Mortal Boundaries: The Limits of Our Compassion

 

I once had a math teacher in high school whose classroom was a refuge to kids like me. I was a kid preferred to spend my afternoons in the company of thoughtful peers and elders who shared a love of the intellect. We were talking about our frustrations with the preachings of mainstream religions.

“I can’t love and forgive everyone,” I said.

“That’s why Jesus is God and you’re not,” she laughed.

I thought that was brilliant at the time, as the affirmation of my human limits to “lovingkindness” were affirmed.

One of the things that bothers me the most about religions, including Neo-Paganism, is the exhortation to “perfect love and perfect trust,” which I think is bullshit, because nobody can do that and nor should they try. I do not believe in universal love, the acceptance of all and everyone, or the knee-jerk command to “love” one’s enemy or even one’s neighbor. Your neighbor may be a nightmare who wants to hurt you. Anyone who thinks they can or should ever live in “perfect love” or “perfect trust” is lying to themselves and others.

Love is a personal and individual experience of deep fondness for another person or place or group of people. Even falling-in-love romantically is a deeply personal phenomena that cannot be commanded as an ethic. I agree with E. M. Forster when he said,

 

“The idea that nations should love one another, or that business concerns or marketing boards should love one another, or that a man in Portugal should love a man in Peru of whom he has never heard –it is absurd, unreal, dangerous. The fact is we can only love what we know personally. And we cannot know much.”

I also definitely don’t ascribe to nonviolence on principle. I am a basically nonviolent person because I live in a civilized society where good policeman and the law stand willing to do lawful and moderated violence on my behalf. All of us would be far more violent if we lived in other societies, especially in other time periods, where the murder rate sometimes reached 20 in 1,000 people. Even if we weren’t ourselves killers, we’d know this for sure: violence can be very good and necessary, because violence or the threat of violence underlies the legitimacy of self-defense.

If someone comes to kill you and you do not use violence to stop them, then you are still allowing violence to take place. Only, now, you’re the victim and the offending perpetrator has been allowed to do their evil work. You’re not stopping violence from existing, and you’re not even lessening its presence in the world, by allowing violence to happen to you, a violence which could be greatly decreased or stopped if you fought back. Injecting exhortations to love an enemy into this kind of reality is an insult to nature, including moral human nature.

The pressure to be perfect in stupid love and unfounded trust is a counterpart to this untested proclamation of support for “nonviolence” in all the wrong places.

 

 

 

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Robin Hood, Trickster Archetype of England

The origins of Robin Hood (or, “Robin Wood”) are buried in the imaginal of the medieval ancestors’ dreams. His colors are green and gold, the heraldry of the forest. Some have said that he is a collective memory of the The Green Man, or Pan, returning to the people in the midnight of the middle ages when they needed him most. His role was to be a Trickster for the beaten soul of England. Trickster is the archetype who mocks the King and gets away laughing. It’s a serious and necessary power in every culture that shows itself in various ways.

I’m especially fond of Robin Hood in T. H White’s The Sword in the Stone, the first volume of The Once and Future King. Young King Arthur, before he knows he is a king, goes pouncing out on adventures with Merlin, getting turned into the animal people, the better to get himself “eddicated” about humane lordship, by Merlin’s benevolent devising. One day he goes into the forest. He meets Little John, who is a giant, and Little John tells a tale about the Lord of the Forest…

“Aye, Robin ‘ood. What else should un be, seein’ as he rules ’em. They’m free pleaces, the ‘oods, and fine pleaces. Let thee sleep in ’em, come summer, come winter, and hunt in ’em for thy commons lest thee starve; and smell to ’em as they brings forward their comely bright leaves, according to order, or loses of ’em by the same order back’ards: let thee stand in ’em that thou be’st not seen, and move in “em that thou be’st not heard, and warm thee with ’em as thou fall’st on sleep—ah, they’m proper fine pleaces, the ‘oods, for a free man of hands and heart.”

Robin Hood was probably not a singular man, but a conglomeration of many medieval bandits, dissenters, peasants and folk at the age of society assuming the collective name in their adventures against authority. T.H White’s words ally Sir Robin with the soul of the forest itself, an embodied face of an older, unconquerable wildness. Regardless of whether Robin Hood ever literally existed, what matters is that the English-speaking world has so passionately claimed this figure as a deep mythological symbol of the untamed soul still present in the heart of Western art and mythology. That is what makes him emotionally and enduringly relevant.

