What to do When Something You Love is Part of the Problem?

The past year and a half of my life has been tumultuous at best. It has been the epitome of what Shakespeare defined as the “winter of our discontent”. It has been a time marked almost exclusively by loss and misfortune. I’ve lost my job,having been laid off twice. I’ve lost my home. I’ve lost financial security. I’ve lost friends and relationships. I’m at the verge of losing my marriage. I’ve lost hope. I’ve lost belief in damn near everything. I’ve lost mental stability and above all, I’ve lost myself somewhere along the way, that is, if I had ever truly found myself to begin with. I’ve had to come to terms with what I’ve been denying for most of my life, the fact that I am clinically depressed. That diagnosis didn’t exactly come as a shock and it certainly is far from a new development. I’ve had bouts with dark periods and reoccurring instances of intense melancholy for almost as long as I can remember but, I had never been officially diagnosed, nor had I ever sought treatment until now. The maelstrom that has become my everyday life has simply exacerbated these already prevalent propensities.

I’ve recently started reading Jennifer Michael Hecht‘s book, The Happiness Myth, in it she gives an illustration that seems to all too accurately represent my experience here. She writes:

Consider that we all have an internal empty field at birth, and as we grow, we experience shocks in certain areas of the field, which we respond to by building up a great pile of stones in that spot, to protect ourselves from being hurt again. As time goes on, the inner field grows crowded with stone mounds. Moving around in such a field requires inventive choreography; and that dance is what a personality is. When life circumstances change, the situation turns worse, since none of your long-developed shortcuts and coping methods work now. You crash into walls. The crashing makes you go to therapy, but you go to therapy looking for new shortcuts that will allow you to navigate your city of rock piles under these different circumstances, and what the therapist wants to do is bring you to the pillars and help you unpile the stones. There is nothing in the mounds to be scared of anymore, so if you can just budge the rocks, you will come to have free reign of your mind, and of the world, again.

I conceded to therapy because, as Hecht explains, I have become claustrophobic in my ‘inner-field’ and all my coping maneuvers and mechanisms have failed me. It seems I can’t see the forest for the …pile of rocks. The horizon is blocked by the infinite burial mounds I’ve continually constructed. Underneath, something festers but, hasn’t died. I am full of the undead, things unresolved, a field of tell-tale hearts pounding, pulsing, beating, unceasingly under the floor boards of my psyche. And as Hecht illustrates, rather than providing me with the means to muffle the noise, to drown out the sound, or teaching a new methodology for avoiding the mound, my therapist is trying to give me the tools to pry up the floor boards and to unpile the rocks.

However, due to the previously mentioned financial instability I haven’t been able to afford to meet with my therapist frequently. In this regard, one of the things that has managed to bring me a bit of joy and grant me a welcomed and much needed distraction, as odd as it may sound, has been the World Cup matches. Within the 90 plus minutes of each match I can forgetfully sit in something closely resembling peace, blissfully ignorant, unaware, and mindful of the tragedy of where I am, temporarily pausing the sorrow and the pain of my context. Perhaps, even teleologically suspending my discontent, disdain, my regret, guilt, and my shame. Yet, even here there is something still being denied. Something dishonest.

Anyone moderately aware of current world events knows of the mass protests surrounding the World Cup and its oppressive presence within the country of Brazil. The Brazilian government’s involvement with FIFA has been nothing short of corrupt. They have torn down whole villages, wrongfully evicted families already impoverished by the injustices of an uncaring bureaucracy. People force-ably removed from their homes, thrown out into the streets with nothing and nowhere to go., weeping as they watch the demolition, witnessing the conversion, the transformation of what was once their neighborhood become stadium parking. All this done for the benefit of a sport that will line the pockets of those already bloated with wealth exploitatively acquired from the plight of the poor. And yet I tune in to every match. I watch religiously, all the while sweeping under the rug the terror and trauma of thousands of dislocated Brazilians grieving and mourning losses far greater than my own.

Does my loss justify my viewership?

Last week was the fourth of July and I was involved in a social media discussion regarding the compatibility/incompatibility of Christianity, the 4th of July, and the declaration of  Independence. I wrote the following:

I must greatly question the legitimacy of an an equality defined by a group of rich, white men who rose to prominence on the backs of slave labor. That fact must be recognized and addressed, to gloss over instances of hypocrisy that maintain oppression, would itself seem to be perpetuation of oppressive injustice. We can commemorate the accomplishments of the founding fathers and the biblical cannon but, equally we must exercise a radical honesty about the immensity of their faults, where they have fallen, and where they have unavoidably failed to live up to their own standards.

