Fully Human & Fully Divine

“I’m convinced that the discovery of a true God, and the discovery of the true Self are simultaneous journeys; they feed one another. When you meet the true Self, you’re most open to a bigger, truer name for God. When you meet a bigger, truer, more loving God, you surrender to that same identity within yourself.”

— Richard Rohr

Nothing is wrong with you: an Easter message.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to hear Anne Lamott speak about her new book, “Hallelujah Anyway”. The conversation was so honest, and soul-stirring that I followed it up with a couple days of binge-listening to several different interviews Anne has done in the last few years. During one of these interviews, she mentioned something a Jesuit priest once said to her about what he called the “5 rules on how to be a Good American”, which we are all forced to learn as early as possible.

1. Don’t have anything wrong with you.
2. If there is something wrong with you, fix it immediately.
3. If you can’t fix it, hide it.
4. If you can’t hide it, stay home—just don’t show up or you’ll make other people uncomfortable.
5. If you insist on showing up anyway, at least have the decency to feel ashamed.

Some of my earliest, earliest memories involve a growing, nagging, sweat-inducing certainty that something was terribly wrong with me. One of the primary reasons I fell so completely head-over-heels into the psychological refuge of Christianity was that it seemed to possess the answer to this precise problem.

“Yes”, Christianity said to me, “there is indeed something very wrong with you. Of course, this will continue to be painful for you and everyone who knows you for as long as you live. But, BUT: if you believe in exactly precisely this one thing, in exactly precisely this one way, and try your best to imitate exactly precisely the attitudes and actions prescribed by this one thing, your reward will be this: immediately AFTER you DIE, you will then finally become perfect”.

What a relief.

So, naturally, I swan-dove into this ideology at 12 years old, and really didn’t start to look underneath the hood of any of it until I was about 22 years old.

Eleven whole years of messy, beautiful, clumsy, miraculous, painful, healing, mentally ill, and spiritually sublime moments later, I have decided that this is not at all what Jesus tried to teach us. In fact, I now believe that to the degree with which we have confused his actual message with the nonsense described above is the degree to which we will wind up abusing ourselves and everyone around us.

So then, if not that painful personal pretzeling our way to salvation, what do I think Jesus did try to teach us?

Well, when I read the gospels now, I hear – over and over – a message that sounds more like this: “Oh, you beloved over-anxious, grasping, clinging children. I need you to try really hard to put your listening ears on for a whole minute while I explain this to you again. Heaven is not somewhere else, it’s right here. Communion with God is not later, it’s now. The Holy Spirit is not behind a curtain in the temple, it’s in your own body”. (Paraphrasing, hi).

Don’t believe me? Read it all over again for yourself. Start with Matthew, finish with the first part of Acts. Consider setting aside your preconceived or previously conceived interpretations, and going very slowly through the story again. Because it’s all right there – every beautiful, relieving, grace-soaked word – hidden in plain-sight.

I love Eve.

Eve, my favorite bible character, or otherwise known by the patriarchy as “Adam’s wife”, showed up in a TIME op-ed piece co-written by one of my heroes, Glennon Doyle Melton. This particular bit or writing right here (click link) is the whole reason I couldn’t stand being a woman in the church any longer. In fact, I think I have now spent a cumulative 7-8 years in therapy working this poison out of my own self-concept.

More pressing still, I now have a daughter, and I’m genuinely afraid to bring her up in the church for fear she might receive the same messages I did. In fact, I go visit churches by myself like an adult pre-screening a PG-13 movie to make sure it’s not going to be too corrupting for my child’s eyes and ears. Sometimes I actually picture myself sitting in the back of her fictional Sunday School classroom, and when we get to the whole bit about Eve, standing up and saying something like:

“Alright. That’s enough of that then.

Listen up kids, let me give you a brief little background about ancient semitic oral tradition and language, and how that fits into a much larger puzzle of religious and cultural context than the story itself reveals on the surface.

You tracking with me?

