Sunday, April 30, 2006

Spectrum in Review Part 3

The Meaning of Life.
Common among all of us in "Spectrum" is the fact that we are looking to find more meaning in life. One of the roots of unhappiness for us is that feeling of emptiness, where the things we do in life don't seem to add up to anything. Well, there's no universal solution to that problem. Each person has his own unique key to finding meaning in life. Some of us complained that there was too much boredom and repetitive tasks in life. Others of us complained that life was too full of activity and everything seemed too scattered and chaotic. In any case, we find much to be desired about the culture we live in. We are barraged my messages from the culture about what we should be doing to be happy, and most of those messages are sometimes self-serving and certainly phony. We seem surrounded by people with cell phones and planners who imply to us that we ought to be staying busy and filling our time with important stuff. Are those guys with their faces in their planners all the time finding the meaning of life in there? Maybe.
Maybe there is something to be learned from stepping back and figuring out what will make our life more whole. Some people find this wholeness in religion. None of us in the group is particularly religious, though. In fact, we have pretty much come to the conclusion that religion is one of those phony messages.
As we get older, our concept of the past and future change. Younger people are climbing the hill of life trying to get to a better place in their careers and relationships. When we were in our 20's we had a picture in our heads of what life was supposed to be like, and had plans for getting to the picture. Some of us are more talented and ambitious than others when it comes to making the picture actually come true. Those of us who are older and on the other side of the "hill" look back and try to make sense of what actually happened compared to what was supposed to happen. This can be a depressing thought and another reminder that there is a kind of emptyness in life.

Freud and Jung
The group had a discussion the intersection between Jung and Buddhism. It has to do with alleviating one's suffering through understanding one's self, and becoming more "whole" - that is, becoming aware and accepting conscious thoughts as well as the unconscious. Also, considering those things we all have in common (super-ego? collective consciousness?) to open one's self to community. The way to curing suffering is to accept and understand one's own suffering. It seems a bit paradoxical, eh? There is the story of the woman whose child died, and who went to the monk and said "please bring my child back". The monk responds "I will if you bring me a mustard seed from a household who has not suffered death." Of course she can find no such household, and in the process learns to become more compassionate, and therefore, happier. The German philosopher Victor Frankl came to the conclusion that the root of happiness is, not necessarily one's circumstances, but the reactions to circumstances, and recognition that we have the right to choose those reactions. People who are happier are the people who do good things for themselves, and they do them because of their active intention.
Freud said we can use our dreams to help get in contact with the forces in our unconscious that have been formed during our upbringing. I call it the "internal treadmill", where, despite common sense, we still do the silly things we did as kids to get rewards. For instance, if I got whiny as a kid, mom would buy me something. So nowadays, I get whiny all the time, without reward. Being whiny just seems comfortable, because once upon a time it was a way to feel comfortable. In therapy, we examine these behaviors in order to attempt to outgrow them. Freud tried to fit this type of stuff into a scientific theory, but unfortunately, made up a bunch of stuff that seemed scientific but was just unfounded theory. His idea, anyway, was to uphold reason as a way to get to mental health.
Carl Jung went beyond the Freudian model by saying there is so much beyond the rational. His interest in the meaning of dreams was not only relevant to the analysis of patients, but also to the big questions of who we are. What are these dreams I have? Do they mean anything? Or are they just the chaotic firing of neurons? Jung said they point to the "collective unconscious", which is that churning of the mind that happens in the background, that we are not really aware of during waking life. Every person has this churn in the mind, and it's similar for all of us all over the world, just like we have similar hands and fingers and eyeballs. Mythology throughout time has used themes that come out of the collective unconscious. That's why so many myths are so similar, even amongst peoples who have never been in contact with each other.
The dreams that come to us and the myths that come out of the collective unconscious are real and important and they are beyond what we can map out using logic. Believing in God again, for me, means realizing that God is beyond the things we know rationally. Jung was an advocate of becoming more fully human by pushing the boundaries of thought. It's important to consider the light as well as the shadow, the masculine and the feminine, the mind and heart, introversion and extroversion, and so on, as we move toward more full awareness. In our western society we have a bias toward the rational, the things that can be expressed as written language, the measurable and predictable. We see just about everything in a linear way and in terms of either/or, and good/evil. Well, I reject that way of seeing things. Even though I still have the damn baggage that says I am a sinner and need to be redeemed. Rather than "repentance", is it not better to think in terms of continually improving ones self through transformation?