 

 

 

 

White, T. H. The Once and Future King. New York: Putnam, 1958. Print.

In Search of American Peoplehood and the Strangeness of Being Human

Hello, good people! I am new to this group. It’s a conspiracy: I seem to have entered some longer conservation already underway among you. Allow me to chime a new tune and introduce myself to you.
 
It is the same old strangeness, finding myself here, waking up in the garden of Eden past dark. The Gardener is hiding in shadows and the fruit of the tree of knowledge lies half-eaten at our feet. Even the snake is nowhere clearly seen, and we feel only our own hominid nakedness in the night. Where are the skins of the ancestors, thickened and fur-lined? How vulnerable is this humanity.
 
I see that the conversation I have entered is a passionate one. I do have a strong instinct myself to run headlong into a fight for the true and the beautiful. But I joined this group to find lovable centrist and conservative friends that I can engage with face to face, not on the darned internet! What a sorrowful fill I’ve had of that in my dumber days. I say, if we argue, let’s do it with laughter together, live in the body! I’m all for hashing things out, but my heart is tired of not trusting or even knowing my people. And who are my people? We Americans are, and now I shall not be moved from it. How I want to live in peoplehood together. How I have stupidly missed this before, looking everywhere for this providential identity I already have. This peoplehood of we Americans: I want to keep my eyes on this, look forward to this, carry this with me.
 
The older strangeness of being human never ceases to tug at me. It hangs bittersweetly on the heart, you know. It follows at the back of my neck, just there under the hairline where the stem of the reptile branches into the tenderness of mammalian affection. What to do with this strangeness, this knowledge we carry of our hearts’ own utter defenselessness?
 
I have set out to find this country of my birth. Where are you, my people? Where are you, my mountains? I am in search of the flowering of the spirit.
 
 

A Letter on Social Justice to My Friends Who are Queer

This letter written in response to two friends, on the topic of two social-justice-themed workshops they teach.

My friends,

I enjoyed reading your thoughtful, compassionate letter. It means a lot to me that you took the time to write it. I especially feel moved that you are grateful for my friendship. Likewise. It’s an honor to know you both, and witness your work in the world, and I really mean that.

I started to write yesterday, when I was happy to receive your response, but then, fear came to visit me. It feels really, really risky talking openly about some of these things with you. Know that I am pushing myself to be transparent and vulnerable in sharing this with you. I do so to be an honorable ancestor, and ultimately, to do the long work of peace and reconciliation.

Yes, I did sign up for the course [on Queer people in the natural world] to explore my own natural queerness in community, in nature on our familiar and beloved land. I appreciate our shared understanding that queerness is holistic and you honor people self-defining that. And I signed up to enthusiastically support the return of my friends to the land.

But, with tangled mixed feelings, I’ve withdrawn from the course.

This is hard. I really care about you both and I’m really afraid of hurting or offending you. I know that you walk a hard road sometimes and I don’t want to add to that.

Look. There’s a lot in the social justice movement that feels really, really seriously alarmingly hostile right now. Like, I’m really scared to be around some folks. I’m afraid to speak up and share my dissenting opinion if I don’t totally hate Trump enough or whatever. I’m wary of what honestly feels like a ton of animosity toward my being “white” (can we be done with racialism and insistence on categories, yet? I miss my humanity. Or am I irrevocably assigned “white” at birth? So it’s okay to assign race at birth, but not biological sex?), or attracted to men (I actually prefer “androphilic” over “straight” because I identify more with the joy of who I love, not how hetero-or-homosexual I am.) I’m not Queer enough, not brown enough, not whatever-enough to be oppressed enough to be worthy of inclusion in the club. And it’s really bad, friends: I’m actually proud –grateful– to be American, both in the sense of citizenship in this great nation, and also as an inhabitant of this continent, my first and only home.

You know, “cisgender” isn’t a label I ever chose for myself. Someone made that up to differentiate themselves from me, or how they perceive that I am. Then they went around sticking it on everyone who they thought wasn’t like them.

To me, I am normal. And everyone who is “Queer” is also normal. Maybe that’s my privilege of being raised in one of the most unprecedentedly tolerant and humane times and places humanity has ever known. Apparently, it’s your privilege, too. Granted, people who are Queer aren’t the numerical majority, and so there is something of a need to find one’s own in community, and there is some natural differentiating in there, and I actually respect that a lot. In fact, I not only respect it, but empathize with it. Might there be a part of myself that, the less it becomes the unquestioned blank slate of society, and subsumes not everyone into it (hint: my own ethnic identity, assigned at birth!) it may strangely, then, emerge to be just as instinctually human, just as in need of tribe and differentiated identity as any other? Might this be a problem?

