Let Him Cry

Another shooting.

100_8700While I was waiting for my laundry to finish this morning, I sat in my car writing.  Across the street from the laundromat is a residential care facility.  I’ve often sat in this spot and I watched as women, who I will assume are mostly Muslim (by their headgear) and possibly immigrants, walk in to this facility also wearing the typical care facility garb of scrubs and comfortable shoes.  This morning, I realized that in all the time I’ve looked at this place, it hadn’t registered in me that there are people living there, and possibly living out the end of their lives there.  I thought of the vibrant world around this place: gentrifying hipsters, long time black, Latino and Asian families, young people on skateboards, politics, street fairs, muggings, joggers, commuters, busses, bikes, all literally passing this place by and with it the people inside.  The women in scrubs, caring for each, maybe doing their jobs well, maybe not
, but doing what they can to both earn a living and to actually accomplish some small part of caring for someone who cannot care for themselves.  And it made me cry.

There was a recent article (PolicyMic, May 15 2014 – Eileen Shim) that looked at the quality of tears based on why they were being shed.  Rose-Lynn Fisher goes into wonderful detail of this phenomenon on her website. As I recall there were several types that were easily identifiable, but never did it mention the tears of mixed emotions.  My tears would have been a good sample for this.  Seeing this care facility, my tears were angry…that there weren’t bigger windows or more family visiting; my tears were touched by the dedication of the staff who may not be making more than minimum wage to deal with the messy bodies and emotions of the sick and dying; my tears were filled with sadness…for the families that had been lost by the people inside, whether physically or lost in the lack of commitment from others for their care; and my tears were the memories of having seen my own mother in such a care facility.

The first shooting death of 2014 in Oakland was a 13 year old boy.

When I was a little boy, I was a “cry baby.”  I was constantly criticized for responding to every challenge and every confrontation no matter how small, with tears.  It was eventually impressed upon me that this was inappropriate behavior for a “man” and I remember consciously turning off that part of my reaction and suppressing my tears, adding a healthy dose of guilt and shame to my natural reaction.  Nevertheless, I learned how to be remote and stoic.  Never mind that I also became an enormously angry teenager who channelled that anger into compulsive and destructive levels of over achievement, often pushing himself well beyond his physical limits.  Never mind too that I developed esophagitis and the early stages of an ulcer.  

All of this changed a few years later one day in college when the movie Diva was shown on campus.  In the scene where “La Diva” and the young man walk around Paris to the haunting melody by Vladimir Cosma (Sentimental Walk) there was something triggered in me; the combination of the tune, with the lonely light and the two characters in their shared isolation…it made me bust out sobbing.  It was the first time I had really cried in 7 or 8 years and something in me said that I shouldn’t let it be the last.

Having so consciously cut this part of myself off  and then just as consciously reclaiming it, I have thought a great deal about what happens inside me when I cry ever since.  Something happens within all of us when we cry.  I suppose we try to hide it because it can be as intimate yet universal as a sexual orgasm.  It bubbles to the surface, it swells and wells up until it bursts in us and we can’t and don’t want to stop it.  Yet, terrifyingly, it can also feel so much like falling.  There is an uncontrollable feeling of cascading that comes with surrendering to the emotions that bring tears.  But where do we land?  This is the trouble for men.  Our culture doesn’t tell boys and men that it will catch them when they fall down this well of tears.  In so many ways, men are asked to bargain with society in order to justify their emotions and that bargain rarely includes tears. 

Tears for Western men are a sign of weakness; that is, not being physically strong enough to overcome the emotional tide of tears is contradictory to our misshapen male identity.  With the extreme emphasis put on men to have a monosyllabic physical strength, there is no place for that strength to be vulnerable.  Be strong = hit, push, run, jump, lift.  But if that physicality shows any opening to the inner world (dance, sway, rock, hug, kiss) our culture looks at it as a hole that should be plugged, like an opening in the hull of a boat.

74 school shootings in 18 months; almost all young white males; mostly teenagers; We are training killers.

