we dare to love will always have a higher chance of hurting us, precisely because they mean so much to us. To expect anything different is foolish, and to withhold grace in those moments is cold and hypocritical.

With emotionally or physically abusive relationships being obvious exceptions, love is going to hurt and we need to accept that if we actually want to experience it. Parents, spouses, friends, children, siblings, all of them are going to mess up at one point or another.

So will you, by the way. If you wouldn’t like being given up on, should you give up on others?

As a person who has fouled up most of his relationships in one way or another, I can tell you that love is what changed me. It wasn’t overnight, and it wasn’t romantic. Love came in the form of not being dumped or abandoned, but also not being enabled to continue my destructive behaviors. It was grace with duty, forgiveness with responsibility.

That kind of love is real, and it’s what changes you.

It’s the kind of love God exhibits in Psalm 106 (and throughout the entire Bible). God knows humans will mess things up… but He still loves, forgives, and shares Himself with them. This is the kind of love Jesus exhibits in his ministries. He knows it will get him killed, but we are considered worth it.

The truth is that love, in any form, is risky. It’s an opening of the heart, and because love occurs between humans, you should know right now that there will be times it hurts like hell… But that’s okay. The question is whether or not this person is someone worth hurting over from time to time.

The biblical answer is that everyone should be treated as “worth it.” Because God (and Jesus) love us in the full knowledge of our shortcomings, so we ought to do for one another. To do so is to “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” by loving even those we consider “enemies” (Matthew 5:48, 44). This kind of love is radical and unsafe, and it will lead to being hurt or taken advantage of.

Without such openness, however, we would have a hard time connecting at all. Now again, does this mean endlessly accepting abuse or harm? Of course not. But it does mean we should never let pain close our hearts and snuff out the light of our love.

My wife, friends, family, and I have hurt each other many times over the years, but we chose to be stronger for it, and that love has produced real change in all of us. We are living in a time when every relationship is considered potentially disposable, and I believe we are far less gracious than we should be as a society. This must change if we truly want to witness the emergence of a better world that we can leave behind for future generations.

Love hurts. It’s risky, frightening, and it will open us up to all manner of unpleasantness… It’s also the most worthwhile endeavor in which we could ever hope to partake.

Peace be with you!

Blessed in the Bad

I need only say, ‘I am slipping,’ and your love, YHWH, immediately supports me; and in the middle of all my troubles you console me and make me happy. — Psalm 94:18-19, JB

It’s been a trend for quite some time that the Christian world, particularly in the U.S., has associated blessedness with ease of life. When we have faith, our lives should become easier, right? After all, to consider one’s self “blessed” is to acknowledge the smooth ride life has been and/or all the material blessings one has accumulated.

Or not.

Take this quote from Psalm 94. For me, it hearkens back to the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. In both of those texts, a person is considered blessed right in the middle of their suffering.

Why?

“Blessedness” has to do with one’s connection to God’s love, not the abundant or enjoyable nature of one’s earthly life. Scripture regularly assumes that life is going to be hard, perhaps even more so for the faithful. This is precisely why being “blessed” can’t be related to our comfort. Rather, it refers to our state within our discomfort.

If, when sh*t hits the fan, we consider ourselves to have lost the blessing of God, the situation ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy because we are blinded to the activities of Divine love in the midst of our struggles. When we get stuck thinking God is absent or angry with us, we fail to utilize what befalls us as an occasion to lean on and share the love of God. Our tragedies and failures become means of humiliation rather than transformation.

Does that mean God makes bad things happen to teach us lessons? I don’t believe so. But bad things do happen, and we can either be destroyed by them or educated/transformed through them. This is the choice before us, and whichever one we embrace determines whether or not we are truly blessed.

To connect with God is to choose hope in the face of tragedy, kindness in the face of evil, love in the face of hate. This is the example Jesus leaves us, and to imitate it is to embody the powerful love of God in our own lives.

That, dear reader, is what it means to be blessed.