Friday, May 30, 2014

I am the problem....

The horrific events at Isla Vista hit me particularly hard, albeit probably not for the reasons they should have. My brief visits to that college community left me with an idyllic sense of peacefulness and joy. The time, on my first visit, spent with my best, lifelong friend and his lady. The relaxed pace of the town (at least in the early ‘70s). The sense of freedom on another visit as I scrambled down the paths to the water, pulling my clothes off as I ran, only to be joined by joyously friendly college students, who were thankfully unaware that I was a member of the reviled military. These were sweet memories, a detailed picture in my mind. But now, the images are bloodied. Isla Vista has, in my mind, become part of a brutal world, tainted by something that my nostalgic memories cannot abide.

Looking at my initial reaction, I have to recognize and admit how profoundly shallow it is, particularly in the face of the lives ended. But what of the collateral damage, the lives permanently scarred, in Isla Vista and beyond? Sadly, the scars aren’t merely the result of one brutal attack, an attack that is but a footnote on a tome beyond measure. The greater story is one that is lived out by every woman, yet denied, dismissed, or distracted by most males. It is the legacy of misogyny that pervades every culture, and that has done so for time beyond measure or memory.

Looking just a bit below the surface, I observe my own lifelong behavior and attitudes, and have to be honest with myself and admit that I have been and to an extent continue to be part of the problem. Through the course of my life, when I looked at a female, my immediate internal reaction has been to view her according to her value in my own life, not as an equal, but as an accessory, a possession. My initial evaluation had little to do with whether she might provide intellectual stimulation or challenge my emotional limitations. I’d look at her and immediately size her up as a potential sexual partner, as something to elevate my esteem in others’ eyes, or even as a vehicle to assist me in reaching some goal I had set for myself.

There have been women in my life who have transcended that evaluation, but even they had to pass a certain set of criteria in order to be considered worthy of the time it would take to discover their more esoteric qualities. And I am ashamed to say that there have been any number of remarkable women whom I’ve encountered and walked away from, simply because they weren’t pretty enough, were too fat, didn’t find me charming, or in some other way, didn’t “fit the part.”

Does that make me a misogynist? An abuser of women? I think it goes deeper than that. It makes me an abuser of not only women, but of my own humanity. In the course of my “disqualification process,” I have hurt some women, and left them feeling less interesting, less intelligent, less attractive, and ultimately, less worthy. That I felt – in varying degrees – a sense of guilt, of shame, and of unworthiness myself as a result of my behavior is ultimately my one saving grace. Had I not felt that guilt and shame, I would have been a sociopath, rather than just an asshole. Asshole, I can live with (under the right circumstances, anyway). Sociopath, I cannot. I have to believe that there is kindness in me, beyond any selfish motive. Missing that kindness, I would be less than human, the very thing I so despise.

Sure, I became incensed when I worked on a book that described firsthand the horrors that women in Muslim countries routinely experience – having acid thrown in their face by their own fathers for merely looking at a man, being set afire simply for speaking their mind, being killed for the crime of not accepting a marriage proposal. But these were a world away, and nothing like we have here in our “civilized” country. At least, not until we look at attractive women being shot because a man – to stretch the term – hadn’t been able to convince any other women to have sex with him. Or at the many comments posted in sympathy for his pain. It is here. Everywhere. And it always has been.

The dialog that has arisen from this latest tragedy has forced me to look honestly – perhaps for the first time – at how insidious the objectification of women really is. Perhaps the most powerful information I’ve gotten was from a blog post that told us men to just shut up and listen, something I’ve rarely been known to do. But when I did finally listen, I was literally pummeled by a truth that I had never heard, much less, considered. It was both the truth of what women – all women – experience, and the illusion with which we men respond to that truth.