I remember well the feeling I had in high school before my Diva moment.  I used the word “trapped” to describe it.  I felt as if there was no way out, that even once I graduated, I would be stuck in a way of living, on a path that I hadn’t chosen.  Always, I had this feeling as if I was supposed to be living up to an ideal “male” pattern that I increasingly didn’t fit within/live up to.  I hated that feeling.  I imagine that with all of the images of “ideal” men with all of the talk about what men are supposed to be and with all the competition for increasingly fewer resources of all kinds, young men today must be in a constant dance between devastation and desperation.  I can’t imagine being told to not cry in those circumstances.

But, we are too familiar now with the images of fathers crying on newscasts; the fathers of teenage boys who have been existing in today’s pressure cooker of a world, being told to “suck it up” and “man up”, not maybe in so many words, but in the shape of a world that still looks to Superman as the male ideal.  We are all guilty of creating this generation of murderers.  Every time we defend a classic “strong silent” type or tell a boy to be a “man” and assume that that means somehow acting less vulnerable.  Every time we look the other way when a parent puts a tool instead of an experience in a boys hands….a bat instead of a flower.  Every time we joke with our teenage boys about objectifying girls and women.  Every time we use the word “fag” as a term of derision; and definitely every time we tell a boy or a man either through our own embarrassment or actual words to stop crying.

1 Samuel 20:41 – After the boy had gone, David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground. Then they kissed each other and wept together – but David wept the most.

The Bible is full of men crying and expressing themselves.  I don’t recall a single passage where the Bible says “thou shalt not show emotion if you have a penis.”  Quite the opposite.  Men express joy and love (even for one another) and frequently cry to God, to Christ, with other men with women…

How can we re-imagine a male equation that no longer holds on to emotion?  Like canned goods in the sun, boys and men without emotional outlets (beyond anger) are bound to explode some day: maybe in dangerous behavior, or in aggression toward those who are weaker, or in a career spent proving ones “manhood” over and over and over again.  Or maybe they will literally explode in the chamber of a gun.

For God’s sake, why can’t we just let him cry.

Conversations About Masculinity

Handshake-Bush-awkward-300x221Lately, I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations about what it means to be male.  Is it about biology or culture?  Is it about attitude or action? And on top of all that, as a minister in formation, I have to ask, what does faith say about this all?  Some of these conversations have been through my work with state policy advocacy around boys and men of color; other conversations have been with friends around the growing number of states that are allowing same sex marriage; still, other conversations have been in relation to the rights and needs of trans men and women and others who will benefit from ENDA and California’s bill AB 1266 (read: everyone.)  The feminist movement made it okay for us to question gender, sexual preference and orientation and frankly, the conversations about men really need to be including a lot more women…but that is another post!  Opening this door on the question of “male” has only led to more questions; basically it has led to the discovery of more doors.  Some lead to closets; some lead to corridors; some lead to basements with skeletons and some lead into the bright sunshine outdoors.

This post will be the first in a series where I will pose some of these questions in the hopes that some of my readers and colleagues will begin to formulate answers or possible directions in which we might go to achieve some kind of balance or maybe just a language that allows a conversation to begin.

Question #1 – What are we afraid of? (“Don’t touch me, dude!”)

I have long puzzled to myself, what are men afraid of…really?  This isn’t just as simple as the assumption that some gay men have where every straight guy is a gay man waiting to come out.  In fact, I would go as far to say that this sentiment is as damaging to the cause of realigning masculinity as straight men assuming that the only thing gay men want from them is sex.  In a paper last year, I presented how sexual expression between males is not inherently erotic.  Using the Biblical story of Jonathan and David in the second book of Samuel as my foundation, I make the case that sensual physicality is potentially part of every male relationship.  The physicality experienced by men can be intimate, but it is not automatically erotic.  In our culture today, however, we have been influenced by both misguided science (creation of the terms hetero/homo sexual was an anomaly of 19th century western science and its obsession with labeling things) and male dominance run rampant.

