Don't let your schooling interfere with your education.
~ Pete Seeger

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Good and Evil

Part 3, or the third penalty, is good and evil: "In a spiritual life everything is morally charged; nothing is neutral. Choosing between good and evil is a daily effort, but taking responsibility for your choices makes you fully alive. … When we intensify our moral awareness, everything becomes a big deal."

On one level, I have a lot of skepticism regarding this. "Good" and "evil" are both evaluations. They are terms of relativity and judgment, vague and indistinct. What makes something good? What makes it evil? A few things are clear, but most – the vast majority – are situational. The same behavior causes harm in one circumstance, healing or help in another. For instance, killing somebody in one case is pure murder, and harms the individual and his family. In another, it saves someone's life and prevents harm. The real question, is what is the reason or motive for the action? What needs are being met or unmet, and to whom do those needs belong? And is there a different way to act, which will meet the needs of everyone involved.

Too often, the concept of good and evil leads to an abdication of responsibility, not a taking of it.

On another level, the idea that the meaning of life is found in spirituality, that choices are morally charged, and that taking responsibility for those choices is vital in a well-lived and honorable life – that resonates. And the more aware we are of the implications of our choices, even the most minor ones, the better we are equipped both to make choices that serve life, and to take responsibility for our failures. We are also better equipped to deal with the nuances that arise, and to choose the most honorable, and least harmful option when we are faced with situations that cause harm no matter which way we go.

For instance, when I chose to transition, it meant betraying a marriage of 16 years, and it meant taking my sons' father out of their life. It was the hardest choice I ever made, because I could see so clearly the people I was hurting by doing it, and they were the people I loved most in the world. Yet I could also see that choosing not to would hurt them even worse – in fact, that it was hurting them day by day. Kristin suffered my depression and dishonesty. I could not connect with my children very well – I was not emotionally available to them. And I was so damn close to suicide – how much worse that would have hurt them! Making that choice, my boys have two moms who love them and are fully available. I set an example of courage and integrity, to replace my former example of deception and depression. The price was large, and continues to be large, and there are plenty of people willing to condemn my choice from the comfort of their own moral armchairs. That's okay. They know not of what they speak. I met the needs of my family as best as I was able.

So I agree with the meaning behind Gatto's words, but not with his language. I think it's a lot more useful to think in terms of needs and feelings, than in terms of good and evil. Not only does it offer more flexibility when it comes to choosing strategies to meet needs, it also is a better path to embracing the responsibility, beauty, and pathos of life.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pain

The second penalty of "original sin," as Gatto sees it, is pain. "Pain is a friend, because it forces our attention away from the world and refocuses it squarely on ourselves. Pain of all sorts is the way we learn insight, balance, and self-control. The siren call of "Feel good!" lures us to court desirable sensations and to despise pain as a spoiler of pleasure. Pain, however, is the road to self knowledge."

When I think about the pain in my life, I am convinced that Gatto is right. Pain is a friend. Perhaps not always, and not for all people, but for me, it has been a road to self-knowledge, and it has been a blessing. I used to be afraid of it, and run from it; but I never escaped. Then I turned into it and embraced and felt it fully. I found that not only did I survive, not only did it pass, but now I'm not afraid of it anymore.

Pain is the body's or the mind's signal that there is something wrong in your life, with which one must deal – and heal.

It was psychic pain that taught me to accept and embrace who I am, and enabled me to face a society that often disapproves of my transition, and holds me and it as insane, depraved, and contemptible. It taught me the value of integrity and connection, and enabled my courage. It taught me the value of marriage, and how very much I treasure that potentially happy estate.

Physical pain taught me much, as well. A back injury taught me the limitations of my body. Working through tendonitis taught me endurance and toughness, and inspired creativity. (I was on a boat without access to splints or anything, so I cut up a coat hanger, shaped it to hold my hand immobile, and taped it on with electrical tape. Crude, but it worked. I did, too.) I've learned a lot through pain – how to breathe into it, face it, experience it, relax into it, let it pass through you. If you tense up, it stops and stays inside.

Pain has taught me compassion. That alone makes it worthwhile.

While it's true that pain is not fun, and it's not desirable for its own sake, its effects are often salutary. Like anyone else, I'll do what I can to avoid it. Yet I've found that the best way to avoid it is to face it full on and experience it fully. Somehow, that makes it bearable, and often seems to enable me to go through it and out the other side. It's not fun, but it is a friend.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Work

Continuing my soliloquy on original sin from the last couple of days, I'll talk today about work.

