Monthly Archives: April 2017

Talking a Good Game

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I know that when it comes to writing about spiritual growth on here, I “talk a good talk”. “Walking the walk”, however, is actually the bigger component to actual growth and that’s something that I really struggle with.

To this day, when things don’t seem to be going exactly as I’ve planned them, my default reaction is to panic. When things become difficult, my first impulse is to doubt myself and wonder if I’m really qualified to be doing whatever it is that I’m doing. I also tend to have a stronger impression that things in general are going to culminate in the worst possible outcome for me, instead of considering the possibility of them improving or ending favorably.

I think at the root of this behavior, is the false belief that if I picture the worst possible scenarios that it helps me to prepare for these imaginary disasters. I sometimes tell myself that I’m “just being realistic” and that this is actually the best way to approach things. I know that it isn’t true- I’m just giving into pessimistic attitudes that do not serve me. Also, these attitudes do not line up with the evidence that I’ve been presented with. Most of the times, what I’ve feared has never come to pass. So then, what is the point of being afraid?

I still think that the fear gives me power somehow. I believe that if I flinch before receiving the blows that I expect life to rain on me, that I’m somehow able to make them hurt less. When the blows don’t come, I am left with all of the bodily tension and stress of anticipating and preparing for them. This reaction also becomes an ingrained habit that makes it difficult for me to relax even when I am not being threatened.

I told my friend that I think I know what is the root of this desperate need for “control.” My theory is that it comes from living in a very restrictive household as a child. I had little control over my life’s circumstances, so my reaction has been to try to maintain strict control of my life in other ways. Of course, the idea of “control” is an illusion. We are ultimately responsible for how we handle the things that happen to us in life, but there is so much that happens in life that we do not have any influence over. We can choose to be a careful driver, but we don’t have control over a sudden rainstorm that may pass over and causes the truck in front of us to slide out of its lane and hit us. The best thing we can do is just to make sure we are wearing our seatbelts.

“Wearing your seatbelt” does not amount to living life terrified of accidents or misfortune. It’s more like a mental attitude of choosing to just be prepared for bad things that could happen without constantly dwelling on them. After all, how often do you consciously put on your seatbelt with the thought “I could get thrown out of the car today if I’m hit and I don’t wear this”? Some of us only wears seatbelts because the law says to. Most of us, though, just know that it’s safer, so we put it on out of habit. We’re not ruminating on all the grim possibilities. That’s how I eventually want to feel about preparedness in life; I want to come to a balanced state of mind where I am prepared but I am not afraid.

Obviously it isn’t possible to live a life totally free from fear. As I mentioned in another post, fear can be an important warning sign that something is not right with a certain situation. It is crucial in alerting you to danger. The fear that’s harmful for me personally- and I think for lots of other people as well- is the feeling of suspense or being “on edge” that can easily become a part of daily life. This is also probably a good description of certain clinical anxiety disorders (if you think you might need medicine or therapy to help with your anxiety you should definitely try to find a way to get that help).

In summary, I just want to be able to “practice what I preach” on here a little bit more. I wrote a lot about “The Value in the Valley” and I know that a lot of the principles in the book are at work in my life. Purpose and intent are guiding my actions. I am trying to follow the inward voice of my conscience a little better. I think it’s still the courage that I have trouble with- I have trouble maintaining the belief that everything is going to turn out just the way it’s supposed to, and that even if it isn’t the way that I would’ve chosen, that it’s ultimately for my benefit. My trust in the “process of life” is low.

I want to change that.

The Pathology of Happiness

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

As someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I am well aware of the highs and lows that are associated with it. I have been so low and depressed that I wanted to do nothing but stay in bed all day, yet often found myself unable to sleep. I have been so “high” that I thought it was a good idea to spend rent money from my dad on a camera and later drive all the way to another state to see my friends (I used my credit card to pay for everything).

