by Faith Harper
There is an enormous power to being the person up here, the one doing the talking. Which is pretty
ironic considering that when I told you I wanted to talk about intimacy with y’all today, I am really
sneaking in a lot of my thoughts on power.
My father is a Roman Catholic deacon and an ecumenical catholic priest. For many years he would dress in his alb and stole and speak from this position. There were always two things you could count on in my household. Somewhere on his alb would be a pagan symbol…a reminder of our spiritual roots. And he would never wear underwear. I think he took great pleasure in how much this upset my mother. He would always make some comment about the fact that he was wearing a dress in public and his lack of underwear was probably the least of his problems. But I think that in reality, it served as a reminder that despite all the trappings of his surroundings and his vestments, that he was not any more special or holy than the congregation that he served. That it is easy to believe in a kind of power structure that creates barriers instead of connections.
And so many of us have lost our ability to hold that truth on a daily basis. That we are not different,
better, or separate in any way from the rest of the planet we reside on.
There is a story I tell my counseling students. It is about a man who falls in a deep, deep hole. It’s dark, scary, and unscalable. He can’t get out alone. He screams and cries for help. A doctor comes along, writes out a prescription and throws it down into the hole.
But that doesn’t get him out of the hole.
A lawyer walks by. The man is screaming and sobbing “help me, help me, help me out.” The lawyer
writes a brief in support of his position and throws it down into the hole.
But that doesn’t get him out of the hole.
Then someone new walks by. When I tell this story to my students, I tell them it’s a counselor. But in
reality it’s any one of us. Any connected, empathic person. You or I, regardless of what we do for a
living…we walk by that hole, we hear the man screaming, pleading, scared, and stuck. And we jump
down in the hole with him.
For a minute the man is quiet. He is surprised, shocked, and it probably feels good, for a moment, to not be alone in his misery. Then he realizes that you are both down in the same hole. He turns and he asks “Now what? Now there are two of us stuck down in this hole.”
And we say, from a place of empathy, connectedness, and intimacy respond “But I have been here
before and I know the way out.”
So there is a hole I have spent many years working my way out of, and I think I am close to getting there. And wanted to share my map out, in case you find yourself stuck in the same place. I freely admit that I am a terrible Buddhist. I have always felt that if the goal of Buddhism is enlightenment, I am in serious trouble. Traditionally, enlightenment means a true awakening into that which imprisons us into suffering and attachment. It means a realization of what exists in the here and now, and a freedom from this suffering and these attachments.
I am pretty sure I will never be able to achieve that.
Jack Kerouac wrote a poem that stated, simply, that once you become enlightened you will realize you have been enlightened all along. I used to get so irritated with that. Like he was teasing me about
something that was quite likely out of my reach as an overthinking, overfeeling imperfect human.
Then I read Zen Master Dogen’s take on enlightenment which is that all enlightenment really is is
intimacy with all things. And that started to make things crack open for me.
I wanted to do some reading on Zen Master’s Dogen’s perspective on intimacy. Jack Kornfield
explicated it beautifully in his book, A Path With Heart:
If we investigate what keeps us from intimacy, what keeps us from love, we will discover it is
always an expectation, a hope, a thought or a fantasy. It is the same expectation that keeps us
from awakening. Awakening is not far away; it is nearer than near. As it says in the Buddhist
texts "Awakening is not something newly discovered; it has always existed. There is no need to
seek or follow the advice of others. Learn to listen to that voice within yourself just here and
now. Your body and mind will become clear and you will realize the unity of all things. Do not
doubt the possibilities because of the simplicity of these teachings. If you can't find the truth
right where you are, where else do you think you will find it?
So I think that what Zen Master Dogen and Jack Kornfield are trying to tell us is that we achieve intimacy (and therefore awakening) in unity, in equality, and in shared power.
So we are automatically set up for our failure in our current culture.
