Support LGBT-Inclusive Domestic Violence Services in Massachusetts

On December 6, our family will participate in the annual Hot Chocolate Run/Walk for Safe Passage, the main fundraiser for Hampshire County’s domestic violence shelter and services provider. We hope you’ll feel moved to sponsor us here.

Our community is unusually fortunate to have a domestic violence program that is trained to serve the LGBTQ population. It’s often extra-hard for queer victims to seek help, because they fear that police and social workers will be biased against them, or that airing negative images of same-sex relationships will set back the civil rights struggle. Additionally, some queer victims don’t recognize that their relationship is abusive because it doesn’t look like our mainstream cultural image of the heterosexual wife-beater. Speaking for myself, the lightbulb only went on when I attended an LGBT-inclusive volunteer training class at Safe Passage. I’d been abused for 30 years without having a name for it.

UK-based blog The Queerness explored this problem in the recent article “LGBTQ+ Domestic Violence: The Silenced Issue”. Journalist Stephanie Farnsworth writes:

Recent studies are proving that abuse is an issue within same gender relationships and this must be acknowledged. One study found that 21.5% of men and 35.4% of women in same gender relationships experienced intimate – partner physical violence during their lifetimes compared with  only 7.1% of men and 20.4% of women who cohabited with a partner of a different gender. 34. 6% of transgender people (regardless of gender of the partner) experienced intimate partner violence also in a study from 2014.

Another study, conducted by the CDC in 2010*, of over nine thousand women (96.5% were straight, 2.2% bisexual and 1.3% lesbian) found that while 35% of straight women had experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner it was even more common for bisexual and lesbian women. 43.8% of lesbians had experienced one of the three categories, while 61.1% of bisexual women had and this is even with the lower turn out rates of bisexual and lesbian women in the study which is suggestive of a much more serious epidemic of intimate partner violence that LGBTQ+ people experience. Additionally, trans people (particularly non binary trans people) are still often ignored within research and so the true realities for their experiences are being silenced – this is despite the fact that it is widely accepted that trans women are especially at risk of assault in general and so should be considered as an at risk group for experiencing domestic/intimate partner abuse.

This erasure and the limited way we think about domestic violence is dominating the narrative and leaving survivors isolated. As a consequence of the still very narrow and binary gender stereotypes and expectations we have, men are erased as victims of violence and it is believed that women can never be perpetrators. It isn’t uncommon for these stereotypes to be so prevalent that even those experiencing abuse do not see what is happening. Gay and bisexual men have brushed off assaults as just something they assumed that was natural to being in a relationship with a man, and women often do not think that the woman they are with would be capable of committing any form of abuse due to her gender. These ideas are so engrained in society that even domestic violence charities still don’t seem like welcoming or understanding places for many LGBTQ+ people. The 2010 Equality Act also means that trans women can be turned away from women’s shelters despite the fact that logically this is a clear violation of non discrimination legislation (included within the same piece of legislation). Furthermore, intimate partner violence has often been focussed upon by feminist movements in an entirely cis-centric way with the emphasis on patriarchy and (cis) male violence which has exacerbated this issue around one dimensional beliefs about abuse. The focus is generally centred around cis, heterosexual women in monogamous relationships and often with children, yet this approach has completely erased LGBTQ+ victims and this isolation puts them in further harm with little support available in society and very little understanding.

Jasna Magić, researcher at Broken Rainbow, noted that while mainstream services were generally  welcoming in attitudes to LGBTQ+ people there was little consideration of the specific experiences and issues they would face. There was often positive will behind support workers but good practice was lacking. She added that this was an issue that charities would struggle to overcome as a result of financial cuts; mainstream organisations would not be able to invest in equality and diversity training for its staff or in resources which helped promote better approaches to LGBTQ+ survivors. Magić also reinforced that abuse within LGBTQ+ people’s relationships was often not recognised either by society or by survivors themselves.

LGBTQ activist Rev. Irene Monroe’s article from October 2015, “Same-Sex Domestic Violence Remains on the Down Low”, raises another important topic, the intersection of multiple oppressions when victims are queer people of color:

…It’s estimated that 25 percent to 33 percent of the LGBTQ population will experience some form of partner abuse or domestic violence in their lifetime. The Inter-Personal Violence study conducted in 2011 stated that LGBTQ communities of color are one of the demographic groups experiencing a high incidence of domestic violence. However, it’s often hard to determine accurately how prevalent interpersonal violence is in these communities because of social stigmas and cultural taboos that prevent people from accurately reporting abuse. Other forms of oppression and discrimination figure in this as well.