Unconditional Touch

Men in our culture are not taught to receive touch.  That is, men are not taught in our culture to receive touch without there being an exchange.  We are not taught about what I call ‘unconditional touch.’  Our current culture of male physicality reinforces the idea that “if someone is touching me…I must either do something or I have the obligation/right to do something in return.”  How often do we see men presented in comedy sketches where they get ‘a little too close’ and are defensively uncomfortable and have to reestablish their stereotyped masculine positions?  To us this is comedy, but really it is a tragedy.  In this transactional presentation of touch, the man assumes that every one who touches him, is doing so as part of an exchange: either sexual or positional (for dominance.) Example: a woman touching him = sexual communication (invitation/ expectation); a man touching him = challenge to dominance (sexual advance/ acknowledgement of boundaries/ threat.)  This is admittedly a simplification of some of what goes on, but we see this play out all the time in children and adults and it is repeatedly reinforced in our media.

I have seen this in my work as a massage therapist.  Most frequently, straight western men will want a female therapist.  Even though the massage relationship is professional, the underlying expectation presented in this situation is that touch = sex = opposite sex.  This also points to the reason that most straight western women want a female therapist.  They do not want to be presented with the transactional touch relationship of dealing with a male.  This same perversion of touch exists with same gender loving individuals.  The overwhelming majority of my male clients have been gay men.  Not necessarily because they expect a sexual exchange, but because their only context and their safest context for understanding touch has been in a sexual setting.

If men were allowed to experience touch without transactional obligations there might be more room for growth.  Both giving and receiving touch in this setting (without a transactional element) offers men the opportunity to express more authentic emotions, create deeper bonds and develop more genuine and loving relationships with themselves and their world around them.  When we look at two little boys playing together, they are physical.  They wrestle, they touch they cuddle and we consider this kind of interaction normal and endearing.  But at a certain point, rather than allowing the boy to grow with the sense that he can give and receive loving touch from a peer without obligation, we step in with adult expectations of gender norms and cultural restrictions and tell him that touch is only part of a specific set of rituals and can only be used as part of the exchange for sex.  There are many people who consider circumcision of boys to be a crime.  Despite my personal feelings about physical circumcision, I believe that much worse is the cultural circumcision that cuts boys off from the total experience of touch and physical interaction as a full and unconditional experience to be shared between loving people regardless of gender or gender expression.  This numbness is what disconnects men from themselves and from women and is quite possibly the foundation for our current crisis of objectification and rape.

(Coming Next: Question # 2 – Who do we want to be?)

Colonial Fool: Part IV – The REAL war on Religion

Sam Rohrer, president of the Pennsylvania Pastors’ Network, stated that he was “stunned at [the decisions on DOMA and Prop 8] today to take a 360-degree turn away from the biblical definition of marriage.…we must continue to work to keep marriages and families intact, the way God intended them, and pray for a continued revival of the values upon which this country was founded,” said Rohrer.1

When I was 15 years old I created a 2 and a half foot tall statue of Marilyn Monroe.  It was quite an engineering feat: there she was in all of her youthful voluptuousness striding forward supported on nothing more than two strappy sandal, stiletto high heels.  I determined that once dried and kilned, she would balance perfectly.  Her curves, her expression her pose evoked a totally different era for womanhood…both good and bad.  Tragically, she exploded in the kiln due to unseen air pockets throughout.  That’s what I think of as I watch Paula Deen’s demise and it is also what I think of when I watch some of the conservative Christian reaction to the demise of DOMA and Prop 8.

Poor Paula.  She doesn’t understand why people get upset when she uses the word ‘nigger’ when she is angry or threatened or why having it as a part of her personal vocabulary is seen as…uh, questionable.  But then this shouldn’t be surprising coming from a woman who was fully willing to recreate a “Gone With the Wind” era South, complete with black slave help, for someone’s wedding2.

But remember, Paula Deen has always been this way; we’re just finding out about it.  We still lapped up every dollop of butter she served and bought every book and laughed with her when she was brained by a ham.  So what’s so different now.  Well, now we know.