We have a common misconception that the DNA organization of primates…what Richard Dawkins terms the “selfish gene”…creates a loading of dominator cultures in all primate species. In essence, in order to survive, we are wired to wield power over others. This plays out in every arena in our lives. We have, historically, set up situations in which it is evident that some individuals have more power than others and wield that power in their benefit and interests. We have markers of these power differentials in everything we do. Whether it be the alb and stole of a church, or the suit, tie, and cufflinks of a corporate executive.
And while many people don’t know this yet, anthropologists have figured something out. Most notably,
through the work of Riane Eisler, we have found that primates are not actually wired to dominator
models of society. While chimpanzees engage in dominator social structures, bonobos do not. Bonobos have partnership social systems. And human beings, across time, have demonstrated both partnership and dominator social models. The great secret is that we are wired for both. So we have a choice, every day, in how we want to interact with the rest of our world.
Do we wield power over or do we share power with others?
There is something else that research has born out in recent years. It is that Jean Baker Miller’s notion of relational cultural theory is neurobiologically correct. Our brains are hardwired to need relationships, we are wired to connect.
We are our healthiest, happiest selves when we experience intimacy with others. We are awakened in connection. But we cannot achieve intimacy when operating in a “power over” social system.
So what’s the difference between these power-over dominator social systems and these power-with
partnership social systems? Riane Eisler’s research has born out some interesting facts. Partnership models of society have minute levels of violence, aggression, fear, and abuse. Roles and expectations are negotiated and built on trust and respect. Do we still have conflict? Of course! But individuals have shared power in arriving at solutions. Are we still competitive? Of course, Richard Dawkins was totally right about that. But competition is achievement based rather than fear and attack based.
So I think…and a lot of people way smarter than I am think…that our lack of connectedness, our lack of intimacy, our lack of enlightenment…comes from our inability to share power. But the good news is, no matter what anyone else tells you, humanity is not a lost cause. Cultural evolution drives biological evolution, because it changes how we interact with each other and with the
world. Instead of ranking human beings over or under other human beings, we begin linking them. We
share power. We cultivate intimacy.
The question, then, is…how?
When I work with couples, I have them reconnect through touch. When I work with families, I
reintroduce play and fun. When I work in corporate systems, I encourage managers to find out what
their staff members are passionate about and give them opportunities to develop those passions, even if they aren’t doing their day to day job requirements so effectively. These are all activities that
restructure relationships. By sharing power, we build connections. And we create a movement of
The problem with most great ideas is that we talk about them, but our follow through is minimal and
sporadic. We yearn for big, systemic changes that we do not have the individual power to accomplish, rather than focus on the things we can change. My friend Adrian Warren introduced me to the concept of microadvocacy recently. His term is nicer than mine, I call it publically shaming people into action by taking small steps toward changing broken systems.
Because this is what I am going to ask you to do.
I am passing around slips of paper and a jar to put them in. I am going to ask you to commit to
something different you are willing to do, that will dismantle power structures in your life and instead
build intimacy. So research shows that when we write something down, we are 42% more likely to
follow through. So I am challenging you to choose one thing, write it down, and add it to the jar. I am
going to leave the jar here with you, in the sacred space this congregation has created, as a tangible
reminder of your commitment to cultural evolution.
I am not going to tell you what avenue of change to choose, and in which of your relationships to take
action. I think you likely already know. I am guessing that an image flashed in your mind as I offered this challenge. It may be in your romantic partnership, it may be within your family or circle of friends, or it may within your greater community.
But in case you are still pondering, let me share my children’s commitment to cultural evolution,
because it is a simple one. It’s cereal bars. We keep them in the glovebox of the car, and hand them out to anyone who seems hungry. We roll down the window of our car, step out of our own story, and make a connection with people standing at stoplights, asking for money, washing windows, selling
newspapers. We chat, we smile, we make eye contact, and we ask them if they are hungry. In the area we live, many people have come to know us. Giving out cereal bars is my son’s very favorite thing in the world to do. When I asked him why, this 14 year old boy, whose answer to everything is “I dunno” said “I like feeding people. And I like making them happy.” He got it. He got intimacy with all things.
