Generating Joy

Photo by Nuno Ricardo on Unsplash

Friday was gorgeous GOR GEE USSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. I cut out of work early, dug up some grass in my yard, and biked over to the pie place in the hopes of some weekend dessert slices. The line at the pie place was a block long, so I laughed it off and kept biking. I couldn’t just turn around and go home because the weather was GOR GEE USSSSSSSSSS. Like, perfect. Like, bike down the street no-handed singing and conducting songs from the playlist of your youth gorgeous. I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt so happy. No – joyful. I was filled with unintellectual, full-body joy. It was fucking glorious. The only stain on the afternoon was a brief realization that, “fuck, I’ve become my father.”

I wasn’t mostly naked, I wasn’t riding an old Schwinn, but those were the only significant differences in our behavior. I didn’t hate my dad’s weird behavior as much as my sister did, but it was sometimes embarrassing. It wouldn’t have felt like such a betrayal if he had allowed us to be ourselves as he insisted on being himself, but it was only acceptable to be authentic if our authenticity matched his, and we were continually shut down for not behaving, thinking, or being exactly what he wanted us to be.

It’s difficult to separate the action from the person, and difficult to separate admirable behavior from a person whose behavior was often inconsiderate or cruel, but there is always that yin & yang. No one is all evil all the time, all inappropriate all the time, all annoying all the time, but our need to recognize and predict patterns and our emotional attachment/aversion to the behavior of people with whom we have complicated relationships is often tough to work past. As is our assumption of impure motives. Sure my dad was unconventional and weird, and I generally value that in people, but because I associate it with his narcissism, I don’t give him the credit others may earn from the same nonconformity. But what do I know? Just because he had narcissistic tendencies doesn’t mean he was incapable of a pure act of joy & self-expression. And just because I express my joy in a similar way doesn’t mean I’m a narcissist.

Or … does it?

Honestly, I don’t fucking care. I’m not hurting anyone and I’m alchemizing bliss out of spring air. The critical they can roll their eyes and think whatever they want. I am so tired of our joy-crushing culture.

2022: The Path So Far, So Furious

2022: The Path So Far, So Furious

I suppose 6 weeks is plenty of time for a little self-assessment, especially as I’ve noticed some … wandering, I guess you could say.

Meditation has been good so far this year – consistent in the mornings, which is always best for me. The quality of the sit varies, naturally. Sometimes I can barely manage two minutes of actual focus. Sometimes it’s more. Sitting before work is crucial to my overall wellbeing and I’ve recognized and therefore been disciplined about that, but it seems wellbeing without wisdom and oversight is not quite enough.

I’ve been an Officer at my employer’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee for years, almost since it was initiated. It’s probably time to step off, and I will in 2023, but we’ve always had trouble recruiting officers (few people have enough breathing room in their jobs to take on the commitment, company support for the roles is limited), and it is my favorite part of my work. It is also the place in my life where I have the most direct impact on the education of White people. Our staff is composed of lots of well-meaning White folks, many of whom have limited experience with different cultures and an unintentionally parochial worldview. The trainings we’ve commissioned and led, on everything from White Cultural Supremacy to Islamophobia to Indigenous Approaches to Disability, really seem to have opened people up, and rarely freaked them out enough to get defensive.

Nonetheless, more substantive Committee proposals have made painfully slow progress. We have been asking Leadership for an Inclusion Statement for 3 years, and the only movement in that direction has been from the committee itself. We asked for a policy on responding to Tragic Events (a weak email about George Floyd’s murder came long after he was killed, and only after the DEI committee had already communicated with staff – and been admonished for doing so), and were eventually told that Leadership would only respond to events that directly impacted operations. We have no people of color in leadership, and only two BIPOC supervisors in a 200+ employee nonprofit. There have been some improvements – a greater percentage of BIPOC employees and Board members, some other accommodations for non-European cultures, religions, etc. but the Committee’s frustrations are manifold.

Another Officer reached out to me about our antagonistic relationship with Leadership, with a goal to mitigate that this year. I wholeheartedly agreed. And then I fell into the seductive arms of collective anger.

Leadership had us amend our Black History Month post not because anything in it was inaccurate or offensive or inappropriate – they couldn’t call out a single word or line – but because it made them feel, let me translate: icky. A week later, they “asked” us to host a “space” for staff to talk about the police killing yet another Black man in the Twin Cities, and when we explained that a group of White DEI Officers should not hold space for Black people who most need that space held, they announced that to the organization that we would do it anyway.

