Love Your Body!

Get Bold TodayMy beautiful friend LeGrande Green did this interview with me recently.  I am so honored to be part of his new endeavor “BOLD.”  We had a great conversation about what it means to “Love Your Body!”  In a time and an age where where we are being challenged to find ways to love each other beyond race, class and gender, LeGrande and I ponder what it means for us to love ourselves, in particular our physical selves, first.

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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?)

Touch Me in the Morning

In Your Hands For Moodle

I want to thank my friend and student Jasmine for pointing me toward the following article:

Touch Me…PLEASE! – Elephant Journal

In the midst of national crises about gun violence, racial profiling, privacy, our role in international war and the like, we forget that we are in the beginning and in the end just human beings…not human DOINGS, but human BEINGS.  The most accessible aspect of that state is our ability to touch.

This semester, I am teaching a class: In Your Hands: Spirituality, Language and Ethics of Touch at Starr King School for the Ministry.  It is geared toward students in seminary, to get us thinking and open up the dialogue about touch.  You see, I believe that the solution to the problems listed above is finding a way to reclaim our ability to be in physical contact with one another without it being commodified.  We have stepped so far outside of our bodies and our embodied experience that we immediately associate touch with exchanges of power, particularly of a sexual nature, and although touch is intimate, intimacy does not always mean sex.  The way a child breastfeeds is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we touch the hand of someone when they need help is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we embrace others in a time of joy is intimate, but it is not sex.  The intimacy is determined by the emotional context that we share when we touch, not by the act alone.

Why do a graduate class on touch in seminary?  Because faith communities have simultaneously done the most to destroy the language of touch and also have the most to lose by eliminating touch.  There have been abuses in every religious denomination…it is not just a Catholic problem.  It is an issue of power and using touch as a tool to gain that power.  Inappropriate touch is the tool of people who are scared and desperate and who have no other way in their understanding, to find what they really seek.  They understand that as people of the big monolithic religious body, they have certain power to direct people’s lives…yet they still feel out of control within themselves.  I am no psychotherapist, but I am a body therapist and I have seen reflections of this kind of behavior in the massage room; where someone who is struggling to feel more in control of their own body is looking for something more from the massage…they never quite surrender to the experience of touch and may direct or anticipate your every move.  Some will make an out and out a pass at you. Not at all to say that this is every case, but I’ve seen it first hand.

Let me be clear, I am not teaching people how to touch in church.  However, I may be trying to teach people how to ask why and why not to touch in church.  If faith communities can make an effort to not just enforce boundaries, but learn about and teach through our natural boundaries, we might just be able to reclaim this thing.  I am not a Christian minister (though I identify as Christian within the Unitarian Universalist Church) but there are countless examples of Christ touching people, or people touching Christ (Matthew 9: 18 – 22 is chocka) and these are beautiful and inspiring examples of faith.  By reacting to those who would abuse touch by saying “don’t touch” we all lose and the abusers win.  Suddenly, we are agreeing with those who misuse touch and in our tacet response we are saying “you’re right, touch is bad and evil and can only be a no-good thing.”  We don’t deserve that as human beings.  Instead I say, don’t let the abusers win; let’s explore and thoroughly discuss the ways and the reasons why we touch in the open.  Shine a light on it and leave the  abusers nowhere to hide.

Already, two weeks in, my class is deeply fascinating and threads of thought and engagement are emerging that I could never have  anticipated.  We’ll see where it goes.  At the very least there are seven future religious leaders in the world who are asking questions along with me.  Its not much, but an avalanche starts when just one stone comes loose.

Peace.

20130916_075406Thank you to everyone who has been reading my blog. My last post Heartbreak received about 1000 hits and numerous comments.  Again, I am deeply grateful to those of you who read, but it is bittersweet that tragedy would have to touch us this way.  I have not written, and may not write about the shooting in Virginia, because truly, my heart is too heavy with the combination of these stories.  I only offer a prayer for those we lost, including the gunman, their families and for our nation to find a solution to feeling as if we need to carry around life and death in our pockets.

Bounce

Resilience.  This is a term that is new to me in the context of my current job.  I work for a non profit organization that is focused on equity.  All day long, I am surrounded by a brilliant and diverse team of analysts, coordinators, managers, associates, assistants and directors who are deeply engaged in asking questions of our government and our society that will lead to better outcomes for people who are poor and or disenfranchised.  My understanding, from a totally non policy-wonk standpoint is that “resilience” is the built in capacity for someone or a system to overcome or survive adversity.  When we talk of New Orleans after Katrina, we speak of resilience; or the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami in Japan or Indonesia…again the question of resilience.  This also goes from the macro to the micro level, when we look at human beings in poor neighborhoods or unhealthy situations…we ask the question of why some people not only survive, but manage to thrive while others become mired in patterns of un-success.

