Self permission, acceptance, and forgiveness

I read a fantastic post a month or so ago on Removing the Fig Leaf over at Patheos, titled Escaping a Culture of Repentance.  In the post, the author made a point that has really stuck with me:  “If everything is forgivable while everyone remains guilty, we remain trapped in a cycle where healing cannot occur because we are not allowed to fully acknowledge when someone has hurt us.”  The article focused on how, when others hurt you in this kind of culture, no one can fully address it because of the shroud of forgiveness, which made actually talking about it taboo.  In my experience, I remained trapped in a cycle where I could not acknowledge the good or bad within myself, because I could not escape from being forgiven and guilty at the same time.

Forgiveness was a weird topic for me, growing up as an evangelical.  My husband grew up in a much more liberal Christian tradition, and he has explained that forgiveness to him meant that we all make mistakes, but we are still loved.  That you should try to be good and kind, but people are not perfect, and we will make mistakes, but it’s ok.  I like this message of forgiveness, but my understanding was different.  Forgiveness meant that I was a bad person who was unworthy, but despite all this Jesus died for me.  Forgiveness was not a message of hope, but a message of guilt and shame.  After all, the only one whose blood could cover me was God himself.  It’s not forgive and forget; it’s forgive, and don’t ever forget what I did so that God could forgive you.

In the evangelical tradition I was raised in, I wasn’t allowed to forget that I was a bad person.

I’ve been thinking about this lately in relation to my own crippled sense of self-forgiveness.  Writing in this blog has been helping me address my past, but in re-examining my past sometimes it’s easy to feel shame, regret, or sadness.  In areas of my life besides religion – career path, exercise habits, friendships where I’ve messed up – I often wish I had made vastly different choices.  “If only I had been interested in running while I was in high school, I’d be such a better runner now!”  I think this is a common experience among many people.  I remember my dad telling me, when he was turning 40, that when he turned 30 he looked back at his 20-year-old self and thought, “Oh man, I was so stupid!”  Then, turning 40, he could look back on his 30-year-old self and think the same thing.  I think his sentiment really came from reflecting on the growth and change that happens in 10 years, but using the term “stupid” does imply a lack of forgiveness to the past self.  And I often have felt the same way.

Also hindering my ability to forgive myself was this idea that you need to feel truly sorry in order to be forgiven.  So, I make a mistake, I sin.  “Did I feel sorry enough about that sin that God has forgiven me?  I’d better make sure I am sorry, really sorry.”   That kind of thinking really primes you to not be able to forgive or accept your past self.  How could I accept my past actions when all I can see are the sins I definitely should not have committed?  How can I be happy with the direction my life has taken when so much of it has been sin, which of course is not God’s plan for my life?  (I also remember being terrified that I would sin, but not know that what I had done was sin, so maybe I was going to hell.  So I’d pray for forgiveness for those sins as well, or maybe sins I had forgotten about, and try to make myself truly sorry for things I wasn’t even sure I’d done wrong.  No wonder praying gave me such anxiety!)

I think this also relates to being a perfectionist, something that still is a part of me.  Because if you are always striving to live a life without sin, as much like Jesus as possible, there isn’t really room for mistakes.  I mean, there is, in theory, but a mistake is not simply something normal that you learn from.  Instead a mistake brings a constant feeling of sadness and guilt and results loads of prayer so you can hope you are forgiven.

Looking at this topic feels like looking at a tangled mess of ideas that are so difficult to pull apart.  I can understand the guilty-forgiven state of being, I can loosely connect it to feeling shame and guilt about my past self and actions, but I don’t know how to fully address it and learn to forgive myself.

I want to give myself permission to be who I am: a human, who learns and grows and gains new experiences.  And I need to give my past self this permission as well.  When I look back, there are definitely things I would do differently with the knowledge and experience I have now.  But at the time, it was what I knew.  I had permission to be the person I was then, too.

I want to give myself permission to be bad at things.  I get frustrated when I’m not good at something, and will often quit, especially if I have to be bad at that thing in front of someone else.  But, being a bad runner doesn’t reflect on me or my worth.  Trying something new and failing, spectacularly, is totally permissible.  I can make as many mistakes as I want.

I want to give myself acceptance.  I want to be able to accept that I did things in my past that made sense at the time.  I want to accept that being human means learning more all the time, so of course 5 years ago I didn’t know what I know now!  I want instead to celebrate the fact that I’m always learning.

I want to forgive myself, but more than that.  I want to look at mistakes as ways to learn and grow.  And, if I really have hurt someone, I want to ask them forgiveness and ask them if/how I can make it right.  I won’t always say the right thing, I won’t always act with complete kindness, and I won’t always be thoughtful and considerate.  But I can learn to be less thoughtless, more kind and considerate.  And often my close friends are the ones who will understand that and forgive me, provided I do my best not to make those same mistakes in the future.

I want to learn to love being a beginner, and I am a beginner at forgiving and accepting myself.

“You can learn new things at any time in your life if you’re willing to be a beginner. if you actually learn to like being a beginner, the whole world opens up to you.” Barbara Sher

What Does it Mean to be a Feminist?

I label myself as a feminist, but I find I’m not really able to articulate what that means.

Feminism was not something that was important to me a few years ago.  I didn’t sympathize well with women.  I viewed many aspects that were traditionally “female” as weak, silly, or irrational.  For example, I thought that it was bad to be “needy” in a relationship, and strove for independence in all things.  I thought women could be “over emotional,” so I wanted to deny my own emotions and always be cool.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I came to think and feel this way, though I see foundations for these ideas in original sin theology and men’s roles/women’s roles teachings, my very poor emotional intelligence, and ideas that come from the traditional men-are-better-than-women school of thought.  Might be worth trying to pick apart, but I’ll save that for another post.

I had some very close and influential female friends, especially in middle and high school, but I viewed these girls as different from “normal” girls.  Of course, we were better than them in my mind.  I did not want to be what I saw as the stereotypical woman: needy, emotional, and unintelligent.  The friends I chose were brave, strong, smart, and independent, but I didn’t realize that TONS of women are these things.  I also didn’t understand that owning your needs, being emotional, or even making an unintelligent decision are part of the human experience, and any one of these could even be a good thing.  Instead I thought that emotional women needed to learn to control their emotions, and that women who were needy needed to learn to be independent.  I didn’t see a need for feminism because I saw a different problem.  I saw the problem as women acting wrong, not with systems and cultures that treat women unfairly.