Dark Parts

What can we learn from the parts of life that bring us darkness and misery? So many of our discussions are about shame and unfulfilled dreams, but what good can come of these things? The therapist and author Parker Palmer makes the distinction between a life about "getting somewhere" (wealth, power, etc) and a life about appreciation. If the paradigm of my life was simply to get somewhere I'm bound to be disappointed. In fact, even if I get to the place I wanted to get to, when I am there I will be disappointed because the reality is always different from the image, and life is still full of lousy events no matter what. Nevertheless, it is necessary to make plans and have some concept of the future or else we will be stagnant, and that is certainly lousy too. Of course there is great satisfaction of planning something and actually seeing it through, but the bigger ambitions come with the bigger pains of trying to get there. It may seem as though there are others out there who have done wonderful things, but as we become closer to others and listen to their stories of life, we find that even the seeming successful have had their heartaches too.
Palmer notes that the people who are ultimately happier are those whose life paradigms are about appreciation. They accomplish things, but they do not judge how much they have "accomplished", but instead appreciate life as it comes. This appreciation comes from living life in a more contemplative way, and in a less egotistical way. Many of our pains are pains to an over-inflated ego. Palmer points out that the appreciation of the moment comes to those who have practiced contemplation of some sort, whether it be prayer or meditation. And those who have suffered and overcome great pain have practiced this contemplation almost through necessity because we need to pause and figure out what the painful experience was all about. So do we need to suffer greatly in order to come to the point where we can appreciate and feel joyful about life? Is each disillusionment a step toward having eyes more wide open and to the blessings of the here and now?
Even though the men in out group were skeptical about religion, it can serve a great purpose for many people, sometimes as a vehicle for meditation and contemplation, and to fulfill the need to feel connected to something larger than one's self. That need is universal, and is the root of religion and mythology. "Spectrum" spent a good deal of time talking about myths and stories and how they relate to our lives. Jung said that myths are a way to understand what he calls the "collective unconscious", that is, the mysterious part of mind that is beyond what we can easily describe in words, but what we all have in common, and which is larger than each individual.
An example of a mythological story was brought up in the group: Rapunzel. The letting down of her hair was a symbol for opening ones self up to the world and getting out from the encloisterment of the tower. It's taking a chance on a happier life, even with its potential perils. This analogy means the opening of one's self to the possible perils of the inner life as well as the outer physical dangers. Participating in the group was itself a risk for all of us to take because we had to look at the dark sides of ourselves. But according to Jung, and many wise people before and after him, we need to examine and accept the darker sides of ourselves in order to better understand life. The cure to suffering, according to Buddhist thought, is to accept one's own suffering. That sounds paradoxical, eh? But that is a large part of what "Spectrum" was all about. Even though we say we are not religious, I think we arrived at the central tenet of all major religions, which is compassion. Our examination of ourselves, and our taking the risk of sharing our unique stories, including (especially) the dark parts, is what bring compassion to each other, and to ourselves.