In a recent meeting to explore this word and its applications, understandings and questions, I was privileged to hear some incredible perspectives that related to everything from housing to health as well as our political structure and disaster relief.  This was a fabulous introduction for someone like me coming from a theological perspective, to the very specific way in which resilience is assessed in circles that deal with equity.

But what struck me about these very practical and tangible examples of resilience in a socio/economic related context, was how much this concept resonates with the spiritual and physical realm that is much less tangible and often regarded as totally impractical.

It is a proven fact that babies and children who are not touched do not thrive.  We must experience human touch to have a sense of safety in our world.  Without this, we have no boundaries and we are deprived of our most basic form of communication.  I would argue that above all the senses, our sense of touch is the most highly developed.  Within touch we are able to receive information about intention that can escape inflection in the sound of words, or expression in the faces we see, and so on.  I would imagine that this is one reason we have words in our language that come from this sense and apply directly to our emotions: feeling, holding, embracing, touching….But there is also touch that is not healthy and “bad” touch can do as much damage as no touch at all.  Children and people who are abused or deprived of agency in touch do not learn to trust the world around them or themselves.  It is a long road to recovery when someone has been taught that this basic interaction with the world around them is a constant threat.

I was recently reading the book The Emotional Incest Syndrome: What to Do When a Parent’s Love Rules Your Life and in it Dr. Patricia Love gives extensive detail on how parents who have inappropriate emotional relationships with their children, can do as much damage as those who have inappropriate physical relationships with them.  This is a perfect example of the bridge between the physical and the emotional aspects of touch.  In the book it is very clear that if a child is deprived of the unconditional love of the parent child relationship…if they are given a conditional relationship or are asked to “parent” their parents, they do not thrive in a balanced manner.  Likewise, if they are given too much contact (the emotional incest element) and asked to fill the role of surrogate “spouse” in a family relationship, they are equally damaged.  These structures, based on how we learn to touch one another physically and emotionally are what I see as a basic part of how we navigate our world.

In theological circles, we deal with the concept of resilience every single day.  Among other reasons, people come to religion to be sustained in times of trial, or to be “born again” or to find parts that are missing in their lives.  In short, spirituality is one of the most basic sources of human cultural resilience.  The church is often the first resource for communities in distress, whether that be emotional or physical; whether there is a tornado or a mass murder.  Churches, synagogues  mosques and temples are full when communities face disaster.  The reason for this is simple: unconditional love.  This is what we seek in religion, just as we seek this in our family relationships.  Christians speak of the unconditional love of Jesus that sustains and rebuilds them.  There is an assumption and security in how this love will always be present.  Like a child of the best parent, a believing Christian (and I would imagine any other devoutly religious person, or person with a solid belief structure) knows they will always be loved.

In Jim Wallis’ book Rediscovering Values on Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street, he talks a great deal about how religion and faith in community should be the moral bedrock for creating resilience in our culture.  He wrote the book at the height of the economic downturn and highlights both scripture and economic data to support the moral and ethical argument against big impersonal business and the robber baron mentality that brought our financial system to a collapse.  He points to personal moral obligations driven by both faith and conscience as a beacon to lead individuals and on a larger scale, business and even government toward equitable practices.  His formula has validity and we are seeing it now play out as communities are rediscovering small business and farmer’s markets and ways to make what is essentially “small town America” the hub of our culture.

I would take this all one step further.  Equity, that is balance throughout our economic and social structures, cannot exist unless we create an environment that is based in what is essentially unconditional love.  The “market” is not real; it is only a reflection of our relationships with each other.  If we have a financial system that is based on “I’ve got mine, who cares about you”, that is how we are relating to one another.  The market cannot “self correct”…we must correct it by entering into properly balanced relationship with one another.  We as individuals must understand that all of our actions do not exist in a vacuum. This goes for finances, for government, for local business, for education, for parenting and for how we relate to one another.  Young people graduating from college are burdened with lifetime debt before they have had the joy of properly earning a wage and feeling like a contributing part of their communities.  This is a classic example of how we are in an emotionally incestuous relationship with our society, where the “parent” (greater society) is asking them (recent grads) to provide parental stability when they have only just learned to walk; how can they succeed?  How can we succeed?

We will need to examine our cultural relationships.  Our most successful models are families/relationships with balance between parent/provider and child; an environment of unconditional love where we learn to trust and thrive; and a language of touch/interaction where we communicate a clear intention for mutual success.  These are important  foundations of our humanness and we must respect them on on levels of our existence.

Resources:

Jim Wallis’ books are available at Sojourners (http://sojo.net/)

Patricia Love’s books are available at her website (http://www.patlove.com/)