Pissed

I’ve been relatively quite for a while, the verboseness of my twenties being replaced with a crippling fear about how I’ll be perceived if I start actually speaking up for what I believe in. Will my friends and family still love me when they find out how differently I view the world than how I was raised? How many more conversations do I have to endure in which it is hinted that people who think like me will be responsible for the ultimate downfall of society? Where people are less interested in the content of what I’m saying and more interested in proving their staunchly-held beliefs that if we could just get everyone back in line with the will of God then everything would be okay.

Let’s remember that it is in the name of this same God that some of the worst atrocities in human history have been carried out, all focused around the idea that a group of humans knew God’s will and saw it as their destiny to carry it out. Murdering millions of native americans as part of “manifest destiny” or the attempted establishment of the true kingdom of god through the violence of the crusades are just two historic examples. The most recent example can be seen in the images of ISIL destroying ancient artifacts and launching attacks on “infidels” in their own attempt to create heaven on earth.

I’m tired of living in a world in which the only problems that exist are those of our own creation. I’m tired of belonging to a race that can turn on itself so easily and inflict such terrible suffering and violence on its own kind…what other species on this entire planet exhibits that same self-destructive behavior? I’m tired of watching people run around in anxiety to create some sort of meaning out of their existence, all too often at the expense of other’s well-being.

But more than tired, I’m downright pissed off. I’m angry that we have numerous elected officials who, in the last round of campaigning, publicly talked about things like “legitimate rape”, and a woman not getting pregnant by rape if it wasn’t God’s will, and still got elected. I’m pissed off that some of the most loving people I know in my friends and family have been so hateful in their speech toward our current president and toward members of the LGBTQ community. I’m angry that scientific advancements are consistently ignored and shunned in favor of ancient religious texts that have gone through countless interpretations and are often misinterpreted. I’m angry that people seem to get so comfortable in their thinking they are not even willing to listen to anything that may disconfirm their assumptions.

But here’s what I’m most angry about: this ill-conceived belief that seems to exist that the United States is supposed to be a “Christian” nation. Bullshit. This country existed long before my people ever came here, and it was inhabited by a sustainable and spiritual existence based on the earth. elements, and seasons. Then a group of people fleeing the religious tyranny of another nation landed on these shores in an attempt to set up a state in which all were free to worship the god of their choosing. This same group then proceeded to expand westward, killing and claiming land as they saw fit for their new nation, referred to by some as the “new Jerusalem”. Now, centuries, later, far from actually having religious freedom, the religious right has infiltrated the Republican party and attempted to establish its own form of a moral kingdom on earth, free from all those pesky social evils like falling in love and having a family with a person of the same sex.

A lot of my friends and family right now are scared of where the country is headed because of all the liberal progress that’s been made on social moral issues over the last few years. I’m scared as well, but not because of the progress. I’m scared at how people are responding to the progress with such hate and vitriol that it makes me want to cry. After I hit things repeatedly in a fit of rage.

What the hell are we doing to each other?

Perspective

I was recently feeling a bit bogged down in my thinking and in need of some perspective. So, I did what I usually do when I’m feeling down. I headed for the woods.

The weather of the day was not exactly welcoming and visibility on the hike up was limited to about 25 feet. I remember thinking on the hike up that the scene was eerily resemblant of how I had been experiencing my life: in a fog, only able to see a limited distance in front of me, and not entirely sure of where I was going.

By the time I reached the top, the dreary weather had cleared, the fog had lifted, and this is what I saw:

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Suddenly, all the problems of my life that were clouding my vision seemed so small and insignificant. It’s amazing what a little perspective will do.

I think it’s important to find ways to restore perspective in our lives, especially in the current reality that throws a new sensory stimulus our way with each passing second. Some people refer to this as prayer, some as meditation, some as mindfulness, some as quieting the mind.