It seems contradictory to "appreciate" the dark parts of life, but we can't help but learn and become wiser if we look back in a realistic way about our trials. Our "wholeness" comes from embracing not only the joys but also the failures. There is something empowering about not having illusions about the world, but knowing through disappointment that you are closer to the what Palmer calls the "certainty about bedrock reality". The dark episodes of life also make us more empathetic of others who have been through hard times, and therefore more loving and closer to our friends and family.
In James Fowler's "7 stages of Faith" view, the 5th stage comes when we realize that there is more to the universe than what we can know using linear language, and mathematical logic. That's where I am, and I still don't know exactly where to go with it. There is an awful lot of stuff out there that seems like enlightenment, but is it really just new-age hokum? I can't abandon science, but I acknowledge that there is much more to existence than what we can see or measure. We have the obligation to be skeptical about everything, but we also have the obligation to be open minded enough to know that our limited human brains can never know very much about how this big universe functions. The unknown can be frightening, or it can be exciting depending upon attitude. Every day we move toward an unknown world, and we can choose to see it as a darkness to be feared or an adventure to be lived.

Prev: Part 2


David Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Christian de la Huerta, Coming out Spiritually: The Next Step
James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development
James Hollis, The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other
Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael, Coming out of Shame: Transforming Gay and Lesbian Lives
Joe Kort, 10 Smart Things Gay Men Can Do to Find Real Love
Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul
Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life
Cindy Spring and Charles Garfield, Wisdom Circles: A Guide to Self Discovery and Community Building in Small Groups

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Spectrum in Review Part 2

Shame is part of what I call (this isn't original) the "internal treadmill": the thoughts that keep churning through the mind because of such constant conditioning. We want to get off but we just can't. We gay men have been given so many negative messages for so long, the messages just keep rolling along like a treadmill. Some people call it the "tapes" that keep playing in the mind. "This is immoral", "This is not normal", "This is inferior", "This is subject to ridicule", "This will bring unhappiness", "This will disappoint your Mother".
As children we learned to be "hyper-vigilant". The messages came at us ubiquitously - the messages about how we were supposed to act and what we were supposed to like. We became guarded about just about every move we made, else we would be singled out as being different. This guardedness still haunts me now, and it is largely unconscious. I wonder how the guy in the next car at a stop light is evaluating me. Does he know I'm gay just by looking at me and seeing the way I grip the wheel?
Anyway, the thing is, in my case, what I remember from my childhood are the treatment I received by being girl-like. Not sure if that's a Gay Thing or not. There are plenty of "effeminate" straight boys and there are plenty of "masculine" gay boys. No one is even really "gay" or "straight" until puberty anyway, are we?? Anyway, the thing is, you are treated badly if you are a boy who acts like a girl, and since "femininity" is associated with being gay, it's mixed in somehow with disdain for gay people. Anyway, the thing is, in my case, by brother was often very condescending and abusive to me because I was a sissy. He still is condescending and abusive, not for being a sissy I suppose, but because he is just abusive. It's all so similar to the crap I get from people in general because I am quiet. "Are you always so quiet?" People ask. "Are you always so condescending", I want to respond. It's a little different from the Gay Thing, it's just another thing people are prejudiced about. Somehow quietness is associated with naivete, and needyness. As if I need to be protected from the harsh world because I am "little quiet David". (Hmm, well, maybe I do need to be protected from the harsh world.) Anyway, the thing is, my brother has a number of alcoholic behaviors, for instance, ridiculing non-drinkers, specifically me, because of being on our "high horse" and being too "good" for him. He thinks I am goody-two-shoes, while he is a man-of-the-world, with experience and wisdom that I'll never know. Anyway, the thing is, all these forces causing my low self-esteem have combined together to create a colorful palette of abuse from all directions, like a canvas of differently colored vomit. Perhaps it's good to keep in mind the fact that often the reason people act superior is to cover their own insecurity. So now that I do have a nice group of gay friends, sometimes I still feel inferior because I fell like don't fit in to their group. Outcast among the outcasts. I get the same condescending crap from fellow gay guys about being quiet that I do from anybody else. There is always chattering about sex, about whether one is a "top" or a "bottom" and so on. This "top" and "bottom" business is really kind of annoying because as gay people we have supposedly been fighting against the idea of being labeled, but here we go labeling ourselves.
There is this feeling that there must be a "prince" out there to be a savior, it's called the "Cinderella" complex, I guess, the romantic ideal, where someone with an unhappy life fantasizes about a life with a great lover. I have a picture in my head, I've mentioned this before, of living in a cool house in Victorian Village, with M_, and everything in its place, and all the bad feelings having vanished. Somebody comes along who seems good at first, but who does not turn out to be the Prince; since the romantic picture did not come true, it breaks up. I think I am over this romantic vision. I hope so, anyway. I realize that any two people will have misunderstandings blah-de-blah-de-blah - books have been written about it.
And the messages that set off those "tapes" just keep coming out of everywhere; the media, our families, and those around us. What can we do to mitigate the triggering of the negative reactions?
Something that has helped me is cognitive therapy. This therapy teaches one to actively pay attention to the mind's reaction to situations and apply reasonable responses. Our minds often automatically start the negative "tapes" even without our conscious awareness. Cognitive therapy, first, asks the subject to pay attention to the feelings one has and the triggers that caused the feelings. Then once the triggers become more recognizable, one must notice the automatic reaction, and weigh the reaction against its reasonableness. For instance, when I was in grad school I was often involved in conversations among my fellow students about technical subjects, and more often than not, I had no idea what they were talking about. My automatic response was to feel stupid and unworthy of being there. Had I known about cognitive therapy then, I would have caught myself in this reaction and thought about whether it was truly reasonable to consider myself inferior. Perhaps my colleagues were discussing something so narrowly technical, no one else could really reasonable be expected to understand it.
The messages gay men receive from everywhere can trigger us emotionally, like a script. We must see our own recognition of the triggers and our reactions to them in order to rise above these automatic scripts. We must tap in to the sensible and the compassionate rather than to the part of the brain that follows the old scripts. The ability to say to ones self "I do not deserve to feel bad" takes a certain amount of power as well as knowledge. Facing a confrontation with confidence rather than shame takes power. Not physical power to vanquish an external enemy, but internal power to maintain one's sense of reason, compassion, and esteem. Sometimes we may have the knowledge, but still wallow in our own conflicted thoughts as an avoidance, and convince ourselves we don't really deserve to have the power. I also helps to remember that gay and sensitive men are not villlified in all societies. In fact, there are some Native American communities who respect gay men as spiritual bridges between the masculine and the feminine realms.