"Work is the only avenue to genuine self-respect. Work develops independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, and character. Without real work we will inevitably find despair, no matter how much money or power we have. Work … produces spiritual rewards unrelated to the reinforcement schedules of behavioral psychologists, but only if we tackle it gladly, without resentment."

What Gatto is speaking of here is not just physical labor or bureaucratic pencil-pushing. Work that creates self-respect has meaning. And that meaning comes from service, challenge, practicality, responsibility, free choice, and genuine self-expression, with simple goals like the common good and enriching life for others, including non-human life forms. Not abstract, but in clear, specific, and immediate ways.

For instance, as a child, my work in school was mostly a drab grey mush of meaninglessness. A few exceptions stand out – using a projection machine to learn to read faster when I was in sixth grade; making boxes in middle school shop class; FFA agronomy judging in tenth grade. Choice was key in every one of these exceptions. Mostly I experienced despair in school, and not all of that was from growing up transgendered in a world that didn't recognize it.

Sadder still, growing up on a ranch, I had natural meaning in work, caring for the animals we raised. Yet because that work was coerced, much of it was not meaningful and I did it poorly. Not all. I found deep meaning in caring for my own horse, and did it willingly. But there, I was doing it out of love, and "tackle[d] it gladly, without resentment.

So choice, or perception of choice, is vital in finding meaning in work. I believe it was one of the ancient Greek sages who said, "Nothing of value to the individual is obtained through coercion."

Today, I'm a bureaucrat, a government pencil-pusher. I suspect many people don't find much meaning in that, but I find the deepest meaning in my work in the service I do for others. This comes from guiding homeowners through the permitting process for building or remodeling their homes, and it comes from using the skills and knowledge I've obtained through years of carpentry work and architectural training and experience to ensure that the structures people build will be safe and durable. Sometimes the limits of the building code frustrate me in those goals, but mostly they provide useful parameters. Even in those moments of frustration, though, meaning can come, because part of my work is to suggest changes to the building code that will better meet the needs of society – that will better support the common good.

I find the tie to "original sin" tenuous, yet if that is the concept of the human condition, it works. Ultimately, it doesn't matter why the human condition is this way. What matters is that it is this way. The routes to meaningful, real work are many, and the meaning is found in our individual choices, in what is important to us as individuals, whether it be self-expression, as in painting the Sistine Chapel, or the practical physical labor of building a house. That there is so much dissatisfaction with work in our society, I believe, is a function of being unable to find the meaning in what we do. I suspect much of that inability is taught in the compulsory school system, where our children spend much of their most formative years doing work that benefits no one, without choice. I suspect it is carried on into our adult lives, and translates into addiction, broken families and marriages, and the unhappiness and despair so many of us find in our work.

The human condition is such that work is, indeed, a four letter word – but one that equates with "love," not "crap." Kahlil Gibran said, "Work is love made visible." If it isn't, there's something wrong.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Original Sin Redux

Yesterday I quoted John Taylor Gatto: “What constitutes a good life is clearly spelled out: self-knowledge, duty, responsibility, compassion, acceptance of loss, preparation for death.” Continuing my discussion from that post, I find it interesting that although Gatto writes in a conservative context when he talks about what constitutes the “good life,” I would call these liberal values. Conservatives feed on television and mindless religion, while liberals meditate and do yoga and dig deep for the Truth. Conservatives drive Hummers and Sequoias and buy slave-labor-made clothes at Walmart, liberals drive Priuses and bicycles and buy from local, independent stores. Conservatives contribute to libertarian think tanks that justify and promote the deregulation that unleashes corporate greed that hurts everyone, liberals contribute to food banks and the homeless. I see lots of old hippies wearing grey hair and wrinkles with pride, and Republican women coloring their hair and trying to look young. On and on.

It’s even worse at the social level. Republicans still refuse to take responsibility for torture, the invasion of Iraq, and the unregulated greed of the CEO’s (who are almost all Republican). They expressed their contempt for life and death by trying to keep Terry Schiavo’s body alive long after her brain had died. They refuse to accept the loss of our place in the world, and our duty to dismantle our empire.

And then I think that that assessment is simplistic – and that in practice, plenty of liberals share the same foibles. Really bad laws, like “No Child Left Behind” and the Patriot Act and the authorization to invade Iraq, received bipartisan support with the “liberal” side fully as enthusiastic as the conservative. It was the “liberal” justices who sided with the big corporation in saying that a private company could claim “eminent domain” and seize other private property from small owners – a travesty of justice in which it was actually Thomas and Scalia who dissented. Despite the actions and policies of Republicans and the consequences of their personal choices, conservatives do frequently claim those values – and sometimes live them. And liberals often do not live them.