My work as a therapist often has to do with sexuality and how people express that aspect of themselves. But there are many opportunities for intimacy and connection in our daily lives. Big sweeping ideas of change won’t save the world because they feel overwhelming and impossible and they do typically fail for that reason. But small, daily acts have so much more impact than we realize.
So I am challenging you today to start changing the world through a small daily act that builds more
intimacy in your relationships. I think the Buddhist teachings are correct. If we can’t find it within
ourselves, where do we think we are going to find it? And I am going to come back and visit you again in November. And I bet that when we share our microadvocacy stories, we will realize that we really have been enlightened all along.
Sep 28, 2014
My job is a seriously sweet gig. My clients rock. They come in ready to work through their intimacy issues and reconnect in their relationships. I have people who drive in from two hours away to hang out with me, which is a serious level of commitment. They do their homework (to be fair, it’s fun homework). They communicate with their partners. Things gets better.
My friends (you know who you are!), on the other hand, are crazy.
And this article is for them. Dating is supposed to be fun. It really is. OK, It isn’t always fun, but if you are doing it right it is mostly fun. But try telling my friends that. They act like they are entering a demilitarized zone and are strapping on a flak jacket. I have had enough conversations with my friends that end with the Carrie Fisher line from When Harry Met Sally….you know the one “You’re right, you’re right…I know you’re right” Because I keep saying the same things over and over. And because they know I’m right.
I’m the tough love friend who issues the smack down you know you need to hear no matter how much you don’t want to. If I could bring you a mug of hot chocolate and a box of tissues while you read this, I would totally do that, too. Because tough love aside, I am so very sorry. You ARE amazing and that dumbass really IS missing out. You DO deserve better. I believe that with every fiber of my being, which is why I am going to call some stuff out.
1) It’s called dating, not boyfriending, for a reason. Or girlfriending. Or otherfriending. Or even just relationshiping. Your mileage may vary. But the point is, stop marrying yourself off on the first date or worrying about all kinds of long term crap. It’s an audition, it’s not opening night. If its coffee, go have coffee. Let it just be coffee. If it is never anything more than coffee….you didn’t lose out on anything, right? You got exactly what you set out to achieve.
2) It shouldn’t be that complicated. If you are spending more time dissecting the relationship rather than being in it, it isn’t working. I can judge the shelf-life of a new relationship by how much I hear about it. If it is going well, you are out living it….not trying to convince yourself (and your long-suffering therapist friend) that everything is great. Or would be if this fabulous new person would JUST TEXT YOU BACK ABOUT YOUR DINNER PLANS.
3) A rejection of you isn’t about YOU. OK, let me caveat that a bit. If no relationship lasts pasts the third date then you might want to reconsider what is happening at that point. Patterns are important. But a relationship failing to take off do not automatically mean you are a failure. Refer to Rule #1. If you are dating someone and exploring the option of being something longer-term and more permanent and things just fade away? They do that. They met someone else they likes better, the ex called and wants them back, the best friend is in town and they are out working the clubs. Whatever. Here’s the thing: This person did not know you nearly well enough for you to take this as a personal rejection of your excellent qualities as a human being. They barely knew you at all. Maybe they didn’t like your choice of hole-in-the-wall Pakistani restaurants. Or the fact that your phone screensaver is a picture of your elderly cat. Or that you forgot to vote in the last election. In the end, they decided that they were not invested enough to find out what all your excellent qualities as a human being are. But because they didn’t ever do so, you have to stop taking the rejection so damn personally. Seriously. If someone you have known for many years stops talking to you, something is wrong. Someone you’ve been seeing for a few weeks? Time to let it go.
4) Grown-ass people get to make their own choices. No matter how stupid they are. No matter how much better the world would run if you were in charge of it (and clearly true, as people are passing up the opportunity to learn about all the excellent qualities you possess as a human being). People get to do whatever they want. They are also responsible for the consequences of their actions. Player gotta play? Their choice. You aren’t down with that? Don’t excuse it. You can ask for things to be different, but it may not happen. You can’t force your will on someone else, but you can choose how it impacts your life. If it is a deal breaker, break the deal. Move on. You are included on the list of grown-ass people who get to make their own choices. That’s the cool part.