This is all a bit embarrassing to admit, but I know I need to be honest with myself and how I used to think in order to understand what I think now.  It may help me understand why others respond the way they do to the idea of feminism.

It’s difficult for me to pinpoint when my views changed or what began to spur the changes.  I can identify a few key events: one was my divorce, being forced to deal with my emotions and understand that they matter, especially with the help of a close female friend.  Another was getting to know my husband and hearing him self-identify as a feminist.  But I think another large part of it was understanding the world a new way as an atheist.

I embrace being an atheist because it reminds me that I shed a world-view and adopted this new one.  There are so many areas of life that look completely different to me now.  Instead of being on an earth created for a purpose and therefore protected by a god, we’re on one planet out of a trillion trillion, with no protector and nothing preventing planets or species from disappearing.  Instead of humans being created to rule over animals, we are animals, evolved from and connected to each other.    Instead of being specifically segregated into “males” and “females,” the 2 main biological sexes (XX and XY) in humans are a result of the path our evolution took.  In other words, being female means something different to me now.  It’s no longer a stereotype I need to overcome.  It really just means that I was born with XX chromosomes, produce certain hormones more than others, and have a certain set of body parts.  There are some physical health things I need to pay attention to.  Like I want to make sure to get plenty of vitamin D and calcium and do my weight-bearing exercises to prevent osteoporosis. And I probably have the potential to get pregnant.  Everything else is negotiable.  Everything else is just discovering me, not discovering what it means to be “female.”

To go with this changing understanding, I also believe – from what little research I have done – that biological males and females (and anyone in between) are more similar than different, and the differences come more from socialization and cultural influences than from innate differences.  There do seem to be differences that come from having different hormones in your body (this ask reddit thread about trans people’s experiences with hormones was really informative for me).  But now, I can recognize that people are people, and that regardless of how your body is put together, everyone should have the same individual rights, respect, and opportunities.  Which I understand is a very idealized way of thinking.  But… if you don’t have an ideal to work towards, how can things get better?

In order to understand more what I think it means, personally, to be a feminist, I looked up wikipedia’s definition of feminism: “Feminism is a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, personal, and social rights for women.”

First, I had to see the problem: that many societies around the world, including in the US, do not treat men and women equally in these areas.  Second, I had to recognize that this problem was not with women being what I viewed as “stereotypical women,” but with our (as a society) little actions and teachings and underlying myths that we believe.  It’s telling a girl she’s nurturing and telling a boy he’s tough.  It’s with telling a boy to “walk it off” but coddling a girl when she scrapes her knees.  It’s with complimenting a little girl on her looks and complimenting a little boy on his accomplishments.  And it grows to not appreciating women’s accomplishments, not taking women as seriously, not thinking women are as fit for some roles.  It’s called feminism because the name recognizes that, in many ways, women have the disadvantage.  Just like Black Lives Matter recognizes that, in many ways, black lives are treated unfairly (severe understatement, I know).  These names draw attention to where the problem is, as opposed to nice platitudes like “all lives matter” or “equal rights,” which do not identify the problem.

In summary: by recognizing the problem and the likely source of the problem, I understand better what it means to be a feminist.  To me, it means recognizing the obstacles women face and working toward equal rights for women, but I hope the movement will go beyond that to push for equal rights for all genders – trans and neutral and fluid and any other – to value humans as individuals.  (But there’s my idealism showing again).

To end, I wanted to put about 5 quotes from Roxane Gay (please read her fantastic book Bad Feminist), but I settled on 2:

“I believe feminism is grounded in supporting the choices of women even if we wouldn’t make certain choices for ourselves.”

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

Selfishness

Growing up, I had the attitude that one of the worst things you could be was selfish.

I’ve been reading a blog called Removing the Fig Leaf, and this post by Lena Crowne reminded me about the idea that you put Jesus first, then others, then you.  Anything that prioritized your needs above others was selfish and sinful.

I think I was taught that there is a distinction between being selfish vs. having self-worth, but somewhere along the line this distinction was lost to me.  I thought that I was a selfless person who had a sense of self-worth, but really I had no idea how to value myself.  Because I tried so hard not to be selfish, I tried to understand the needs of others over myself.  This lead to me burying my understanding of my own needs.  Not understanding or valuing my own needs and reactions naturally lead me to not value myself, because obviously what other people thought and needed was more important what I thought and needed, including what other people thought of me.

I constantly thought about how others viewed me.  If I had a teacher who praised me, it made me feel so good about myself, feel like maybe I was worth something after all.  I remember being almost in tears when one teacher in high school told me that I would be an asset in whatever field I chose to work in – and obviously those words still stick with me today, over 10 years later.  On the other side, when someone said something negative about me – my parents implying that I was selfish or thoughtless, or when I heard people talking about me behind my back – I felt like the lowest of the low.

Since, I believed, what other people thought was more important than what I thought, what other people thought about me was more important than what I thought about me.

I feel many of the ideas I used to believe are contradictory.  You must be selfless but also find self-worth (in God, of course).  You must put others before yourself but not care about what they think of you.  You must not care about earthly things but also provide for the earthly needs of others.

No wonder I struggled.

Lately I’ve been feeling like I want to reclaim the word selfish.  My husband suggests that maybe I could call it self-interest or just caring for myself, but I like reusing and reframing that word.  Sometimes I choose to use new terminology – like using magical instead of spiritual – but in this case I feel like reclaiming will be more powerful.

Here’s the thing: I’m going to disappoint people sometimes.  It happens.  I can try to the best of my ability to be a good friend, partner, child, teacher, whatever, but I do not have boundless energy and I am not a person without needs.  And that’s perfectly OK.  No one is a person without needs.  It’s ok to cancel on friends sometimes, or to say no, or to take a mental health day from work.  In fact, it’s probably better to do these things than to keep trying to push myself to be everything I can be for other people.  In the end, if I take care of myself and act “selfishly” every once in a while, then I feel better; and when I feel better, I have more to offer to others.