Okay, cool, next up: the ‘serpent’ as a symbol of feminine spirituality and the cycles of life-death-and-re-birth innate in a woman’s developing consciousness.

Any questions so far?”.

(Somehow I’m still waiting for my invite to be a guest Sunday School teacher at any church in town?!).

As Christian women (and men) start to wake up and demand better for themselves and their daughters (and sons), the church is going to have to decide how to respond. And as they do, I sure hope they look to JESUS instead of Mike Pence for guidance. Because Jesus spent plenty of time with women, all by himself, without a chaperone. In fact, they were some of his closest companions.

Is racism a community mental health problem?

In 2011, I earned a Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology from Adler University in Chicago, IL. Alfred Adler, for whom the school is named, was the founder of Community Psychology. A colleague of both Freud and Jung, he differed from them in some significant ways. Chiefly, he believed that no human being develops in a psychological vacuum, and that our individual perspectives are conditioned – first and foremost – by our communities.

It is easy to dismiss the idea that “racism is a mental illness” when racism is normalized in our communities. If everyone has the same mental illness in a community or a family, it’s pretty hard to recognize it as such.

Whenever I think about the reality of unconscious racism in this country, I think of the 18-year-old white girl I met at my Christian college during my freshman year. While describing a black boy in our class who had a pledged a popular fraternity, she described him to me this way “well, he’s black, but not like really black”. This woman does not think she is a racist. She did not see anything wrong with what she said to me that day. And she’s not a bad person. But when she said it, my heart sank into my shoes, and my stomach rose into my throat.

I remember hoping that this would be an isolated incident, but it was not.

On a mission trip to England a couple years later, a handful of the white college kids I was traveling with kept talking about how strange it was to meet black people with English accents because it made them sound “so smart”. That same heart sinking, stomach churning feeling came back.

Some months later, I was driving with one of my best friends through a Sonic drive thru, and she referred to a group of black teenagers sitting on one of the restaurant’s outdoor benches as a “bunch of hoodlums”, and laughed like it was clever thing to say. I think I laughed too because I know her, understood that she didn’t even understand the harm in what she was saying, and believe she is good and decent to her core.

When I was in college, I had a hard time understanding and reacting to these attitudes. Most often, I felt shocked and disappointed, and reacted by doling out some kind of angry tongue lashing. Ask any of my friends that have stuck with me through the years, and they will tell you two things: A) I probably responsded with unearned self-righteousness. B) this was not an effective way to change hearts and minds.

About a year or so into graduate school, I started to think about the phenomena of racism through the lens of community psychology. It was only then that I could remember how that freshman girl at Baylor had had grandparents who refused to shake hands with her prom date because he was black. My friend who threw out the word “hoodlum” like it was funny had an influential family member who often made racist jokes when I spent time with him. I also had an opportunity to get to know him fairly well, and despite how shocking some of his jokes were, I honestly don’t believe that he had ever been afforded the opportunity to understood how these jokes were harmful.

Then I thought about how I was raised. My parents both work in pediatric medicine. They met at a non-profit community hospital in Kansas City. And while Kansas City isn’t exactly a hub for multiculturalism, nor is it part of this new “coastal elite” category we’ve all been talking about lately, it’s still a city with many cultures. My parents raised me to regard all of our community members with respect. While they themselves are White Protestants, they had close friends and colleagues who were black and brown, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Atheist.

But, and I say this with all the love and appreciation towards my upbringing I can possibly feel, racism still crept into my life. For me, the racism I grew up with was so subtle and insidious that I would never have been able to look at it honestly without a lot of help – from courageous professors and challenging coursework, hard conversations with black and brown friends, sincere interfaith dialogues, and way-out-of-my-comfort-zone community engagement.

Most of the people I grew up around had shared ideas about “good” and “bad” neighborhoods that often translated into “white” vs. “non-white”. I have – on more occasions than I want to admit – felt nervous or hyper vigilant around people of color when I am by myself in an unfamiliar environment. I probably laughed at my friend’s “hoodlum” joke, at least in part, because I was vulnerable to similar ideas about a rowdy group of black teenagers in a highly segregated town.

