Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Families of Choice

"The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of the same family grow up under the same roof."
Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

This was the quote from the season finale of "Criminal Minds" (yes I watch TV and love this show - I also love popular music - wow look at me defying all those crunchy granola she used to live in Berkeley stereotypes!)  and it got me thinking about the importance of our families of choice and the particular importance of families of choice for the LGBTQ community.

Richard Bach points to something very important in this quote, that many of us find our deepest, most authentic relationships in the families we create - hopefully through marriage - but maybe even more commonly through our friends and those we choose to call family.  I love my family of origin deeply and I know they love me and I also know that we have struggled to understand each other, I have struggled to fit in and it takes time and maturity to transform the parent-child relationship to one of friends and not "people responsible for keeping you alive and raising you."  I know my parents have people in their lives that are like family yet they are not related  - even though I think my parents would never use the "family of choice" language. These are friends they have had for decades, who attended each other's weddings and baby showers and now attend their children's weddings and share pictures of grandchildren. These are the people they can see once a year and pick up just where they left off.

I have an amazing family of choice and I have been blessed to watch this family grow in recent years.  Many of the members of my family of choice are people I went to Georgetown with - the Who crew as we called ourselves - although I was not a member of the family when the name was chosen.  It was at Georgetown and through these friendships that I first learned about family of choice. I have laughed and cried with these people. They are the people I could call in middle of the night because I needed to talk and they picked up the phone. We understood each other and supported each other in ways our families of origin could not. Four of us in this group are queer and we witnessed and assisted our coming out journeys. When we get together even if we have not seen each other for years because jobs, families and miles have kept us apart - we pick up just where we left off. I follow their Facebook updates regularly and wish I could see them more often. 

Families of choice can also be large communities - like the LGBTQ community. Please note that I am not entering into the problematic and troubled waters of whether being LGBTQ is a choice as if it were a choice it would somehow make it ok to discriminate and commit violence against LGBTQ people - I am talking about finding your people.  Most LGBTQ people are not born into LGBTQ families.  So one of the hard things about growing up LGBTQ is that you don't necessarily know where the people who are like you are. 

We have heard the stories over and over again of how people knew early on that they were different, that they didn't fit in.  Many of these people did not even have a name for this difference until they were bullied with the words "fag" or "dyke" or heard others bullied that way. That is why coming out is so important.  It is very different now than even the 1980's and 90's when gay characters are television shows were new, Ellen came out on her show and more celebrities started coming out and giving their name to the LGBTQ movement. The result is that people are coming out earlier in their lives, they are finding support in the LGBTQ community that exists openly and publicly because of the courage of older LGBTQ people to speak up, organize and refuse to live in the closet any longer. People like Harvey Milk, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon etc,  

The LGBTQ community, like other marginalized communities, has created community services and centers that focus on serving the needs of the community. Marginalized communities often create social and community organizations that provide places for people to gather, to share heritage and history, meet needs that no one else is willing to meet. The LGTBQ community has also done this - there are community centers that offer social activities, support services like coming out groups, medical services, legal advice. LGTBQ people have even formed their own faith communities sometimes within particular religious communities synagogues like Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, CA or the Metropolitan Community Church founded by Troy Perry.

In addition to these large communities and resources, LGBTQ people have often formed close friendships and bonds - raising children together, providing support. The AIDS crisis of the 1980's and 90's created many families of choice caring for ill members, some if not many of whom, would not be welcomed home by their families of origins.  For that is one of the unique features of LGBTQ families of choice, while many of us who are queer are blessed with loving accepting families like mine, others have been told to get out, been thrown out, been told not to write, not to call.  In the worst situations these "family" members seek to insert themselves back into lives at the worst of all moments when someone is sick or dying.  In case we think this is a thing of the past let's remember the recent case of Roger Gorley who was arrested for refusing to leave his partner's side. The law is on the side of the family of origin.  There are too many stories of family of origin members banning partners from funerals, going against the wishes of surviving partners, taking money and shared property. We who are LGBTQ have to be exceptionally diligent when it comes to the law. 

My fear as more LGBTQ people seek to get married, seek to be "just like everybody else" that we could lose something as essential as the creation of family of choice.  I am even more concerned that in our quest to placate the fears of straight people, to convince them that really we are just like them, who we will leave behind. What about those who can't pass? What about those whose appearance will make them a target? There is a wonderful scene in the movie "Milk" where Harvey meets with the gay elite in California politics. Harvey was too flamboyant, too "obviously gay" for these men who just wanted to fit in.  They tried to discourage him from running. Much like the way the Human Rights Campaign has only slowly included trans people and recently had to apologize for those that asked people at Supreme Court rallies to put the Trans flag away since that would detract from the marriage equality issue.  