I am not wanting to try to be selfish at the expense of others, or in ways that harm others.  I do not want to be unnecessarily selfish with my money or my time, but I do want to be selfish when I need to be.

In being selfish, I can create a positive loop: Recognize my needs -> give myself what I need/ask for what I need -> feel good -> recognize others’ needs -> give what they need within reason -> feel good -> recognize my needs….

In contrast, I used to live in a “selfless” negative loop: bury my needs -> feel bad -> try to meet the needs of others, fail sometimes -> feel worse -> bury my needs….

Another way to think about it is a scale: I balance my needs with the needs of those around me (my boss/work, my partner, my family) to strive to keep a happy balance of positive feelings and good mental health.

If I put too much on the “others” scale, I have nothing left to give and am left in an unhappy, imbalanced state.

An unintended side-effect of becoming more selfish is that I care less about what others think of me.  There are things about me that I like, and there are areas in which I strive to improve or change: understanding my privilege and biases more, becoming more physically fit an able, speaking up a little more.  I can take into account what other people think of me without being self-conscious and shutting down.  As a sort of trivial example, a few weeks ago my husband mentioned that I have an annoying habit of not throwing away napkins and instead leaving them on the plate.  When it’s time to do dishes, sometimes the napkin will have stuck to some sauce or something and it’s annoying to clean up.  When he mentioned this to me, I thought, “Oh yeah, that really IS annoying.  I’ll try to change that habit.”  Whereas before, I would have internalized it and took it to mean *I* was annoying.  That is a huge change for me, to not take a negative thing someone said about me and agonize over it.  In that case, I could recognize the annoying habit for what it was: simply an annoying habit that I chose to change because it was annoying.  I can look at what someone else says about me objectively because I care more about what I think than about what others think of me.

So, I am content to be selfish.  I am happy to do what’s best for me, and I can recognize that helping others around me and my community is also good for me.  I can be selfish and still try to lessen the suffering of others around me.

There’s a nice thing about being able to do something about which the still-present evangelical part of my brain whispers, “You’re so selfish,” and being able to say, “Yeah, I know, it’s so great.”

The Lowland: Why Actions Matter

Last night I stayed up late to finish The Lowland, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri.  My poor husband had to listen to me yelling at the characters by the end of the book, and the ending left me affected but dissatisfied in a way that powerful-but-not-great writing sometimes does.

I’m still reflecting on the book this morning, and after reading several worthless analyses and goodreads reviews, I decided to write a blog post.  While this is obviously not a book blog, I decided to write here because: 1. I began to write a review and realized that one of the reasons a character offends me so is because of my morality, so I can tie this in with my worldview as an atheist, 2. I HAD TO WRITE SOMETHING SOMEWHERE and thought it’d be an interesting topic, and 3. It’s a personal blog so I can write about what I like!

So I triumphantly told my husband this morning, “I can write about it in my blog because of how the book relates to my morality, because as an atheist…” and he filled in, “…you have no morals?”

But if I had no morals, would I warn you about the MAJOR SPOILERS you will encounter in this post?  You have been warned.

Where to begin with this book?  The writing, in my opinion, is beautiful.  I was able to fill my mind with images from the streets of Kolkata (Calcutta, at the time the book is set) and Rhode Island beaches, beautiful scenes of characters interacting.  I loved some of the characters.  I hated one, and was indifferent to others, but the two characters I loved (Subhash and Bela) were enough to keep me reading.

The book follows members of a family with a complicated story.  2 brothers grow up, inseparable.  One brother, Udayan, gets involved in the Naxalite movement, committing acts of terrorism that ultimately lead to his death (execution, though without a formal trial, and by being shot in a field, so it could also be viewed as murder).  Before he dies, he marries a woman who never believed she would get married, an isolated, academic, bookish-type, completely unable to fit into the mold that society prescribed for her, named Gauri.  This is the character I hated, because she had so much potential to be a fantastic character, and instead burned bridges, ruined families, and never found fulfillment in her life.

Before his death, Udayan impregnated Gauri, but she didn’t find out until after his death.  I understood from the beginning of this situation that Gauri never wanted to be a mother, though this fact is more-or-less spelled out directly by the end of the book.  It is also revealed later that Udayan explicitly told Gauri he did not think he should be a father.  So, her pregnancy is complicated, and I’m sure she felt despair, hopelessness, and fear about the situation.  She is also living with her in-laws, who do not accept her, and her mother-in-law intends to sort of take over the raising of the child.  So, when the opportunity arises for her to marry the other brother (Subhash) and move to the US with him, she takes it.  Since Gauri also contributed to multiple acts of terrorism (though never fully informed about what she was doing, she got information or delivered messages and knew enough), escaping from India to escape her potential execution/murder also seems logical.  The fact that she was involved in the terrorist acts also seemed obvious to me, though this was “revealed” later in the book, with details about specifically what she had done.

This is where everything went wrong with Gauri.  Here’s Gauri, pregnant with Udayan’s child, and Subhash marries her.  But guess what never happens?  SUBHASH AND GAURI NEVER HAVE A DTR.  (DTR = determine the relationship, meaning a conversation in which the terms of the relationship are frankly and openly discussed).  Here’s step one of how this book offends my moral sense.  I’ve mentioned before about consent-based sexual ethics.  Part of this means: open and honest conversations about how both parties feel about a sexual relationship, that occur frequently as the relationship progresses.

I remember when my husband and I started dating, and on our second date when things were getting physical, I asked him how he was feeling and what he was thinking about the relationship.  Basically, his response amounted to, I like you but I just met you and want to spend more time with you before we decide if this is going to be a long-term exclusive thing.  And I agreed, felt the same way, and consented to continuing our physical relationship on these terms.  When we started getting more emotionally invested and had spent more time together, we had another DTR, and the terms changed to becoming an exclusive relationship with a higher level of commitment, that we both still consented to.  This is my understanding of consent-based ethics: everything is out in the open, if either party starts to feel differently and wants to change the terms, there is a discussion, and everyone involved understands the terms and can leave anytime the terms change to something they don’t like or want.  Yes, it takes guts, but it’s SO MUCH BETTER THAN MYSTERY.  I can’t fathom having a relationship with mystery, and the guessing game involved with dating is absurd.  But that’s probably something I should dive into in another post.