I am not writing this to you as a “white” or a “cisgender” person. I am writing this to you as myself. With a bit of upstart humor, I tell you, sweet friends, don’t you go assigning your labels to me at the birth of this conversation! Nobody’s skin color has any damn politics, any inherent meaning. We humans put this on us, we put this burden on each other. But we are never made who we are by insisting upon what we are not. This only leads to more and more enmity, terrible enmity, more struggle and more war. But we all want to come home to the heart of the world. And our pain is the world’s pain, and we cannot seem to unbind ourselves from it.

I remember someone once said that words may further divide us. If I speak of a “wolf”, an image comes to mind. But if I speak of “an old grey wolf in the wintertime”, an even more specific image comes to mind, and the images that each of us hold will vary even more from the former, from union with the others. Naturally, this is an effect of our interior landscapes, our individual dreaming. But it is also the course of humanity to be too drawn into these diverging labels.

I also remember one our teachers once saying that when we feel anger, it is a response to a damaged relationship. This is one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard. It has come to my mind constantly lately. Even strangers feel this: if somebody roughly bumps into us on the sidewalk and they run off swearing at us, it might make us angry because at the very least we expect the relationship to be one of common sidewalk decency. How much more does the reality apply when enmity grows among friends, among families, among entire nations? Oh, that we were the descendants of peaceful bonobos, and not hostile chimps.

In all seriousness, I get that a lot of “people of color” and Queer people have felt really oppressed. It’s not in me to argue with someone’s lived experience. But, by that same metric, I expect the same respect just because I’m human, and it feels like that whole mutual respect thing really isn’t happening from a lot of the social justice crowd. Not that the far right-wing is terribly better, either, to be sure. That crap is real, too. I’d probably be a lot more on edge about it right now if I lived in Ruralsville, DeepSouthia. But in these overwhelmingly leftist urban places, my partner and I are sometimes seriously afraid for our jobs, our reputation, even our safety if we question the claims of social justice or the political Left in the work place or among friends. Right now, I’m fucking scared I’m going to lose my whole beloved community, the dearest tribe I’ve ever known, if I dissent, if I say I don’t buy this power-and-privilege stuff. Did you know that?

Whether or not social justice is correct about all things, it’s the principle: a system of thought isn’t liberating people in good faith when people aren’t free to question and challenge it without the threat of social ostracization. It feels like there’s a ton of anger and blame and demonizing of our fellow countrypeople who don’t hold the same views as the political Left. It’s not OK when the right wing does it, and it’s not OK when the left wing does it. Like, now anyone barely to the Right of the far Left political spectrum is being called a Nazi or a white supremacist. And it’s ridiculous. In short, I don’t feel safe, and I feel the least trustful of my surroundings in a long time. What’s more, I know some women and people of color and Queer people are tired of being told that they are being oppressed when they keep telling us they don’t feel oppressed. Are their lived experiences not also to be trusted? What does social justice have to say to them?

And I don’t see how a few more groups of people feeling scared to speak up makes society any better off when more people feel anxious like historically marginalized people have felt. If one group has privileges, then it’s something we should all have –the privilege of being free. It’s the only privilege that really matters, and at root, all privileges are this. The privilege of being free and confident and loved in who we are should be celebrated and given to all. I am concerned that when people teach about “power and privilege”, they end up communicating a lot of guilt that ends up driving curious would-be allies further away.

In fact, this word, allies, feels like a real red flag of warning. Ally is explicitly a word of war. It suggests that there is our side, versus the other side. “Us” and “them”, the presence of an enemy. If the evidence of history shows us anything, if the warring instincts of our species have taught us anything, it should seriously raise an alarm. And now I hear they are speaking of accomplices, the next step in the big fight. Apparently, being an ally isn’t good enough, now. Did I mention the red flag?