I hope that we who are LGBTQ hold on to our families of choice, that even when marriage equality is achieved (and I have no doubt that it will happen) we recognize that families of choice have much to teach us. That love, respect and joy in one another's lives does not just come from marriage or birth or adoption - it comes from freely entering into bonds of care and concern. We need our families of choice for there will unfortunately always be queer youth who lose their families of origins when they come out.  Currently a high number of homeless youth are LGBTQ. They don't need marriage equality they need us to open our families of choice and take them in.  They need us to show them that being queer is a gift, not a burden, not an affliction. They need help to heal the wounds that come when those who are supposed to love you forever and then don't. They need to learn how to find their own families of choice.

And as Richard Bach reminds us, it is not just LGBTQ folk who need families of choice. We all need to find our people, find the people that "get" us.  

So as we await Supreme Court decisions and celebrate Pride, let's celebrate those people who love and respect us - whether in our families of origin or families of choice. Let's not lose one in favor of the other.

May it be so!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Hope and the Danger of Liberal Elitism

"Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. 
A little hope is effective.
A lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it's contained."  
President Snow, The Hunger Games

ThinkProgress posted this article on Facebook today about How Lotteries Are Bad for Players, Winners and States.  I braved reading the comments and they included points about how people don't make good financial decisions, explaining why many winners lose their fortunes in a few years and they probably weren't making good financial choices to begin with (one person uses the term "ghetto attitude" - hence why they were poor), about how foolish it is to play something that one has so little chance of winning.  The article makes the important point that lotteries exploit the poor - which they do of course.  Lotteries offer dreams, they offer hope - they offer hope of not worrying every single day about how one is going to make it, worry about paying the rent, the utilities, clothes, medical care.  They offer dreams of what the commercials offer - a good life, a life not worrying about money. They offer dreams of Sabbath as Wayne Muller makes the point about magazine ads in his book Sabbath: The Exhale of Creation.

Yet often it is liberals who offer the most elite and unhelpful comments.  I have heard things said like "I won $1 in the lottery - I didn't buy a ticket" (of course now the lottery costs $2) said with a certain air of moral superiority.  This comment and others like it demonstrate that the person has at least enough economic privilege not to need the momentary hope, the momentary dream that the regular struggle to stay financially afloat, would no longer be a concern.  All the warnings about the dangers of sudden wealth fall on the deaf ears of "give me a chance to find out for myself" or "I'll take that set of struggles over the ones I have now."  Because as this article points out, being among the working poor  is hard work and it is a trap (be warned that there is a great deal of profanity and sexual analogies in the article) that is really difficult to get out from under.  It is also not just the working poor in service industry jobs but many middle class people who are struggling to hang on in the current economic climate.  I think the profanity and the sexual analogies show how frustrating and terrifying life can be when one is constantly on the financial cliff.  Getting out of poverty or even not losing economic ground if one is middle class is not as simple as hard work and playing by the rules - despite our love for those stories.

While it may be wrong and certainly it doesn't do anything to truly fix the situation, buying a lottery ticket can provide hope.  It may be false and fleeting but it may be the thing that keeps a person going when it all seems rather helpless.  It is certainly the kind of hope that the Capital offers in the Hunger Games - survive the game and not only do you get to live but you get to live in luxury - again the promise of never worrying about being hungry again.

So while I ThinkProgress makes important points there needs to be caution in playing with hope.  It may be false hope but what if buying lottery tickets is the only source of hope?  What do those who know so much better have to offer?  Do they have an alternative to the "if you just work hard enough" story?  After all unemployment is still high, wages are still stagnant and there does not seem to be much will to fix any of it.

Too often well meaning, liberal people come across as very elite and uncaring.  They talk about simplifying their lives and if one has read any of those books on voluntary simplicity, it presumes a fairly high standard of living - things like buying a smaller home, reducing the amount of belongings one has.  Voluntary simplicity presumes that one has had the economic privilege to accumulate possessions and wealth - it is not a path out of poverty.  There are similar conversations when it comes to presents and gift giving around the holidays or birthdays.   The sense that one already has more than one needs.  It comes across in comments about not ever shopping at Walmart and certainly never considering working there.  It presumes the privilege of choice - when one has economic privilege with it comes the choice about where to shop, to buy or not to buy, to live where one chooses.