Avoidance. Acceptance.
Avoidance is doing anything other than facing the problem. If the problem is "why do I feel so crappy", we often sit and dwell on the problem rather than solving it. Ironically, then, thinking about the problem too much is actually avoidance. This can be a vicious cycle because thinking about the problem too much just brings on more depression. Someone said "Depression is anger without motivation."
It may help in these situations to realize that the crappy feelings can come from inner conflicts. Shame and self-pity come in large part from a divided self where one part of the self is judging another part. If I say "I am a bad person", it's as if one "me" were standing there scolding the other "me". What right does that judging part have to judge the other part? Perhaps it has some right sometimes, but this chronic feeling of shame and guilt is very destructive. A group member suggested the idea of getting "in touch with the inner shithead". What he meant by this was accepting the fact that it's ok to feel bad occasionally. In other words, one of the things the "blaming" part of ourselves is upset about may be the feeling lousy itself. This strengthens the vicious cycle. "I am a bad person because I feel bad and unmotivated". Sometimes we simply need to forgive ourselves about feeling bad and just accept the idea that we may have the blues, and that's ok. Feeling bad about feeling bad gets in the way of figuring out the real root of the problem. It's avoidance.
One of my revelations was to realize that acceptance is not the same as stagnation. In other words accepting that a problem exists does not mean we intend to live with the problem. As an example, as a software engineer I often encountered very frustrating bugs in my programs. I would become flush with anger and frustration when it took hours to figure out a totally unexpected problem. The aggravation comes ot only from the bug itself, but from having planned to do task A, task B, and so on, then running into a problem during "A". "Aargh ! I will never get to B or C today!". The next day was always better because I had accepted the bug. I have accepted the fact that I may have to spend the day finishing "A"; while "B" and "C" will have to wait. I take the time to solve the bug without being so upset about it. It may sound paradoxical at first, but the best way to solve a problem is to first accept it.