As pediatric health care providers, my parents were often critical of corporal punishment, and I came to see the issue of spanking vs. not spanking as a “class issue”. I know plenty of white people who spank their children, and I myself have given my daughter one spanking when I was worried about her safety. But at the time I was forming my ideas about corporal punishment, my ideas about “class” fell a little too conveniently along racial lines.

I learned later that most slave parents beat their small, unruly children into submission so that they would not get killed by their masters. This persisted throughout the Jim Crow era as a way for parents to keep their kids in line, in order to avoid being beaten or killed by certain groups of white people. Today, there are still some families who would still prefer to dole out harsh physical punishments at home, rather than have their children beaten or killed by the police.

Now, while there is ample research to suggest that corporal punishment is not a terribly effective form of behavior modification long-term, as a mother myself this really speaks to me. I have a tiny, often unmanageable, public tantrum-throwing toddler whom I love with my whole heart (plus some). And while my current approach involves giving her as many time-outs as we both can bear in a single day, you better believe that I would absolutely hit her if I thought it could save her from being hit harder by someone who didn’t love her.

Of course, racism is not simply an issue of black vs. white, but really “familiar group” vs. “foreign group”.

My mom, who was raised Lutheran, often told me that her parents were very vocal about their religious contempt towards Catholics. (Insert eye roll, Lord have mercy on us). My maternal grandmother also often told me stories that revealed cultural suspicion between “country folk” and “city folk”, and how her parents had stereotypes about the virtues (or lack-there-of) between different Scandinavian subgroups. Raised predominantly Norwegian, the first person in the family to marry a Swede caused quite a scandal!

Right now, we are having a bit of a global crisis about “familiar group” vs. “foreign group”, as evidenced by the rise in Islamophobia throughout the globe. After publishing my family’s holiday card on the internet, I got a bit of an unwelcome front seat to this fear-based ideology, and I learned a lot. The people who wrote the most hateful, factually inaccurate things about Islam often lived in communities that promoted these ideas a gospel truth. Because of a handy bit of Facebook stalking, I was able to learn a little bit about almost every single person that wrote to me (or about me) after our holiday card went viral.

Almost no one who shared ugly accusations towards Islam communicated an accurate understanding of the difference between the practice and teachings of Islam vs. the practice and teachings of the terror groups who claim Islam. It’s important to understand that most of the terror groups originating from within the Middle East have hurt and killed more Muslims than anyone else.

Terrorism is designed to inspire terror, not faith.

By that measure, however, these groups have done an excellent job of fulfilling their function. Because we are all running around making decisions based on our own feelings of terror, instead of living in accordance with our aspirations of faith. Anyone can claim a religion as their own, but that does not guarantee that they are behaving in accordance with it’s teachings, nor does it guarantee that they are operating with an accurate interpretation of it’s teachings.

I can think of plenty of examples of this within the Christian tradition as well – myself included many times.

When I was a sophomore in college, I took a class on World Religions at a Baptist university in Texas, in a post-911 world. To his credit, my professor was relentless in his determination to help us understand Islam empathically. “No, a mosque is not like a church, please stop projecting your experience onto someone else’s. A mosque is a like a mosque. If you can’t demonstrate an understanding of this tradition from inside of it, you won’t be able to earn a decent grade in this class”.

But, here’s the thing: I often feel like one of the luckiest people in all the wide world for having been on the receiving end of countless opportunities to learn about how my ideas have been formed within unconscious biases. This is ongoing. I’m still learning about my biases nearly everyday.

So. What’s my point?

My point is this: ALL of our behaviors and beliefs are conditioned by our communities. And if we live in a community that participates in racism – no matter how subtle, or cleverly disguised – we will struggle to recognize it as such. Or perhaps, we will recognize it, but we won’t see it as problematic because our community keeps providing the necessary fodder to reinforce these attitudes, and we won’t recognize THAT for what it is either.