This, then, is my confession. My recognition of radical honesty. I am the oppressor. I am the 1%. I am one with the ones I propose to stand against. This is my apology. I am sorry that I tore down your homes so that my own pleasures could be served. I am sorry I took everything from you for my own entertainment. I am sorry that I destroyed everything you’ve worked for, everything you’ve earned, everything you’ve scraped together and scraped by on. I am sorry that I am part of the problem. I am sorry that I will still watch the next match. I am sorry that my apology isn’t enough. I am sorry that “I’m sorry” will never do, never make amends. I am sorry that I don’t know what else to do. I’m sorry…

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Blessed are the Angry…

This is a new poem. It’s still a work in progress. I’m still tweeking it but, I thought I’d post it anyway. I’d love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, or critiques. Enjoy!

 

Blessed are the angry, for now that God is dead vengeance shall be ours.
We shall rise up and revolt in resistance to the priests, kings, and every oppressively exploitative structure that they have erected, which has grown rich and bloated on the backs of our efforts and the sweat of our brow.
We shall take back seven fold what has been unjustly stolen from us; our labor, our dignity, our hope, what we have built, what we have created.

Blessed are those filled with righteous indignation. In bitterness and rage we shall strike back on behalf of our soiled waters, our scorched earth, our cracked sky, and our beaten and broken species brethren. These are our neighbors. These are the ‘least of these’.

Blessed are those overwhelmed with hatred and disdain.

Blessed are those who retaliate

Blessed are those consumed by rage and wrath for they shall have the calmness of a bomb, ticking with an anxious fervency, laying in wait for the moment of detonation, wreaking havoc and desolation upon the houses of the gluttonous who are fattened by impotent power.

Blessed are the peace-breakers, the disturbers of the peace for they are unwilling to compromise or make amends with those who have ravaged land, sea, and air, orphan, widow, and stranger. We come to bring a sword instead.

Blessed are the jaded and scarred for the memories of pain and suffering are never far from them.

Never forgive.
Never forget.

Christian Consumerism

Annie Leonard makes clear in The Story of Stuff that “Our primary identity has become that of being consumers – not mothers, teachers, or farmers, but of consumers. We shop and shop and shop” (Leonard, Priggen, & Fox, 2007). Certainly today’s mass media, mass marketing, and mass producing endeavors of the supermarket and megastore have captivated both our focus and our funds. They have tapped into what neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp “seeking” (Glei, 2010). Emily Yoffe, in her article entitled “Seeking,” writes that this behavior is the ultimate “mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world” (Yoffe, 2009). Yoffe continues,
 
For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs…[H]umans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones…[W]hen we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.
 
The juice that fuels the seeking system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. The dopamine circuits ‘promote states of eagerness and directed purpose…It’s a state humans love to be in. So good does it feel that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused (Yoffe, 2009).
 
In keeping with the movements and methods of a consumeristic society, religious institutions, themselves, have begun to adopt these capacities, all too willing to provide the “world of ideas” through which to “divine meaning” in an effort to “promote eagerness and directed purpose” in both its present and potential members. In other words, in many cases, the religious experience has become just one more commodity to be sought, bought, and sold. The dominating religions, denominations, communities, and organizations have become a kind of “brand” eliciting a type of “brand-recognition” to which one will prefer over another. Membership then becomes a semblance of “brand-loyalty.” As a result religious communities have adopted similar marketing models targeting their desired demographics. This, I think, is precisely why many churches have self-titled themselves as “seeker-sensitive.”
 
One quickly thinks of the empire building efforts of many in Evangelical Christianity. In these instances the pastors of the growing number of “mega-churches” have become equal parts media mogul and corporate CEO. As a result a religious industrial machine is created; in which constant capital must be poured into in order to keep the wheels of industry continuingly moving and producing, and will seek to do so via targeted membership who will enable the means of the organization. “[T]elevangelists can fill a stadium at the same rate as a rock star and theme park can sell tickets to the Holy Land, organized religion has in many ways put a price tag on salvation” (Christman, 2011). Those heavily inundated by this type of economic ideology will see the magnitude of numbers in the way of attendance and contribution as a sign of God’s endorsement or favor.
 