What also prevents the gathering of accurate data in these communities of color is that same-gender interpersonal violence is clouded with myths. There is a belief that because the victim and the abuser are of the same gender, and are also in a consensual sexual relationship, the battering that occurs starts out as a mutual act of S&M. Another myth is that same-gender sexual abuse is not as bad because men and men and women and women are on equal playing field when it comes to defending themselves. Sadly, these untruths still abound among many health care workers and law enforcement officials…

…with violence associated with young black males, the protocol and treatment for domestic violence-related injuries in inner-city hospitals for these patients are rarely introduced or followed up…

…In same-race relationships, many victims will often not prosecute their partners for fear of community abandonment, isolation, and scorn. Rather, some rationalize the violence as the root cause of persistent micro and macrolevels of racism their partner encounters…

In addition to Safe Passage, I have heard good things about The Network/La Red, a Boston-based shelter and survivor advocacy group with an intersectional approach. Their website says:

The Network/La Red is a survivor-led, social justice organization that works to end partner abuse in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, BDSM, polyamorous, and queer communities. Rooted in anti-oppression principles, our work aims to create a world where all people are free from oppression…

…Partner abuse exists to achieve and maintain control, and reflects and perpetuates the larger violent culture which condones and rewards interpersonal, institutional and im­perialist abuse of power in order to control and/or exploit groups of people. The Network/La Red links domestic violence to all other forms of violence, oppression and abuse, because the values and tactics behind each are identical.

Donate here.

Donal Mahoney: “At Bus Stops on Thanksgiving Day”

Donal Mahoney, a loyal reader and occasional contributor to Reiter’s Block, returns with a thoughtful poem about holidays, privilege, and blind spots.

Along those lines, while we retell the Thanksgiving legend of Native Americans welcoming white European refugees, some of our leaders and media outlets are stirring up fear and hatred against Middle Eastern refugees seeking the same sanctuary from religious persecution. May our celebration move us to open our hearts and our borders.

At Bus Stops on Thanksgiving Day

Before dawn, people
who work on Thanksgiving Day
wait in the wind for a bus
to arrive or maybe not.
It’s too cold to talk
so the people stand
like minutemen and plan
a revolution that would shock
nice families who drive by later,
children tucked in scarves
and mittens, laughing
all the way to Nana’s house
for turkey, gravy, stuffing
and later in the day
a ballerina of whipped cream
twirling on pumpkin pie.
Thanksgiving is the day
America asks for seconds
and sorts its servers
from the served.

November Links Roundup: It’s Supposed to Hurt

I just finished a philosophy book that I loved in 1999, and found it equally rewarding to re-read from a new perspective. Marxist-feminist philosopher Robin May Schott’s Cognition and Eros: A Critique of the Kantian Paradigm (Beacon Press, 1988) challenges the body-mind split that has constituted “objectivity” for the Western religious and intellectual tradition. I hope to devote a whole post to this book later. At the moment, I want to focus on how the ideal of dissociation from one’s body and emotions plays out in academia. Schott observes that women’s exclusion from educational institutions has been justified by the paradigm that identifies women with embodied emotion and men with dispassionate intellect. Though Schott doesn’t discuss racism, this form of discrimination relies on the same projective identification of nonwhite people with a lower physical realm. The diversity of bodies is particular and contingent, therefore beneath the so-called universality of true knowledge.

It comes as no surprise, then, that when members of historically excluded groups describe the trauma of ongoing discrimination in their universities, the liberal intellectual response is “Grow up and stop whining.” Bringing your whole emotional and embodied self into a discussion automatically undermines your intellectual credibility–even when the discussion is a debate over whether bodies like yours are fully human. Emotion-shaming works because of this centuries-old tradition of defining knowledge as that which cannot acknowledge the interpersonal.