The ethical question is should this kind of choice be limited only to those who possess a certain level of economic privilege?  An excellent article this week about not donating your Abercrombie & Fitch clothes to the homeless makes this point well.  Does not possessing economic privilege mean that one should have to wear the clothes from a company whose CEO is so disdainful of those who are not among "the cool"?  Does not possessing economic privilege mean one does not think about the larger impact of one's economic choices?  The presumption that those with less privilege don't think about the ethical implications of their choices is elitist and problematic.  The poor are not less ethical - they do however have fewer choices.  The presumption that because one is poor one should accept whatever donations come one's away is to be disdainful of those persons.

So there are no easy answers here.  The question to be asked is not "why don't they...." but "what can I do differently?"  The trick is not to rush to judgement of other's choices, presuming their ignorance, presuming that if they just knew better they would do better (a perennial liberal favorite).  The question is what offers real hope, hope that can be actualized.  It is about breaking from one's own world view to see the world through another's eyes.  Isn't this part of being liberally religious - to see the world and life from multiple points of view? Truth we affirm is found in many sources but in order to see it we must be listening and watching beyond our own experience.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ask the Big Questions and Fail More

On Saturday I participated in William and Mary's annual Service of Celebration.  It is a multi-faith service that offers a time of worship during the busy commencement weekend. The speaker this year was Varun Soni, the Dean of Religious Life at University of Southern California and he is Hindu.  It was the first time in William and Mary's history that the speaker was not either Christian or Jewish.

Dean Soni talked about the Millennial generation, the generational cohort that the college graduates are a part of as the most multicultural and most multi-faith.  He talked about the opportunity provided by the fact that so many Millennials are among the "nones" - those not affiliated with any particular religious faith.  This attitude of opportunity, rather than fear or despair, resonates with me.  After many years and three different religious affiliations I understand why so many young people are choosing not to affiliate 

Dean Soni's talk focused on Living an Authentic Life.  It is a question deeply related to the question of discernment and vocation which I have been wrestling with and contemplating for most of my life since college.  What is it I am called to do?  How can I best serve the world along with taking care of myself and my family?  What are my gifts and where will they be best used?  I am going to focus on only two of Dean Soni's points - the asking the big questions and failing more.

Asking the big questions - who am I?  What is my purpose?  How am I to live? These are central spiritual questions.  They are questions we wrestle with our whole lives since the answer changes as our life unfolds.  They also cannot be simply answered by means of our faith traditions and by that I mean that our faith traditions can give us tools, examples of how others have answered these questions and this can be helpful but each generation and each person is called to wrestle with these questions and find our own answers.  The answers to these questions will hopefully be translated into the ways we live our lives for these are not solely intellectual questions but questions of heart, questions of authenticity.  If who you say you are is a person of integrity but then you do not act that way in your career then your life is not authentic.  They are also not solely individual questions but communal ones as well.  How are we as Americans in the year 2013 called to live?  What sort of nation will we be?  They are questions faith communities must ask as well.  What does it mean to be Unitarian Universalist?

Many of our faith communities including UU ones are asking these questions. As membership stagnates or declines, as young people seek and create their own communities, change is called for.  We can see the tensions of this throughout American religion.  Some are saying that what is needed is a new orthodoxy  a return of a certain strictness much like what Pope Benedict practiced.  He was willing to accept fewer people in church for a strict orthodoxy and adherence to church teachings particularly teachings around sexuality.  Others see a return to orthodoxy as a way to keep or draw back in members - that people left because of the lack of orthodoxy  However this seems to fly in the face of evidence such as from the Barna Group and You Lost Me by David Kinnaman that it was a rigid adherence to certain doctrines or beliefs, particularly around questions of sexuality, that made young people leave in the first place.  On the other hand there are more hopeful people like Diane Butler Bass who see this time as presenting new opportunity.  That it is a time of renewal and revitalization but that in order to get there the old needs to die.  I am in the more hopeful branch. I am inspired by the multi-faith possibilities.  I want to be part of this movement to explore spirituality and spiritual questions authentically.  The Millennials are leading the way on this by getting involved with Interfaith Youth Corp and the President's Interfaith Service Challenge.  They are putting their faith into action and they are sharing what they are discovering with one another.