I had a professor in grad school who used to talk about the importance of taking time to step up on the balcony of your life to look down on the scene. If we spend all our time down in the midst of the party that is our life, we can lose sense of who we are and what is important to us. That trip up to the balcony, however it happens, reminds us of our values so that we can act with intention instead of wasting our time reacting to circumstantial developments.

Take time to restore perspective today. You can’t afford not to.

On Being Whole

The research I have been working on of late has led me to read some writers in the fields of Psychology and Religion from earlier decades. One of these is Erik Erikson, who wrote extensively about the development of identity. In his book Identity Youth and Crisis, published in 1968, he used the terms “totality” and “wholeness” in discussing identity development:

As a Gestalt, then, wholeness emphasizes a sound, organic, progressive mutuality between diversified functions and parts within an entirety, the boundaries of which are open and fluid. Totality, on the contrary, evokes a Gestalt in which an absolute boundary is emphasized: given a certain arbitrary delineation, nothing that belongs inside must be left outside, nothing that must be outside can be tolerated inside. A totality is as absolutely inclusive as it is utterly exclusive–whether or not the category-to-be-made-absolute is a logical one, and whether or not the constituent parts really have an affinity for one another. 

The fundamental notion here, I believe, is the difference between a strongly organized sense of self that is adaptable to change and one that is less adaptable to change. Boundaries, in and of themselves are not inherently bad. As we develop and mature through different stages of the life cycle, boundaries and rules are often what keep us safe and secure, helping us to maintain a positive developmental trajectory. Without established boundaries, could a 3 year old be trusted to inherently understand the dangers of running out into the street without first checking for oncoming traffic?

Boundaries also help us to form our sense of self and our place in the world, they help us to define what we are and what we are not. Problems ensue, however, when those boundaries become either too restrictive or are held so rigidly that an identity crisis can ensue when life experience challenges previously held assumptions. Change is the one thing that we can expect to be a constant in this life. Adaptability to change, therefore, is an essential component of maintaining health and well-being. If I draw my sense of identity from rigidly held boundaries of what I am and am not, without a strong internally organized sense of how all my experience and knowledge fits together to form the person I am becoming, then I am much more likely to have struggles with my sense of identity as I encounter change and work to interpret and resolve new experiences with my worldview.

Gordon Allport, in his book The Individual and his Religion, published in 1951, wrote about religious identity development and the importance of considering religious identity in psychological research, as it is often the most deep-seated and unexamined aspect of individual (as well as collective) identity. He argued for the importance of developing a mature sense of religious identity, one that relied less on rules, regulations, and boundaries, and more on an internalized sense of spiritual principles. This mature sense of religious identity is less concerned with convincing others to think and believe in the same way and more concerned with helping others to come to their own internalized sense of peace and wholeness with their religious and spiritual identity; there is a basic recognition that diversity of religious experience parallels the diversity of individuals themselves.

An interesting aspect of studying to become a counselor is the necessity of self-examination as part of the learning process. How can I lead someone else where I have yet to go? One of the things I have noticed about myself is how quickly I often rush to judgement of another human being. I assume that I know a person’s motivation, or their character, or some other aspect of their identity based on an incredibly limited perspective. And I do not believe this is a problem unique to my experience; I think many of us have a natural tendency to rush to judgement.

Jesus talks about this in the Holy Bible when he condemns the hypocrisy of pointing out the speck in a neighbors eye while failing to recognize the log in one’s own eye.

I can’t help but wonder, how much conflict would dissipate if we all spent more time resolving our own problems before rushing to the judgment of others?

Jesus also talks about the need to see things from the perspective of another, the idea of walking a mile in the shoes of another.

How many problems could be resolved if more of us learned to see things from an alternate perspective?

I was thinking about all this today when I heard part of a piece on NPR about the need for humanities in higher education. Last week, PBS Newshour interviewed Charles Murray, the author of Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. He talked about the need for a humanities-based education that focuses more on development of a strong individual sense of self and one’s place in the world in order to adapt and thrive in the ever-changing economy. As opposed to teaching specific skills that are geared toward workplace needs that will likely change by the time students are ready to enter the workforce, this approach would focus more on helping students to develop a strong sense of identity that will lead to continued successful adaptation to change, the only constant in life.