Do you feel it? That delicious distemper? That noble nastiness? That righteous rage? They’re clearly wrong, right? And they’re not wronging me. They’re wronging others. Better still, I have a cohort that agrees with me, who will bring their own passion and lift up my own. People with whom I can, if not demonize, at least criticize and somewhat vilify our primary antagonist.

Many of my teachers in last year’s Buddhist training talked about anger. How could they not, since they were promoting mindful social action in a program imagined while Trump was still in office. There was a lot more ambivalence around this fiery emotion than I had anticipated, however. More recognition of its power to motivate and even purge. And I have much more to learn about it, undoubtedly. My relationship with anger is largely one of dismissal.

Unlike many women, apparently, I have never had difficulty expressing anger. For whatever sexism I was raised with (less than many, more than some), anger was not discouraged in my household. I couldn’t get angry at my father – that was not allowed – but I could get angry at the world, at people we disapproved of, at the police, at politicians. I had no problem pulling off theatre performances as an enraged wife, director, prostitute, actor, medical student. (Apparently I have a very scary glare.)

I couldn’t turn it off, though. I was an angry, angry person. My cohort in acting school was, for whatever reason, chock full of angry, angry people. In our group of ~25 students there were a half dozen guys periodically flying off the handle, and me. I chain smoked and drove dangerously fast and drank a half dozen cups of coffee every morning and slept very little and in the rare times I noticed my body, it was like every blood cell was a whirling dervish of rage. All the pain I had been unable to express to the people who had hurt me perpetually simmered under the surface, spitting out steam at my fellow drivers and uncooperative retail employees, through sing/screaming to loud music, and onstage.

Once I got beyond that turmoil and saw it for the grating, exhausting force it was, I became vigilant about avoiding that state of being. Weirdly enough, it’s not that hard most of the time. I don’t worry about screaming at the radio when a politician puts their own reelection ahead of the lives of other human beings, or any of the other countless injustices that happen every day. Because I don’t hold onto it. I yell, I let go, I move on. (Meditation can take much of the credit.) I try to redirect any lingering energy towards something positive, or at least neutral. I remember that we are all flawed, fucked up little humans.

But that righteous group anger …. mmmm-mmmmm. It doesn’t feel bad. It feels delicious. When the DEI Officers got together to air our grievances about Leadership, it felt like getting together with a group of close girlfriends to talk about an overlooked artistic triumph. There was camaraderie and passion and pride and joy and frustration and fun. I didn’t feel like I was crawling with subdermal fire ants; I didn’t feel the need to scream to a Hole song. And there was something valuable and perhaps spiritually neutral in it: sharing frustrations, validating perceptions, and discussing & interpreting behavior aren’t inherently negative or destructive. But retrospectively, I saw that we had simplified the matter; that we had concentrated the complicated world of White supremacy down to a single point – the messenger for the organization; that our focus had subtly shifted from doing the right thing to winning. I did not have the courage to address an unearned insult thrown at the absent messenger, because I had been walking that unethical, cruel line in my own speech. Once the conversation was over, I had to take a good look at myself.

Right speech is hard. Our culture subtly and incessantly encourages talking shit. There is community to be found around naming a common enemy, around demonizing the other, around denying their humanity. I’ve been able to recognize it and avoid it on the large topics of the day – I don’t call all anti-vaccers idiots; I don’t call all Trump supporters Nazis; I do my best to look for a reasonable explanation for behavior from the right wing, and when I can’t find it, I look for the source of the behavior in the system, not in the “evil” of specific individuals. I try to practice my favorite cheesy aphorism: Don’t get furious, get curious. Why did I fall off the wagon at work? It’s not the first time. Groupthink has definitely seduced me before, and it’s so much easier to get sucked into it when COVID has left so many of us so lonely. But it is truly icky. It goes against what my Buddhish heart and mind believe, and it simply doesn’t help me be a force of love in the world.

So, 44 days into 2022, I guess the resolution that has forced itself upon me is to practice Right Speech, and hope it wriggles on down into my thoughts and bones. I will doubtless fail again and again, but they say the path, like the precepts, is not a do or die. Just as you haven’t failed if you get caught up in thoughts while sitting, you haven’t failed if your speech lacks empathy once in a while. It’s a practice, it’s about returning to the commitment again and again. Sometimes method acting is just too hard, sometimes you have to work from the outside in.