#YesAllWomen versus #NotAllMen

Every woman, no matter where she lives, has felt objectified by men. And while I had known this intellectually for a long time, it never really sunk in until recently. Women, because of their own personal experiences, have to view men in the same way most people view snakes. Until they’ve seen enough to identify a specific one, they have to assume it is venomous. Why? Because they or someone they know has had an encounter with a guy who seems nice, interesting, and normal, but ultimately ends up being abusive, controlling, condescending, and possibly even violent. Statistics say that one in four women will be the victim of a sexual assault in their lives. One in four. How many men would rush to pick up a snake they didn’t recognize if they knew that one in four of them would get bitten?

Another analogy that’s been going around the last couple of days (probably much longer, but I’m new at looking at this, remember?) describes a bowl of M&Ms™, where ten percent of the candies are poisonous. How eager would you be, knowing this, to grab a handful and partake? The most frequent male response to the analogy has been to deny that the percentage of abusive men is much lower than ten percent, and that they (the responders) aren’t abusive in any way. Okay, let’s drop the percentage of poisoned M&Ms / abusive males to .1 percent – one in a thousand. Only one candy contains deadly poison, and one guy in a very crowded club is potentially abusive (and that is giving us guys a bigger benefit of the doubt than our behavior would warrant). Would it make sense to go ahead and grab a handful of M&Ms and chow down, or for a woman to take the guy who approaches her at face value? Think about it.

To make it as simple as possible, imagine as a man, walking alone at night, and seeing a group of women approaching. Our normal first response is to check the women out, see which of them we find most attractive, and perhaps consider what our chances are of having a relationship – even a brief sexual relationship – with the hottest one. Our very first reaction is to assess an opportunity. If it feels right, or if one of them acknowledges or smiles at us, we might make small talk – any overture to enhance that opportunity.

Now, imagine being a woman, also walking alone at night, and seeing a group of men approaching. The first response is to assess the group, but for a wholly different reason than opportunity. Do any of them look threatening, angry, or, for that matter, too interested? Will I be whistled and cat-called at? Will I be grabbed as I try to pass, raped and left for dead, or worse, murdered? Each reaction is very real, and each is justified by our own previous experience. There is very little chance that a group of women will attack – much less, rape and kill – a man, but in the women’s experience, there is a very real likelihood of her fears being realized. Women are aware of the reality, and we men need to be aware, as well.

Over the last couple of days, I’ve heard guys try to argue the statistics of misogynistic behavior, as if those statistics could somehow disprove what every woman on earth has experienced and continues to experience. They try to reassure women that they’re “different,” and that there is no reason to lump them in with “a few bad apples.” What they fail to realize is that by attempting to dismiss women’s experiences, they actually promote and protect those “bad apples,” and by extension, join forces with them. Perhaps the guys would do well to understand that a misogynist would not be likely to identify himself as one. He’d do his best to appear charming, endearing, and entertaining, at least until he had the woman in the position he desired, or realized she wasn’t going to go along with his idea of a “relationship.” And we saw, all to graphically, how the latter scenario can – and too often does – play out.

It’s not who we men are, it’s what we do.
The one, we can’t change. The other, we can and must.
And no excuses are acceptable.

I was raised primarily by my mother, who was by any measure a strong and independent woman. She demanded my respect, as well as that of everyone she encountered, and God help the person who failed to show her that respect. Looking back, however, I have to acknowledge that she was born into – and on some levels, accepted and unknowingly perpetuated – the age-old notion that a woman’s “place” was supposed to be subservient to a man’s, and I suspect that on some level, she resented the fact that she was required to be the dominant partner in her own marriage. Her (perhaps unconscious) acceptance of “a woman’s place” was manifest in many ways, some so subtle as to be easily overlooked, at least by myself, and I suspect by society at large.

For example, I lived under a very different set of rules than did my older sister. My mother accepted my smoking cigarettes for years before my sister was allowed to smoke. I cannot remember ever washing dishes after a meal, while my sister did so quite frequently. Neither can I remember my sister ever being expected to do yard work. It was a “man’s job.” Even in our schooling, my sister was pressured by expectations that I never really felt. As a result, she strove to do well, while I coasted all the way through high school, completely apathetic about my education.