5) You are allowed to BE crazy, you are not allowed to ACT crazy. Whatever is going on in your head? That chatter? The icky, grody feelings? You are totally allowed to have them. Thoughts and feelings are just thoughts and feelings. They aren’t right or wrong. They just are. Isn’t that zen? But the hard part is controlling what you do with them. You could think “But we would be so great together!” And that may be the rightest thing in the history of ever. But refer back to Rule 3. It doesn’t matter…they have moved on, and it doesn’t have nearly as much to do with you as you think it does. But driving by their house at 3AM? Sending desperate text messages of the “But whyyyyyy? I need to knooooooow” variety. STOP THAT. I don’t care how much you want to do it, if you know it’s crazy and you know you will regret it later, then DO NOT DO THE THING. Go for a walk, watch crap on Netflix, listen to “Everybody Hurts” by REM and sob on the kitchen floor, call a friend and request an intervention. BUT DO NOT ACT CRAZY. That person who didn’t even know you well enough to know what they are rejecting? Not worth all that time and aggravation. Be pissed, be sad, but remember Rule 4. You are a grown ass person who is responsible for the consequences of your actions. Don’t embarrass yourself.
Ok, now for the good stuff. That whole you are amazing and deserve better part? I meant that. You are going to reclaim your life now. You are in charge of this. Dating is going to be just that. You are gonna try some new people on for size, and realize that like bathing suit shopping, most things are going to fit horribly. But you will meet some interesting people. And this learning the hard way thing? Helps you figure out exactly what you do want.
If you aren’t wasting your time trying to convince yourself that you are happy, you will find the person with whom you are actually just happy.
Sep 16, 2014
“Faith,” an old friend recently asked me “if you are are going to be blogging now, can you please talk about slut-shaming, and why not wanting my daughter to dress like a slut is suddenly a bad thing?” Sure. “Wait, for the first time in over 20 years you are going to actually do what I said?” Yeah, but I will likely call you an idiot in the process. “At least that’s nothing new!” But seriously, good question, right?
Or rather, inclusive of several unspoken questions.
1) What is slut-shaming, anyway?
2) Why is it empirically a bad thing?
3) If slut shaming is unacceptable, how do I navigate parenting a daughter in a manner that encourages rules of conduct and dress without slut-shaming her choices?
1) What is slut-shaming, anyway? Slut-shaming is action taken against a woman with the intent of making them feel guilty or inferior for a perceived violation of sex or gender rules of conduct. It often consists of pointing attention to their behavior in a manner that does not imply acceptance of or permission for the behavior in question. Slut-shaming most often occurs when women are perceived as behaving in a sexually provocative or inappropriate way. It could be general dress or behavior, or so specific as choice or number of sexual partners, a desire to have access to birth control, or even an admonition for being sexually assaulted (McCormack & Prostran, 2012). Slut-shaming is nothing new, it is ubiquitous across history. Nathanial Hawthorne’s Hestor Prynne had to wear a literal scarlet “A” in 1850. The “Hey Girls, Did You Know?” Meme continues the trend today (one sample: Hey girls. Did you know? You spread Nutella…not your legs.”). Slut shaming is not limited to the domain of men, women are equal opportunity slut shamers in our society (Vrangalova, Bukberg, & Riegler, 2013; Hess, 2013). We have all been trained to compartmentalize and criticize the behavior of women.
2) Why is slut-shaming an empirically bad thing? As I mentioned in my last post, the feminist writer Caitlan Moran, has developed a litmus test for determining sexist behavior. It works well for any sort of experience that appears to be specific to a certain cultural groups. Does the greater culture (in this case, men) have to deal with this issue? If the answer is no, it’s sexism (or racism, or classism, or homophobia, or religious intolerance). When Miley Cyrus twerked Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMA awards, who was shamed for the performance? Certainly not both of them. Robin went unscathed while Miley was ridiculed endlessly. When law student Sandra Fluke testified to House Democrats in 2012, regarding contraceptive mandates, Rush Limbaugh referred to her as both a slut and a prostitute. Limbaugh, despite having been married four times, has no children. One presumes he has engaged in some sort of usage of birth control with his wives (or any other sexual partners) without recrimination for doing so. If the rules are different for different people, the rules are bad ones.