The Perfect Definition (Perfection, pt 4)

Let us first acknowledge that any idea of perfection was made by humans: specifically, almost always men, and usually White, European man. I’ll start with one of the most influential men: Jesus. (Depending on what culture and century you live in, he may or may not be White.) The religion founded in his name has had an immeasurable influence on European-American culture, though I’d argue that his actual message (even the distorted, subjective transcriptions of his message) is far more universal, far less anthropocentric, and far less judgmental than what Christian, European culture has chosen to latch onto. Still, there is definitely some judgey stuff in the New Testament. This one was occasionally thrown at me when I was a kid, from Matthew 5:48. This translation from the King James Version of the Bible:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your
Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Since I took up with Buddhism, I find echoes of that same nonbinary and compassionate worldview hidden in secret pockets all over Jesus’ rags. So what did he mean by perfect in that quote? It’s difficult and perhaps pointless to parse language in the Bible – the flaws inherent in multiple translations (in this case from Aramaic through however many versions before the English), the inaccurate memory of the people recording his words, their own bias that led them to that memory, etc. But I still think it’s valuable to interrogate the choices in the translation. From my beloved Shorter Oxford Dictionary, at the time the Bible was translated into English (1611), perfect had many different meanings, including

  • Completed; fully formed; adult
  • Having all the essential elements, qualities, or characteristics
  • Not deficient in any particular
  • Being an ideal example of
  • Of or marked by supreme moral excellence
  • (Rare, but thanks to our buddy Shakespeare): in a state of complete satisfaction; contented

All sorts of stuff going on there, but only one aligns with what I, and many of you, have hanging over us: the goal of being exceptional, without flaws, and lacking in nothing. Perhaps older definitions shunned that, because only GOD could be perfect. In our contemporary, more secular language, we have these Google-ready definitions:

  1. being entirely without fault or defect : flawless a perfect diamond
  2. corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept a perfect gentleman

Who decides when to apply those adjectives, and how? If we take a moment, we can surely all recognize that an ideal standard or abstract concept is a construct, that there is no universal, objective ideal. But the idea of without fault or defect is just as fraught, inviting all kinds of ableism. Who decides what a defect or fault is? If it’s a variation from the norm, would that also include instances of what we might consider excellence? What if someone is exceptionally fast, intelligent, or beautiful? Is that a defect? If perfect is ideal, what is ideal? Standard? Doesn’t that seem like a low bar? I’m starting to think there are at least two clear problems with the idea of perfection: the burden of the unattainable goal, and the limitations of the standard of ideal. Both too much and not enough.

The World English Bible translates Matthew 4:28 passage as:

Therefore you shall be perfect, just
as your Father in heaven is perfect.

I know I’m a word nerd, but this reads very differently to me. First of all, the structure seems to imply a precursor, something that led to the therefore, whereas “Be ye therefore perfect” stands more easily on its own. The prelude is the Sermon on the Mount, which is filled with mostly groovy stuff, the grooviest of which comes right before this statement. Matthew 5:38-5:47 is all about loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, giving to those who ask and those who don’t. I particularly like his critique of “love your neighbor,” which basically says: any asshole can love their neighbor; that’s amoral. Loving your enemies takes work, and is generative. Stop picking sides: God shines on everyone and rains on everyone. This is how you get to perfect – loving everyone and treating everyone without prejudice. Shall (all you lawyers out there know this) means will. It’s a commitment from Jesus, not a command. It’s already there. If you care for others as you would for yourself, you are already perfect.

Let me circle back to the “complete” definition of perfect. It could be the most fucked up or most forgiving option of all of them. In my monkey mind I have used complete as a standard for a painfully long time. Particularly when it comes to writing. I had to keep editing, keep refining, keep proofing until a work was complete, and despite never getting there, I never abandoned the quest. I was so thankful for deadlines in school or work, because I would eventually have to stop writing, imperfect as the piece always was. But as hard as it is to complete an essay, or painting, or symphony, it is exponentially insane to think of achieving completeness as a person. If at some point one becomes complete – when they have the spouse, home, and child/ren perhaps; or when they break the world record while winning gold in the Olympics, how do we characterize everything after that? Who are you post-perfection? We see people struggle with this all the time. What do you do when you’re “past your prime”? How do you find meaning if meaning is tied up in perfection/completeness and you’ve reached your destination with nowhere else to go? How much more liberating would it be if we held onto no ideals at all? Is that absurd?