This conversation comes at the right time, at least on my end. Today I decided to challenge my conservative friends. I told them that if they’re frustrated with some things in society, they first-of-all need to not think of their fellow Americans as the enemy. They need to get out there and challenge themselves to listen compassionately, but also to speak bravely with confidence about their own lived experiences. A lot of the resent they are feeling comes from their own sense of voicelessness. They started by complaining about what they didn’t like, but I kept at it; “No, don’t tell me what you hate. Tell me what you love. Tell me about how you do the brave work of peace,” –and they finally came around to sharing stories of what is already working to make peace with their perceived adversaries. Their mindset finally shifted, and they told me, I kid you not, the exact same kinds of human stories of relationship as I hear from my liberal friends. They were telling me about how mentoring youths is so powerful. They told me that if we just listen to the kids for once, they’ll know they’re heard, and we care about them, and they’re not alone, and what a difference this makes for the generations of the future –so that we may all be honorable ancestors.

Maybe you will think that my resolve to pick up the cross of the peacemaker is an extension of my white privilege, evidence of my relative ethnic comfort in this society. And maybe you’re right! But I’d rather use this privilege to make friends, not enemies. To live as a peacemaker, I am finding, is to solemnly resolve to have no enemies, even when there are those, from all sides, who would willingly make themselves my enemies. To be a peacemaker is to be, paradoxically, lonely. Critical thinking is a lonely place –I know you know what this is like, to stand in the fire. I must insist that any who would make themselves my enemy is but a lost friend, and I will not hate or abandon them. For any human creature, that’s struggle enough.

So, you say I should come to the Power & Privilege workshop. Maybe I should. But originally, I decided to put forth my own queerness and go try the Queer Nature weekend instead, because, truthfully, the intent as described felt a lot more constructive, more positive and generative of relationship. I am all down for Queer people coming home to nature. But I am wary of the divisiveness and blame and stacking of the oppression hierarchy that may be present in the Power & Privilege weekend. But if I would trust anyone to teach it, I would trust you. Maybe I’m exactly the student you need….

But I have another admission. [Our mutual acquaintance] sent out an email a few weeks back saying there’s a class on becoming an “ally” going to happen at the public library. I admit I had just about had-it-up-to-here with the grief of these divided times when I got that invitation in our local mailing list. I frankly gave her a straight-up-what-for, albeit constructively enough and with the absence of swearing, and reminded her that we aren’t a political mono-crop here, and she might think again about assuming such when she sends it out to our entire local mailing list. How would the lot of us feel were a “God, Family and Country Prayer Rally” announced in our community? We’re American, right? Aren’t we proud of this land? Don’t we also pray? So we should be just totally fine with it, right?

Though I’m not sorry I told her how I felt about it, I’m sorry for my exhaustion and surrender to grief. I’m sorry that there is the felt need for such a class, why ever that is. I’m sorry for the sins of people hundreds of years ago who I am permitted little heartfelt relationship to without the accusation of racial supremacy on my part, though I am readily called one-of-them in my “structural” whiteness. That night, I gave up. I surrendered to the grief of a broken America.

But then it passed. And we know we have been here before. Greater people than us have put their lives on the line for the freedom we all enjoy now, in this America that is ours. And I love what you say about being honorable ancestors –yes, how it does resonate. The ancestors of this continent –all of them, their blood and sweat and semen and eggs mixing together– didn’t fight and die with each other and our relentless inner demons so that we could just sit around not getting along with each other from the comfort of our separate computers. The responsibility is mine, and it is yours, and all the ancestors yet to come are watching our choices. How shall we find each other again?

Here’s a quote from James Baldwin, an African American writer and social critic. It’s absolutely spot-on, and how I greatly love it. It is from a letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew in 1962.

“But these [white] men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word ‘integration’ means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it, for this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.”

But I know you will say that it isn’t your responsibility to comfort my anxieties –and again, you are right. But I have to wonder. When one enemy is vanquished, who next will there be? What will we do when, finally, social justice figures it all out and there’s not a shred of bias left in our mortal hearts? Who then is the enemy? Will social justice then depart the now-perfect world? What then is the enemy? I will tell you what I think the only enemy is.

Our only enemy is the line between love and hate that cuts sharply through the heart of every human creature. The ancient human instinct for the making of enemies of one another, enemies made of those who would be our friends, this instinct for bloodshed, lies sleeping in us all. Neither skin color nor gender nor privilege has any persuasion over it. This is equality: to recognize that we are not so essentially different after all, despite wishing to be. The same instincts for great love and for terrible conflict are within every one of us.

I was talking with [our friend and teacher] about this today. I said to him that whatever engenders affections between groups of people, I am in support of. Whatever engenders enmity between groups of people, I stand in opposition to.