Bipolar disorder has been described as a “disease of feelings.” The problem with this is, that we cannot escape feelings- experiencing them is an essential part of the human experience. Depression is rarely soul-crushing immediately. It starts with a persistent inability to enjoy the things you are doing, and then magnifies as you slowly begin to leave off doing those things. In the same way, mania doesn’t start off with you being 100% impulsive or delusional. It begins with hypomania- and one of the symptoms of hypomania is “unusually elevated mood”. All of the sudden the world around looks a few shades brighter, you experience increased energy and focus and you feel like you can accomplish almost anything.

Managing my mood disorder means being highly aware of my feelings and whether or not they’re getting out of hand, and watching out for mania is one of the main things I practice.

Unfortunately, this sometimes results in being suspicious if out of the blue I wake up and I’m feeling better about things than usual. It means wondering if my excitement and enthusiasm when I’m talking about something new could be described as “pressured speech” or if my extra energy could lead to irritation or an angry outburst. It means wondering if when I splurged on that one thing I was moving into the impulsivity that is characteristic of mania.

In other words, I begin to study and look for the “pathology of happiness”- all of the negative things that can be associated with what just feels like “being happy.” Just like I don’t want to get “too sad” I don’t want to become “too happy”; I don’t want to become manic. This is because the mania is what leads to the poor decisions, the destructive behavior, and ultimately the hospitalizations (in my case). A sense of grandiosity is capable of persisting that can lead to a complete loss of touch from reality.

I do wonder sometimes, though, if my fear of mania is putting a damper on my ability to express happiness and joy. I’ve been hospital-free for almost five years, but I still look back on that dark time in my life and seek to make sure never to return. Even when I know I’m doing all of the right things- getting sleep at night, taking my medication daily, and sticking to a routine- I still feel afraid that my emotions are going to get “out of control.” If I feel under the weather, immediately my mind goes to the worst possible outcome, of me eventually being unable to get out of bed and go to work and therefore getting evicted. Or if I’m happy and having a good time, I wonder if I’m becoming “too excited” and may launch into regrettable behavior.

It is possible that my concerns are being exacerbated because this is traditionally the time of the year that I’ve been hospitalized, but I know that these concerns are always a low-grade hum in my mind at all times. I am always thinking at some lower level of consciousness, “don’t let your feelings get out of hand.”

The good part of this story is that I am not without support. I have my best friend, who, if I did start to launch into something that was abnormal, would notice immediately. I am still under the observation of case workers, even though it’s been years since I’ve had an episode. This was because the frequency and severity of my episodes- the last of which was a schizophrenic one that got my diagnosis changed to schizoaffective (bipolar type). Also, my last hospital stay was three months, which is a pretty long time.

I’m very grateful and happy that I’ve been episode-free for so long. I think I have relaxed from the level of worry I was at early into my recovery, so it’s possible that this low-level vigilance is something that I’ll have to experience for the rest of my life. I feel like I will never be in a position where I will feel fully comfortable, or fully confident that I will never again experience the devastating effects of mental illness. In my case, I don’t believe I will ever be “cured”. Instead, it will be something that I always manage and live with.

Purpose and Intent

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I wrote a post a few days ago about Iyanla Vanzant’s book, entitled, “The Value in the Valley: A Black Women’s Guide Through Life’s Dilemmas”. I gave a few examples about the types of valleys and the underlying principles discussed in the book. I wrote about how Iyanla emphasized introspection, self-examination, and prayer/meditation. She also taught the respect of the so-called “universal laws” like “the law of cause and effect” or “the law of attraction”. I went over the valleys only briefly, but there’s one that I would like to focus on right now- the “valley of purpose and intent”.

In the chapter on this valley, Iyanla says that purpose and intent should guide all that we do. She describes our purpose as being something we are divinely ordained to do and have a natural propensity for and liking to. When our purpose is clear, we are at peace. Intent describes how we intend to fulfill that purpose- it’s the positive energy that we put forth into the universe to show that we are indeed being serious. Our intent- or intention– could be described as our drive and focus to do the things that lead us toward the ultimate goal and meaning of our lives.