In the Buddhism I hang with everything you need, including enlightenment, is available to you at all times because Buddha nature already exists within everyone, and perhaps everything. So we are already Complete, already perfect, with just a wee bit of really fucking calcified artificial frosting hiding all that nutritious goodness.

Ram Dass keeps returning to Completeness in How Can I Help. That is, recognizing that every person on the planet is already complete. When we seek to help people, we may be serving them food or companionship or understanding or shelter, but not because they are lacking in some way; rather because we have or have access to a thing that they need, so it’s only natural to transfer the resource to the area that requires it, like putting lotion on your own dry skin. In a sense, both giver and receiver are just fulfilling our parts as members of the ecosystem, and in that way we are perfect. If we approach others as lacking, imperfect, incomplete, we are not really serving them, we are serving ourselves and our own judgment and rules and fears and ideologies. That kind of help may give someone the calories they need to go on another day, but it can leave them with a feeling of inferiority, of insufficiency, and it doesn’t actually serve us as individuals or us as members of a human and ecological community, because it is reinforcing separateness and contributing to inequitable thinking and behavior. Recognizing everyone’s completeness, everyone’s perfection (as I can so easily do with Vicious) is a path to an equitable and multifarious world.

To be continued. Again. I could go on and on… and I do.

Next time: Creative Imperfection

The Failings of Retributive Justice

justiceI’ve been thinking a lot about justice lately. (Pick your reason.) I’m particularly interested in our default definition of justice and how the tight circumscription of that definition keeps us from exploring ideas and actual practices that might benefit victims, society, and (heavens!) the perpetrators themselves. Continue reading “The Failings of Retributive Justice”

Citizenship

naturalizationI wasn’t going to write anything about the impressively racist Trumpeet that grabbed the headlines this week. What is there to say? I don’t have a broad audience – everyone reading this feels more or less the same about it; everyone recognizes the xenophobia & ignorance & historical resonance.

But a months-old note to myself and another exceptional On the Media interview have given me a bit more insight, so I thought I’d share. Continue reading “Citizenship”

Do What Works, Instead of What Makes You Feel Good (The End of Empathy pt. 3)

cc imageSorry for the inconsistent posts, folks. I’ve been wrapped up in a State Fair exhibit and thus entrenched in Climate Change lit. It’s taken an emotional toll, to be honest. I’m not proud of that. Oooh, middle class American White Lady feels bad about the warming planet. Pooooor American White Lady. Yeah. I’d like to come up with a better excuse for the depression that engulfed me when I dove into this swamp, but this is what I’m left with.

Happily, a different kind of climate change book has been helping me cope. I just finished Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, which got me to jump off the doom train and mount the bipartisan babble bicycle (sorry). I loooove books about the human brain and how it fucks us up. The Invisible Gorilla, Why Buddhism is True, and the somewhat discredited Thinking Fast and Slow are all excellent. This is another in that genre, but with the specific task of improving communication about climate change in order to push us towards a critical mass of action.

There is a lot of excellent information here: about our attachment to identity, our need to conform to the ideologies of the social group we’ve chosen, the way we assess risk, confirmation bias, etc. I could nerd about all of it for paragraphs, but I’m committed to the same goal as the author; improving communication and action on climate change. With that in mind, here is my biggest takeaway from the book.

Do whatever the fuck it takes to get people to move on climate change.

Maybe that’s a big extreme, or maybe it’s not. I could say that whatever the fuck it takes means chaining myself to an oil derrick or lying down in the middle of a freeway or  blowing up a CAFO, but would that really be more effective that building support for carbon-reducing legislation? Most likely any non-believers who heard about my awesomely dramatic actions would be gifted with yet another reason to shun (what they view as) my “beliefs,” so those performances aren’t actually what it takes to get shit done. Let’s adjust:

Do whatever the fuck it takes to actually get people to act on climate change.

This is harder, because it’s not about declaring my convictions or self-righteously putting myself in harms way. It’s about doing what actually works, instead of what makes me feel good. And what works is letting go of my own narratives and beliefs and biases in order to join with my Others to fight the real enemy: the end of humanity and the world as we know it. (I don’t say the end of life as we know it, because that’s not necessarily an enemy or a bad thing. Moving towards a lower carbon lifestyle is necessary and can be even fun.)

