* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, April 25, 2016

Community and Hospitality

When we cross the threshold of vulnerability and allow another person to know us more deeply, we are conveying a certain amount of trust that the other person will treat that knowledge with some respect. If they were to use what they know about us to hurt us, it would be more difficult for us to feel safe in community with that person. This is one reason mutual self-disclosure is important -- so that there isn't a power differential where one side is entrusted with information without having to risk the same level of vulnerability.

Self-disclosure actually meets a need, though. We don't just reveal our true selves to people for the sake of building trust and realizing our capacity for vulnerability. We want and need to be known by others, even as we fear that we are unacceptable, unlovable, or unworthy of being known. Mutual self-disclosure directly confronts the fears that we have about ourselves by giving us a chance to be loved and accepted for who we really are, in community with other people who wrestle with their own fears and challenges.

How we respond to knowing others and being known by others matters a great deal. We are best able to create meaningful, authentic community when our response to knowing others and being known by others leads toward greater wholeness. One way a community creates wholeness is by mutual service toward one another. Another way of saying this is that a community creates wholeness through a culture of hospitality. When our response to knowing others more deeply is to seek ways to be of service to them, we create greater wholeness in their lives and in our own. And when our response to others knowing us more deeply is to be open to how they want to be of service to us, we allow greater wholeness in our own lives, as well as theirs. In fact, if we care about creating a more just, equitable, compassionate world, we want our lives to be about hospitality and service. Community can provide a space for us to practice being the kind of people we want to be in the world.

Different people have different challenges with the idea of mutual hospitality. It's probably helpful to start by defining what we mean by service in this context. Keep in mind that we are talking about an environment of mutual self-disclosure, so we're assuming a community in which people are not trying to take advantage of one another, but are aiming for authenticity. Manipulating or persuading others is an anxious behavior. So is trying to fix or control other people, even if it's "for their own good." We'll see in a couple of weeks that honesty is another key component to healthy community. For now, it suffices to be clear that we're talking about an environment where people are striving for intentional relationships and not anxiety-driven relationships, and we're assuming that people are learning to hold one another accountable to that aim.

Like self-disclosure, hospitality contributes to meaningful, authentic community when it's a mutual thing. When service is lopsided in a community or in a relationship, it causes problems. One person's needs in a community are not more important than another person's, even though there may be times when one person has more urgent needs than the other. Being of service to another person doesn't mean fixing their problems or telling them what they should do. And allowing another person to be of service to you doesn't mean you give up personal responsibility for your own behavior and decisions. Instead, hospitality is about caring for another person's well-being without compromising your own -- making choices to be compassionate rather than taking care of an issue out of anxiety.

Mutual hospitality in a community means that we can confidently care for others while trusting that other people will care for our well-being too. This may be simple acts of kindness that cost us very little, like getting someone another cup of coffee, throwing someone's trash away for them, or opening a door for somebody. These are little acts of hospitality that can become part of a community's culture. When everyone is committed to modeling kindness, it can help create a less anxious environment.

Hospitality may require more of us, though. Caring for another's well-being may mean addressing bigger issues, like a home flooding or a job disappearing or the death of a loved one. We can't just solve a problem in many of these cases, and that may leave us feeling helpless. Being of service doesn't require us to fix everything, though. We can make sure people know that they're welcome and we can listen with caring ears. We can help people formulate a plan of action and we can support them as they move forward by encouraging them and checking in on their progress, and even holding them accountable to the things they've said they'll do.

If we listen to a person's needs, we may also be willing to address some of those needs, but it isn't our obligation to do so. If a person needs a place to stay while their home is repaired, hospitality doesn't demand of us more than we can do. We don't need to cash in a retirement fund to pay a person's rent, and we don't need to move out of our little apartment so that they can have a place to stay. Compromising our own well-being out of a sense of obligation is not hospitality -- it's over-functioning. If we have the space in our home to take in someone else, and we choose to accept that inconvenience because we care about another person's well-being, we might offer that gift. Maybe it would be more useful to help that individual think through other people they could reach out to, or maybe we have other connections that we can offer, without taking on the responsibility of working out all the details. Helping people have personal responsibility to the greatest extent that they can is being of service.