Further, though I find the terms “good” and “evil” to be vague, evaluative, and more harmful than constructive, the basis on which Gatto speaks of them makes sense and translates into more useful and clear terms, such as “harmful” and “constructive.”

So I think the line between liberal and conservative is actually not narrow and clear, but wide and fuzzy – a vast grey area with personal choices that end up the same from either side. The reasoning and motivation may be different, but the values are often identical. The seeming wide gulf between us is a construct of the corporate media, which finds great value in keeping the American people divided, our energy wasted in battling against our neighbors rather than in working together to reestablish social equity and make sure our “leaders” are held accountable.

Perhaps one lesson is that integrity is the same, no matter what the religious or political philosophy behind it. Liberals and conservatives are the same: they either express integrity, wisdom, and compassion in each circumstance, or they don’t. And nobody gets it right – or wrong – every time.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Original Sin?

In his book, "A Different Kind of Teacher," John Taylor Gatto has an essay called, "In Defense of Original Sin." I don't usually buy the notion that somehow we've fallen from grace and are all guilty of sin – I usually disbelieve in sin itself. I tend to see behavior as harmful or fulfilling, rather than sinful, evil, or good. Yet here Gatto has a new way of looking at original sin that I find intriguing.

When Gatto says, "The primary goal of real education is not to deliver facts but to guide students to the truths that will allow them to take responsibility for their lives," I think he's getting at the same thing Pete Seeger was saying in the quote directly below the masthead on this blog. I think he's right. Facts are easy, just a Google search away. Truth, responsibility, and wisdom are not so easy, and they get right down the heart of the human condition. Gatto puts this in the context of American Christianity, relating it to original sin. The penalties attending expulsion from the Garden of Eden are work, pain, free will, and death – and each one of these is a burden for every single individual, and the path to fulfillment and a happy life.

Then Gatto breaks these four down. There are all the ways we try to avoid these penalties in our modern, corporate culture – pain pills, denial of aging, lack of morality, work is a nasty four-letter word, and a lot of it is meaningless pencil-pushing. Then there are the meanings he ascribes to these in the concept of original sin.

"On work: Work is the only avenue to genuine self-respect. Work develops independence, self-reliance, resourcefulness, and character. Without real work we will inevitably find despair, no matter how much money or power we have. Work … produces spiritual rewards unrelated to the reinforcement schedules of behavioral psychologists, but only if we tackle it gladly, without resentment."

"On pain: Pain is a friend, because it forces our attention away from the world and refocuses it squarely on ourselves. Pain of all sorts is the way we learn insight, balance, and self-control. The siren call of "Feel good!" lures us to court desirable sensations and to despise pain as a spoiler of pleasure. Pain, however, is the road to self knowledge."

"On good and evil: In a spiritual life everything is morally charged; nothing is neutral. Choosing between good and evil is a daily effort, but taking responsibility for your choices makes you fully alive. … When we intensify our moral awareness, everything becomes a big deal."

"On aging and death: This world is only a stage in some longer journey we do not understand. To fall in love with our physical beauty, wealth, health, or capacity for pleasure is to kid ourselves, because all that will be taken away. … The only thing that gives our choices any deep significance is the fact that none of this will last. Awareness of mortality gives relationships an urgency, makes our choices matter."

And to sum up: "The best lives seem to be full of contemplation, solitude, and self-examination; full of private, personal attempts to engage the riddles of existence, from the cosmic mystery of death to the smaller mystery of exchanging secrets with a cat. … What constitutes a good life is clearly spelled out: self-knowledge, duty, responsibility, compassion, acceptance of loss, preparation for death."

In other words, things we must do for ourselves, which no teacher can do for us.

To be continued…

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Up All Night

Yesterday was Sam's birthday. He turned six, and his desire was to have fun all day, and then stay up all night and play. He got his wish. I went to bed – I choose to work today – but Kristin and the boys stayed up. They watched Star Wars Episode 1 and The Black Stallion Returns. They turned the Eagles on loud and danced. The played Pokemon. And that's just the stuff I know about. It wasn't the most restful night I've experienced.