And thus, the Power & Privilege workshop. I greatly trust you as a friend. But in reflection, now, I ask myself –would I have you as my teacher? Shall I pay you to tell me …what will it be? I would rather you tell me your dreams. I would rather you tell me plainly of this pain you have known, and then I will tell you mine, and we will be people, just people, together.

I think of you as my friend. If you were leading a class, especially on such a sensitive topic, the heaviness of which I may not trust would (or could) be delivered in a spirit of affection, much less affirmation, how strange that would feel for me. I think of you as my equal, someone with which to loaf among the tangled grass alongside, talking of our converging lives in unhurried affinity. You speak of the bright eyes of the animal-people, I tell stories of the lord of the forest; we knit with wool. The names of plants, good medicine; mutual curiosity of the other, our strangeness. We size each other up a bit, laughing askance, you smile and take your leave of my weird enthusiasm. I smile and nod in satisfaction that so creaturely a friend I have known. We keep in touch over the years; a shared love of the Beautiful, a commitment to the Divine. This is how I remember you.

Much more could be unpacked, but it is late now. In trepidation I began my writing of this, but I am less afraid now. Bravery, transparency, living soulcentrically” –I still love that one–: these things you have presented to me. And I don’t know how you will respond. You might really feel angry. If you do, I understand. And I am sorry in my heart for it. But I think it is better to choose this bravery and transparency. I have never been one to hide my heart for too long.

And so my heart gives you thanks, the same much love in return. And with hope, I will not lose you, my friends. Now, setting off: if you feel you are losing me, I implore you, come find me where, like a goat, I have gone wandering. Do not give up on me, tracking me, for something has called me out here to search beyond the boundaries of the village, into the darkness of the worthy opponent, a good way off where no more the light of the campfire reaches.

May we all be honorable ancestors,

Gentle J. Pine

A Child of the West

“And where are the fancy ideas about Western vanity now, the arrogance of persons and the limits of individualism?

 

Be careful how fast you dispose of the individual self and its pretensions. If the self is no longer inviolable, evil will violate it. And who will there be to judge that this is wrong?

 

I remain a child of the West, and a grateful one…. This small self is the gift, and burden, I have, and am. It is the self who goes out into the world to see how the others live. It is the same self who calls murder, murder.”

–Todd Gitlin, A Skull In Varanasi, A Head in Baghdad

 

 

image source: Creative Commons CC0

Thoughts on Femaleness

 

We women are active and we women are passive. We want to run and we want to sit down with a book. We want to be involved with the emotional lives of others. We want to do our own thing. We are not ashamed of relationship, find no inferiority in our sensitivity, and where we draw power by our own wisdom doesn’t have to be judged by a male standard. Sometimes, we are so hungry. Sometimes, we cannot eat. We want to be filled with the world and so we will fill the world in return, cut through the veils that would lie and say we have no importance. We have a world of importance. We are life-makers even when we do not give birth. We give birth to ideas, to good works and ways of being and seeing. We are in conversation with the ancestors from one womb to the next, bearing traumas or joys or the place of passing between. We involve men and want to make life with them. We put the pieces together again, revel in the taste and the sense and the touch.

……

When stories are told of female people being trafficked, I want to see those accounts ultimately paired with stories of sex-positivity, empowerment, and an awesomely recovered joy in sex. It’s too easy to let the victimization of girls give the message that girls should fear sex and men, should be ashamed of their bodies’ desires. Girls already feel too damn responsible for the shit put on them to begin with. I know I was severely shaken by this subliminal message of female-at-fault as a kid. There’s been a lot of crap out there where people twist up agendas: using the documentation of sex slavery as a way to scare and silence female people away from their own sexuality and ability to say “Yes!” as well as “No!” when the time is right for each.

 

wedding-495271_1280

 

It’s too easy to “tell the story” without offering empowering, joyful solutions to victims and viewers of sexually traumatic stories. It’s easy to sensationalize it, even unconsciously by well-meaning people, or to present the survivors as forever helplessly victimized, emotionally disabled and unable to overcome and move on. That attitude of victimization-as-identity puts survivors in a hole, socially predestining them to be always defined by a trauma they went through. But identifying with the trauma doesn’t heal it. We are not defined by what we have survived. We are defined by how we get our lives back to empowered vitality so that the trauma has no more a strangle-hold on our lives. Yes, there is the critical importance in telling the story, but don’t stop there. Don’t stop at the narrative of endless pain. That’s not who we are! Go all the way to the joy of life rediscovered that follows! Others will see your empowerment and will know there is sacred life ahead to be regained and lived. We recover and distance our identity from it, from the toxicity that tries to pull us down into re-victimization around every bush. We move on from dwelling on it, sensationalizing it. We strive to cope with and not be overcome by the knowledge of these terrors. We participate in the world to come, and all the good of the world that is already here.