Of course, in some religious communities, it's common to hear easy and unhelpful responses when people are vulnerable and express their real needs. Solutions like prayer or trusting a god to work everything out may keep people from being hospitable beyond their comfort zone, but they do little for the person in need. When someone's hungry, offering to pray for them to be well-nourished is no better than offering them a stone. When someone has lost their job, recommending they trust God to provide for them is just useless. True service to another person has a meaningful positive influence, it doesn't just offer an easy fix or an emotional narcotic.

Allowing a person to feel grief without trying to fix it or cheer them up can be hospitality. Listening to a person's anger at getting laid off without feeling obligated to solve their employment challenge can be hospitality. Walking beside someone on their journey without trying to tell them where they ought to go can be hospitality. Sometimes we can help people be clear about their own values and figure out their next steps in alignment with those values, but we don't have to figure out those steps for them. Hospitality is about providing what we are willing to provide to contribute to wholeness in someone else's life. Sometimes, that does mean opening our homes to people who need a place to stay, or spending the day preparing and serving food to people who are hungry. When we choose those actions out of our own values (rather than a sense of obligation), we are better able to create meaningful, authentic community.

There are two sides to mutual hospitality: serving and being served. Some people are more comfortable with one side than the other. Sometimes we are more willing to let our own needs go unaddressed because we believe that another person's needs are more important. Or because we believe that we just matter less. Or because we believe that we should feel shame about our needs. Or any number of other false beliefs. Sometimes we are more willing to let other people provide for us because we believe we deserve it. Or because we believe we're the helpless, powerless victims of our stories. Or because we believe we don't have anything to offer. Or any number of other false beliefs. Whichever side of that mutuality presents the greater challenge for us, we're going to have to do some work if we want it to change. We have to be intentional about our growth if it matters to us.

Hopefully, it's obvious how important mutual self-disclosure is to mutual hospitality. We can't care for one another well if we don't know one another, and we can't be cared for well if others don't know us. We have to show something of our true needs if we want those needs to be addressed. In the context of hospitality, it's also important to set clear boundaries, but this topic is worthy of a fuller discussion. Before we charge down that rabbit trail, we should take a look at another ingredient of meaningful, authentic community that undergirds both mutual self-disclosure and mutual hospitality: active and unconditional love.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Community and Self-Disclosure

We've said that if we want wholeness in our lives, we need meaningful, authentic connection with other human beings. One requirement for meaningful, authentic connection is mutual self-disclosure. We can't live fully in our relationships if we aren't able to reveal who we really are. When we hide our true feelings and needs, we can't reasonably expect other people to know us, to accept us, or to participate in satisfying relationship with us. The best we can hope for is that other people will know and accept the masks we wear. It's up to us to grow in our ability to show our authentic selves to others.

Self-disclosure is tough, though. We hide our true selves because it seems safer than letting people see who we really are. Somewhere along the way, we learned that we aren't acceptable as we are. We became ashamed of something about ourselves, or we became distrustful of others. Somehow, we decided that it was safer for us to hide who we really are and pretend to be someone else -- maybe someone who didn't have the same wounds and needs and wants that we have.

The problem is that we all have wounds and needs. No one gets through life without emotional wounds. Some people are more skillful at tending those wounds, but everyone has wounds. No one gets through life without needing something. Some people are more skillful at getting those needs met, but everyone has needs. When we wear masks that hide our wounds and our needs from others, we have very little chance of having those wounds healed or getting those needs met. We walk around thinking that we're fooling people into accepting or loving us, thinking that we are safely hidden behind a false self we've created, carrying our unhealed wounds and our unmet needs within us.

Of course, we still want to have those needs met, and we still feel pain from those wounds. If we aren't willing to be vulnerable and let other people see those wounds and needs, we try other ways to get what we want from people. We play emotional games in our relationships and in our communities. We try to manipulate people or bully people into doing what we want, while keeping ourselves from feeling vulnerable. Or maybe we try to make the masks we wear as appealing or entertaining as possible, so that people will give us the love and acceptance we want without us having to reveal our true selves. This gives us the illusion of having power -- keeping our real wants and needs secret while figuring out how to make other people give us what we want or need. How much simpler would it be to just tell people what we want or need?