He did it, but just barely. When I got up at 5 a.m., Sam was starting to fade. Kristin said she felt like she was in an airport. Trin, on the other hand, had gained his second wind and said he was wide awake. As Kristin carried Sam into the bedroom to watch the Making of Star Wars, he said, "Wake me up when we get in there."

Homeschooling is an incredible gift we give our children. Perhaps the most valuable gift we give them. We have no curriculum. We prioritize dreaming, following our interests, domestic arts, respect for self and others, fun and play outdoors, exploration, community service, natural and social sciences, reading and math, and music. The math they learn is meaningful, connected to what they're doing. The reading is, too, and mostly they teach themselves. They help us grow our own food and preserve it. They are an integrated part of our economic unit as a family. Their childhood is embodied freedom and responsibility, and they are thriving.

And one of the side effects is that a six-year-old boy can have his birthday wish and stay up all night, without losing a single minute of school.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Definition of Marriage

In his book "The Future of Marriage," David Blankenhorn devotes an entire chapter (pp. 91 to 125) to the definition of marriage. He traces the history of marriage, the biology of marriage, different forms of marriage in different cultures, and focuses on fatherhood as the core meaning, or definition. Even so, I don't have the sense that he's entirely satisfied with his definition. It's terribly ironic, because there is a simple definition that has been written down for millennia, which really sums it up. That definition is found at the very beginning of the Bible, Genesis 2:24: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."

I always read this as meaning that they become one in sexual intercourse. But that's not what it means. You can have sex and not be married. It happens all the time. For that matter, you can be married in the physical, social, legal sense of the word, and not be married in the spiritual relationship that it is.

The key point, the crucial word, in this simple definition is "one." "They shall be one."

Marriage is a spiritual relationship, not a physical one – though it does have a physical component, which is embodied in the sexual relationship, but which is probably not necessary to consummate in order for the marriage to occur. In fact, marriage is probably the spiritual meaning or embodiment of sex, but that spiritual relationship is not contingent on ceremonies or legal documents or property exchange, or even a vow. It is an aspect of family, but family is more inclusive. Children are an aspect of it, but they are not necessary to it. Some "marriage defenders" put "responsible procreation" only within the boundaries of marriage, and in the spiritual aspect of it, I think they are right.

The problem is that Blankenhorn and other "marriage defenders" have limited the definition of marriage to the physical, social, and legal sense of the word. They have mistaken the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.

Notice the simple phrases that make up that one sentence definition. "A man [shall] leave his father and mother." A child, growing up, separates from his nuclear family, from the unity to which his mother and father belong. "…and shall cleave unto his wife." I emphasize "and" because it's not enough to separate from mom and dad. The adult child must also form a new relationship, which has a sexual connection or aspect – what Blankenhorn calls "pair bonding." "… and they shall be one flesh." Again the emphasis on "and," simply because there is no way to separate the two aspects. The "one flesh" is spiritual unity. By pair bonding in this way, those two people literally become one unit. That unit is marriage. It's like an molecule of water – atoms of hydrogen and oxygen bond to create a new element. And, like water, that element can be re-divided into its individual parts; but when that re-division happens, the element no longer exists. (That is divorce. And that spiritual divorce can happen with or without dissolving the physical-social-legal aspect of marriage.)

That spiritual unity, whole unto itself, is basic to humanity. It is part of our spiritual biology. Growing within it is the spiritual and emotional birthright of children, and that birthright should never be intentionally taken away.

In this, the "marriage defenders" are absolutely correct.

But what "marriage defenders" don't understand, is that the physical form of marriage is only the physical manifestation of a spiritual entity. The social institution of marriage, in whatever form it is manifested in the different cultures of the world – patriarchal, matrilineal, whatever – is how society honors, acknowledges, and recognizes this spiritual entity and unity. The form doesn't matter. And while the social institution of marriage is important in honoring and sanctifying the spiritual entity of marriage, in supporting the child and the child-rearing unit, it is not vital to it. Marriage will continue whether it is recognized by society or not, because it is at heart the joining of two individuals into one unit – and it is inherent to our species.

What they further don't understand is that gender is not a defining aspect of it. That sexual-spiritual unity exists among gay and lesbian relationships, and in my experience as a witness, is very common to those same-sex relationships. In other words, like it or not, gays and lesbians do marry, in the basic, spiritual-physical aspect that is the genuine entity of marriage – literally, the marriage of the Bible. The Bible puts it in terms of man and woman for good reason; by far the most common marriage relationship is between a man and a woman, and that is the form of the marriage relationship that produces children entirely within itself, and until the recent advent of IVF gestation and surrogate motherhood, the only way children were brought into being inside a married, family-childrearing unit.