Boundaries can be helpful, and they can be comforting in the sense of security that they often grant us. But they cannot be the totality of our identity. If I draw my sense of self from external boundaries as opposed to an internally organized sense of self that works to constantly interpret and reconcile new experiences with my ever-expanding worldview, change will be much harder for me to endure.

I, for one, am working to become more whole. I have spent too many years not knowing myself.

Becoming Me

One of the projects I’ve been working on recently is research into the development of religious identity as a contextual component of overall identity development. I had the opportunity over the summer to work with two of my professors to write a paper that will be published this fall, which is very exciting! I used that project as a springboard to launch me into some new research that I can hopefully continue to pursue after my schooling ends.

I’ll be honest, when I initially set out on my research, I was biased. I was on a mission to prove that religion (and in particular, Christianity) can be dangerous because it is often used to oppress and marginalize people groups who do not fit within the established teachings of the church (or other religious body). Certainly, that is a narrative that exists and needs to be addressed. Denial of a dark history and present problems does not resolution bring (see my post on history). There is plenty of research showing that aspects of religiosity are associated with various forms of mental illness, issues in identity development, engagement in risk behavior, and marked intolerance for “others” that are outside of the religious group. And yet religion has also been established as a positive influence in development, with various measures of religiosity being associated with prosocial behavior, avoidance of risk behaviors, and resiliency in times of stress.

So, the question is, why is religion a positive force in the lives of some individuals and communities and an oppressive force in others?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the degree to which an individual continually feels accepted by his or her religious group. We all go through different stages in the development of an identity, and we have a basic need to feel accepted and loved for who we are. Perhaps this explains the incredible conversion experience that sometimes happens when an individual who has felt rejected in other facets of life finally finds acceptance in the arms of a loving God. Specific religions, however, such as Christianity, typically draw boundaries at some point to indicate who is “in” and who is “out”; there are certain sacrifices the individual must make in order to be accepted as a member of that community. This happens in every facet of life; whether it be following a dress code at work or keeping your lawn well-groomed as a requirement of the neighborhood in which you live. Certain behaviors are deemed as dangerous, either for spiritual, moral, or physical safety reasons. So what happens when a salient part of one’s identity is deemed as inherently wrong by one’s religion?

Say, for example, that I have been attracted to men for as long as I can remember. I have prayed multiple times for this “desire of the flesh”, to borrow from the Apostle Paul, to be taken away but nothing changes. I still feel deeply connected to my religion and God and finally come to recognize myself as a gay man. If I belong to a religion that accepts this choice, I will likely continue on happily in that religious tradition. But if I belong to a group that tells me the love I feel is sin, and must be dealt with, and perhaps I just have to be alone for the rest of my life, then I have a choice to make. Which part of my identity is more important?

Or, say I grow up asking a lot of questions and always have doubt about what I am taught. If I am growing up in a religion that is okay with a sense of doubt, then I will likely flourish in my development and happily continue on for years. If, however, I receive the message that questioning is bad and I should just “have faith”, then I feel as though a driving part of my identity is bad, so I attempt to repress it in order to continue gaining acceptance in my religious group. As I have written about before, repression does not make anything go away, so two parts of my identity are in conflict.

The question of how this conflict is resolved, or whether it is resolved is of critical importance. If I am able to gain acceptance from my religion, my family, or another positive social reference group then I will be more likely to reach a resolution to the conflict and experience positive outcomes. If, however, I am unable to gain acceptance, then I have a choice. I can either find a group that will accept me as I perceive myself to be (whether this group be a positive or negative influence, we cannot underestimate the power of acceptance and a sense of belonging) or I can attempt to remove or “work through” the part of my identity that is deemed as unacceptable. The latter, unfortunately, has been linked with numerous adverse outcomes.