However, many of lower socio-economic statuses are disenchanted by this vision of religion. They can no longer relate to these organizations, and thus, seek to form a congregation of greater similarity, and this is precisely why many sects form. The sect members will then often condemn and forbid actions or appearances reminiscent of the overindulgent system they cry out against. Yet, as increased social mobility occurs within the membership, many will become more loose or lenient with these prohibitions or will leave altogether.
 
Just as a total separation of church and state is nearly impossibly, so the separation of religion and economics is next to an unimaginable possibility. Whether a religious institution chooses to operate upon a business model more closely resembling that of a corporation or chooses to be a more socially engaging and justice orientated organization of community outreach and grassroots activity, power, water, and lights must still be paid. Even if not at the center of a religious community, economics is a necessary evil in keeping the organization in operation. It takes money to stay in motion, the most important question that remains is then will the religious community act in fiscal responsibility, maintaining a basis inclusivity and effectuality, concerning itself first and foremost with the well-being of its members over that which is monetary, or will seek to monopolize the market in an effort to sell God?
 
 
Christman, C. (2011). Selling God. [DVD]. USA: Breaking Glass Pictures.
 
 
 
Leonard, A. (Writer), Priggen, E. (Producer), & Fox, L. (Director). (2007). The story of stuff. [DVD]. USA: Free Range Studios.
 

The Violence of Humility

One of the classes I’ve been taking this semester as part of my Undergraduate program in Religion is “Myth and Ritual.” This class has been positively awash with lively discussion. As part of our multicultural and multiregional exploration of the role, place, significance, and meaning of societal myth we recently read and examined an African fertility myth belonging to the Fon tribe entitled “The Quarrel between Sagbata and Sogbo.”
This myth recounts the rivalry of two sibling deities, Sagbata and Sogbo, both sons of the Great Creator Goddess Mawu. Mawu, having stepped aside from her reign, enlists her sons to be co-rulers of the Universe; yet, the relationship between the two brothers is marked by tension and tumult. As each refuses to cooperate with the other they bitterly part ways. Sagbata, the oldest brother, decides to descend to earth and live amongst humankind while Sogbo remains a tenet of the sky. Sogbo, after having gained more power and the allegiance the other sky deities and still angry with his brother, ceases all rain from falling to earth thus, inflicted a three year draught upon the land and all its inhabitants. Having seen the immense devastation caused by this draught Sagbata, decides to cede to the rule of Sogbo and Sagbata gives Sogbo his inherited portion of universal control and power, in return for rain and the restoration of life to the earth, its creatures, and its people. Sogbo accepts, sends reign, and the two brothers are then reunited in friendship.
In the classroom discussion that followed this reading I suggested that this story is illustrative of the World healing power of humility. One of my classmates rightfully refuted this claim as only one of the brothers, Sagbata, exhibited a decided enactment of humilitude.
This is an excellent point and I can certainly see where the confusion arises in the story of Sagbata and Sogbo, especially in reference to humility, being that only one of the two seems to actually learn the lesson. Yet, I think, in a way, that is part of the lesson in and of itself. Often those situations where the acts of the humble are most detrimentally necessitated, humility is neither reciprocal nor participatory. It is the willful diminishment of oneself, it is self-sacrificial. Had Sagbata waited for a mutual expression of humility the whole of the created order would have surely broken down beyond repair before either party would have budged. Thus, through the solitary act of Sagbata lowering himself, the doors to restoration, both ecologically and familial, are flung open wide, in ways that they would have never been otherwise.

This reminds me of the endeavors of figures such as Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Each decisively “turned the other cheek” and refused to return violence with more violence. Yet, these are not acts of weakness; on the contrary, these are the most powerful acts possible. These acts do more violence to the structures of power than the most malicious acts of violence the power structures can do to others. Humility is the ultimate negating act. It turns the entire systems of power upside down.

Oppressive and vengeful acts of violence are not acts of power rather they are acts of absolute impotence. It is only through the forced subjugation of a victim that the oppressor can garner power. The oppressor is ultimately weak and displays his weakness and hunger for power through his insistence of violent pursuits, as he can only attain power by robbing the victim of power. Humility on the other hand, is the game changer; it is the wrench in the gears of this system. The would be victim denies participation in this ritual by refusing to be robbed of his power, instead he rather willfully and freely offers it to the would be oppressor. By doing this the victim refuses to play the part of the victim and the potentially oppressed does not lose his power but more fully attains and inhabits it. Thus, as there is no victim, the oppressor can no longer fulfill his role as the oppressor and is forced to more fully inhabit his weakness