3) If slut shaming is unacceptable, how do I navigate parenting a daughter in a manner that encourages rules of conduct and dress without slut-shaming her choices? Very good question, that right there. And there is more than one answer. First, explain the rules, when such apply. Dress codes are common in schools and on job sites. Dress codes may even be unfair, but they exist. And violations of them will lead to consequences. If you or your child thinks a certain dress code is truly unfair, teach them how to challenge it in an appropriate way. Do you create a petition that you share with the administration and the school board? Do you ask to speak to your boss in private about the possibility of wearing shorts when it is 105 degrees outside? You will experience consequences if you simply break the rules. This can also be an excellent time to help your child navigate the difficult lesson of “choosing your battles.”
My son was furious that he was told by his school that he was not allowed to wear his school t-shirt. I bought him the t-shirt, it was arty and cool and I had no problem with it either and wasn’t sure why they did. My son was also furious that they removed the salad bar from the cafeteria. He started a petition that got the salad bar reinstated, and chose to wear the t-shirt on the weekends. I would have supported him if he had chosen otherwise, but he made the mature decision that one thing was worth fighting for and the other thing would distract from his bigger goal. Smart kid.
Second, own reality. Explain to your child that we pass judgments based on how people look, act, and dress every day. These judgments are not always fair but they always exist. Explain that it is harder to overcome the initial impressions of others when we violate certain social standards. This applies in many arenas. When I wore a blue ball cap to work I was told I looked adorable, when my friend Jerry (who is African American and male) wore a similar ball cap, he was written up and told he looked as if he was representing gang affiliation. Wearing clothes that are more provocative than others are comfortable with will likely effect their perception of you in a negative way. Explain that this is not your child’s FAULT. However, not being fair does not change reality.
It can be much easier to achieve your goals if you ascribe to certain standards. I dress differently for the different roles I play in my career. I am at a point within it that I have an enormous amount of flexibility to wear jeans, Dr. Who t-shirts, and rock visible tattoos. But as often as I am able to do so, I will still wear a skirt and heels when meeting with the CEO of a large, conservative organization. It is an intentional choice on my part because I want to make sure my message is heard over my clothing. Speak to the reality of social judgments. They aren't going away. I made my daughter quite miserable by having her wear a blouse and slacks to a court appearance, rather than her preferred jeans and hoodie. I also reminded her to be respectful, not interrupt, not argue, and call the judge “sir” or “your honor.” When she saw other youth violating these social norms and being dressed down by the judge, she understood why I coached her dress and behavior. And she agreed that it was worth the effort.
Third, while owning reality, challenge it in your own family system. Explain to your child (all your children, maybe even ESPECIALLY your children than identify as male) to question their own judgments of others. To catch themselves questioning the worth of others. To consider alternate explanations of their dress or behavior. To allow people their own experiences without imposing our belief system upon them. To give others the same respect we always hope others give them. Finally, ask them to think about WHY. If there is no dress code, if there is no social norm that will be imposed, but you don’t approve of what they are wearing, talk to them about the reasoning behind their outfit choice. Say your teenage daughter is going to a party and is wearing a skirt that is so short her ovaries are hanging out, you still have every right to impose a no-ovary zone. Of course you do, you are the parent. But “go back to your room and change” won’t get you far. It might get her to come down in a pair of jeans with the aforementioned skirt tucked into her purse to change into when she leaves. Even if you get immediate compliance, do you want to shame your daughter by calling her a slut? I can’t imagine you do.