Being in alignment with our purpose does not guarantee that our lives will be free of challenges. As Iyanla put it, the world doesn’t stop spinning so that we can go ahead and pursue our dreams. We have to be extremely intentional in everything that we do and make sure that we give priority to the things that are contributing to our purpose and to set aside the petty things that hold us back. She says that setting goals is a good thing, but that we have to be aware that the goals we set are often made from our very limited perspectives. She emphasized being more open- to just focus on our purpose, and have our minds be intent on moving towards it. Slowly opportunities will open up for us- opportunities that we may have missed if we hadn’t been paying attention.

Reading this chapter helped me to remember the importance of knowing what I really want out of life and consciously pursuing that thing. I know I want to write, and I know I want to compose and perform music, so I’ve prioritized my musical education above everything else. The rewards have been very apparent. Gradually I’ve gotten better grades, faced fears, and increased my knowledge and comfort with the subjects I’ve been studying. I’ve been able to handle a steadily increasing course load and I will soon be able to graduate. I’ve definitely had to make sacrifices- mostly financial ones- but also I’ve had to chase my dreams against the wishes of my father (I think that’s been pretty huge).

My purpose and intent haven’t just worked out with school, either- it’s worked out other aspects of my life, such as changing jobs and moving out on my own. I intended to do those things, but the how and the when I hadn’t figured out yet. It’s funny though, how you do really get the things you want even if you have to be pushed by outside forces to finally make your move. That was Iyanla’s emphasis when she wrote about “the valley of courage”- that life has a way of forcing you to face the very things that you fear the most.

Another valley that I identified with was “the valley of understanding”. You would think that such a valley would be about gaining understanding in an intellectual or academic sense, but it is actually about trusting the “knowing” and intuition that you already have inside. One of Iyanla’s frequently repeated sayings in that chapter was “you know when you know”. We all have a sense when we first meet a person whether they’re trustworthy or not, but we often dismiss those feelings, only to discover later that we should have trusted our first sense. (“Trust your first thought”) We all know when we’re starting a job we’re going to hate, and even after we’ve gritted our teeth through it for a while we know when it’s time to leave. Do we leave? Often times not. We know when a relationship is failing, when we’ve outgrown our city or neighborhood, or when our conscience is afflicting us because we’re biting our tongues when we should really speak. We know these things, but when we don’t act on them, we’re being disobedient.

Even when we do have the understanding, we aren’t going to be able to move until we are ready. That’s something that I’ve observed about myself, too, when I’ve reviewed my life. I have constantly moved through seasons of action and inaction. Sometimes I have been too eager, and made a horrible, destructive mess out of things (while still managing to accomplish nothing as far as personal progress). I’ve hesitated when I should’ve moved forward, but when my time to dawdle was up, life moved me forward whether I was “ready” or not. I could either keep hedging or move with it (I chose to move with it). Other times I’ve been in sync with the flow of life, but I’ve still had periods where things just stayed the same for a long time. That was life’s way of testing me, to see if I could continue to be faithful to what I was doing and have the patience required to fulfill the task at hand.

I’m sure I’ve quoted this before, but there’s a quote from the movie (500) Days of Summer. The narrator says, “Most days do not have any impact on the course of a life.” I have found this to be true. That being said, each day we’re either walking in our purpose or outside of it. Those days add up into weeks, months, and years, and before we know it we’re either looking back at our life in regret or we are looking back with a sense of fulfillment.

So in summary: be courageous, have faith, trust your instincts, and be true to yourself. Don’t let anyone silence your voice. Don’t let anyone undermine your authority or undervalue the gifts you bring into life. Live on purpose and act with intention. Don’t stand down for anyone, and when life seems overwhelming, take a deep breath and keep on going. You have everything you need to face this life and triumph, so don’t turn away.

Run your race to its completion, and claim your crown!

The Value In the Valley

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

This blog post title comes from a book that I recently read by Iyanla Vanzant, titled “The Value in the Valley: A Black Woman’s Guide Through Life’s Dilemmas”. Even though she targets black women in the title, I think Iyanla could be speaking to any woman who is feeling burdened down by the problems of this world. After all, women of all races can be afflicted with the guilt that they’ve come to association with their gender, the oppression of “the patriarchy” and a constant craving for outside approval and validation.