Back to Subhash and Gauri.  Gauri completely closes herself off and gives no hint to her internal emotional state or mental understanding of the situation.  Subhash assumes that one day she’ll learn to love him.  Subhash takes on the role of father to the child, Bela, and fully devotes himself to this task.  Gauri does not like being a mother and closes herself emotionally to the child, in addition to remaining closed to Subhash.  The child grows up assuming her parents are her biological parents, never dreaming her father is actually her uncle and that her parents do not love each other, that the marriage was only for convenience.

What should have happened, in my version I’m rewriting in my head: Subhash and Gauri determine the relationship.  Gauri explains her boundaries and expresses her gratitude to Subhash for making it possible for her to come to the US and escape India (in the book, I don’t recall her ever expressing her gratitude to him).  She doesn’t need to expose her involvement in the terrorist acts while doing this, because it is enough for Subhash to understand that she did not want to live with in-laws who didn’t love her or accept her.  Subhash understands that it is a marriage of convenience, and will not expect Gauri to come to love him one day.  It is complicated in regards to the child (Bela).  I think that either Gauri should have left when Bela was young so that Bela never knew her mother, knowing that her uncle was raising her, OR that Gauri and Subhash should have divorced when the child was very young and determined custody – either full custody with Subhash, or visitation rights for Gauri if she felt like she had anything, emotionally, to offer to the child.  In either situation, Bela should have known the truth about her biological parents and that Subhash is her uncle, who loves and raises her like a father (and is her legal guardian).

INSTEAD, Gauri chooses the WORST POSSIBLE OPTION because apparently none of the characters in this book have the most basic interpersonal skills.  While Subhash and Bela are in India visiting his parents… Gauri leaves.  She leaves a note on the table to detail her actions and moves to California.  SHE ABANDONS THEM…  WITH A NOTE… WHEN BELA IS 12 YEARS OLD.  TWELVE.  I completely understand why Gauri wanted to abandon them.  I get why Gauri chose an academic, career-driven life.  BUT, this does not excuse or justify her actions.  One, her choice to remain completely closed to Subhash and never have a conversation with him about how she viewed their marriage.  Two, her choice to be around her daughter, not even functioning as her mother, more as an adult who supervised that she was getting bathed and fed and not hurting herself, then abandon her.  Three, how she never, in her life, fully comes to terms with Udayan’s death, and she lets that one event rule her life and undermine her ability to form any kind of meaningful relationship besides the measured, limited, academic advisor-student relationship or colleague relationship.

I’m not asking Gauri to love Subhash.  I’m not asking her to step up and become an emotionally available mother.  She doesn’t even have to come to terms with Udayan’s death for all I care.  But I want her to treat others decently and act on the simplistic perspective-taking skills she does have to recognize how her actions will affect others and have the courage to have a freaking conversation with someone.  If you can’t have a conversation, WRITE A FREAKING NOTE.  “Dear Subhash, I’ve been thinking about the terms of our marriage and I want to communicate to you my perspective.”  It can be as clinical and direct as that, it’s better than shutting yourself off and then devastating people and almost destroying a relationship between father and daughter.  THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN BETTER OFF WITHOUT YOU GAURI!!!!

I think the reason her actions offend me so much is because of how her abandonment affects her daughter, Bela.  Abandoning Subhash is one thing – but he is an adult, with adult reasoning skills and emotional processing skills.  He will, with time, be able to address the hurt and heal.  Bela has a much more difficult time with it.  When Gauri leaves, she leaves a note to Subhash, and says nothing directly to Bela.  She doesn’t leave Bela her own note.  She leaves the task of explaining her abandonment, and the reasons for the abandonment, to Subhash.  She doesn’t even have the courage to address Bela directly.

Actions matter.  Actions matter more than intentions.  I used to think it was the other way around – that intentions mattered more than actions.  Because, you know, God understands your intentions and can judge you based on what you wanted to achieve.  But now I realize that your actions matter more.  I can intend to be environmentally conscious, but if I don’t act on that, the environment will still suffer.  It won’t change because I wanted to try.  It will only change based on my actions.  Gauri’s actions are horrible.  Her intentions, perspective, and feelings are valid.  It is OK not to want to be a mother.  It was her responsibility to recognize that, communicate it, and then decide the best course of action with Subhash.  Instead, she hid her feelings, tried to play a part, and ended up hurting everyone.

I wish Gauri had stepped up.  I wish Gauri had said, early on, “Subhash, this life isn’t for me.”  I wish she had followed a course that would have allowed her to pursue her academic, career-driven life, maybe never remarrying, maybe learning to deal with the death of Udayan and learning to love and trust again.  But I wish she had done it in a way that caused the least harm to Bela and Subhash.  I love the idea of Subhash being a single father, raising his niece as though she was his biological daughter, talking to her about her biological father and reliving the childhood memories by telling them to Bela.  I wish Gauri had moved on with her life and either became a competent adult who learned to deal with the emotional trauma caused by Udayan’s death or not – maybe it haunted her the rest of her life and left her emotionally stunted.  She still could have done the right thing by Subhash and Bela.

In life, I accept that I will make decisions that hurt others.  I accept, now, that one day I will need to have the tough conversation with my parents to let them know I am an atheist.  But, in my life, I try to take responsibility in understanding myself and understanding how to act in a way that hurts others the least.  I am not perfect in this, but I have recognized when I have wronged others in the past and taken time to say, “What went wrong?  What did I do to contribute to this situation in which others were hurt?  What part in this was not my fault, and what part was?”  When I hurt others, I try to understand and then act differently in the future.  The reason Gauri’s character offends me is because she sees her actions, recognizing that she is hurting others, and neither apologizes nor tries to change.  By the end of the book, there is hope of reconciliation between Gauri and her daughter Bela.  This left me with an angry, hopeless feeling because Gauri recognized where she was wrong but never tried to address the problems or change.  At least, I saw no hope of her changing.  There’s some kind of complete disregard – she sees that she is hurting others, and doesn’t care to change her actions.  Her thinking and her approach to life are broken.