This is part of why I love campus ministry - there is so much possibility to explore faith, service and the big questions.  It is because it was as a young adult that I began to seriously reflect and wrestle with my faith and these big questions.  I was so blessed to have my questions welcomed and to find support within the campus ministry at Georgetown.  My experience was that I was given not just permission but an invitation to question, to struggle, to wrestle.  I am so grateful for that.  I experienced it in a similar way at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley where I was welcomed and supported. I had a spiritual director, I went on two silent retreats and attended community Mass as often as I could.  It was a time of revisiting many of the questions I asked at Georgetown and a deepening of my own faith and self-understanding.  Now I want to serve by using my gifts to support others in their spiritual journey.

One of the other points Dean Soni made was challenging. He called upon the graduates to fail more. Using sports as a metaphor he talked about the most successful athletes were also the ones that the highest number of missed shots or failed attempts. Their success was about persevering in the effort, about taking risks about doing something rather than nothing.  I imagine I was not the only one in that room challenged by this statement.  As one who was raised with a fair amount of privilege and expectation of success, the message of my childhood was that failure was not OK, not even average was OK - I was expected to be above average.  The message of my upbringing was to be successful in high school to get into a good college and then onto a successful career.  When I brought home grades that were only average, I would be lectured about how I could do so much better.  That I was so gifted and smart and that I needed to just do better.  It was all about having the right answer, getting the right grades. Now I know that my family had the very best of intentions. They only wanted the best, they saw my potential and wanted me to live into it.  I know I as a parent have done this as well.  Yet one of the unintended after affects is that I am often paralyzed by a fear of failing.  What if it doesn't work?  What if I get it wrong?  Or maybe the middle of life question - did I just make a whole mistake of my life?  Where did I go wrong that I find myself here at this time?

I struggle with risking failure, with risking period.  I want a sure thing, I want a guarantee that it will all turn out OK   Yet I know that in order for it to work out, I need to try.  I need to risk.  I often reflect on the Marianne Williamson quote that it is not failure we fear but our own greatness.  Maybe that is true. Maybe what feels like a fear of failure is really about what would happen if I really just put me, all of me, not hidden under a basket or fearing that someone will be offended, out there? What if I was really successful and really claimed my gifts?  Now I have to say that this has gone somewhat easier as I have gotten older.  I am more fed up with deferring to others. I am more willing to claim my own place and my own knowledge.  I am more willing to accept with grace the thanks and praise I receive for my work.  Since I know more about who I am and what my gifts are, it is somewhat easier now to understand what will work and won't for me.  There is a freedom in knowing that I can't just do anything or be anything.  I am someone particular, with particular gifts and particular limitations.  My life circumstances do limit what I can and cannot do and there is a gift with those limits.  Unlimited choices are too much, too overwhelming.

Yet I wonder is there a way to not get so lost in the journey to the authentic self.  I wonder is there a way to inspire and mentor our young people in ways that help them figure out who they are sooner, rather than waiting until the middle of their lives to find out?  Is there something in this generation that is growing up in a more diverse - in all ways diverse, world that will allow them to not take ten or twenty years to figure out who they truly are?  If not this generation than what about the ones right behind them, ones like my daughter who is just on the cusp of the Millennial generation - will her cohorts figure this out sooner?  Can we as adults, mentor and nurture the journey? One of my favorite antidotes from Parker Palmer is how he started a letter to his granddaughter about what he saw in her from the very beginning of her life.  He was keeping a record to give to her when she was older, that she might sooner discover her authentic self then he himself did. I see in my own daughter, a greater capacity for risk hopefully because we have tried to instill in her the knowledge and feeling that she will be loved no matter how well she does; that it is more important that she explores what calls to her, that she tries to follow her passions even if it does not work out; and that ultimately struggling with the big questions remembering that how she answers them should be congruent with how she lives. Perhaps in watching and engaging with my own child and her journey, I myself am returning to my own soul, my own authentic life.

So let's ask the big questions, fail more and live a truly authentic life!

Monday, May 6, 2013

What Job Searching is Teaching Me: We Don't Do It Alone

I was chatting on Facebook with a friend the other day. We are both looking for work and having that feeling that what we are looking for is just around the corner - just out of reach.  We have concerns for supporting our families, wondering if it is possible to both do work that we are called to do and make an adequate income doing it.  Our conversation went many places and my realization was that we don't do it alone and yet we are told over and over again that we are supposed to do it alone.

There is a national mythology of the self-made person, the notion that we are each individually responsible for our success or our failure.  It is particularly prevalent when it comes to our politics and economics.  The message over and over again is that those who are wealthy got their wealth through hard work, playing by the rules and their own effort and if each of us just did what they did then we would be wealthy too.  The same goes for those struggling - if you are unemployed or poor or struggling, it is because you did not play by the rules, you did not work hard and you are solely responsible for your failure, we may on occasion offer a respite to those who suffer a severe medical disability but it better not be because of anything the person could have done differently - eat better, not smoke, not be an addict etc.  We preach a heavy sermon of personal responsibility and with that goes this notion that we are solely responsible for lives.