Iyanla starts the book out with a solid introduction, and then quickly moved unto outlining the states of being she would be discussing through a chapter she titled “Anatomy of the Valley”. Here she gives a brief overview of each of the valleys. They all have different names like “The Valley of Light”, the “Valley of Courage” or “The Valley of Love”, for examples. She said that it was possible to be in multiple valleys, and that you will intuitively be able to identify which valley you’re in.

In fact, relying on your inward “intuition” is something that Ms. Vanzant emphasizes in her book. She talks about the importance of relying on your Higher self or your God self, which she also describes as a guiding force simply called “spirit.” She will tell you that spirit knows all that you need to know, that the answers are inside- to stop thinking so intellectually and to intuit and know through the feelings in your heart. She warns that if your gut tells you something is off, and you disobey it, you are bound to reap the consequences. If you are confused about which inward feelings you are receiving, then you should stop and pray and ask for guidance.

To whom or to what you’re praying to is a little vague. Before each chapter where she discusses a specific valley in detail, Iyanla has a few paragraphs of what she called “Meditations with the Mother” in which she addresses the reader from the perspective of a divine Mother speaking to her daughters. She gently chastises and admonitions them to return to Her, to trust in Her love, and to know that She and “Father” created them in Love and for a purpose. With Iyanla’s yoruba background, it’s appropriate to assume that by the Father she means the Creator-God of the faith- but she doesn’t mention Him, or any other gods and goddesses by name in the book. I think that she sought to make her religious expression as inclusive as possible.

Another thing that Iyanla discusses, which I have a little bit of trouble with, are certain “spiritual laws.” She quotes the Biblical expression, “What you sow, you reap”. She often suggests that if someone is having trouble in a particular area of her life, that she examine how she might’ve misbehaved in the past. For example, if she has financial trouble, or people borrow from her and don’t repay, then she should look back and see if she borrowed from anyone and neglected to pay back. Or she should see if maybe by negative thoughts and words- like constantly talking about being broke or worrying about how to make ends meet- that she is encouraging the “spirit of lack” to take root in her life.

This ties in pretty strongly to what I’ve talked about with regards to “hidden agency” in previous blog posts. I think that seeing what our part is in a problem or situation is very important, and choosing to stop contributing to something in a way that causes negative results is crucial. I think the problem enters in when we believe that some unseen power- be that “the universe” or “God” or “the law of cause and effect” is arranging things to suit people who are “good” and doling out punishments to those who are “bad”.

To her credit, Iyanla did admit that the “universal laws” don’t always seem to be exactly tit for tat. Being a thief doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will rob you- but maybe you’ll lose something important in another area of your life. Also, she “Doing the right thing for the wrong reason” is still wrong and has its own consequences. She also argued that the Universal laws cannot be manipulated. You might try to be positive, try to talk a good talk, but if your heart and spirit don’t believe it the Universe will take note.

So my problem is this idea that all of these forces outside your control are all “holding you accountable” in one way or another. I feel that believing this may lead to paranoia and self-blame. Also, it may just be plain old untruth and superstition.

That being said, I think her emphasis on introspection, getting still and meditating, positive purpose and intent, and even prayer are all very valuable. Also, with regards to prayer, she was the first person I heard that said just saying things out loud to yourself may be a good thing to do as well- and it’s something I practice.

i think though, with the way I discovered this book, you’d think that I’d have a little more faith in unseen forces than I do. When I saw it I was at work, and I knew that I just had to take it home with me. I can’t describe how I knew- I just knew. It’s that kind of intuition that Iyanla praises in her book- but we can’t really prove that it’s a divine or spiritual thing. It may one day be explainable through science. For now though- spiritual or not- what I experienced was valid. I did indeed enjoy the book. I read through the whole thing in three days and excitedly shared insights with my friend. Its message of peace, of having faith in yourself, and in looking inward were invaluable to me at that time.