Gauri could have been a powerful, brave character who pushes back against stereotypes and said, “I made some tough decisions, but I tried my best to communicate to others and lessen the hurt caused by these situations.  In the end, I had a fulfilling life as a woman while rejecting motherhood and family obligations.  While I regret some things about my relationship with my daughter, I understand that I left her with a father who loves her and an understanding about my life choices.  I have made peace with my late husband’s death and my involvement in the terrorist acts, and I understand that I can never right those wrongs, and have done my best to prevent wrong action in the future.”

Or she could have been a character forever haunted by her late husband, but who still did not take the worst possible route in removing herself from her family.  “I experienced this trauma in my life and was in some difficult situations.  I did the best I could to try not to hurt others, but in the end I had to escape.  I did my best to communicate with my husband and daughter.  I explained my reasons to those people, and even if they don’t understand, at least I did my part to right the wrong caused by the situation.  I have to live my life.  But, I don’t understand my late husband’s death and why my one chance for love was taken from me, and I am stuck here.” This could have been a really interesting character study.

But no.  Instead she said, “I screwed people over by not communicating with anyone, trying to deny my feelings, and making horrible decisions because I reached the breaking point instead of dealing with it all.  I could have spent time developing coping skills or seeking help, but instead I decided not to grow or change, and my entire life was spent being stagnant and continuing to make bad decisions, never reflecting on how to change and make better decisions in the future.  Oh well.”

This is why the book did not sit well with me.  I hate characters who have the tools to recognize they are wrong, but do nothing to understand, learn, or change.

Easter – More Questions than Answers

What has Easter meant to me?

Easter, in my evangelical tradition, was kind of the pinnacle of the year.  Easter meant that death itself was defeated, and we would live forever.  (Except there’s a chance that you could live forever in eternal torment, but hey, that’s not the point of Easter, come on!)

Easter meant that our God – you know, the best God (I mean, sorry, the only true God) – could conquer and defy death and live again.  In a physical way, but only for a little over a month until he left again… and still hasn’t come back…  But that’s beside the point.  And we won’t have a physical body after our resurrection, just a spiritual one.

A spiritual body in heaven, you know, where we’ll be happy.  But some of our loved ones won’t be there, if they didn’t believe the correct way.  But apparently we won’t care about them anymore, because we will be in worship all the time, too transfixed to do anything else, for all of eternity.

(Ok, does that not freak anyone else out?!  Seriously.  I get cold chills imagining that).

So, what happened to all the people before then, before Jesus conquered death?  Were they in some kind of purgatory, then get into heaven?  Did they get a free pass in since the Jesus story wasn’t around to believe in yet?  Wait, what about people now who don’t hear the Jesus story in their lives?  That doesn’t seem fair, to send them all to hell just because they didn’t get a chance to hear the Easter story…  Surely that’s not what my loving, compassionate God would do, right?

As I think about the Easters of my past and what it meant to me, I think about these questions.  As someone who had read the Bible multiple times and attended church so regularly, I certainly had questions.  As someone who took her evangelical faith seriously, I had these questions.  And, to answer these questions within the framework of evangelical teachings, I had to use what I refer now as mental gymnastics.

(I know that other traditions of Christianity have different answers to the questions I listed above – a big one that fixes a lot of these problems is believing that hell isn’t real, and that Jesus saved everyone for all time.  Which makes a lot more sense.  My main point in writing this is to explore how I’ve felt about Easter in the past and remember what it was like to have an evangelical’s brain, confronting these problems.)

The problem of living forever: how can it never end?  I’ve written before about how terrifying this was to me.  I decided that I can’t really understand what life in heaven would be like, so maybe there would always be new experiences to be had and ways to make eternal life still worth living.  Because being unable to die seems, truly, like a fate worse than death.

The problem of not caring about loved ones who didn’t make it into heaven: what if someone I love didn’t believe the correct way?  It lead to desperation to save others in my life, but there was the problem that apparently, since there’s no suffering or pain in heaven, I wouldn’t care about the souls in hell.  Millions of people, some I knew and loved and had positive experiences with on earth; apparently I would be able to understand why this needed to happen so that it wouldn’t bother me, or just be too absorbed with God’s presence to care.

What about the people who lived before Jesus?  I think I answered that they got a free pass and were in heaven.

What about the people who never heard the Jesus story?  I used that line – that creation itself proclaims God’s existence – and reasoned that, if someone decided to “worship the God who created the stars,” then God would call that good enough and let them into heaven.  Which is a very, very ignorant and limited view that gives no consideration to the different cultures of people in the world, the thousands of religious traditions… The idea that someone would just think, “Well, I need to worship something…” as if their culture didn’t use another framework or have other teachings about how life could be fulfilling, is so limited and evangelical-centric.

 

And then, there’s the central question to the Easter story: Why did Jesus have to die to save us from our sins?

Why is God so blood-thirsty?  Requiring animal sacrifices in the Old Testament, and replacing it with the blood of his son, who is actually himself, because no one else is good enough.  Why do it with sacrifice anyway?  There could be so many other ways to “save us.”  Have us… I don’t know.  Plant a tree every year.  Adopt an animal and care for it (don’t kill it!).  Use fasting, prayer, pilgrimage, donate to charity, and try to right wrong deeds (or ask forgiveness), like Islam teaches.  In Buddhism, the path to enlightenment (a kind of salvation) involves morality, meditation, and wisdom (isn’t that just a more palatable path than the killing of animals?).

Nope, it has to be blood.  Blood, blood, blood.  What can wash away my sin?

My old answer to why it had to be blood: we can’t understand God.  God works in mysterious ways.  We just have to trust Him.

What does Easter mean to me now?

Honestly, not a whole lot.  And that’s ok.  It never meant as much as it was supposed to to me anyway, even when I was a Christian, because it just lead me to think about the problems in my faith.

Sure, I could use it to celebrate spring, or rebirth, or renewal, or all these things that it means to other people, but I kind of prefer New Years to celebrate renewal, and spring is fine but I don’t feel like it needs a special holiday (and I’d rather celebrate spring by taking a hike in the woods on a clear warm day than by eating chocolate with my religious family.)