When you think about it, though, people aren't actually accepting or loving us when we play these games or wear these masks. People are responding to our tactics or the false self we show them, but they aren't responding to our real selves. They can't. We keep our real selves hidden. So, we keep the illusion in place that our real selves are unacceptable or unlovable or shameful because we never give anyone the chance to see who we really are. We're too busy playing games. And before we beat ourselves up too much about that, it's worth acknowledging that we have really good reasons to hide who we really are and show up in masks.

No one wakes up one morning and just decides to hide who they really are from everyone around them. We learn what's acceptable and what isn't from other people's reactions -- usually our parents or other significant people in our lives when we're very young. We start evaluating ourselves based on other people's fears and judgments, and at a certain point we shift from being honest about who we are to being very concerned about who other people want us to be. Instead of learning about what we need in order to live fully, we create an illusion of ourselves to try to accommodate everyone else. Maybe we create multiple illusions of ourselves for different relationships.

Sometimes, we encounter communities that encourage us to be vulnerable and self-disclosing, and then those communities betray us. Some organizations want people to be self-disclosing so that shame can be used as a weapon to keep people loyal. Religious organizations are especially practiced at turning people's vulnerability against them, using fear and shame to reinforce beliefs about human weakness and depravity so that people will remain convinced that they need the religious institution. Perhaps other relationships come to mind in which vulnerability and self-disclosure proved to be detrimental. Often, this is because the self-disclosure was one-sided. The priest rarely confesses to the parishioner, for instance.

Our society is constructed around this practice of creating a false self -- an avatar of sorts. We rarely engage in relationships directly because we're convinced that it isn't safe. Instead, we engage in relationships through the filter of a public avatar we've created to keep ourselves safe while enticing or compelling others to give us what we want or need. One-sided self-disclosure is often risky because other people are still committed to playing emotional power games to get what they want from us, and our self-disclosure would seem to put us at a disadvantage in such games. So, there are two responses to this reality that will help us heal our wounds, get our needs met, and live more fully.

First, we can recognize that our self-disclosure removes us from the emotional game. Other people may still want us to engage by their rules of manipulation or persuasion, but our willingness to be vulnerable and honest about our wounds and our needs actually puts us in an entirely different arena. The best reason not to hide who we really are is because we aren't afraid or ashamed of who we really are, and getting rid of our fear and shame opens the pathway for us to commit our time and energy toward things that really matter rather than playing emotional power games.

Of course, dismantling our fears and shame are life-long practices, and we can't wait until we're over all of our fears about who we really are to set our masks aside. Instead, as we develop a willingness to show up authentically, to let people see our true selves, we have the opportunity to build more evidence that our fears and shame are unfounded. We also have to recognize that other people's reactions are usually based on their own fears and beliefs. It's helpful if we can find others who are willing to set aside their masks, too, so that our journey toward authenticity isn't a solo venture.

This brings us to the second response, which is meaningful, authentic community in which people practice mutual self-disclosure. If the agreement of the community is that people are expected to show up as their true selves and not project some idealized avatar, it becomes easier for everyone to set the masks aside. Ideally, mutual self-disclosure is part of a community's covenant with one another, or is in some way part of its stated identity. If this agreement is clearly stated and not just assumed, a community can hold one another accountable -- hopefully because they sincerely care about contributing to wholeness in one another's lives. So, "You seem like you're hiding something. Is there more you want to say?" becomes more of an invitation than an accusation or interrogation. And, "What do you really think?" is a question that can be taken at face value rather than a coded message that your acceptability is based on your willingness to agree with an authority figure or with the herd. Likewise, it becomes easier to say, "It seems like you're trying to persuade/bully/manipulate me a little bit here. What do you actually want or need from me?" Imagine a community that practiced communicating that honestly, directly, and respectfully with one another!

None of this means that all your problems will be solved if you are more self-disclosing. Showing up as your true self doesn't guarantee that your emotional wounds will be healed and all your needs will be met. It just increases your chances. People can't really know what you need from them unless you tell them. And hiding your emotional wounds and your needs from other people pretty much guarantees that they won't be effectively addressed. Pretending you don't have wounds or needs doesn't make them go away. Being willing to show up as your authentic self is a more reliable path toward being fully alive. Since this would constitute new behavior for a lot of us, practicing letting others see your true self in a community where other people are committed to the same level of authenticity and vulnerability is better than developing this new behavior all on your own.