I’ve been focusing a lot on spiritual things lately in my effort to manage my depression. The current theme that’s I’m discovering is that life is a series of rhythms. I started thinking more deeply about it after watching a Youtuber named Brandon Gilbert. Birth and death, hunger and satisfaction, day and night, the changing seasons- all are a testament to the rhythmic nature of life. Like Solomon said, there is a time to all things- a time to mourn, and a time to laugh, a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. Change is the nature of life. Stagnant water is usually not life-supporting- unless you’re breeding mold or mosquitoes.

There is value in the valley, and there are things to be learned from the heights of joy and peace to the depths of despair. There is a  lesson to be learned in every situation- it’s not so much about outward success as it is about inward spiritual growth. It’s not about how much I have, but it’s about how much light, life, and love am I willing to receive. Do I think that I am worthy of these things, or do I doubt my value as a person?

Back to the “change” bit. Accepting the changeability of life releases me from being overly concerned with outward outcomes. This doesn’t mean that I never strive to improve my position in society, my financial status, etc. It just means that if something happens that trips me up, I rise up and dust myself off, because “that’s life.” A favorite saying of a friend of mine is “this too shall pass.” That includes good things as well as bad.

The Apostle Paul wrote,

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” -1 Corinthians 13:12

Everything is revealed in time. For now, all we have to do is wait, be at peace, and do the next right thing until the answers come to us.

The Praying Deist?

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I’ve been having a really hard time with things, with my depression creeping up. Also things are going to be a little bit tight for me financially for the next several weeks, so it’s very important that I do certain things to get everything in order.

I’m being forced to take some time off of my job, because I have too many hours for the year. I requested for my boss to concentrate that time around when I’ll be resuming classes (end of August, early September) and she agreed to my request. So thankfully I won’t have to work for the first week of school and that gives me some time to get acclimated to my school schedule. The bad part is that it will make my paycheck take a big hit, but luckily around that time I should be receiving some financial aid.

When I was driving home today, for some reason, I thought about how I used to just sit in my car and pray before work. I felt so overwhelmed, everything seemed so big to me- and it wasn’t because of depression. I truly didn’t feel equal to the task of any job that I was first starting. Those times were so refreshing and so intimate for me, but when I thought of praying for current events, I deliberately quelled the impulse. After all, what use was prayer to a person like me, who believed more or less that God gave life to the world but may have left us on our own? Or even if he/she/it didn’t, that maybe They were concerned with bigger problems- or that maybe They expected me to look inward for the answer to my difficulties- inward to the gift They’d already given me? So I just gripped the steering wheel and said, “I got this”.

Somehow, though, that wasn’t very satisfying. So as I was sitting here, facing what I have to face in the weeks to come, and feeling very insecure about it, I decided to go look up a post that I’d written a long time ago about praying as “an unbeliever.” It was called “I believe…”.

The truth is, that despite my changed beliefs, I still feel the presence of my God when I pray. I can’t explain it- maybe it shows that my relationship with the Divine had nothing to do with religion. Maybe in a way I believe that God transcends religion.

Here is an excerpt of what I wrote;

I know, I’ve mentioned before that “recovering from religion” didn’t have to mean a total loss of faith but I think I was just trying to say it just to make myself believe it. Now, it’s real to me. I’m not a Christian anymore. I don’t believe in a seven day creation, partings of the Red Sea, an Israeli Exodus from Egypt, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the Resurrection, the Final Judgment or the Second Coming but I sure as heck do believe in a god. I believe that some Benevolent Force has intervened in my life for the better. I believe that Something gave me strength when I had totally given up. I also believe that this “something” isn’t going to let me down.

So where did I go about forgetting that even though I’m not a Christian anymore, that I’m still “allowed” to pray? (I think that was actually a separate entry, but I can’t find it) Where did I go about forgetting that my faith in “something” can still be firm and unshakeable? Of course, feelings are subjective, but our perception of the world is all that we really have. If I choose to believe that a Benevolent Force is guiding me and giving me strength, then why can’t that be as valid as other peoples’ highly subjective beliefs?