What does Easter mean to you?

Why Our Top 10 Reasons for Not Having Kids Are Legit

I read an article by Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism which is a response to this article by Gavin McInnes titled, “Why Your Top 10 Reasons for Not Having Kids are Stupid.”  In her post, Libby Anne responds to the reasons in the original article and addresses why some of these “reasons” McInnes lists are either generally not factors in the decision OR actually are legitimate.

But I’ll leave the breaking apart of that article to Libby Anne, so read her post if you want a really good response to McInnes’ article!

These posts inspired me to think about this decision in the context of my own marriage.  My husband and I have not fully committed one way or the other, but it’s looking like we won’t try to have children.  And, what are the top 10 factors or reasons for us?  So, here are our reasons and what we’re thinking on the topic!

10. The world IS overpopulated.

McInnes argues that people in the United States should have more children because… it’s better here than other places?  I have so many issues with this line of reasoning, and I don’t think I want to get into it in this paragraph.  Suffice it to say that human lives are valuable, wherever they happen to be born and whoever their parents are (also, while the US has definite perks, I’m not going to claim it’s the best place to live – especially when it’s the only place I’ve lived).  But, his awful line of reasoning aside, humans are overpopulated.  We’re stretching the resources too thin, and it’s hurting our world.  Choosing to not have kids helps.  One less life brought into the world is still one less, and one more is still one more.  The more people choosing to not have kids and showing that a life without kids is still fulfilling and worthwhile, the more others might recognize it as a legitimate path, and make the decision not to contribute to overpopulation.

Obviously, having kids is something people do, and it keeps our population at a stable level – some people need to have children.  But me not having children gives someone else the chance to do it without contributing to overpopulation!  It really is a win-win.

9. We have other areas of life we want to focus on.

Career, owning and improving a home, being a dog and cat owner, traveling, hosting game nights, devoting hours on weeknights to exercise, learning to cook interesting and complicated meals… all of these things can be pursued by people who have children, obviously.  However, there is much more time, money, and energy available to us if we aren’t spending those things on children.  When my husband and I talk about our image of our future, we see these things, and we don’t see children.

8. Just because I’m good with kids doesn’t mean I want my own.

I had a friend, who is a new dad, tell me, “You’re so good with kids.  You should have your own.”  I know he was well-meaning, but loving kids and being good with them doesn’t mean I have any desire to be a parent.  One of the reasons McInnes lists in his article is, “I hate kids.”  Some people choose not to have kids because they don’t like them, and that’s a perfectly legit reason.  However, I really like kids, which is why I chose to work in a pediatric health care field.  I can like kids and, at the same time, not want to raise my own.

7. Health Risks.

Pregnancy has always terrified me.  There are so many ways it could go wrong, for me or for the baby.  And it is completely unpredictable.  I don’t have any major health issues that I know of, but that doesn’t mean pregnancy won’t mean gestational diabetes, or preeclampsia, or even just great discomfort.  I could be nauseous the entire time.  I could have horrible back pain or joint pain or any number of issues.  And that doesn’t even touch my horror when thinking about labor and childbirth.  For many women it’s worth the risk. I don’t want to put my body through it.

6. Complete lack of support.

I live in the United States – the land of 6-week unpaid maternity leave.  The land of outrageously expensive childcare.  The land where being a chauffeur for your kid during the elementary and middle school years – to soccer practice, dance, music lessons, swim team, whatever – is expected so that your kid can have an advantage when they are applying for colleges.  I often think about these things when I consider that parents during these years report a low level of martial satisfaction.  So much pressure is put on parents.  Our social structure has changed so that families don’t live with other family members who can help take care of the children, but our social support network has not accommodated this change.  It’s difficult for me to consider having children in a country where support for parents is so poor.

5. It IS really expensive.

Along with point number 6 above, having children is expensive.  Some of the costs cannot be ignored – food, clothes, shelter.  And some people may have family members who are willing to help and watch the children – for free! – but oftentimes paid-for childcare is necessary, and may cost one spouse’s entire income.  And, unless you have a job in the same school system as your children, chances are you’re going to be paying for child care for many years, at least during after school hours and summer.  Plus, I would want to give my kids enriching experiences – traveling, going to museums or the zoo, getting to take music lessons – and while some things are free, many are not.  There’s no denying that having kids costs money.

4. It’s acceptable to be selfish.

For a long time, I hated the idea of being selfish.  I thought that was one of the worst things a person could be (especially considering the instruction to put Jesus first, then others, then yourself).  As I’ve changed my perspective on life, I realize that being selfish is not a negative thing in itself.  I think being selfish at the expense of others or in ways that really harm other people (in the long run) is a negative thing.  However, putting value on my own needs and prioritizing what I want in life is an acceptable and good way to live.  I find that, by taking care of myself, I have more to give others.  In my current marriage, I value my own needs and expect my husband to try his best to honor and meet those needs.  In my previous marriage, I did not understand or recognize my own needs, which lead to disaster.  I find I have so much more to give to my husband and to others in my life when I recognize my own needs and act in ways I previously saw as selfish.  All that to say, if the decision not to have kids is selfish, I am OK with that.  (Which leads right into my next point…)

3. So I can be a better aunt.

I currently have 2 nieces and a nephew.  Elizabeth Gilbert, one of my favorite authors, describes her role as part of the Auntie Brigade in her book Committed.  I really recommend you read the entire excerpt (posted here), but here is one section that sums up much of it to me:

“Often able to accrue education and resources precisely because they were childless, these women had enough spare income and compassion to pay for lifesaving operations, or to rescue the family farm, or to take in a child whose mother had fallen gravely ill. I have a friend who calls these sorts of child-rescuing aunties “sparents” “spare parents”  and the world is filled with them.

Even within my own community, I can see where I have been vital sometimes as a member of the Auntie Brigade. My job is not merely to spoil and indulge my niece and nephew (though I do take that assignment to heart) but also to be a roving auntie to the world  an ambassador auntie who is on hand wherever help is needed, in anybody’s family whatsoever.”