I have much more research to do, with many more thoughts to come. For now, I think it is an important conversation to start.

Feel free to share your thoughts and reactions by leaving a comment below!

Great Barrier Reef

My wife is in Australia right now, doing amazing things. Check it out!

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Leaving the dock at dawn, I watched the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean.  Two and half hours in a boat to our research site didn’t seem like trouble at all, especially considering the stunning views and blue water.

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There was plenty of time to explore the dive boat and of course, to take a photo in honor of my favorite explorer, Jacques Cousteau.  ImageSnub-finned dolphins (endangered) porpoised alongside the boat, and one did a magnificent side breach off on the distance.

Our destination was Load Stone reef, and once we got there we were all of course thrilled.  The mission of the day’s dives was to investigate the reef, refine our fish and coral identification skills, and practice our navigation (we certainly also had a load of fun along the way).

It may be odd to say that the first moment I had my head underwater the scenery was…

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Don’t Know Where We’ve Been

I recently watched “Religilous” with Bill Maher and honestly rather enjoyed myself.  While I would likely try to approach people in a slightly less abrasive manner (though I was rather impressed with how he managed to end most of his interviews with laughter and sometimes even a hug), I thought he made some really important points about the dangers of settling into a type of intellectual complacency in which we think we have all the answers and just stop asking questions.  The movie ended with song lyrics that said “we know where we’re going, we just don’t know where we’ve been”.

In classic psychoanalytic theory, there is this notion that the goal of psychotherapy is to bring the unconscious aspects of our identity that guide and motivate our behavior and thinking into the active conscious.  This is essentially a journey toward a fuller understanding of oneself and one’s place in the universe through increased awareness.  Part of increasing awareness is facing our history, dealing with the hurt, and owning up to our mistakes.

But history scares us.  It is often easier for us to deny history than to face it because we are terrified about what it means for us.  We’re afraid of the negative emotions that sometimes come with facing our history.  We find it easier to maintain a forward looking focus that does not require us to do the hard work of facing our past.  Don’t cry over spilled milk.  Unfortunately, this essentially never works out as we hope.  Ignoring a problem does not generally make it go away, it just drives it further into our unconscious.  We think it’s gone, but it’s still there, influencing our thoughts and behavior without our awareness.

Here’s why I think we all have a vested interest in participating in this process of facing our history and becoming more self-aware.  Because each of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, have an impact on the world every single day of our lives through what we’ve done or what we’ve left undone.  And we will continue to have an impact.  I personally want to do everything I can to ensure that the impacts I leave are growing in a progressively positive manner.

It’s hard to know where I’m going if I don’t know where I’ve been.  How do I know I’m going in the right direction?  Or am even on the right path?

Re-authoring

I’ve been spending some time going back over some of the work I did in my studies this semester, attempting to synthesize and solidify my learning from multiple courses and reflecting back on some of the key moments of realization I experienced.  I wrote a couple posts ago about narrative therapy, which is based on social constructionist thinking and the work of Jean Piaget.  The idea is that we create meaning based on how we perceive the environment around us.  If I grew up in a social environment in which I was taught that the sky is green, I would believe that the sky is green until convinced otherwise.  We see evidence of this all the time, such as when two people experience the same situation in a very different way.  I often have discussions with my wife in which we have very different memories of the way in which a particular situation played out.  Does that mean one of us is wrong, or simply that we perceive differently?

According to narrative thinking, these perceptions form the narratives or lenses through which we continue to interpret future experiences.  When these narratives guide us to interpret experience in unhealthy ways, we tend to get bogged down with problems.  This is where re-authoring comes into play.

The notion of re-authoring highlights one of most amazing evolutionary adaptations of the human brain: we are able to change the way in which we perceive reality.  It is when we lose site of this ability that we feel stuck and unable to move forward.  What could be more self-empowering, and more indicative of the ability to effect change, than the realization that we can actually change the way in which we perceive our story, thereby changing the way we experience our story, and thereby becoming empowered authors of our own stories.