So what do Paula Deen and Conservative Christians against Marriage Equality have in common?  A lot more than meets the swollen ham eye.  Although statements like Sam Roher’s and pretty much anything Michelle Bachmann has ever said, are just plain offensive, they point to a deeper more restrictive concept of religion than the one they are touting as being solely for married heterosexual couples and couples in waiting (aka their offspring) in much the same way that Paula Deen’s claim that ‘nigger’ is a fun expression is a sign of a deeper set of flaws.  These limited religious factions have decided that there is only one God, and only one interpretation of God not to mention deciding for everyone that there IS a God.  Last time I checked, most Atheists didn’t quite run that way, Hindus are creeped out by that kind of limitation in the concept of existence, Pagans question “just one?”,and well, us Unitarian Universalists don’t accept anything that hasn’t been decided by committee.

Before MB makes a statement like:

Marriage was created by the hand of God. No man, not even a Supreme Court, can undo what a holy God has instituted….For thousands of years of recorded human history, no society has defended the legal standard of marriage as anything other than between man and woman. Only since 2000 have we seen a redefinition of this foundational unit of society in various nations.3

She might want to consult a Rabbi:

RebJeff on “What does the Bible say about marriage”

If you didn’t navigate away and look at Reb Jeff’s article on marriage (from 2012 but effective nonetheless) he basically says that the Bible just doesn’t lay it out that clearly.  He also brings up American law that only in the last 100 years gave married women ANY rights at all to their own property…largely because they were property themselves.

And Lord knows Michelle might be pretty confused by some of the “ins and outs” of Kosher sex…particularly where it says that the woman may not withhold sex or it is grounds for divorce.4

If the conservative Christians are not willing to accept even the twisted and conflicting language of their own Bible, do we really believe that they are going to take the time to truly accept Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists, Zoroastrians, Shinto or any tribal religions?  The framework that Roher, Bachmann et al are using is to declare Protestant Christianity the official national religion of the United States.  I will not argue that Protestant Christianity is what the dominant population who founded this country practiced.  But that same dominant population also practiced and perpetuated slavery, genocide, dowry rituals, marital rape, incest (first cousin marriage is still legal in 20 US states5) blood letting,  and more recently pre-frontal lobotomies, thalidomide, ‘hygenic’ circumcision, silicone breast implants and anti-miscegenation.  Not a great track record.

In the world of Bachmann, church is on Sunday, sex is in missionary position (appropriately named), marriage equals babies, people are either white or something else and God is God.  The terrifying part is that there are an awful lot of people in America who think this same way on some level, just like Paula Deen ignorantly accepts ‘nigger’ as a form of endearment (and she is definitely no rapper.)  The repulsion to same sex marriage is just the tip of the iceberg here.  This is a group of people that does not want to see beyond their limited view and gay marriage is the current whipping boy.  After 9/11 Muslims got their wrath (and still carry it.)  Next year, there will be a new ‘other’ for them to be afraid of.  Prior to 1967, it was interracial marriage and before that integration in general and throughout our history any kind of immigrants.  These are all assaults on diversity and our rights to seek independent truth.

I return to my ill fated Marilyn statue, beautiful in some ways though she was, she could never have survived…and that is a good thing; let her rest in peace with all the conflict of talent, honest womanhood and male objectification and victimization she has come to represent.  Similarly, we need to see the limited thinkers who invoke the US founding fathers to foist their beliefs on the rest of us just for what they are: perilously constructed statues of dead icons, waiting to self destruct in the kiln of modern justice.