Miles Johnson’s Slate News article from Nov. 10, “People Don’t Hate Safe Spaces, They Hate the People They Protect”, looks at this dynamic in the context of the University of Missouri students’ recent anti-racism protests. Many pundits criticized the black students for limiting press access to some of their events, while others noted that black activists have a well-founded fear of being misrepresented by the media. It’s become fashionable among the former camp to ridicule “safe spaces” as an immature demand from entitled, sheltered college kids. Johnson counters:

…how quickly we all forget that safe spaces are nothing new. Safe spaces belong to a tradition with roots extending far beyond the borders of college campuses, and is something that dominant, mainstream society is infamous for routinely imposing.

In May of 1989, the New York Times reported the complete eradication of graffiti in subways. Graffiti had long filled train cars, platforms, and tunnels, but, as a staple of hip-hop culture dominated by young black people, was seen as a public scourge. In fact, in a New York Times piece that would be published seven years later in 1996, graffiti artists are described as “vandals armed with cans of paint.” The removal of graffiti from subways was, quite literally, the creation of a safe space. You could hypothetically entertain an argument about whether graffiti constitutes speech or is simply vandalism, but that would require coming to the insurmountable conversational road block that goes something like, “graffiti is vandalism because we say it is.” The mere act of spraying paint onto a surface is not inherently malicious, but dominant American culture in the 1980s and 90s decided that it was—so it was…

Some would argue that using the preservation of the MTA’s karma as reason to spend public money to hire thousands of workers to clean trains is both hilariously ironic, and rather flimsy. Perhaps those sheltered New York subway riders should have just been able to confront a point of view different from their own, rather than cower in fear simply because it was not presented to them in a way they found tasteful. The graffiti was removed from inside trains (a quasi-public space, like the University of Missouri’s quad) to make riders, specifically those who found spray-painted messages to be inherently menacing, feel safe…

…after the state of Arizona rejected a proposal to make Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday in 1990, Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get to Arizona,” released the following year, was played once on MTV before being banned. The censoring of speech orchestrated by MTV was, undoubtedly, to create a safer, more pleasing brand of MTV for its viewers and listeners—but safety for whom? Safety for fans of Public Enemy, or for people who would find the band’s criticism of the state of Arizona distasteful?

The examples are nearly endless.

Augusta National Golf Club refused to admit black golfers as members before 1990, and prohibited women from becoming members until 2012. What is a golf club that refuses membership to black men or any women but a safe space for white men?

I wish Schott’s history of emotion-suppression in religion hadn’t stopped at the Reformation, because I could see a straight line from ancient thinkers’ neurotic mind-body splitting to contemporary Christianity’s valuation of doctrine over psychological well-being. Tell Me Why the World is Weird is the blog of an American woman who moved to China for Christian missionary work, then began to question and reject her old belief system. I could quote all of her Nov. 17 post, “Church is Supposed to Hurt”, with an Amen! The blogger was attending an evangelical small group that made her feel depressed and unsafe, but felt duty-bound to keep going, until she thought about the problem from a different angle. Highlights are below:

I wasn’t paying attention to my body. I wasn’t paying attention to how I felt. My body and mind were telling me about my own needs (specifically, that it’s not healthy for me to put myself in that kind of Christian environment) and I didn’t realize it. (Until I actually wrote it all down.)

Because the church trains us to ignore our own needs. The church teaches that following God is supposed to be hard, and that we need to obey even though it will hurt…

…People come to small group and say “I haven’t been reading my bible because I wanted to sleep instead” or “because I wanted to watch TV in the evenings” and they feel as if those things are shameful and selfish. NO! Listen to your body. You need sleep. You need to do relaxing things like watch TV. We’ve created this culture where people claim to believe “spending time with God” is the most important thing, but then they don’t do it because their mind/body/emotions tell them it’s not actually worth it, and they can’t be honest about it. They feel bad and come to small group and talk about how weak and selfish they are, how they have to work harder in the future to ignore their own needs and do what the church taught them is the right thing for all Christians to do.

The same thing is true about going to church. Samantha Field’s post, the not-so-ridiculous reasons people leave church, does a great job with this topic. She writes about the memes and blog posts that get shared by Christians, mocking the reasons that people quit going to church. Those awful posts are all about how pathetic and selfish you are if you stop going to church because you don’t like it, or because it wasn’t actually a good thing for you, or because people judged you, etc.