As a therapist, I can tell you this with 100% certainty: just because you don’t recognize a mental illness as such, does not make it less of one. In fact, it often exacerbates the symptoms.

Now, then. What am I suggesting we do about all of this? Well, we could start by being reflective. We could attempt to reach out beyond our usual habits of thought, and try on other people’s perspectives for a bit. See how that goes, etc.

AND/OR…

One of the things I love best about a healthy spiritual practice is that it is often an excellent buffer against both personal and community mental health issues. To this point, I believe it is extraordinary that some of the earliest Judeo-Christian-Islamic scriptures (the verse referenced below is regarded as sacred bu all three faith traditions) speak to this very issue.

 “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19: 33-34).

It’s extraordinary, in part, because if you think tribalism, and humanitarian abuses are bad now, they were a WAY OF LIFE for the people living when the book of Leviticus was written. Tribalism was a necessary part of survival then. In some ways it is still a part of survival, but that’s another conversation for another time. For now, all I hope to accomplish here is more honest dialogue about how we might use spirituality to rise above learned fear and hate, instead of using it to reinforce the same.

Peace and Grace (I know I need it),

Whitney

“Love each other as I have loved you”.

The recent shooting of two Indian men in Olathe, KS happened not far from the church my parents attend. On Sunday, an Indian man at their church delivered the week’s sermon. He told thousands of listeners that this incident helped him realize how he had not allowed compassion for his Muslim, Black, LGBTQ, and LatinX brothers and sisters to run deep enough.

That was a courageous thing to say.

It never fails to surprise me how easily people, including myself, believe in the fantasy of their own safety when they are not being specifically targeted. Because the reality is this: if any of us are vulnerable to abuse by power, we are ALL vulnerable to abuse by power.

Every single day I wake up and try to remind myself, “we belong to each other”. This isn’t a fluffy, rainbows, and kittens, and warm hugs type of sentiment either. It’s hard work to believe in this idea day in and day out. Because for me, it not only includes the vulnerable and oppressed, but also the difficult people – i.e. the person who told me to burn in hell last month, some of the scary people in Washington right now, the unapologetically bigoted man my friend is married to, that super bitchy mom at the playground last week, and even this troubled soul who shot two innocent men, and one brave bystander.

After learning about this shooting, I spent some days feeling enraged with a whole host of things. (Trump, the NRA, Breitbart, those dumb red hats – all the usual suspects). And while I do believe that there is a time and a place for appropriate anger, I also keep remembering that after we register that anger, we have to dig deeper than the anger before we figure out how to respond.

We have to grieve. We have to hold this broken open world in our broken open hearts.

Srinivas Kuchibhotla lost his life because of fear and ignorance. There is nothing more grievous than that. I think of his mother almost everyday.

But there is something else equally grievous. The man who shot him was taught – somewhere along the way – to fear and hate people that don’t look or act like him. I also think of his mother almost everyday.

When we belong to each other, it hurts a little. It’s hard, and it’s clumsy. We try to stand with the people who we see are suffering, but we make mistakes. We get scared. We say the wrong things. We think the wrong things. We have good intentions, but we wind up demonizing one group of people in order to protect another. And then, if we’re disciplined enough, we are able to remember: “oh, these people I’m so afraid of are also my brothers and sisters”. And we are humbled.

ON THE INSIDE.

What we do with that humility is the next step. I don’t know about you, but I’m still constantly working it out over here, without a lot of clear answers yet. Sometimes that humility looks like you might imagine: contrite, curious, conciliatory. Other times it looks like telling someone I love that their words and attitudes don’t square up with what they say they believe, while being simultaneously willing to hear the same kind of feedback about myself.

It’s messy. It’s hard. But it’s the path I keep climbing back onto even when I’ve fallen off for a bit. And each time I climb back on, I feel better. My eyes, ears, and heart feel clearer, and I start thinking about how to address the pain in this world, rather than escalating it any further.