My husband and I can be on-call for my nieces and nephew – and any future ones that my siblings may have – and for other children in our community and circle of friends, and that is pretty darn fulfilling and inspiring.

2. We want the flexibility.

My husband and I will likely be moving around August… and we have a lot of options about where we could be.  Being two adults making a move across the country is so much easier than doing the same with children.  Obviously, people move across the country with kids all the time.  But this is not the only area of life where we will enjoy improved flexibility.  Flexibility in schedules, career choices, job changes, where we live, when we eat, where we invest our resources… I could see having children reducing this flexibility, and that’s not something I want in my life.

1. We don’t want to.

I was talking with a friend who was describing her baby fever.  She wanted to get married at a certain age so that she could start having kids, and is feeling a loss now that she’s in a position where having a second kid isn’t feasible at the moment, even though she desperately wants another one.  I acknowledge her experience as valid and real, but I do not fully understand or relate!  I cannot ever recall feeling baby fever.  I remember my friends in high school discussing baby names, so I figured it was something I should do too.  I joked about “wanting to have babies with [so-and-so]” to describe my teenage feelings of having a crush to my female friends, but it was all just a joke for me (which makes me wonder, did other girls actually daydream about having a baby with someone when they had a crush on them?!  I was definitely daydreaming about the making a baby part… while using birth control).

It wasn’t until years later, into my mid 20s, that I realized I have never really wanted to have children.  I imagined having children at times because it seemed like the thing people do, and because I have always liked kids.  But as I’ve grown more comfortable understanding myself and my emotions, I realize the desire to have kids has been absent in my life.  My husband helped me compare to this feeling by pointing out that I definitely get puppy fever.  I feel an ache in my heart and my gut when I look at pictures of puppies, and try to limit my time looking at adoption pages because I know we can’t adopt one right now.  I even get kitty fever sometimes when we go to pet stores (I told a friend, “We almost adopted another cat today!”  My husband corrected, “No, we went to the pet store and pet a cat today.”).  Is this how some people feel when they look at pictures of babies?  Or imagine being pregnant?

Bottom line: we don’t want to have kids.  And that’s ok.

Bonus thought: For a lot of people, having biological children is not a choice they can make. I tried to go through this post and make sure I didn’t put too much emphasis on having kids as a choice.  I say my husband and I don’t have kids as a choice because we are actively doing something to prevent it from happening – using highly effective birth control; and, if we decide not to in the end, then we will get permanent birth control.  We are choosing to prevent it from happening.  But for some people, not having their own kids is not a choice.  I hate it when people assume you will have kids, because at least for me it’s a choice I’m making, but for others it is not a choice and it is a very painful, personal subject.  This is one reason I really appreciate when others ask me, “Are you all thinking about having children?” as opposed to, “When will you all have kids?”  I want to acknowledge that there are reasons not to have kids, but also acknowledge that whether or not to have biological children is not always a choice.

Life-Changing Magic

I recently started reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.  I would describe it so far as both life-changing and magical.

I’m generally quite skeptical in my approach to self-help and advice books, but I do enjoy them and approach them with the mind of, “How can I interpret this information in a way that might positively influence my life?”  And I don’t believe in literal magic or anything supernatural, though I do still find it fun to describe experiences, places, and things as “magical.”

Why, as an atheist who would describe herself as naturalist, would I embrace the word magical?

I’ve been reflecting on this question as I read this book, which contains elements of Japanese supernaturalism (which doesn’t have much to do with God, especially not our western god, but does refer to “energy” and other extra-worldly forces).  For example, she writes phrases such as, “When we take our clothes in our hands, we are, I believe, transmitting energy, which has a positive effect on our clothes.”

Oh, that so-often misused word, energy.  Such a specific definition in physics, yet such a vague definition in our everyday language.  (And, misuse of the word  is one of my husband’s pet peeves, which is why, though I want him to read this book, I accept that I may have to just paraphrase it for him).  I find myself interpreting these kinds of phrases into practical, naturalist language.  I do not literally believe that handling clothes would transmit some mystic force called “energy” into the clothes.  However, I read this sentence and think, “Maybe physically handling our clothes with care has several positive effects – our attention on the clothes helps us notice small rips, stretched seams, or stains that we may not have noticed.  Also, folding them in a neat way probably keeps them from being stretched or squashed in ways that, over time, affect the integrity of the threads.  In this way, physically handling and folding clothes does have a positive effect on the clothes – but not because of energy, because of the power our attention can have on our environment.”

Writing that out was much more tedious than I thought.  Much easier to just say, “transmitting energy,” right?  But I believe thinking and communicating like this leaves much less room for uncertainty and misinterpretation.  As someone who lives and breathes communication (as my job), I love to study and think about how our thoughts and the specific language we use affect the physical structure of our brains, and this kind of direct, logical thinking gets to be contagious.

So, again, why magic?

I want to take a moment to compare magical and spiritual.  In my mind, the word spiritual is linked with the idea that humans have spirits, or souls, that are in some way connected with our bodies.  I used to believe that I had a soul and that it was the truest form of me, and spirituality referred to the state of my soul.  When I think of magical, I think of experiences I have had that have been overwhelmingly positive, with feelings of awe, inspiration, adoration, lightness, or connectedness.  Magical in my mind doesn’t have a connection with a spirit or a soul.  I think most people I know don’t literally believe in magic, but I know many, many people who literally believe in souls.  Using “magical” instead of “spiritual” around these people won’t mislead them into thinking I believe in souls.  Also, I like to use the word magical to describe powerful experiences because it’s a way for me to think about them differently.  They aren’t experiences that affect me in any supernatural way, or change my “soul;” they are experiences that are incredibly special, inspiring deep emotions and causing my brain and other organs to produce interesting chemicals that influence my brain to make a lasting memory.  Standing on top of a mountain is magical; my first kiss with my husband was magical; meditation can be magical.