Reality check: If you don’t like something, why on earth would you do it? But the church teaches it doesn’t matter how you feel- if you’re a Christian, you HAVE TO go to church. And if you don’t, you’d better have a damn good excuse, or rather, haha no excuse is good enough, you’re just being selfish.

Because we’re taught that our own feelings and our own needs don’t matter. If the church is hurting us, or if every week we think “this is pointless, why do I keep coming here?” it doesn’t matter. You have to just keep doing it, and eventually God will help you learn to like it.

Which is why it’s taken me so long to realize that, hey, since this church group is pushing me toward depression, I should stop going.

In a similar vein, I could see many of my current struggles reflected in the final post on Hännah Ettinger’s post-fundamentalist Christian blog Wine and Marble, “Love, Fundamentalism, and Endings”. Ettinger begins with the bell hooks quote: “Love and abuse cannot coexist.” Following the implications of this axiom, she came to see that what went by the name of “love” in her Christian upbringing was anything but:

In fundamentalism, ideology and hierarchy > person and emotional healthy relationships. Every. Damn. Time.

bell hooks writes that “abuse and love cannot coexist” because (as Christian theology teaches) love is about considering another person’s best interest.

…Love should not be mutable, but the terms of the relationship will be in order to be consistent with love. Love respects the other as a separate, autonomous individual with unique needs. Love does not require the other person to fix your emotional problems. Love is considerate, respectful, ethical, generous. Love is not craven, demanding, or manipulative.

This cuts two ways. Loving others well is easier (and probably better) the better you are at loving yourself well. It’s hard to love someone else well if you are abusive toward yourself, and if you try you’re more  likely to expect the other party to love you the way you should be loving yourself, and then resent them for not fixing your emotional disassociation with yourself. No person, no religious belief, no creature comfort will be able to fix the fundamental need for self-acceptance. I’ve been learning this, and it’s not easy. I can deflect and distract myself, but there is no substitute for sitting with my own emotions and owning them to myself and accepting that the me I’m living with is messy and not quite all who I want to be. I have to live with (and learn to love) me in real time, as I grow and learn, and not with my idealized future version of myself. This means also recognizing when I’m in unhealthy relationships or situations and being responsible for standing up for myself, and not expecting others to read my mind or know my needs and rescue me. Boundaries, communication, and actively engaging my day-to-day life and owning my responsibility to and for myself: these are ways I can engage in loving myself well.

Loving others well is an extension of understanding how to love myself. I need to respect the fact that others need different things and that what is good for me might not be good for them, that my perception of reality might not be their story, that they may be growing and learning faster or slower than I am. I respect them as individuals and not as caricatures or emotional food sources for myself, and that paves the way for healthy relationship.

This means: I cannot demand my more fundamentalist friends to change their beliefs on things, because their emotional needs (and reasons for holding on to various positions) are different from mine. I can, however, write about what I’ve learned and how various elements of religious fundamentalism have been harmful. I can also limit the ability of their more negative positions to affect me personally by reducing my exposure to toxic relational dynamics, and I can also appeal to their desire to love others when I see them hurting people close to me and ask for them to change how they treat people based on our shared assumption that they care about the other person’s best interest.

…In my pilgrimage to understand love and to heal, I’ve had to reconcile myself to the fact that church and Christian culture are antithetical to my emotional and mental stability. The solvency of Christianity for some, I believe, is viable and good. I think the church can be better and radically change lives for good. I think the teachings of Jesus are precious and radical and good. There is much that I love, but I have had to remove myself from it and remove it from me in order to be kind to myself. All things are lawful, etc. For me this means: I’m not a Christian anymore.

The damage done to my brain by code-switching in Christianese and by tiptoeing around emotional land mines from my time in the cult outweigh the worth of holding onto the Creeds for the Creeds’ sake. If Jesus is the Christ and all of that is true, then I’d rather be a Calormen in the end and be sound of mind and live ethically and love well than be a martyr for something that has fostered so much suffering.

I do not recant anything I have written. I still love the things I have always loved. I still believe in the power of radical love to transform. I still believe in the magic of community and the mystery of burden-bearing and communion. I still love justice and mercy and crave light and truth.