It's almost become a cliche that we choose partners who are just like our parents. Why? Well, when we grow up we are assimilated to the environment that our parents and siblings have created. This environment is all we know at the time, and we associate it with the protection of home. Even if it's abusive, it's still "home". Sometimes the most attention given to a child is given in conflict. So the child associates conflict with "love". So the partner who reminds one of "home" is attractive, even if that home life was lousy. These dynamics are usually totally unconscious, so we end up having no idea how we got into this terrible situation where our partners cause the same old grief that our parents gave us. Often times partners play certain roles, for instance the "caregiver" (A) and the "needy" (B). "A"s have a need to make things ok. They receive gratification from being in control. Maybe as children they helped keep siblings under control to please the parents. Maybe they always got to choose what to do because of permissive parents. Meanwhile "B"s receive gratification from letting someone else make the decisions. Maybe they were rewarded for passivity in childhood somehow. Often these relationships run into problems because "A" will become frustrated and "unneeded" if "B" behaves independently without need for help. Meanwhile "B" can become frustrated if "A" wants to do too many things that "B" doesn't want to do. They both end up feeling the same lousy way they felt as children when things were going wrong.
Conflict inevitably arises in every relationship. The feelings of initial infatuation and bliss fade when the newness fades away. Some people are "addicted" to this feeling of "new love", and change partners every 8 months or so. When the newness fades away, the flaws in the other person become more evident. We say "is this the right person?" "Why am I feeling the same lousy way I felt when I was a kid ?"
I think it's a simplification to say we end up with people who are "just like our parents". It is a little more accurate to say that our minds are recognizing patterns that were learned as children. The personal conflicts of today resonate with the conflicts of childhood, just as the good feelings of new love resonate with the good feelings of home life. A mature relationship evolves from facing the conflicts and learning how to live through them. Living through conflict is not a passive activity. It takes conscious willingness to deal with the uncomfortable feelings. But in facing them you are standing up to the negative patterns of yesterday and not letting junk from years ago control you.
Whenever I drive through Victorian Village I get a little bit sad because a scenario enters my head: the scenario of what my life was supposed to be. I was supposed to have a soul-mate like M_ and we were supposed to each have incredibly interesting jobs at the University or Battelle, and we were supposed to live in one of these beautiful restored houses on Neil Avenue.
But further thought reveals that there is a great contradiction. On one hand, I am all sad and wispy because, instead of my scenario, I have this stupid little life now where I have no idea what I'm doing. On the other hand, my low self-esteem still follows me around and I realize that I do not deserve that beautiful life. There is no way I realistically could have gotten there because I never did have enough self esteem to go for it.
Brooding about the past is a very useless endeavor. Somehow I have to take some comfort in the fact that I always made decisions as best as I knew how, even though those decisions were clouded by low self-worth. Maybe with a little push M_ would have realized that I would be a better partner for him that that woman he ended up marrying. Maybe it's a complete fantasy to think he is anything but hetero. It seems like he really loved me, but maybe that's one of those fabricated memories. I need to let him go, rather than keep waiting for him to show up at my door.
Another cliche we hear often is "I need to fix my own problems before I can ever have a relationship". But it can be argued that the best way to discover some of those problems and really deal with them is by having a relationship. It's easy to ignore ones own dysfunctionalities by avoiding them in isolation. It's the relationships in life that help us to grow.
The writer Joe Kort suggests that relationships go through three stages: First the partners are enamored with each other and happy to have found a new lover. Second, the luster fades and the partners see the flaws in each other and in themselves. This is the difficult part, where there are moments of extreme insecurity, power struggles, and even resentment. But if a partnership can survive this stage it moves on to the third stage where there is greater and more profound understanding and love of one another. The second stage can be an enormous growth experience where one's neuroses and insecurities can be examined in the context of a relationship. This examination makes us stronger and more compassionate.