Mutual self-disclosure in community leads to greater ability to be confidently authentic in other areas of your life, and it helps to prevent members of a community from engaging in manipulation, bullying, and enticing others while neglecting their actual wounds and needs. Meaningful, authentic community requires mutual self-disclosure. There are a few other necessary ingredients, as we'll continue to explore in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Intersections and Forging a Path Forward

Several years ago, I worked with an organization that had a mission statement about transforming people's lives. They primarily went about this mission through weekend workshops, but over time, attendance in these events had dropped below a threshold of sustainability. Since I was in a local leadership position, I asked the question, "What else could we do to accomplish our mission?" The response was, "We hold trainings. That's how we accomplish our mission." This was a frustrating, but eye-opening conversation for me. The goal of collaboration between leaders in this organization was not just to provide tools to help people transform their lives, they also had a very specific, narrowly-defined strategy for how they would accomplish what they wanted. I'm no longer connected to this organization, and I don't know if their strategy has shifted. I've moved on to exploring other approaches to creating wholeness. I was committed to their vision for the world, but I wasn't committed to their tactics.

I say all of that to point out: when we consider the big questions we want to ask in life, what we want to create is important and how we are willing to create it is also important. There might be any number of paths that can lead us toward the goal that we envision on the horizon. We can't take every path at once, but we always have the potential to adjust our course. We have to choose how we move forward, and we can also choose to shift our path as we learn more about how we can live into what we most deeply value. 

So, you may recall that our big questions are:
  1. How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?
  2. What am I passionate about? What personal life dream of mine creates greater wholeness in the world?
  3. Where do I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where do I find authentic community? 
  4. What fears get in my way? How can I dismantle those fears and understand what I actually want?
  5. How can I get what I most deeply want and need by creating less suffering and greater wholeness?
These aren't five distinct questions. These questions intersect at a few important points. In fact, for some people, a couple of these questions might seem like different ways of asking the same things. Generally speaking, these questions suggest that there is a way for us to live in the world with integrity -- so that our actions are aligned with our deepest values. We have the potential to create greater wholeness in our own lives and in the lives of other people, and there are some things within us that stand in the way -- namely, the fears that we have embraced about ourselves, other people, and reality. As I look at that short list of questions, though, there is one that stands out to me as the lynchpin. 

Authentic community is central to pursuing a creative life dream and to recognizing and dismantling the fears that stand in our way. Relationship with other human beings who are also committed to lives of intention and integrity is a vital component to creating wholeness in the world, and in our own lives. Yet, so often the communities we encounter stifle us, or require us to be inauthentic in order to have a sense of belonging. Some communities are more about self-preservation of the community than they are about the genuine well-being of people. Some communities focus on telling people what to believe or defining what wholeness has to look like. And let's face it, some communities rely on fear and anxiety to control people. How do we find authentic community that actually serves to empower us to live with authentic passion and freedom?

If you're fortunate enough to have that kind of community, by all means, make the most of it. Don't be lazy and wait for other people to tell you what you should be passionate about. Don't wait for other people to tell you what you most deeply want. Use the gift of having an authentic and supportive community to the fullest. My sense is that a lot of people participate in communities that are merely the best thing available to them. Some people become members of churches even though they don't agree with the teachings of the church, just because they crave a sense of belonging. Some people maintain old associations because they keep hoping that something will change and grow, even though they aren't being empowered by those associations to create wholeness or confront irrational fears. So, again, if you're one of the lucky people who have found community that encourages and empowers you to live fully in alignment with your deepest values, make the most of it.