……

Gender equality must include the wellbeing of male people with female people. A gender equality movement that is sustainable for many generations will care to support men in transforming away from abusiveness and toward a compassionate guardianship of all people. It will be lovingly male-positive. Only by loving that which needs changing do we care enough about it to heal and transform it. The focus should not be on “liberating” one sex from another, but to bring people of both sexes together in loving, trusting affinity. It is healthy to foster affectionate platonic friendships between boys and girls early in their lives, so that they may empathize with each other without competition or early sexualization. Human beings, male and female, belong together. Life functions well when we are interconnected with the whole of who we are. I am skeptical of any society where female and male people are segregated on the basis of avoiding assumed harm from the other.

girl-984155_1920

I wonder if all-girls schools or all-boys schools, for example, reinforce the alienation from and assumed threat of the “other” gender. It is enriching to have a women’s social group but I would not appreciate one where the group is defined as getting refuge from the perceived threat of wicked male-kind, as compared to a group that merely wants more focus on female friendship and talk of women’s lives with other women. There is a critical difference between running away from or running toward something. The same goes for a men’s religious group which excludes women on the basis of fearing women’s sinister sexuality will “tempt” their own natural masculine desires. Compare this to a healthy fraternity of men that mingles fondly and respectfully with women, but is focused on fostering more brotherly affection and confidence among men’s lives and experiences.

A New Sanctity for Marriage

girlfriends-338449_1920

People don’t get married now for the same reasons they did so historically. Marriage used to be about family alliances, sharing resources, surviving in an uncertain world that was, paradoxically, more familiar to its inhabitants than ours is to us (pre-20th century history changed slowly). Now, the world is relatively much safer: enemy clans, the plague and the scourges of winter starvation are unlikely to raze your village to the ground –and we don’t even have villages now, for that matter (we talk a lot about “community” because most of us don’t really have it.) Love mattered back in the day, but this was only one factor among many others determining a marriage, and depending on the culture and time it may not have been considered at all. Now, we marry only for love, yet a lot of couples can’t trust each other to get married because we now have more unprecedented relationship problems than we know what to do with. Marrying for any other reason than love would be socially unacceptable, but love seems harder to come by, though we are more free. Marriage used to be obligatory, but somehow love could be found. Even the unmarried –celibate religious dedicants, widows and spinsters– found the love of God and each other. A good marriage founded the economics of the home. Now the economics of marriage are afloat on the sea of chaos. Everybody is expected to support themselves, including mothers who hold down full time “jobs” while their serious labor at home as mother or housekeeper is invisible and devalued to anyone outside of the family. Oh, but we’re supposed to want to “have it all”, right?

Let’s sympathize in both directions. Modern people justifiably value privacy and choice, but we can take a tip from the ancestors’ very realistic need to have marriage be a communal, public bond for survival’s sake. It was the time when vital resources and basic security were procured through such alliances. Good-hearted parents often attempted to arrange the most compatible match between a young woman and man, taking into consideration personality, attraction and consent. History is not entirely heartless. Yet, even in blind marriages many couples grew to love each other deeply, devotedly, and with tremendous cohesion. I maintain that the word “institution” to describe marriage is and always has been far too heartless a word: nobody goes to bed with an institution every night, even if the marriage was strictly, nonconsensually arranged. There’s still a human relationship there, and it could mean anything to the people inside it. Even in the most old-fashioned, patriarchal, public, communally arranged marriages, human beings are still human beings with feelings. Personal affection and attraction develop between a couple so that the marriage becomes intimate and private to them, even if that emotional bond wasn’t there initially at the marriage ceremony. Death and divorce are and always have been mourned not for the loss of an institution, but for the loss of someone you were intimately bonded with. We moderns can take a lesson in love and commitment, here. And conservative pundits can take a lesson when they talk about marriage being a glorified legal institution of times past, because they’re still missing the huge point that marriage will ultimately always be personal. Every culture has it’s love poetry.