Prev: Part 1        Next: Part 3

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Spectrum in Review Part 1

Spectrum is a gay mens' discussion group patterned after the "Wisdom Circle" concept. The wisdom circle is a small group which is intended to help all the members through sharing their experiences in an open way. It is supposed to be a "safe" place where confidentiality is respected, and all are encouraged to speak truthfully. The formal name of the group is "Spectrum Men's Spirituality Group", so ostensibly our discussions are focused around matters of spirit. Spirit is a vague term, though, and as far as I'm concerned, it covers just about everything that has to do with one's inner life.
I will respect confidentiality by not mentioning any names; and I won't repeat any specific stories, but will instead keep my focus on my own particular experiences and my interpretations of our discussions, and to general ideas.
These discussions examined our emotions both past and present, in order to better understand ourselves and so that we may face the future with a little more wisdom. Though the space we use is at the Unitarian church, our discussions usually did not veer toward religion. In fact most of the group members are not particularly religious, and many expressed that the churches of their youth caused emotional harm in one way or another. There is a distinction between religion and spirituality. All people have a spiritual life of some kind, while not everyone has a religious life.
A discussion group is not a substitute for psychotherapy. None of us is a professional, nor do we pretend to dispense clinical advice. Talking honestly is a kind of "therapy" in the informal sense, and we try to steer away from doling out advice unless it's asked for, but instead, try to relate our own experiences to the topic on the floor so that it may be of use to others.

Why are we here ?
The reason each person attends the group is unique, but there are common themes. We seem to have a need to talk about our suffering in life, both now and in the past. Is the past suffering related to the present suffering? What do we need to do today to alleviate this suffering in the future? This suffering is not necessarily the kind that requires professional help, but it is those daily nagging feelings of anxiety. Anxiety that comes from living in this time and place as a gay man. Anxiety about relationships, work, finances, family. Each person has his unique personal situation, but a large part of the energy generated in this group comes from our commonalities and the constant discovery that much of our anxiety is generated in similar ways, and much of our individual past suffering rings true with all of us.
Here are some of the questions we have pondered: Who am I? What is the story of my life? What happened in the past to make me the person I am now? What caused my suffering? What do I consider to be my identity? How much do others' assumptions about me affect my own self-image? How much do I assume about the assumptions of others? Do what other people think of me matter? How do I label myself and are those labels sensible? Do I see myself in a fair way, or is the picture of myself something like a character in a story? Are my memories accurate or are they merely images from the past that are stitched together to form a somewhat fictional narrative? Does it matter? Does the story of my life have a meaning? If the past is just a story, can I change it? Are my future thoughts and actions somehow bound to the influences of the past? Where does shame come from and what are its lingering effects? How do I cope with romantic relationships? How can I be happier in the future?