Another option -- the one I'm inclined to pursue at this point -- is to create something better, to build authentic community that actually provides a genuine sense of belonging while also empowering people to do the work they need to do in their own lives. Now, I will say that I've done some work on my own (over the course of years) to clarify my guiding principles and dismantle some of the irrational fears that get in my way. Without a community of people, I felt very isolated and alone for some pieces of that journey. Even a small group of people who understand what you're going for in your life -- empowering and encouraging you to live into a best possible version of yourself -- can make a huge difference. This is why I think community is so vital to being fully alive. Personally, I haven't found a community that effectively (a) offers me a genuine sense of belonging, (b) empowers me to live in a way that is satisfying to me and creates greater wholeness in the world, and (c) equips me to dismantle the irrational fears that get in my way. So, I've set my mind to creating it.

With anything you want to create, it helps to know as much as you can about what you're creating -- to cast a compelling vision of where you're aiming. I think there are five important components to a community that does what I want it to do -- basically, a community that effectively addresses those big questions on which we're focusing. I mentioned these briefly in an earlier post on community: (1) mutual self-disclosure, (2) mutually expressed active and unconditional love, (3) mutual hospitality -- or willingness to be of service and to receive from others, (4) mutual honesty in communication, and (5) sincere affirmation. Healthy communities also have the ability to set clear boundaries and to define a central shared purpose or vision. Just like the organization I mentioned at the beginning of this post clearly defined its strategy, a healthy community can clearly express its identity through a commitment to these characteristics.

Over the next several posts, we're going to look at how each of these elements helps people answer all those other questions. Some of that may seem really obvious to you. I'll be honest, some of it seems obvious to me. But I've learned that some things that seem obvious to me are far from obvious to other people, so I figure the best bet is to lay out the blueprint piece by piece. I hope that approach will be valuable and meaningful to you too. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Taking God Out of Justice Conversations

Recently, a number of states have passed legislation that demonizes transgender people. Hopefully, it's obvious that these laws are driven by fear, and that this is not a way to get what people most deeply want and need by creating less suffering and greater wholeness (one of our big questions). Marginalizing and oppressing people who seem different to you may be satisfying in the moment, but it certainly cannot be said to create greater wholeness in the world. Many people have made some very insightful critiques of this trend, and I don't need to repeat them all here. However, I do want to explore briefly how God-based arguments contribute to the problem of persecution more than to the solution.

I know that when people feel powerless, they look for ways to make themselves feel powerful. And one thing that makes people feel powerful is bullying, and legislation that limits the rights of a minority group in order to make emotionally immature people feel safe is bullying. The whole argument about who is allowed to use which restroom is ludicrous from the start, and it's clear from people's behavior that folks are really not all that concerned about who uses which public restroom. 

If a predator wanted to hurt your daughter in a public restroom, they could do so at any time. They'd have to break the law -- it has never been legal in this country to assault a person in a public restroom -- but they could do it. If you were that concerned about your daughter being harmed in a public restroom, you'd make sure she never went to the restroom unaccompanied -- which is kind of weird, but it's what you would do if you were really that afraid that public restrooms are havens for predators.

The most important point in all of this is that transgender people are not predators. They're people. Moreover, they're people who use the appropriate restroom for their gender. The fear is not really about predators in the restroom (which has nothing to do with transgender people), it's a fear of transgender people -- which is really ironic, since transgender people are the ones who are being harassed and threatened in this scenario. And this fear of transgender people is connected to a fear of homosexuality, which is less severe than it used to be in the United States. Still, you can hear many a preacher on Sunday morning riling up a congregation from the pulpit by bad-mouthing LGBT folks. 

And that's really where all of this fear gets its legitimacy. When religious leaders fill people with irrational fear (or amplify people's fears), it isn't to create greater wholeness in the world. Fear doesn't do that. Religious leaders have an agenda that is more about preservation of an organization or ideology (or less scrupulously, the preservation of their own lifestyle), and they think that fear is a powerful motivator. Or these religious leaders are so fear-driven themselves that they can't help but spew it all over people.

Thankfully, there are other religious voices who are less fearful. Amid the persecution and marginalization of transgender people and others, some religious leaders speak out for the oppressed and call for an end to the harassment and fear. They speak of love and connection and community, and all of this is well and good. They see transgender people as human beings worthy of the same rights as any other human being. If they were to stop there, the argument would be sound. Some people choose to bring God into the argument, however, and it immediately becomes a less fruitful conversation.