So the first question we must ask in the marriage debate is whether we are going to define marriage as a purely physical relationship, or as the spiritual relationship it is. The health of the social institution of marriage is directly proportional to society's value and recognition of the spiritual entity of marriage.

The second question in the marriage debate is whether we as a society are going to find a way to honor those relationships between same-sex partners with a social institution, or whether we will continue to throw gay and lesbian families – gay and lesbian marriages, and their children – under the bus.

Then lets talk about how, within that framework, we are going to ensure that every child possible is raised with the birthrights of both family-childrearing unit and biological heritage intact.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Pokemon

Lately my kids have gotten interested (I refuse to use the word "obsessed") with Pokemon cards. They bought some, then traded with a neighbor for more, and in only a week or two have accumulated a pack of about a hundred cards, which they play with frequently. They're so enthusiastic they managed to talk me into a game, and taught me how to play. They even checked a Pokemon comic book out from the library.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic, but the game left me cold. At first glance, it seems too ambiguous. (Funny for me, the queen of ambiguity!) Or maybe just arbitrary. Or I have trouble discerning the pattern of it, which I find disturbing. But I think most of all it's the level of implied violence.

This came into much clearer focus when I read the comic to them. The premise was that a strong criminal was stealing Pokemon from a group of peaceful kids, led by an old man, who kept their Pokemon from battle. The peaceful Pokemon thus could not evolve, and the peaceful peopole were helpless victims of violence. A kid who got his Pokemon into frequent battles comes along, and through a series of adventures nearly gets killed, and his Pokemon nearly gets killed with him. But this level of violence stimulates the kid's Pokemon to "evolve" to a bigger, badder, more violent … creature. The Pokemon saves the kid's life, and together they go back and kill the strongman and his Pokemon.

It is this concept that violence is necessary for improvement, and that the most violent, brutal creature is the most evolved creature, that I find so disturbing. From my own Christian background, raised to emulate the peaceful example of Jesus, to my deep admiration for Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Julia Butterfly Hill, to my current nonreligious spiritual efforts and imperfect study of Nonviolent Communication, this is antithetical to every value I hold dear, and to my own concept and philosophy of what is useful and healthy in life. When I see the concept of violence embodied in Pokemon, I fear that the generation of children we are raising will be unduly influenced toward the habits, philosophies, and mindsets that that have caused so much grief and pain in our world.

It is a test of faith, I suppose. I'm not willing to tell my kids they can't have them. The need for choice is too strong, and I would rather risk the influence of this insidious philosophy than provide an example of violent force by taking it away from them. I find instead, that I must trust – not only them, but the parenting that Kristin and I provide, and the Universal Love that inspires every human heart. I must trust that, given the example and comparison of these competing philosophies – that the most violent is the most evolved vs. that the most nonviolent is the most evolved – my children will choose the path that I hold dear. And if they don't, at least I have given them the freedom to make that choice.

I think they will make the choice I would prefer, ultimately. They're aware that Pokemon is a game, and that even the comic book is just fantasy, albeit a fantasy that I find profoundly disturbing and abhorrent. In the atmosphere of this family, and the unconditional love that nature and their parents provide, they are thriving.

But I'm not going to read that comic book again.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

More on Marriage…

But not here. I've moved that discussion over to Culture Pax. This is my personal blog, and I'm going to try to keep it more on a personal basis for awhile, though of course, being the political person I am, I'll certainly post my opinions here. Just don't ask me for news. I've got no more news than Fox (Faux) News does. My opinions do align, however, far more with reality than theirs.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
~Helen Keller

Reading List for Information about Transpeople

  • Becoming a Visible Man, by Jamison Green
  • Conundrum, by Jan Morris
  • Gender Outlaw, by Kate Bornstein
  • My Husband Betty, by Helen Boyd
  • Right Side Out, by Annah Moore
  • She's Not There, by Jennifer Boylan
  • The Riddle of Gender, by Deborah Rudacille
  • Trans Liberation, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transgender Emergence, by Arlene Istar Lev
  • Transgender Warriors, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transition and Beyond, by Reid Vanderburgh
  • True Selves, by Mildred Brown
  • What Becomes You, by Aaron Link Raz and Hilda Raz
  • Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano
I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men's hands even at the height
of their arc of anger
because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His - the Christ's, our
Beloved's.
~Hafiz