Life Stories.
One of our first topics was the "Spiritual Autobiography". Each member used a session to discuss his life story, as a way for us to introduce ourselves to each other. I used James Fowler's ideas of the "Stages of Spiritual Growth" as a framework for my presentation. According to Fowler, these stages of growth are universal, and everyone's present view of the world is consistent with one of these stages. Adulthood and maturity are associated with stage 4, where one begins to think for himself and question the stories we were told as children. This is where all the trouble starts for us gay men. I think we all come to the realization at some time that there is a huge conflict between what we feel and what our society says we are supposed to feel. What we feel, as well as plain old common sense, can crash into the ideas that traditional Christianity teaches. I think my "stage 4" moment happened when I realized that it didn't make sense to me anymore to recite the congregational readings in church where we confessed to God that we human beings are not "worthy" of God's grace. Around the same time it was beginning to occur to me that the "Normal" attitudes in society were not going to be my attitudes. Conflict. Conflict. There was a little space in my brain that said it's "ok" to be gay, but there was a larger space in my brain that made me feel bad about myself, and still bought the "I am not worthy" notion.
Some people never seem to leave stage 3, where there is unquestioning faith in a god who rules the universe and currys favors upon those who believe in the "correct" way. Many people never move beyond stage 3 where the primary identification is with a particular church and peer group and their beliefs. The ministers at many churches preach to the "lowest common denominator" so as not to stir up any real thought or controversy.
Stage 4 is a "demythologizing" stage, where critical thought begins to demolish myths and traditions previously taken for granted. By the time I entered college I was willing to say that I was an atheist, because I realized that the stuff my church told me defied reason and logic.
Those of us who have moved on seem to be in constant misery about how we're supposed to behave and believe. Stage 4 necessarily brings about a flowering of many minds within one person, and these many minds can be in conflict with each other.
For instance, there is certain comfort in situations that remind us of childhood, even though the situation may be totally destructive and dysfunctional. It is comfortable because it's what we have become accustomed to. This is why we often choose partners who have the same flaws as our parents. Sometimes crazy negative relationships continue because the other person gives attention, and any attention, even if it's abusive, is better than no attention. For some, conflict is that thing which communicates "love", because conflict is the only communication there is.
There was nothing in childhood which gave any positive notion of homosexuality. So not venturing out of the closet is the comfortable thing to do. And while our common sense tells us that there should be no shame in loving other men, and there should be no shame in finding men sexually attractive because this is simply who we are, and our inner thoughts are no one's business anyway. But we still feel the shame.
Even though common sense told me that it's OK to be gay and it's OK not to be a typical masculine guy, there was baggage from 18 years of opposing messages. I could not come out or reveal my true thoughts to anybody because of the fear of being marginalized or even bashed. My true self was hidden as I turned to my studies in college. I did not have time for church or thinking about spiritual things, and repressed my desires for a boyfriend. But I also decided I would not pretend to be something I was not. I was not open, but by the same token I refused to pretend to be straight by having girlfriends, and I refused to go with the norms and trot off to church on Sundays.
I was confirmed into the church when I was 14. To me, confirmation class was kind of like school, where you regurgitate the answers back that you are told. Yes, Jesus died for me, and yes, he is coming back, and yes, I must confess my sins all the time, because as flawed humans we don't really deserve the kingdom of God, blah-de-blah. We did not question it because it was like any other class. I remember being told about the young sailor whose ship got blown up and he floated in the ocean for days, but he survived only because he prayed and prayed. I remember asking why God sends people to Hell if he supposedly loves us so much. I don't remember the answer I got, but I must have bought it at the time. Or, maybe not. Maybe I never really bought the Jesus stuff, maybe I just did what a good boy is supposed to do.
Maybe I began to get cynical about life at a young age. I do remember being scorned and tormented by the guys in the 6th grade who picked on me to show that they are tough guys. I remember my parents trying to convince me to do some kind of sport - tennis, golf, swimming, softball - I hated them all and they were all torture. I don't remember Jesus doing much for me then. My friend G_ made up the word “Agnostochristism”: uncertainty about the divinity of Christ. Many of the people I know have basically the same idea, I think. Of course this is biased, since many of the people I know are Unitarians. Jesus can be seen as a wise teacher, as was Bhudda, as was Mohammed. The guys I know at the Unitarian Church go there because they just got sick of all the Jesus stuff they had to listen to in the traditional Christian churches. Even the “liberal” Christian churches beat you over the head with Jesus stuff.
Ever since I was in college, this Jesus Christ stuff never really made any sense to me. As Gore Vidal says, it’s a “Bronze-age religion”. To me it’s a perfectly emtpy idea that you are somehow special if you “believe” that Mary was a virgin, Jesus was God, and he was resurrected. So?? Why does God favor those who happen to believe in this particular supernatural series of events?
Ironic that in Western Europe traditional Christianity is dying, and yet they behave more as Jesus would have wanted. They have universal health care. They believe that a sign of a great society is how well the poorest are treated. They believe “welfare-state” is a good word, while we consider it a bad word.

Next: Part 2