When a fearful person claims that God is angry about transgender people or homosexuality or anything else, they have an unassailable conviction. You can say, "Where does scripture say that?" and no matter what the claim is, a person can indicate a scriptural text that supports their belief. The Bible says to love, but it also says to kill people who do anything that isn't good for the preservation of ancient Jewish culture. So, when a person says, "The Bible condemns homosexuals to death," they're right. When they say, "God wants us to kill homosexuals," then we have a problem. And loving believers try to resolve that problem in a number of ways.

You may say, "The Bible also says x." This simply discredits the Bible to a rational person, because it's making contradictory assertions or commands. A person who has committed themselves to fear is often impervious to this sort of argument. They'll stick to their guns because they believe that they're right, just like you probably will. 

You may say, "That isn't what the Bible means in that passage." Then you have an unresolvable conflict of interpretation. Since everyone makes up their own meaning for scriptural texts, there's very little to be gained from an unwarranted assertion one way or the other. Even biblical scholars who have spent years studying a text disagree on the basic meaning, sometimes proposing outlandish assumptions to justify their view. You don't know what the Bible means any more than anyone else does.

You may say, "No, God wants us to love." This is a much healthier way to live, and a person who bases their actions on love rather than fear will certainly create more wholeness in the world. There's no solid defense for this claim about God, though. If you can't know what a scriptural text actually means, why in the world would you think you can know what God wants? You think God wants one thing, they think God wants another thing, and neither of you has any evidence one way or the other apart from your own assumptions, feelings, and imaginations. 

I've heard well-meaning theists claim things like, "We are all God's children," only to turn around and hear other people talk about how being God's children means we have to be obedient to God's law or be disciplined by God. I've heard liberal Christians talk about universal salvation -- that Jesus has paved the way for everyone to go to heaven -- only to turn around and hear another prominent Christian voice talk about hell with equal conviction. Using God to justify any behavior is dishonest, because you are the one who decides how to interpret your scripture, and you are the one who determines for yourself what you think God wants. You are the one who decides.

Now, I've also heard people say that you can define God however you want to. God is a universal force of love. God is nature. God is your conscience. God is the space between us. If you're going to use so flexible a definition for a word that no one knows what you mean unless you define it for them, then the word is useless. Why use it at all? When you know that so many other people in the world define "artichoke" a certain way, why would you decide that when you use the word "artichoke" you actually mean "surround sound speaker system"? Sure, you can allow for everyone to define "artichoke" in a way that is personally meaningful to them, but then meaningful communication between people is impossible. Your personal definition for God is only useful for you. The moment you try to have a meaningful conversation using your personal definition with another person using their personal definition, you will fail. We have to share a common definition for the words we use if we want our communication to be meaningful.

If you stop using "God" as a stand-in for another legitimate concept, your communication can be more meaningful. Say "love" when you mean love; say "nature" when you mean nature. If we use the words we actually mean, we'll have a better quality of communication. The same is true when it comes to issues of justice. If you believe people should be treated with love and respect, then say "I believe people should be treated with love and respect." Don't try to legitimize your belief by pinning your values on God. People who believe the exact opposite of you will attribute their beliefs to God too, and neither one of you will have any ground to stand on. 

The truth of the matter is that we co-create a society together, and when people are mistreated, marginalized, or bullied, our entire system has to deal with the problem. Some organizations are shifting to unisex restrooms, which is an amazingly loving and affirming way to make oppressive laws obsolete. "We don't care who you are or what gender you are, we recognize your right to use the restroom." How silly that it's necessary to express that, but how wonderful that it's being expressed. Nothing religious need be added to that. 

Perhaps you have ways available to you to ensure that transgender people -- and other folks who are marginalized in our society -- are treated as human beings of inherent worth and dignity. You don't need to justify loving behavior with scripture or claims about God. You can justify any behavior with scripture, so that's meaningless. And you can't legitimately justify any behavior with claims about God, so that's meaningless too. Take a step back from your fear, re-align with your deepest values, and create wholeness in the world. Every person has inherent worth and dignity, and when that is affirmed in our lives and in the systems we co-create with one another, we live into greater wholeness. Anything less than that is fear, and fear has no place in a world made whole.