I can remember going out to dinner with Mom, and her discretely passing money under the table, so I could be the one to pay. Her gesture meant a lot to me when I was young and poor, but I grew uncomfortable with it as I matured (if indeed I have ever done so). Looking back, I can’t help but wonder whether the gesture was as important to her as she felt it was to me; that she would have preferred to be in a more traditional “woman’s” position.

Just to be clear, I in no way blame my mother or any other woman for the misogyny that is so pervasive in this and so many other cultures. Only to acknowledge how, even with the best of intentions, she may have perpetuated a mindset that was fertile ground, and in which insecure and frightened little boys learn to embrace and twist “traditional” roles into justification for dismissal, objectification, and abuse of women.

But in the final analysis, I don’t give a damn how we men got to where we are, because that is not the issue. The issue is not what we are, what kind of environment we lived in, or any other factor that we might cling to in our attempt to explain, justify, or defend what we do or explain how “we’re different.” All that matters is what we are doing now, and what we choose to do in the future. And the best – no, the only – way we can make a good choice is to begin by shutting up and listening. Really listening to what women have known for thousands of years, but have been too frightened to discuss. If we’re trying to explain or defend our own behavior, or to insist that we be judged by who we are, independent of and vastly different from “those other guys,” we are missing the point altogether. We are denying a pervasive reality, simply because we haven’t experienced it ourselves. By doing that, we allow that ugly reality a safe place to continue. We are the problem, until we make and follow through on the decision, not to make some grand gesture, but simply to change how we look at women and how we behave toward them. And just as importantly, to clearly express our disapproval when we see others behaving badly, because a person who is weak enough to need to dominate women will always look to other males for support. Only when that support is denied, and the behavior clearly rejected, will there be any possibility that the abuser will look at and possibly try to change his behavior.

We are the problem, and always have been. Not the only problem, and not every problem, but we are this problem. And now, we have two very clear choices: we can either choose to continue to be part of the problem, or choose to be part of the solution. To shut up and listen. To empathize without trying to defend. To recognize the women we encounter as humans every bit as intelligent, complex, and worthy as we would like to think we are ourselves. And to recognize and acknowledge that what they have experienced is every bit as real and valid as our own experiences. If we can manage to do these simple things, we will discover a richness in our relationships that soars beyond our wildest imaginings. If we don’t, “the bitches” will just keep on “playing with our heads” and rejecting us. We get to choose. And we will make that choice, every day, every hour, and every moment of our lives. We’ll choose badly at times, but we will have the opportunity to choose well the next time. We have to try, for the women’s sake and for our own.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

As Spring approaches, an Autumn retrospective…

As I settle somewhat comfortably into my sixties, I find myself looking back at the course my life has taken, as we all do when approaching that “certain age,” when it occurs to us that our yesterdays far outnumber our tomorrows. Wondering at the choices we made during those decades that went by so quickly. Wondering whether ours has been a life worth living, and whether we left anything of value behind. And weighing the value of regret.

I have to recognize that I won’t be leaving much of intrinsic material value for my loved ones, and I suppose I do feel some pangs of remorse over that. But the people I love will do just fine without any windfall from me. My children are grown and, I hope, happy. They carry the weight of the same worries we’ve all had; will I earn enough to support the lifestyle I choose? Will the people I love stay with me, even when I make doing so difficult for them? Will my having lived really matter to anyone? Will anyone care about me after I’m gone?

The first question notwithstanding, I know that nothing I have done or could do is capable of providing answers to their questions, any more than anyone else could have provided the same answers to me. Truth is, we cannot really know the answers to any of those questions. Perhaps we aren’t supposed to know the answers after all. Perhaps the old monk who once taught me – saved me, actually – was right when he told me that knowing the answers wasn’t nearly as important as loving the questions. Because by loving the questions themselves, we move ourselves a bit closer to living the kind of life that brings about the answers for which we hope.

I look back at some of the decisions I’ve made, and realize that many of them were borne of a decision to “screw it,” and follow a course whose destination was a mystery to me, but which I truly believed would be the best for which I could hope.

Working to heal others until I realized that true healing is an inside job.

Donning the mantel of corporate uprightness and drive, then casting it aside.