Today, we are at the beginning of something with marriage. Our private choice of who we marry and when, without our family’s input, need be no less sacred, sincere or meaningful than the public commitment of yesteryear. We are not lacking dignity just because we don’t enter into marriage to get more cattle and a dowry. That being said, we’re in the middle of a whirlwind of struggling to redefine marriage at a deeper level than just an unstable emotional whim without ultimate purpose, a natural side-effect of new freedoms in marriage that comes with the territory of inventing whole-cloth a completely new culture of courtship. We are shaken by divorce, which is sometimes necessary but always anguish. We are struggling to re-sanctify marriage not as an exclusively patriarchal or heteronormative “institution”, but something no less serious or deeply sacred in it’s dawning expansiveness, its inclusivity to new ways of being.

The problem with our secular culture is not that many of us don’t believe in a particular deity or participate in public worship. The problem is that we have laughed off the entire deeper concept of sacredness in society altogether, which is dangerously throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is what triggers many conservatives who are against gay marriage. Though we rightly advocate for the freedom to marry our beloveds of whatever gender, societally we’ve forgotten the religious imagination which sanctifies this most intimate of human relationships, the sexual bond between people. Now, our task as a changing society is to bless, with whatever framework of ultimate meaning, devotion and beauty we can imagine, the sincere bonds forming between people. This will restore interconnectedness, community, purpose, belonging and a new cultural tradition. We grieve the absence of these parts of a functioning culture, leading some to question all personal freedom in unhelpful ways.

It is the mark of a healthy mind to be able to respect other peoples’ choices, within reason, while maintaining a different standard for one’s own life. Though we have differing values within an overarching culture, we all need a framework by which to live. We are in the midst of redefining multiple frameworks by which we may live, and the change can feel dizzying. Rapid change causes discord between people of different views, because there is a fear of losing touch with the anchoring foundations of our history that feel so essential to life. Liberals, while they work for a more humane world, can come to respect this need to be anchored to a cultural past. Though marriage is now a private matter, it is still impossible to engage in anything as consequential as marriage without affecting other people. The life the couple chooses to share together may be what matters most, but the success or failure of a marriage still greatly affects the the other people who are close to the married couple. American society is in search of equilibrium.

 

Photo by BhaktiCreative. Public Domain. Pixabay.com

Eight Dimensions in Culture

 

chicago-690364

There are, typically, seven dimension of wellness according to health researchers on the topic. They are Emotional, Environmental, Intellectual, Occupational, Physical, Social and Spiritual. I’ve added Financial, so we’ll call it eight areas of wellness, here. I did some brainstorming as to what improvements can be made for our mainstream modern culture in each of these areas. These are rough notes, and will doubtless leave out important issues in each area. But this is what came to mind, food for thought. Please, respectfully add your opinion in the comments section as to what you would like to see improved in each area.

All this being said, I’d like to note that I think there’s a lot to our modern culture which is just fine and isn’t in urgent need of changing. We’re really good at at fulfilling due process of law, attaining high literacy rates, getting rid of Polio, abolishing slavery, not burning people alive at the stake, etc. So this is not meant to be an overwhelmingly negative critique. America, my modernized country from where I write and am most influenced by, is a country which is relatively very comfortable with change, even among conservative people. I am proud of this. Change is expected and is written into our cultural life together. Sometimes I think we actually need more of the healthy kind of stability (ie, everybody please stop bitching about Christmas trees and how people feel about them being in public. This is not worth arguing about.) But I critique my country because I love it and I believe in its worth. I intend my critique to be in a good spirit of uplifting and righting that which I love.

Areas of wellness, room for improvements and the challenges that hold us back:

 

Emotional

Improvements: More openness, transparency, and respect for the actual emotional inner lives of real people, ourselves included. Good communication. Better compassion and service for the mentally ill, in particular widespread chronic depression and anxiety as a common ailment which too many are afraid to openly claim or discuss. Ceasing an alarming trend of public shaming via the internet, which increases rabid mob mentality and isolates recipients of attacks.

Challenges: Depression, social isolation, self-loathing from trauma or social stigma.

 

Environmental

Improvements: Spending soulful time in wild or green spaces. Prioritizing nature education and a personal human-nature relationship with efforts at conservation. Being careful to not emphasize death and destruction of the environment above what good there still is, where success and resilience reign (children especially are sensitive to too much of an alarmist dying-earth message in education). Having a sense of identity, belonging and responsibility for where you live, connected to your land. Recognizing the deep aliveness and spiritual power of the animal, plant and nonhuman world, and our proud natural relationship to them. Increasing understanding between “creationists” and “evolutionists”; there is not a strict division, one can be both in a broad mind.