Footnotes

1. Christians Stunned Disappointed in DOMA Prop 8 Decisions
2. Paula Deen uses the n-word: 8 Shocking Details from her Deposition
3. Michelle Bachmann Rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 Attack our Constitution
4.Kosher Sex
5.Wikipedia – Cousin Marriage

Too Quick to Covenant

“Should we create a covenant?”  These are familiar words to Unitarian Universalists.  I’ve found that in UU circles covenants are as common as coffee and dounts.  Bless our bleeding, left leaning hearts, it seems that UUs more than any group are always determined to be in “right relationship” with one another, and we frequently begin any kind of process or group exercise with a “covenant.”  Although I admire this eagerness to have level playing fields and understand how this can be a useful tool for helping groups stay on point, the specific use of the word “covenant” is a bit of a hot button to me.  As I delve deeper into understanding faith traditions and magnify that understanding in the lens of our modern world, I caution us all not to miss the point of true covenant or how the assumptions built into social covenants can actually harm us.

The covenants that most people are familiar with are those from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament.  The covenants entered into between God and Noah, God and Abraham, the Mosaic covenant, the covenant beween Jonathan and David and the Covenant of Christ are those which inform much of our modern interpretation of the word in Judeo-Christian culture.  I do not have the scholarly or linguistic heft to venture into a sufficiently deep explanation here of each of these examples, but suffice it to say that these are solemn agreements with God that assume two important absolutes: a) that one believes in God; b) that one believes in a God that believes in them.  Again, this is a much longer conversation…

I believe, however, it is useful to explore how in modern relationships, we take for granted a certain culture of covenant that has its own built in assumptions.  One of the basic definitions of a covenant is as an agreement.  It is first and foremost an agreement that two parties will fulfill certain obligations to one another.  One could call a covenant a “contract” of sorts.  One key difference however, is that a covenant is entered into between people or entities, or groups who know one another and hold a common goal or purpose, whereas a contract is generally between people who only have that agreement as their primary means of relationship.  A covenant serves to bind or enhance an already existing relationship.

The Biblical agreements that I mentioned before are definitely not just contracts. Often involving blood commitment, God (for those who believe and/or follow Abrahamic scripture) surely “knows” mankind.  God “knows” Noah, Abraham and Moses.  David and Jonathan “know” one another intimately and because of that intimacy, enter into their covenant.  The Covenant of God made through Christ, giving his Son for the forgiveness of man’s sin is one made based entirely on God’s omniscience, Jesus’ knowledge of his predestined mission and the acknowledgement man is willing to make in recognizing Christ as savior.  There is a lot of “knowing” going on here.

In today’s environment of deep political and social divide, it could be argued that we are in need of a covenant.  We are in need of an agreement that obliges us to protect one another and serve a common good.  Of course, we already have many agreements that are intended to do this, from the US Constitution to the Kyoto Protocol to NAFTA…and certainly the Judeo-Christian  covenants I point to should serve the purpose of making our world safe and nurturing.  We put on a good show in treating these agreements like covenants.  We see entire governments shaping the course of history based on some of these agreements.  We watch people protest for their rights based on their spiritual covenants.  But in a world that stumbles along on fractured social relationships…fractured by inequities and ignorance and fear and broad assumptions…even these solemn agreements with God become merely contracts that are too easily broken.

We all know what assumptions make….

The conservative LGBTQI hating Christian assumes that the world should want to function in their paradigm of truth.  The rich American capitalist assumes that everyone wants success in the way they see it.  Likewise, some of the the best ultra liberal Unitarian Universalists assume that the most damaging force to people of color is white privilege. These are just examples.  The point is that “right relationship” cannot happen until you are actually IN relationship with the other party. How well do you know me?  How well do I know you?  How deeply do our communities of trust actually engage one another in today’s world? Are we willing to sublimate our personal desires, agendas, guilt, etc. to acknowledge the world as it is seen through the eyes of others long enough to offer them the respect and love that would allow us to enter into a true covenant of human dignity?  A covenant is not a contract, so much as it is a commitment.  It is a commitment to be not just in right relationship, but to be in genuine relationship with one another.

Pardon the mixed cliches here…love your neighbor, but do not suffer fools.  If your neighbor is not willing to genuinely know you, and you are not willing to genuinely know your neighbor, you never stand the chance of embracing the true covenant of peace.