I know I did just write about not being sure if I could trust in the idea of hidden agency anymore, but that’s not a completely exclusive idea. I’m willing to accept that if there is hidden agency, that we have no way of actually verifying it with any of the methods that we now have at our disposal. So the idea of the existence of hidden agency can be viewed skeptically, but not totally ruled out- until we can gain more evidence. With that in mind, it’s important for me to realize that my beliefs will continue to change as I learn more and as I continue to grow as a person. It could be true that I have not reached my final destination as far as faith and religion is concerned.

For now, though, I’m going to keep praying. I’m going to keep “talking to the ceiling” whenever I’m in a crisis. It may be a sign of weakness or denial, and I may just be doing it because I’m used to doing so. I do remember, however, several times when things were horrible and I didn’t pray, because I just wanted to die and for my pain to end that way. Fortunately, I’m not at that point anymore- I still have a lot of hope.

If this is what it takes to keep going, then so be it.

“Just Do It”

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I’ve been thinking a lot about a specific concept with regards to the idea that when it comes to changing aspects of our lives, that we should “just do it.” I usually find myself thinking about this when there’s some news story about someone overcoming struggles through what seems to be raw grit and determination. I think of the man who walked miles to Wal-Mart every time he wanted a meal and lost like 500 lbs; or, the man who walked 3000 miles across the country and lost like 300 lbs. and gained a new perspective on life. I think of people- like Taraji P. Henson- who’ve moved to new places with barely any money so that they could pursue their dreams.

These are inspiring stories, and they usually get me to thinking “Could I really do something like that?” I look at some of my habits- eating habits, spending habits, etc.- and I am well aware that there are things that I would like to change. Ideally I would lose weight, save money for travel, exercise more, explore new hobbies and talents, and so on. When I look at my life, I ask myself “What’s stopping me?”

In a way, it’s fortunate that I turned this criticism inward, because before I did it was very easy to just look at other people and say “Well why don’t they just do x, y, and z and work towards changing their lives?” and then when I look at my own life I see that I could ask myself the same kinds of questions.

The truth is, that I don’t exist in someone else’s reality- I don’t live their Truth. It’s possible to be so beaten down by life, or just by the chemicals being imbalanced in our brains, that forward motion seems like it is almost impossible. Even though it’s true that every big goal- like losing weight can be broken down into a series of smaller goals- daily exercise, dietary changes- it can be incredibly difficult to stay on track.

When it comes to money-related goals, poverty is very consuming and cyclical. You can put away small amounts of money in savings and gradually build it up- but it isn’t uncommon for one small emergency to wipe you out and force you to start from scratch. If you don’t have money to pay your bills, you are punished with yet more bills in the form of late fees and overdraft charges. If you borrow money to cover your costs, you then have to worry about paying back interest.

I think if it was easy for people to “just do it” then they would- but for a lot of us it isn’t that easy. Sometimes it’s mainly fear that is holding us back, and other times it’s circumstances that are outside of our control.

When it comes to change being facilitated in my life, I’ve noticed that there are usually two catalysts- outside circumstances and inward motivation. For a lot of the bigger changes that occurred in my life I have needed an outside push. The first of those came when my dad moved me out of his home into the recovery residence. I needed the change of circumstances, but I wouldn’t have been able to make it out on my own. I was stuck. The second came when I needed to move out of the recovery residence into my own apartment- I had really stayed longer than I needed to and I wasn’t exactly “in recovery” but if I hadn’t been given a deadline I might still be there today.

Looking back, though, there have been times when inward motivation- the kind of “just do it”ness has been influential in moving me forward. I used this when I started going to college. I applied for financial aid right after I turned 24, and starting going to classes with almost no encouragement from anyone else (while waiting for financial aid I had to pay for classes out of pocket). I was in developmental courses for about a year (and I also had to take a summer of computer literacy) and then moved on to my music courses. I slowly stacked more and more on my schedule. I’ll be taking 11-13 credit hrs in the Fall.