But it is the learning of the loving that calls me to keep exploring, and so I’m discarding things that are impotent or emotionally destructive. I’m not merely disassociating from the label of “Christian”or organized church in pursuit of being a “Jesus-follower.” I am closing that chapter completely.


Religion as Medicine, or Diversity Without Relativism

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s widely-shared TED Talk “The danger of a single story” (transcript here) links narrative hegemony and prejudice. When you only see a limited range of images of a community or social group, both your self-understanding and your empathy become stunted: “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” For instance, her American literature professor critiqued her fiction as “not African enough” because its educated urban characters didn’t fit our media’s depiction of Africa as uniformly poor and primitive. A single story, if widespread enough, prevents us from asking questions; we can’t imagine that the reality could be more complex. She goes on to say, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

With this in mind, I can’t help seeing a connection between Christianity’s claim to be the One True Story that explains everything, and the church’s persistent lag on civil rights. It’s hard to affirm the full dignity of women, gays, people of color, the disabled, etc., when your faith isn’t structured to recognize that there are diverse but equally valid ways of being a good person. On the other hand, when we speak about rights, justice, and empathy, we are implicitly appealing to common values, which presume some shared human experience in the midst of all this diversity. So relativism is not a good basis for a theology of liberation, either.

In religion, a third way between “There is ONE truth” and “There is NO truth” can possibly be found through the model of medicine. Different religions focus on different spiritual maladies and propose cures to match. To oversimplify quite a bit, Christianity is answering “How do I overcome my sinful separation from God and ensure an eternity in God’s loving presence?”, while Buddhism is answering “How do I achieve inner peace and escape the ups and downs of this impermanent world?” What gives us the right to say that one of those questions shouldn’t matter to anybody? Outcomes-wise, what’s the benefit of pushing a solution on someone who isn’t experiencing that problem?

In medicine, there are agreed-upon facts and observable causal connections. Certain interventions will probably fix certain problems: antibiotics are our current best remedy for an infection. The same interventions will not work if the problem is different: antibiotics don’t fix a broken leg. (A doctor who mechanically applied a single remedy to every patient, in the way that religious exclusivists prescribe one narrative for everyone’s life, would lose a lot of patients to their untreated actual ailments.) Interventions need to be adjusted for the diversity of bodies with the same condition: a person who’s allergic to penicillin should take a different antibiotic for an infection. And some interventions will be useless or dangerous in nearly all cases: eating rat poison isn’t the cure for anything. Diversity without relativism.

An empiricist religion–one that always starts by asking what people’s actual problems are, and continually corrects itself by asking whether its solutions work–would be grounded in empathy and humility, not stereotyping and speaking over other people’s stories. The metaphor of Jesus as the “great physician” and “wounded healer” merits further study by Christians who take Adichie’s words to heart.

“For Your Own Good”: Leah Horlick’s Tarot-Inspired Poetry of Survival

I discovered Canadian poet Leah Horlick via an interview at Little Red Tarot, an excellent blog with an interest in queer and feminist interpretations of the cards. Horlick’s breathtaking second full-length collection, For Your Own Good (Caitlin Press, 2015), breaks the silence around intimate partner violence in same-sex relationships. Jewish tradition, nature spirituality, and archetypes from Tarot cards build a framework for healing. This book is valuable for its specificity about the dynamics of abusive lesbian partnerships, which may not fit our popular culture’s image of domestic violence. Horlick shows how the closet and the invisibility of non-physical abuse make it difficult for these victims to name what is happening to them. The book’s narrative arc is hopeful and empowering.

I recognize pieces of my family’s story in many books about abuse, but I usually have to do some mental editing and transposition. Not to discount the importance of second-wave feminism in broaching this taboo subject, but the classic texts universalize a male-against-female model of abuse that erases the distinct dynamics of female perpetration. Engulfment and gaslighting play a larger role; it’s more like being smothered by a fog, than invaded by a clearly separate attacker.  For Your Own Good made me feel seen and heard. I wonder if the title is a nod to the book of the same name by Alice Miller, one of the few feminist writers of her generation who didn’t impose a moralistic gender binary on trauma.