Not that I have a problem with atheists using the word spiritual.  Sam Harris’s book Waking Up has the tagline, “A Guide to Spirituality without Religion.”  He defines spirituality in a different way than the usual religious way, which I appreciate and find interesting.  In my process of understanding who I am without religion, however, I sometimes find it useful to change the vocabulary used instead of redefining old words.  So I find it helpful to retire “spiritual”and instead talk about “magical” experiences.  I think many people use the word spirituality to mean emotional health, or feeling connectedness with one’s environment, or their relationship with God (which, again, often means how they feel about their actions, thoughts, and lives – emotional and mental wellbeing).  Therefore, I find it helpful to retire the word “spirituality” and instead talk about my mental and emotional wellbeing, or how I feel like I’m connected with and influencing my environment.

I also understand that magical is a good term for me because I haven’t encountered many people who literally believe in magic, and I feel in the culture I’m in that we generally tend to think of magic as a fantasy.  If I were in a different culture or knew many people who openly believed in magic, I may rethink my use of the term.

What’s your definition of spirituality?  If you don’t believe in a soul, do you choose to still use the word spiritual, or do you think it’d be helpful to find a new way to describe it?  What do you think of the word magical?

Speaking Up

I wouldn’t call myself a risk-taker.

I tend to calculate decisions before I leap, especially in regards to interpersonal relationships.  In some ways, this is a good thing.  I tend to communicate with people effectively, and find ways to communicate information that may be sensitive in ways that people can accept.  (This really helps when you work with other people’s children).  I rarely have buyer’s remorse.  I pay my bills on time.  But in other ways, being overly cautious in some areas is not so great.  I don’t speak up about controversial issues, especially in a group setting.  I don’t want people to think negatively about me.  I don’t like to be the cause of people being upset.  I don’t want things that I say to be taken out of context or misused, so I over-explain myself.

And I especially have a hard time saying how I feel about things to my parents.

My parents are – and have been as long as I have known them – evangelical, creationist, fundamentalist Christians.  We don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues, so my policy up to this point has been to not say anything.

I have started coming out as an atheist in safe spaces.  My husband was the first person I told, being the one who was with me on a really important part of my journey away from Christianity.  I have told close friends, especially friends who are atheists themselves.  I am part of a humanist group so obviously I’m out to them.  And I write this blog – anonymously, but it’s a small way to tell people, “I’m an atheist!” and be happy that they are not saying, “We hate you!” about it.

But in some ways it’s becoming harder not to speak up.

I think if it just affected me, then I might be able to stay quiet.  I would be annoyed, but I think I’d have an easier time letting it go.  But I’m realizing more and more that it doesn’t just affect me.  For one, my older sister has taken the brunt of the negative backlash from my parents because she speaks up.  For another, my cousin came out as gay last year and his parents (and my parents) are still making such a big deal about it.  They seem to take every opportunity they can to talk about how God feels about his homosexuality.  In my family, it seems as though conservative Christian is the norm, so me speaking up could let them know, “Not everyone in this family thinks like you,” and take some of the focus off of the other non-conformists.

For a long time, I’ve been afraid of the backlash.  I’ve been worried about making my parents mad or upset.  I hate the feeling that accompanies thinking that your parents are wrong… feeling arrogant and very young, but at the same time not being able to understand their point of view anymore.  And I hate the feeling of knowing that, once I finally admit to them that I don’t believe in God, they will think I’m going to hell.

But, I’m getting to a point where I don’t think I can stay quiet forever.  And I don’t think it’s a great thing to stay quiet anymore.  It doesn’t help me, it doesn’t help those around me… and how will anything change if people who are different stay quiet?

I think it’s time to start speaking up.

Uninspired

I’ve been a little quiet on this blog lately, and partially that is due to dissatisfaction with my current circumstances.

Mainly, I don’t enjoy my job and wish I had chosen a different career.

The end of my work days leave me feeling drained and exhausted, dealing with the emotions from the day.  It’s been difficult to feel like I have time or energy to focus anywhere else.  I never wanted a career that took over my life, and I have a variety of interests (cooking, fitness, music, reading, writing, video games) that I’d rather be spending my time on… or, you know, friends I’d like to be calling/spending more time with.  Unfortunately, I’ve been feeling like my job is interfering with progress in other areas in my life, and that makes me grumpy.

I’ve written before about how my life changed pretty dramatically in a short amount of time, in the middle of grad school.  I chose to continue on in school and graduate, though I considered dropping out.  But I’ve been thinking about the fact that I chose this career when I was a pretty different person from who I am now.

I had never experienced so much grief.  Losing one of my best friends was a shock, and 5 years later… I was about to write, “I still feel like I’m recovering,” but the truth is that I’m just different.  I don’t think one day I’ll recover from it and feel whole again, because, as my husband put it, she’s still gone.  That’s not going to get better.  And I’m not getting better, I’m just adjusting to life without her.  I’m a different person now, with grief as a part of my identity.

I didn’t realize that money is important.  I never wanted to take out loans, but didn’t get any funding for graduate school.  I didn’t compare the amount of loans I’d need to the salary I’d likely make and realize it was a bad deal.  When I heard I didn’t get funding I immediately thought I wouldn’t go to grad school and would figure something else out – now I wish I had taken that path.

I used to get more satisfaction out of pleasing others.  This is something I feel like I picked up from my religious upbringing, though I haven’t been able to pinpoint just how yet.  Possibly because I’m female – and there’s a focus on how women are supposed to serve others and focus on others’ happiness – or the focus on pleasing God and your parents – which I felt like I could never please my parents, so I focused on getting praise and positive attention from teachers and other people instead.  Now I feel like I can be happy with the fact that not everyone will like me, just like I won’t like everyone (and don’t have to!).  I think I find satisfaction in other areas of my life and am focused more inward.  My job involves working with people, and I do tend to make people feel happy through my job, but it’s just not as important to me anymore.

However, at the moment, it’s just not really feasible to get a different job.  So I have to wait it out.  And I’m feeling a little stuck.

The good news is, exercise has really been helping me distract myself from my dissatisfaction with my career.  Even though I’m not improving my mile time (as much as I’m trying to) and progress feels painfully slow, I often feel good after a run and it helps take my mind away from work.  It took a long time to get to where running felt good, but now I can look back and be happy that I put in that difficult, embarrassing, grueling work.

What do you do when you’re feeling stuck in an area of your life?  Ignore it?  Focus on other areas?  Try to accept it?  What helps you get through the day?