 We can see it in our faith lives as well.  Many conservative evangelical communities emphasize salvation as something one earns by living a good life and following the rules (particularly the ones around sex) and that God will reward your efforts with heaven.  It might be that your prosperity in this life is a sign of God's favor as well - this notion dates back to the Puritans who wanted to know if you could tell who had been pre-determined to eternal salvation.  The focus here is on the individual's behavior and relationship with God, specifically with Jesus - going to church is one of the rules - but in the end it is up to each person on their own to be saved.  Here the appeal is that if I play by the rules, even if life is hard, I will get rewarded and those who did not will be punished.

This notion is present in liberal communities as well - although it looks a little different.  Within Unitarian Universalism it shows up as the responsible search for truth and meaning and the notion that we are solely responsible for our spiritual search and journey.  Now on the one hand there is something very appealing about this - freed from the bonds of the rules that conservative faith communities may impose - we can each find the ways that work for us.  If it doesn't work for us, that's ok.  Yet this hyper individualism around faith means that if our own path isn't working for us, then we are the only ones responsible for that and if it is really working for us, then good job us!  Yet where in that is there room for humility, for submission, for other people, for the holy?  What is the point of community if we can all just do it on our own? Are our faith communities any more than places that are supposed to meet our own personal spiritual needs - so if I don't like the word God, or meditation, or earth-based spirituality or want no mention of the holy - my faith community needs to not talk about those things because otherwise I will leave because the journey is all about me.  It doesn't matter if God, earth-based spirituality or humanism works for someone else.  Hence often in liberal faith communities we settle for as much non-offensive language as possible - which often lacks depth.

Yet Unitarian Universalism at its best knows that while we may all be on an individual journey we need each other along the way.  We need the wisdom of well-worn paths that can show us the way - particularly if we wish to forge new ones or see new things along the old.  We need correction when our journey may become too self-centered, a little too much about me.  Community can push one past one's own comfort zone and into places where real transformation happens.  One of the foundations of Unitarian Universalism is that there is wisdom to be found in all the world's religions, if so then we are called, we are responsible for not just rejecting something out of hand - rather we called to learn, to listen, to see how it fits or not with our own understanding.  At our best we use a variety of religious and spiritual language to speak to the vast array of experience and wisdom available.  That is communal, it is an act of learning and leaning on one another.

The reality is that we need each other, we are accountable to each other.  We are social beings.  We survive  because we have formed groups, communities that meant we could work together for food, shelter, companionship, protection.  We need each other to make meaning and sense of the world.  This has not changed even though our societies are complex and our reliance on each other may not be obvious.

Yet somehow this need for each other is seen as a bad thing - we don't want to be needy or dependent.  We are proud when our toddlers insist on doing it themselves (except those things that will make a big mess).  Asking for help is seen as shameful or less than.  Our systems are set up to reward individual achievement.  So when we need help, or we can't do it on our own, we are filled with angst, feelings of failure.  Sometimes it shows up as feeling like we are imposing, we don't want to bother people.

One of the hardest thing I battle in my job search is reaching out to people I know.  I don't want to bother them.  Yet every single job search book will tell you that is by reaching out to those you know, by telling people what you are looking for, by asking for their assistance with an introduction or keeping their eye out for possible positions is the best way to find a job. It is not scouring job sites, newspaper ads or filling out endless on-line job applications.  So despite all the messages about being self-made people, about doing it all on our own, the single most effective way to find a job is to do what we are told not to do by the culture all the time - we need to reach out, connect with others and be willing to ask for their assistance.

So everyday I have to battle with my fear of reaching out to others and being a bother, a nuisance.  I have to recognize every day that I need other people, that I don't have all the resources on my own. The gift is that when I do reach out, I have found people willing and even eager to help.  I have been met with such positive feedback.  It is always a surprise, a wonderful gift.

We are connected beings.  We need each other because we actually like helping each other out - there is a gift in giving.  Yet when we focus so much on having to do it on your own, that it is somehow cheating if we get help, it can be a struggle to let people help, to ask for help.  We have a hard time receiving gratefully and gracefully.

One of my favorite UU Benedictions comes from the Rev. Wayne Arnason and I close with his words:

Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path
  is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
Take courage,
For deep down, there is another
you are not alone.

May it be so!