Compulsory heterosexuality (to use Adrienne Rich’s term) is a force multiplier for dysfunction in lesbian relationships, such as my parents’. It’s hard to recognize that your relationship is abusive when no one will confirm that it even exists. Horlick identifies this double silencing, so familiar from my childhood, in “The Disappearing Woman”:

…She doesn’t give you black eyes, and
the doctors do not see her, not in your

long hair, your good earrings, in your quiet
descriptions of pain. They would say

boyfriend. They would see husband. She
does not give you black eyes,

she is not your husband, and you do not
say anything.

In the Collective Tarot, an LGBT-themed deck that Horlick used for inspiration, the suit of Swords is called “Suit of Feathers”. Swords correspond to intellect, the element of air, and the cards in this suit have more scenes of pain and conflict than the other three. When Sword cards come up for me in a reading, it often symbolizes working with trauma memories or intellectual defenses. The multi-part poem “Suit of Feathers” in For Your Own Good depicts moments of piercing insight that motivate the narrator to leave her abuser. I pictured “suit” also as a garment made of feathers, a disguise that a fairy-tale heroine would wear to escape from a wicked stepmother or incestuous father (as in Perrault’s “Donkey-skin”). Anne Sexton’s Freudian fairy-tale poems in Transformations are part of this book’s ancestry.

Andrea Routley at Caitlin Press has kindly given me permission to reprint the book’s closing poem, “Anniversary”, below. It could be describing me today, word-for-word. (Leah and Andrea, I apologize that this blog template strips out the indents in the second line of each couplet.)

Follow the author on Twitter at @LeahHorlick, and read more excerpts from For Your Own Good in these online publications:

“The Tower”, “Little Voice”, and “Liberation”: Canadian Poetries
“Starfish” (with audio): The Bakery Poetry
“Amygdala” (with audio): The Bakery Poetry
“Bruises”: The Collagist
Video of her reading on YouTube


It has taken five years and fifteen hundred
kilometres to get away, and closer

to the mountains. I can see them–
every day, like I always wanted. Near,

and distant. Every day I can ask people
not to touch me–

on the bus, on the beach, or in my new kitchen.
Or I could ask them to–

which, lately, is harder. How can it still
feel so soon? She has never been

near this new body of mine–
short-haired, tattooed, very strong

and very, very fast, now. I carry a chunk of rose
quartz the size of my thumb for safety.

I have sworn to myself a life of people
who know when to stop. I promised–

and spent my first night in the new apartment drawing
circles in salt and rain, whispering

to my old self, come here. I built this
for you. I promised.

A Song for All Saints’ Day


I sing a song of the cats of God,
Korat and Russian Blue;
Who purred and pounced, and chased their tails,
For the God who made them mew;

And one was a tabby, and one Siamese,
And one was an alley cat full of fleas–
They were all of them saints of God, if you please,
And I mean to be one too.


They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands more;
The Internet is full of cats,
That’s what it was invented for!

You can meet them on Facebook, in blogs or in tweets,
In shelters and homes and on the streets,
For the cats in my life showed God’s love to me,
And I mean to love them too.


(Top to bottom: My beloved Sidney, 1978; my mom Roberta’s Cat, 1973; my cousin Melissa’s Rusty, 1976; my grade school best friend Becca’s Snowball, 1982)

May the communion of feline saints receive Chloe, my friend Greg’s cat, who passed away last month.


October Links Roundup: Spiritual Bypass Edition

For a one-sentence statement of my personal philosophy, the Serenity Prayer can’t be beat: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” (Closely followed by Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” chorus: “You got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away, Know when to run…”)

The Aristotelian golden mean suggested by these maxims seems dynamic enough to outsmart the duplicities and imbalances of human nature, whereas simplistic idealizations of a single principle can slow down survival responses when conditions change. When our earliest relationships don’t build a foundation of trust, for instance, our unconscious defenses can get locked on the “hold ’em” (love-addicted) or “fold ’em” (love-avoidant) setting. I was a holder so long with my abusive mother that I have to curb my enthusiasm for folding now. A personal mantra like the quotes above can remind us to question whether our instinctual response really applies to the present problem. Can I change this situation, should I accept it, or should I leave? What wisdom have I learned from the way I made these decisions in the past?

