Do As I Say

We humans pretty much suck at spotting our own hypocrisy.  When we only talk the talk and fail to walk the walk, we’re often able to simply justify the dissonance for ourselves and keep going.  Many spiritual paths and religions have this mechanism built in.  There’s a “nobody’s perfect, we all are working towards redemption” thing written right into the dogmas and tenets, so it becomes just fine to be very knowledgeable about the expectations but crap at living up to them.  If we feel anything, it’s a little indignant guilt.  Who is someone else to judge us, right?

But when we advocate for one thing and live another, something in us lets us know. We feel it as something – usually some variation on guilt or shame or vulnerability – and it comes out in thought and action.  Maybe we get defensive or judgmental.  Maybe we become good at arguing to justify ourselves.

Me?  I’m late for things.  All the time.  I’ve battled it all my life.  In fact, I lost my first professional job over it.  And still, twenty years later, I struggle with punctuality.  I’ve gone through times when I tried to point fingers and justify my lateness by comparing myself to other more annoying or detrimental behaviors committed by others.  There have been phases when I’ve been really critical of other people being late because, for instance, they were unpredictably late by up to 30 minutes when I’m always predictably 10 minutes late.  I’ve felt guilt and shame over it.  I’ve been defensive about it.

And none of those reactions benefited anyone at all.

These days my schedule is less set in stone, and I’m the first to say that I don’t hold others to any kind of strict schedule as a rule because to do so would make me a colossal hypocrite.  It doesn’t make it better for me to be late all the time, but at least I’m not being a crappy person who on top of my lack of punctuality.

Surely it’s not worse to walk imperfectly on your spiritual path than it is to make others feel bad for not walking perfectly on theirs.  That’s what happens when we preach expectations we, ourselves, don’t uphold.  We transfer the guilt we don’t want to feel about our own perceived shortcomings onto others by holding them to standards they are unlikely to meet.  After all, if we can’t do it, why do we expect them to?

 

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A Grand Outing

I’ve come out of a lot of closets.  I spent a lot of my younger years hiding things about myself from many people.  Sexuality.  Spirituality.  Parts of my history.  Having grown up with and around people who exhibited a great deal of prejudice and judgment of others, I ended up fearing the reactions and judgments of others more than a lot of other things.

I spent all that time thinking that being shunned, being judged, would be so bad that it wasn’t worth the risk.

The thing is, I wanted to think that the people around me might react better than I feared, that they might be truly good people with open minds deep down inside.  I wanted to believe that they had just learned to say the things they said, and that if they were forced to think about those words and the beliefs behind them that they would realize how wrong they were.  As long as I stayed in the closet(s), I could avoid the bad things I feared and pretend the good reactions were possible.

Of course, it’s very hard to hide forever, and over the years I came out, little by little, over and over again.  And the vast majority of the time I was pleasantly surprised at how the news was received.  Even when those around me didn’t exactly throw parties to celebrate my revelation, I found that it was far easier to deal with stigma than it was to harbor the secret.

In recent years we’ve seen a drastic decrease in opposition to formerly contentious ideas like gay marriage, and general consensus is that the change comes from the fact that so many people realize now that their friends and family members are gay.  When it hits closer to home, it’s harder to be judgmental.  But there’s not actually been an increase in gay people, just an increase in visibility, and increase in the number of “out” gay people.  The more we made it known that we were right there, in your family, in your friend circle, in your schools and workplaces, in your churches, the more obvious it became that the preconceived notions underpinning opposition to gay marriage were simply not true.

But while those notions remain in place, the threat of being judged and hated and penalized is what keeps the closet doors firmly shut.  It’s a threat leveled against anyone who doesn’t fit within accepted boundaries, who doesn’t fit the mold.  It’s fear.

Fear breeds hate.  We know that.  But invisibility breeds fear.  Silence affirms negative assumptions.  The hypothetical, theoretical person is far easier to vilify than the one standing right in front of you.

And we want to believe that the people around us are good.  That they, like those who have changed their minds over time and come to embrace gay marriage, are simply misled and misinformed.  We want to believe that things will change for the better.  But as long as we stay hidden away, that illusion is real and the threatening reactions we fear are avoided.

If there’s one thing I’m certain of, though, it’s that the stigma is easier to cope with than the secrecy.  The rejection of others is manageable, but the repression of self is a monster which devours us from inside.  And I’m certain that, whatever our secrets and hidden identities, expending the energy to blend in and appease those we fear is not a viable solution.  It harms us more than it protects us.  And if we want things to change, if we want to ever be able to live in a world which doesn’t persecute and hate, we have to come out into the sunlight.