Trying to give my kids the sense of acceptance I never had in my own childhood. And not always being successful (or even particularly intelligent) in my efforts.

Choosing, on several different occasions, to give away, sell, or discard the “things” I had accumulated, just to provide me with the opportunity to do something different.

Allowing myself a time or two to plunge so deeply into love that I ignored everything but that love, and ultimately finding myself more alone in another’s company than I had ever been in my times of solitude, I learned that the only thing that really mattered was the love itself. And that my biggest challenge was to hold to the sweetness of that love, while letting go of the creeping bitterness I felt at realizing that the other person might not have held the same dream as I. Or to recognize that love was there all along, and I was just too blind to see it.

I’ve succeeded in some ways, and failed miserably at others. I take real pride in having been “redirected” in my quest for the ministry because I was “too laid back” (the official determination of those charged with allowing me to proceed) for even the most laid back of religions. If ever there was a clear indication that my heart was in Zen, that redirection must surely have been it.

I’m glad I got the opportunity to write a bunch of books, even if they were for other people. It was a fun exercise, even if I did find myself cursing at times. Some of the other things I did – things that mattered greatly at the time – were probably most significant in having been done and gotten out of the way, so I could get a little closer to the path I really wanted and think I was supposed to follow. But perhaps that could be said about everything I’ve ever done. As to whether the "path" I chose at any given time was what I was "supposed" to do, I have no clue.

I didn’t get rich, but that was never my intent, anyway. An occasional fantasy, perhaps, but if I had achieved it, I suspect I would have screwed it up. Or gotten even further distracted from what was really important to me. If it happened today, who knows what I’d do with it. Buy a motorcycle, perhaps. Travel to the Greek Islands. If my pattern held true, I’d probably give a lot of it away, to people (many with four legs) for whom it was more important than it is to me. Either that, or blow it on the biggest “screw it” of my life. No way of telling, really. I recognize that there were times when I needed something I couldn't provide, and that there were kind people who came forward to fill that need. I hope that I have repaid their kindness once in awhile, albeit to occasionally lend a hand to others at need.

As it is, I don’t have the cushion of a savings account or investments that would allow me to simply coast through whatever years, months, or moments I might have left on this journey. But I don’t feel particularly concerned about that, because coasting would be, to me, a profound waste, a surrender to cynicism, and a fate far worse than death.

Actually, many things seem to be a fate worse than death. It’s just another step on my journey, after all. Nobody gets out alive. And it is really no greater mystery than any of the other steps I’ve taken. Just another “screw it” that gives rise to another part of the journey. No more significant than a single breath in the greater scheme of things (If there is, indeed, a greater scheme). And as I take that step, I suspect it won’t really matter to me how all those great questions are answered. Some folks will remember me with a smile, others with a scowl. Some will feel anger in their hearts for my having somehow failed them. But I will not feel that anger. Perhaps I’ll see it from wherever I go, and feel compassion for them. Perhaps I’ll laugh at the folly of blaming another for anything at all. Perhaps I’ll speak to them in their dreams, and attempt to comfort them in a way I could not do in life. Or maybe, just maybe, when I no longer drive this earthly vehicle, I simply won’t “be” any longer. If that’s the case, the only thing that will have mattered was what I held in my heart as I released my last breath. I think that if I’ve done things right, that last breath will come on the tail end of a laugh, and perhaps be followed by one last, resounding fart, so that the people around me will have reason to share that laugh with me.

If I’ve done everything right (which I will most certainly not have done), they will look at each other, say “screw it,” and go get a pizza. They can talk about my quirks, my failures, my triumphs, or about everything else in their lives but me. I’m good with any of these.

I do hope to carry with me the tenderness that a few people might have felt for me, despite my quirks. But even that won’t really matter that much. I’ll be somewhere else, likely saying “screw it,” and heading of in a wholly different direction than even I had considered. I have lots more mistakes to make, and far too many questions to love. And however much time I have left will not be spent preparing for something that is beyond my control, anyway. I’m just not there yet.
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