This process of nonjudgmental present-time inquiry is known as mindfulness. In the Buddhist meditation tradition from which it came, there is no pressure to feel happier, nor any bias against change (as there often is in Western religions). Unfortunately, as mindfulness has been lifted from its spiritual context and taken up by America’s “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” popular culture, its lingo can be used to gaslight people into a positive attitude about unacceptable circumstances. One of my friends, a trauma survivor and Buddhist meditator, calls this the “spiritual bypass”: when religion tries to convince you that you need an attitude adjustment instead of a revolution.

The online news and culture journal The Conversation said as much in this provocative article last month, “How corporations co-opted the art of mindfulness to make us bear the unbearable”:

While there can be little doubt that the practice of mindfulness can lead to significant health benefits, its current prominence in corporate culture is nested within a social, cultural and political context where stress is now seen as a failure of the individual to adapt to the productivity demands of the corporation. In other words, if you’re stressed out, you’re not working hard enough on your personal focus strategy. You’re letting the team down.

The current translations of ancient mindful practices are also highly gendered. In a culture where women are much more likely to be encouraged to apply acceptance, silence, stillness and the relinquishing of resistance to their problems, the trap of mindfulness can be set to stun for those who may be much more in need of speaking up, resisting and taking space in the workplace.

In this context, mindfulness is an ideal tool to induce compliance, with its focus on the individual management of our responses to forces we’re being told are well beyond our control.

And this is perhaps the crux of the problem of the mindless application of Buddhist meditation practice: the marketing of mindfulness as a solution to work stress and life balance rather than the complex spiritual approach to living it is meant to be.

Suspicion of people’s agendas, however well-founded sometimes, has sadly interfered with my spiritual openness. (That “fold ’em” personality at work!) I would like to stop worrying that letting go, being mindful of my inner state, handing over control to my Higher Power, etc., will leave me vulnerable to spiritual attack, or will serve the interests of people who want to shut me up. I’m sort of like a cult survivor in that way. The warning system that “someone wants to take over my brain!” is really ingrained. My emotional cell membrane is too permeable. This is reason number six hundred that I’m taking a break from close involvement in organized religion. Until I develop better discernment and psychic defenses, I’m safer being by myself (or with a trusted friend or counselor) in those moments when I descend to a deeper level of communion with God and my subconscious.

That leads me to today’s next link, “Screen Backlash is a Disability Issue”, by Sara Luterman for NOS Magazine. The autistic writer pushes back against those thinkpieces criticizing modern people for using smartphones in lieu of face-to-face conversation. Community doesn’t have to look the same for everyone:

People who were previously isolated because of mobility or speech issues can find friends with shared experiences and interests. They get to be less alone.

People who oppose the use of screens aren’t trying to silence disabled people. The problem is that they aren’t thinking about us at all. When confronted with what smartphones can do for disabled people, anti-screen folks will claim that they are not talking about us. The thing is, when they look at a café and see people using their phones, there is no way to distinguish between the people who use phones as disability aids and people who just happen to find speaking through social media a perfectly adequate or even preferable mode of communication. A false hierarchy is formed, and of course, the ways some disabled people speak is at the bottom of it.

By idealizing inflexible, narrow definitions of communication, we are dehumanizing the people who don’t make eye contact, the people who don’t speak. Social media just gives us more socially acceptable and normalized options for communication.

This resonated with me because I encounter many such thinkpieces in Christian media. Anxious about falling church attendance, these bloggers and pastors disparage online spiritual friendships as shallow and dominated by groupthink. But for folks who can’t find an affirming or accessible church, or who are in a contemplative phase of their spiritual life, social media is an essential third way between isolation and forcing yourself to be somewhere you don’t belong. The feminist and queer Christian Twitterverse is also a place for radical theological re-thinkings that may make the difference between hold ’em and fold ’em in some wavering believers’ lives. (Shout out to Dianna Anderson, Sarah Moon, Samantha Field–if you can stay Christian, maybe I can too.)

Speaking of Samantha Field, go read her new blog post, “The Not-So-Ridiculous Reasons People Leave Church”. She asked her Twitter followers “if you used to attend church regularly, but don’t attend anymore, why did you stop?” Many people weighed in with good reasons including homophobia, churches that protected abusers, stumping for political candidates and ballot measures from the pulpit, no charitable service to the community, and lack of accommodation for disabilities, especially less-visible ones like autism. So please, no more invalidating memes about “stupid reasons for leaving church”. Let’s listen to each other and create better spiritual communities, online and off.