A Change of Image

We often undertake spiritual practice for the purpose of impacting who we are inside, at the soul level.  At the very least, we go into our spiritual existence hoping to change how we feel and what kind of person we are deep down.  A lot of practices seek to change our inner being through specific behaviors and practices.  

But how often do we seek to change our outward behavior via spiritual means?

I certainly wouldn’t say it never happens, but by and large I see more concern over the inner effects of spirituality rather than outer changes.  It seems, in fact, that many people think it’s possible to change oneself inside and still be difficult, overbearing, judgmental, or negative on the outside.  

What we seek to be on the inside should be reflected on the outside.  In fact, I think what we are on the outside is a better indicator of what we really believe than our perception of ourselves.  If our spiritual pursuits can’t aid us in becoming to others the person we wish to become, has it really changed us or done us good?

I often hear people talk about other spiritual paths or religions negatively in terms of how they treat those outside the faith, how the adherents of those traditions express their faith to others.  And yet, when it comes to looking at their own attitudes and behaviors, the judgment is often far less harsh.  I firmly believe that our spirituality should be grounds for judging ourselves first and most deeply.

Free To Be You And Me?

We’ve struggled more and more as a culture, recently, with this idea of freedom.  Specifically, we seem to be exceedingly tripped up over the question of how we can give freedom to some without imposing restrictions on others.  If I give my neighbor freedom to blast her stereo all night long, I give up my ability to sleep soundly, don’t I?  

So how do we actively grant others freedoms without restricting ourselves?  How do we allow those around us to do as they will without hurting us?

Freedom is a lack of restraint or hindrance, not a lack of consequences.  The extent to which we restrain or hinder others is within our ability to control, but the consequences they will face are largely beyond our control.  For instance, I can decide not to make any move to restrain or hinder my neighbor’s ability to blast her stereo, but I cannot guarantee that nobody else in the area will object or call the cops or beat down her door at 2am to complain.  

So the first question becomes whether we actually have the ability to restrain or hinder the decisions and actions of others as much as we like to think we do in the first place.  The extent to which I can restrict the freedom of others is dependent largely on the relationship between us.  I can’t actually tell my neighbor not to play her stereo loudly.  I don’t have that power.  I can ask her to please not do that, and she might agree.  I can try to generate negative consequences for her if she decides to do it anyway, but she still has the freedom to defy them.

When we talk about granting freedoms to others we really are making a commitment on our own part to withhold any negative repercussions we can deal out in response to their actions.  If I tell my neighbor she’s free to play her stereo as loud as she wants, I’m really promising not to call the cops or complain when she does that.  Now, that doesn’t mean, for instance, that I’m committing myself necessarily to harm.  I can grant my neighbor freedom to blast her stereo, but that doesn’t mean I just accept the sleepless nights which might therefore occur.  I can wear earplugs, try to soundproof my bedroom, or sleep in a different room.  In short, I absolve her of any responsibility or liability when it comes to the amount of sleep I’m able to get, and I take that responsibility on myself.  

When we talk about giving other people freedom — to act, to choose, to be — we’re doing two things:  promising not to actively impose negative consequences on them for exercising that freedom, and agreeing that we are responsible for our own existence and absolving them of that responsibility.  The way to grant freedom to others without allowing yourself to be hurt is to recognize that you must protect yourself from that hurt with your own actions, your own choices.

The reason we’re so obsessed as a culture with how the freedom of others infringes on our own is because we have forgotten that our lives are our own responsibility.  We have forgotten that the world is not obligated to do as we want, that our happiness is not the responsibility of others.  We have forgotten that we don’t have the power to force others to do what we want them to do.  We’ve forgotten that the ability to affect the actions and decisions of others requires some kind of relationship between us — either a relationship of respect or a relationship of power.  

We seem to want the power relationship despite the fact that there is no grounds for us to assume that power over others and we are unwilling by and large to give that power to others.  So the only thing left to us is to develop relationships of respect.  If we want others to respect our needs and desires in their decisions and actions, we have to be willing to do the same.  We have to reach out and connect to others.  We have to develop mutual respect, mutual willingness to bend.

We have to extend freedom to others if we want it for ourselves.

Maybe Sunday School Would Be Better If It Were Actually School

I see a lot of stuff posted on social media about what’s wrong with the doctrines or teachings of various religions and how those tenets contribute to the harmful actions of their followers.  But there is very little thought given after that to what religions should be teaching through their doctrines.  

Many religions teach hate, often wrapped in words which try to masquerade as love.  So how would a religion actually teach love?  How can a religion teach its followers to love unconditionally?  