Challenges: Cultural disconnection/severance from the primal, nonhuman, wild world. “Nature Deficit Disorder” in kids and adults alike. Too much time inside, in artificial surroundings. Disconnect with the body.

 

Financial/Economic

Improvements: Becoming financially literate. Strong comprehensive financial education of teens and young adults. Decreasing reliance on credit and debt. Values of simple living: balancing needs and wants. Concurrently, respecting natural desire for material items in moderation without cultural shame of this desire, which feeds a psychological complex of obsession over materialism without fulfillment. Economic justice for affordable housing, increase the minimum wage and absolute respect for service workers, working parents, visibility and gratitude for the invisible people who clean our buildings every night. Adopting an attitude of “We are all in this together as Americans”. Honoring “hard work” without glorifying strenuous, exploitative labor at the cost of economic justice and basic restful wellness.

Challenges: Overwhelming debt, high cost of college, money-shame. Inexcusable lack of financial education for citizens.

 

Intellectual

Improvements: Finding real delight in learning, discovering that knowledge is often a greater joy than mere entertainment. Discovery of the inner and outer worlds of human life. Integrating the emotional and intellectual components of the full range of thought. Pursuing truth and wisdom.

Challenges: Rigid academia. Divorce between the emotional and intellectual. Lack of empathy in intellectual culture. Bad experiences with school turning people off from their own intelligence or potential. Biased, narrow measurements of intelligence.

 

Occupational

Improvements: Connection with economic justice for working people. Knowing that what you do for money does not define who you are. Fair and meaningful labor options. Organizing fellow workers and demanding more time off and better working conditions.

Challenges: Oppressive, systemic problems in work culture/history that affect us all. chronic overwork, lack of sleep, lack of childcare for working parents. Lack of social mobility, low pay and unequal pay discrimination. Not feeling free to be authentic self in work culture.

 

Physical

Improvements: Think of “exercise” as not separate from the rest of life, not a punishment; self-regulated, less boot-camp ideology, which is unsustainable. Pacing ourselves. Embodiment and delight in our physical selves. Allowing yourself to rest when you need, eat food when you need, move when you need, piss when you need, touch when you need, run when you need. Do not sit all day. Awareness and Vitality.

Challenges: Furniture culture, sitting too much, even while I’m writing this and a part of me would rather be outside with my eyes on the marvelous movement of clouds across the bright, big sky instead of glazed on a computer (but I’m here because reasons). Being conditioned as kids to think of exercise as a punishment or a task inflicted on you externally, instead of internally-driven. Despair, disembodiment, devaluing the body’s aliveness.

 

Social

Improvements: Grasping the spirit of “I am because we are.” –African traditional saying. Intact cultural identity. Connection to greater human story. Going outside yourself. Having a supportive village-style community. Having an intimate spouse/life partner or finding fulfillment as a single person. Interconnected social identity with one another, an end to self-segregation.

Challenges: Too much individualism. Not enough restorative alone time may exhaust what time is spent with others if it is not quality time. Confusing the difference between in-person and online relationships. 

 

Spiritual

Improvements: Seeing the Divine presence in all places, the “Imago Dei”. Sing songs that give you power in the middle of the chest. Understand the poetic and prophetic. Gratitude. Go into the forest. Listen for the voice of Wisdom and Beauty, knowing you are not estranged from it. Play with God. Delight in the World.

Challenges: Fundamentalism, including both conservatives’ textual literalism and liberals’ rejection/belittling of all that is imaginal, metaphorical or mysterious. Loss of imagination, dulled inner vision, numbed awareness of natural magic innate in the world. Rejecting the nonhuman world. Not remembering or paying attention to the pull of the heart.

 

 

References:

Seven Dimensions of Wellness from University of California, Riverside

 

Photo by Unsplash, Public Domain, Pixabay.com

The Obelisks

 

Now falls the city streets’ grey weight and shaking
on the modern heart –their shouts persist,
the crowds of angry angel-apes,
so far to fall again to waking,
falling on my ears, the sounds,
the anger of the obelisks:
brooding, menacing their eyes of spears,
the red-crazed mob resounds.

Is wisdom gone? Is she not here,
but risen to where humans step beyond
the riot’s fray of fear,
and once again will listen?
–Listen!
Our every harrowed heart,
our grasping minds that seek,
be calm this obfuscated day:
lay down your bloody weapons
in the ground
and walk unarmed away.

Come quicker, Evolution’s inmost sight,
come orient our primetime agony tonight.

 

 

image source: public domain