Misinterpreting Narcissus

During our family vacation on Cape Cod this summer, I visited Sunday services at an interdenominational liberal-mainline church. The sermon was about feasting on the body and blood of Jesus, a more orthodox and specifically Christian topic than I expected from a church with Unitarian roots. I was happy that a synthesis of inclusiveness and orthodoxy existed somewhere, and sad that it didn’t matter to me as much as it once did. Evangelism needs an opponent, a counterfeit treasure to compare to Christianity’s pearl of great price, and that straw man is often called self-love.

In the preacher’s retelling of the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful youth starved to death because he became obsessed with his own reflection, just as we spiritually starve when we focus on ourselves rather than relationships with Jesus and the community. This moralism reminded me of evangelical self-help writers who discourage psychological introspection on the grounds that it’s self-centered. The term “narcissism” is frequently and imprecisely used in Christian culture to derail critiques that the church isn’t meeting someone’s needs.

But a person who is self-sufficient, and whose spirituality comes from within, is not a narcissist. Clinical narcissism has nothing to do with one’s belief, or lack thereof, in an external religious authority. Its defining trait is lack of empathy, an inability or unwillingness to understand that other people’s feelings and perceptions are real (especially when they differ from the narcissist’s own). “Whatever you think is good for you, it can’t be as good as Jesus” is potentially a very narcissistic statement!

Moreover, Narcissus didn’t die because he was in love with himself. He died because he thought his reflection was a separate person! He pined away waiting for the figure in the pool to return his kisses, not realizing that he already possessed all the qualities that he was desiring. If religion taught us to recognize ourselves as spiritually complete and worthy, instead of dwelling on our helplessness and incompleteness, might we finally be set free from projections of our wounded egos, and be ready to feast on God’s love as mature adults?

As for the object-lesson of the original myth, Encyclopedia Mythica says, “Narcissus is another example among several of a beautiful young man who spurned sex and died as a result.” Sermon, please.

greek mythology | This is a painting of Narcissus reaching out to touch his reflection ...:

“I know you are, but what am I?”

Poetry by Donal Mahoney: “By Mistake He Later Said”

Reiter’s Block contributor Donal Mahoney returns with this understated, stark poem about the impact of child abuse, and how sinfully easy it is for the responsible adults to look the other way.

By Mistake He Later Said

Every once in awhile
over the last 40 years
Ralph wondered what might

have happened to the guy
who had moved in with the mother
of his children and drank all the time.

He remembered the kids saying
when they were small
the fellow got up one night

to go to the bathroom
and got lost in the hallway
went back to the wrong room

and got in the wrong bed
with Ralph’s daughter,
by mistake he later said.

Forty years later
in a technicolor nightmare
Ralph saw the guy’s name

blink on a neon billboard
and Ralph Googled him to find
the fellow had won the lottery

and moved to Arizona,
got cancer and died.
None of the children,

adults with families
of their own now, knew
what had happened to him

except for the daughter who
wakes up and Googles him
in the still of the night.

New Poetry by Conway: “They Have a Cave”

My prison pen pal “Conway” continues to wait for a hearing on his early release petition, three years after California retroactively repealed the “three strikes” law mandating long sentences for nonviolent crimes. If you have enjoyed his work on this blog, feel free to send me a letter of support that I can forward to his attorney.

Meanwhile, his artwork graces the cover of Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s just-published book of political poetry, Imperfect Echoes. Check out her sample poem, “Antigua’s Hope”, at Winning Writers, and read Conway’s new poem, “They Have a Cave”, below the graphic.

They Have a Cave

Have you been in a cave?
Blackened by shadowed bars; strip searched
like a newborn puppy, probed to prove a gender.
Paraded down concrete corridors, jingling in chains
like an untrained beast. Un-named, then re-numbered.

I despise this neverness, this severed distress
from the world of incorporated man.

I have survived too long in this cave,
while they have waved away time (The Administration.)
To claim the one key to freedom’s peace.
To fleece my mind, and control the doors
lashed to the mouth of each cave.

These caves have been built for your poor.
But, no-one they love. Only those
they claim to care about.

You can have my hollow cave.
I have saved nothing from its stark desperation,
from the stripes of separation
that have
stomped out this conversation…