Taking a word back.

When Toni Morrison, best-selling author, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, was criticized for her depiction of graphic violence, and use of the N-word in her book, Beloved, she said this: “The slave owners were creative in their cruelty. I am taking that creative power back”.

She did not describe the violence of slavery for entertainment value, nor did she whitewash the verbal abuse black people have endured in this country. Instead, she exercised her freedom as a black woman living in the 20th century to write a novel about the unthinkable horrors of slavery. When I read her novel as a 21-year-old white woman, I came face-to-face with a narrative about human slavery that I had been shielded from up until then. It was supposed to make me uncomfortable – to disgust, offend, and ignite me, and it did.

This weekend I marched alongside over 4.2 million women, men, and children worldwide – across all seven continents – many of whom were wearing homemade bright pink pussycat-ear shaped “pussy hats”. Some of them were carrying posters with pictures of cats, or the phrase “pussy grabs back” on it. I saw one woman dressed in a vulva costume, and another woman wearing a vulva hat.

Since then, I have seen a whole lot of conservative women on the internet react to these hats and posters with revulsion, criticism, and even accusations that the same women carrying these “vulgar” signs are part of the culture that promotes and celebrates the moral depravity we have seen from Donald Trump.

When I was in college, studying Religion at a Baptist University, a man named Tony Campolo came to speak to my class about childhood poverty in America. “There are more than 10 million American children who’s families can’t afford to feed them today”, he said. “And the harsh reality is that most of you sitting here today don’t really give a shit”. “In fact”, he continued, “I would be willing to bet that most of you here today care more about the fact that I just said the word ‘shit'”.

So let me try to explain what I see as a similarly frustrating response to the language used by some participants in the Women’s March on Saturday.

Did you know that one in four American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime? Do you doubt for one second that the current President of the United States has sexually harassed, molested, assaulted, or abused women? Because he admitted it on tape – more than once. Try to wrap your head around that with me for a moment: a little less than half of this country’s voters voted for a man that was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.

I’ll say it again. They heard that tape, and they voted for him.

For many women who have been sexually assaulted, the election results exposed every single fear they have about our “look-the-other-way” “boys-will-be-boys” “what-were-you-wearing” culture. Because that was exactly Trump’s defense. “It’s locker room talk”, “she’s not attractive enough to assault”, “it’s all lies”.

On the morning of November 9th, the first person I talked to voice-to-voice was a sexual assault survivor. Through wracking sobs, she asked me, “What do you think my attacker learned today? Because I think he learned what I learned.”

Until Trump’s Access Hollywood tape was released, I had probably only said the word “pussy” maybe 12 times in my life – usually in an embarrassed whisper when quoting someone else. Almost every single time a man has said the word “pussy” to me, or in front of me, it has been meant to humiliate or threaten me. I haven’t been conditioned by my life experiences to be a fan of that word, and even now am a bit nervous to defend it.

When a word has been used by someone in a position of power to abuse or malign a person that does not occupy that same position of power, it is unquestionably offensive. But when that same word is used by the victim(s) – ON THEIR OWN TERMS – and turned into something empowering and unifying, that is how you take the power of a word back.

So, even if you hate the word and would never use it, never allow your kids to use, drop dead in the street if your husband or father or brother or mother or neighbor used it, please try to imagine how impossibly healing it might feel for countless other women to stand in a sea of people celebrating the power of that word as a unifying force.

By reclaiming the word “pussy” in this strikingly feminine way – knitting a bunch of pink hats, creating art, costumes, camaraderie, and conversation – 4.2 million women (and male allies) worldwide said, “This is our word now. We are going to take the narrative about our bodies back”.

After Saturday’s march, I cannot imagine ever feeling afraid or offended by this word again. How powerful is that?

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#WomensMarch #WhyIMarch #PussyHat #PussyGrabsBack #MarchOn