Many religions teach cultural division, especially an “us versus them” approach to people outside the faith.  So how would a religion actually teach that its doctrines are important but do not set followers apart from everyone else?  How can a religion encourage its followers on a beneficial path without teaching them to look down on other paths?

At the root of the issue, I think, is that many religions teach that humanity is flawed and damaged and horrible, that without something to pull us up and save us we would be doomed.  So how would a religion actually teach the innate value of humanity?  

The answer is that it can, easily, but then it won’t fit the mold of religion.  The West, especially, has become very attached to the beliefs which tell us that we can be elevated and saved and redeemed through religion, and maybe it’s because our culture teaches us to feel worthless and not good enough.  

I think what we need is a religious tradition which teaches us that our basic humanity is beautiful and powerful and that a great deal is gained by efforts to hone ourselves, not change what we are.  

You Can Go Your Own Way

If a scientist finds that something they long thought was true is not supported by evidence, they investigate and change their thinking accordingly.  If a person finds that their spiritual beliefs go against what others believe, they are more likely to try to prove themselves right and squash the conflicting ideas.  

Some might think that this is because spirituality cannot be proven, only believed in and experienced.  A clash of doctrines cannot be settled through investigation or exploration like a scientific argument can.  Therefore correctness has to be established through dominance.  

I disagree.

I think the difference stems from the fact that modern spirituality is so focused on a belief that there is one true doctrine, one true path, and all others are blasphemy.  This is not a universal belief, of course, but one of great importance to the major religions of the world.  That belief is not helped by a lack of system by which spiritual truths can be unquestionably established, of course.  When a person believes they are right and then finds that their fellow worshipers have started to follow a different idea, the first reaction seems not to be a realignment with the group but a forceful reestablishment of their beliefs, no matter the consequence.

As we splinter into more and more paths, more and more traditions, disagreements driving people off the paths followed by the majority, one would think it would become harder and harder to claim possession of absolute truth.  If each of us had our own personal religion, it would be much harder to claim such knowledge.  And, frankly, I think that’s for the best.

I just wonder how many more times the established belief systems of the world must be split and splintered into ever smaller factions before we stop being able to wage large scale wars over it.  How small do our groups have to get before they are no longer so influential as to sway elections and control politics?  

How much do we have to disagree before we stop worrying about how much we disagree?

When Our Friends Disappoint Us

One of the most unsettling experiences we encounter is that moment when someone you think you know says or does something which completely contradicts the impression you have of them.  It’s natural to respond to these moments by reflexively reassessing the type of person they must be, to reevaluate their position on the scale from bad person to good person based on the new information.  

But in times like these it isn’t the person’s values or beliefs which have suddenly shifted, only our understanding of them.  Our understanding of reality is painted and reflected in our perceptions, so any time our perceptions are shown to be distorted it feels like the world has changed even when it hasn’t.  The fact that part of our worldview often has roots in a perceived commonality between our beliefs and values and those of the people with which we associate only makes these sudden cracks in the foundation of our relationships more difficult to handle.

The funny thing I’ve realized as current events have brought more and more discrepancies between my assessments of people and their expressed beliefs and opinions is that, deep down, it’s not surprise or shock I’m feeling as much as the loss of hopeful denial.  I want to believe that the people I enjoy being around share my beliefs and values, and often this means not poking into the darker corners and assuming all is well.  As reality is brought to light my reactions have become less angry and more resigned.  

“Oh, so-and-so, I really hoped you were better than that…”  ::blocks on facebook::

And the more it’s happened, as I’ve wondered how many of my friends have sighed in frustration and taken a step away from me over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that this may be a significantly positive cultural shift in the making.  When we disagree over things or discover, suddenly, that we disagree with people we are close to over things we consider of vital importance in life, anger and combative confrontation have proven time and time again to be ineffective tools of change.  Our gut reaction is divisive, reinforcing everyone’s conviction that they are right and everyone else is wrong.  They are reactions rooted in a worldview based firmly in the authority of the majority, the morality of might.  It’s a worldview which cannot survive if it turns out the majority is not firmly seated in power, that they might not have an accurate grasp on reality after all.

The more we are confronted with the fact that the people we know and love don’t always see the world the same way we do, that our beliefs and values are not universal, the less we can rest on the idea that must stamp out the detrimental beliefs of the errant minority.  The truth is that, when it comes to some belief or idea or feeling, we all belong to a group on the fringe, we all are left out of the group consensus at some point.  So every time we are confronted with a surprise revelation about someone we thought we knew and valued and respond with a quiet sigh of disappointment rather than a sudden escalation of righteous rage, it’s a victory for humanity.  It’s a step towards a global society which recognizes that differences are not grounds for oppression or violence.