This means I have to stop thinking of CC nonbelievers as stupid or sheep and start seeing them as vulnerable little human beings just like me whose circumstances have led them to the same kind of groupthink and bigotry and skepticism as mine have, just from the other political side. They critically distrust authority like I critically distrust the White House. They believe their community of caring, like minded people just like I do. They mold evidence to match their ideological beliefs just like me.

If I want them to join the fight against global warming, I have to make it their fight. I can’t just wait for the government to draft them into my war.

How do I do that? My embracing religious perspectives, by expanding the consequences of CC beyond the realm of environmentalism, by moving away from blame. It feels so good to blame, but it’s worse than unproductive. We have shared values, and if we identify and build on those, we may actually be able to fight the corporations that don’t have values because they’re not people with consciences but vehicles of production and profit, and the politicians who don’t have values because they’re only interested in what will get them through the next election cycle.

What are the shared values? Protecting children, being responsible, enjoying life, making decisions for ourselves, and maintaining good health may be a few.

So I clearly have the brilliant idea. I could work on turning it into actual communication. And I’ve tried a bit of that with the abovementioned exhibit. But how much is that really going to do? Who else should I be reaching out to? Through what medium? Why would any of the nonbelievers believe me, a believer, anyway? Any ideas on how to disguise myself? Help?

To Explain or Exclude?

genderThere’s a tasteful sign in the most liberal of liberal coffee shops in my city that “asks that you use gender-neutral language when addressing its employees. Thank you.” Great. I have no problems with the sign. But I’ve whined to a couple of friends about not yet having the huevos to ask the business to clarify what they mean. Yes, I know what they mean, and most of their liberal patrons in their liberal neighborhood in one of the most gender-spectrum-friendly cities in the country know what they mean, but what about the ones who don’t? Continue reading “To Explain or Exclude?”

The Truth and Jussie Smollett

nooseJussie Smollett is telling the truth. Or telling a truth. Or telling us something truer than the truth.

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.

O’Brien wrote about war, the unfathomable experience of war. He believed that the facts, the truth, were insufficient to depict his experience, to get his message across, to transmit the horrors of being a soldier in Vietnam.

If that is unfathomable, how can we who are not possibly fathom the lifelong, manifold experience of being a Black, gay man in the United States? Continue reading “The Truth and Jussie Smollett”

Oh for F&@k’s Sake: Swear Words and the Blinding Fog of Self-Righteousness

When I was in my 20s, I used to criticize people who would get, what I deemed, unreasonably offended at hearing a swear word. I resented the fact that movies and TV were censored for dirty language, that a person could get fired for accidentally cussing in front of another full grown adult. This resentment came out of the ignorant belief that, as far as I could tell, there was no logical reason to be offended by swear words. It’s true that the very idea of swear words is an abstract concept that we, as a society, just kind of made up. We pretend there’s some inherent evil within these words even though they cause no apparent physical or mental harm, not even to children. And that’s how I justified my smug indignation: If there was no scientific or logical basis to take offense at swear words, then, clearly, taking offense at swear words was unscientific and illogical, and a society can’t function properly when we treat unscientific and illogical opinions with the same level of importance as opinions based in objective reality, and therefore we should not humor people who believe in stupid things. Continue reading “Oh for F&@k’s Sake: Swear Words and the Blinding Fog of Self-Righteousness”

So How Was DC, Ms. Judgment?

3-women-in-dc-cropNo angst to report, readers. I was wrong about pretty much everything. There was so little to criticize and I felt so little inclination to do so. I just couldn’t get past the love: it enveloped me and I was happy and everything was good.

It was all a beautiful mess, a modernist composition: not discordant, but unpredictable and unique. We managed to miss the rally — not because we were late, but because my group somehow concluded that it was not happening where it was obviously happening. That was more than fine, really. I’d rather be walking than standing, and we consequently weren’t crushed for more than five minutes the whole seven hours we were on The Mall. (And the speeches are on YouTube.) We marched in a march that wasn’t the actual march, then caught the real thing after we thought events were wrapping up. We all teared up multiple times. There were artistic and inspiring and clever signs. I met lots of great women (most of whom were from Kentucky — should I be living in Kentucky?). The collective event was greater than the sum of its parts, but even the parts were beautiful. Here is my personal scrapbook:

Continue reading “So How Was DC, Ms. Judgment?”