And those kinds of comments, no matter how offhand, have a way of sticking with kids. The better conversation to have with your kid can include: Why this skirt? This isn’t your typical choice of clothing, why did you choose it for this event? Are you seeking attention or approval from someone by wearing it? Do you feel comfortable? Do you feel attractive? What do you like about your outfit? What are you concerned about? If you felt some kind of pressure from someone else to wear this outfit, what would you have chosen to wear if that person hadn’t suggested this? What makes you feel your best and most confident? Is it this outfit? I have had these discussions with my niece over the years. It did turn out that she was choosing things that she thought would make her look “sexy” to others. We had long discussions about what it meant to be truly self-confident, and what sexy really meant to her at this stage in her life (pleasing others rather than pleasing herself).
Many of her clothing choices self-corrected after those discussions. And if she really loves something that the adults in her life do not approve of, we negotiate. That top can be worn with a tank under it or a shrug over it. That skirt can be worn with leggings. But “sexy” isn’t her aim anymore. She wants to look cute and fashionable and feel pretty and good about herself. She got there through conversations that were empowering instead of shaming. And that is the ultimate aim of parenting, isn’t it? To encourage our children to have a confident voice in the world and successfully navigate their transition to adulthood. Shaming is the antithesis of that. John, I hope that answers your question. I’m covered for the next 20 years, I do believe.
Sep 14, 2014
“Occasionally you’ll hear politicians, religious leaders, and newspaper columnists talk about something – vaguely mysterious, possibly fabulous – called a ‘homosexual lifestyle.’ As a card-carrying, lifetime member of homosexuality myself, it disturbs me that I don’t know more about what this so-called lifestyle involves. Homosexual Lifestyle. It sounds like a magazine digest I should subscribe to, or a gay version of IKEA that sells furniture named FUKKENSTOOL and OLKASCHLONG or a TV show about gardening, cooking, and anal. --Benjamin Law, Franke Magazine Issue 60, Summer 2014 Benjamin Law, hilariously and brilliantly, makes an excellent point. Terming something a lifestyle is an insidious act of microaggression imparted on individuals who identify as part of the LGBTQ community.
How so? Let’s unpack what the term microaggression means. The term was first coined by Harvard professor and psychiatrist Chester Pierce in an attempt to define the way members of dominant cultural groups demean and belittle minority groups. More recently, Derald Wing Sue (Columbia professor, psychologist, and author of the book Microaggessions In Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation) defines them as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership." Lifestyle is a neutral word though, right? How is it a denigrating term?
Ask yourself the following questions: • Have you ever seen the term homosexual lifestyle used in a positive way? • Does the term promote inclusiveness? • Do you ever see the term heterosexual lifestyle used in media or in conversation? • Or, to corrupt Caitlan Moran’s rule for identifying sexism to my own purposes...do you see straight people having to put up with this? The answer, of course, is no. Using the term lifestyle to designate the LGBTQ experience does several things. It imparts an otherness and implies an inherent difference in existence. It also, in a subtle way, implies choice. It denotes something we do rather than something we are. George Carlin railed against the word lifestyle as a silly part of the English language.
In his HBO stand-up special “Doin’ it Again” he announced: “You will not hear me refer to anyone's lifestyle. If you want to know what a moronic word lifestyle is all you have to do is realize that in a technical sense, Attila the Hun had an active, outdoor lifestyle.” Joe and I had breakfast at Starbucks with another couple yesterday. This couple happened to be comprised of two men. We discussed work, church, the weird stuff that happens when you are raising kids, and why you always spill coffee when wearing a white t-shirt. If there is a Homosexual Lifestyle, I guess I am as gay as they are because our experiences are pretty identical. The point is, of course, there is no such thing. We are all just living our lives…the only difference is we love different people. Franz Boas, the anthropologist, made an interesting discovery when studying American Indian languages. Published in his work, Handbook of American Indian Languages, he found that there is a bi-directional flow between thought and language. What we think impacts what we say. But equally important? What we say impacts what we think. If we use a word like lifestyle, we perpetuate a perhaps unintentional microaggression, but we are also wiring our brains to see difference, rather than similarity.
We are telling ourselves there is an otherness, when we are just people but our LGBTQ friends and colleagues are engaging in a lifestyle. We are all just living our lives, no style necessary. Listen for the term in media and in conversation. Think about how you might choose to respond. I would love to hear what happens.