In a book I like to read called “Boundaries” (by Dr. Henry Cloud), he reminds us that boundaries are not built in a vacuum. This includes the boundaries that we make with ourselves. The truth is that even though we may be able to get through on grit and determination alone, a lot of the times that isn’t the case. I’ve needed people in my life to challenge me- even people that were only appearing in my life for that very limited space of time. They’ve come in the form of parents, teachers, and even the head of the recovery residence. Different caseworkers and therapists have also been important for me in reaching my goals.

If I’m not able to be the person that I want to be, it may be that I require a little bit of assistance. There’s nothing weak or shameful about needing help. Sometimes it is as simple as just breaking down big goals into smaller ones, listing out what I need to do, gritting my teeth and doing it. I may have to do things by myself if there are only a few- or not any- people rooting for me. Other times I will have the help and support of other people and it will be the missing link for me in attaining success. Either way it will require a lot of hard work and I’ll have to dig deep for the strength I need.

I haven’t reached all my goals yet, but I won’t give up. I’m also aware that once I reach the goals that I have, there will just be new goals to take the place of the old ones. So in that sense, I’ll never ever “arrive” at any place- I’ll just keep moving.

Religion and Sexuality

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I was looking for ideas on what to write, and my friend suggested to me that I write about how my religion has affected my relationships. This is going to be a tough one, because I think that in exploring my sexuality I did a lot of things that were definitely in contrast to my religious beliefs at the time.

In a way, I kind of felt like two people at once. On the one side I was this perfectly agreeable Christian girl, and on the other side I was a very sexual being. I ended up not waiting until marriage to have sex, and I just kind of went with it without experiencing the crushing guilt that a lot of Christians that end up “giving in” tend to experience. I wanted to do it, and so I did. I think though, that it is worth noting that at the point in my life that I was active sexually I was also off my medication and in the midst of my manic phase, so I did do a lot of “high risk” things and my judgment was somewhat damaged. This does not mean that mania is the only reason I was so sexual, but anybody who has bipolar disorder knows that when you’re like this everything is heightened and turned to 11.

Previous to that little fling, I had only really been in relationships online- one of which lasted for a really long time. Obviously the only way to be sexual was remotely, on webcam or by trading risque pictures back and forth. It was my longest relationship ever- lasting years really- and it definitely was affected by my religion. I drew the line about a lot of things for the longest because I was concerned with being too revealing or too immoral, but in the end I got really bold as things went on. Also, I broke up with my boyfriend more than once when I was on a spiritual kick because he was “too worldly” or “too unspiritual”. We’re great friends now, because I’ve finally accepted that even though he hadn’t changed- that I have.

That was the great big deal of it. Part of me was never really as “innocent” as I seemed. I was never as “Christian” as I seemed. I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge, and the confining nature of my faith was never going to be satisfactory for me. I always thought that I would marry a Christian man and raise Christian children, but deep down I knew that wasn’t what I wanted. I was attracted to “worldly” guys with a sense of adventure.

Also, even though I had come to accept that I was bisexual (sort of), I never allowed myself to picture the possibility of being in a relationship with another woman- especially because my faith forbade it. I always thought that my attraction was purely sexual and that I was pretty much just heteroromantic. I know it sounds very stupid, but seeing happy couples on Youtube like Jelly and Day and Kaelen and Lucy changed my mind. I realized that I had an entirely warped picture of what being in a relationship with a woman had to be like. I always thought it would be unhealthy because women were “too emotional” and now I see that women who are in relationships with women have relationships that are just as varied and just as valid as women who are in relationships with men.

I think before, when I was an adherent to Christianity, I had a lot of “rules” and had to live with constantly breaking them.

1) Don’t have sex before marriage

2) Don’t masturbate

3) You can only date fellow Christians

4) You can only date the opposite sex

5) You shouldn’t really “date” but “allow God to guide you to the ‘right’ partner”

And sometimes 6)

6) Birth control is immoral even when/especially when you’re married

And so on. So yeeaaaahh…you can pretty much see why that wouldn’t work too well for me. Now though, instead of just continuing to live against the dictates of my religion I just decided to live without the religion. It kind of cut away a lot of the hypocrisy that was in my life.

I also used to see relationships as means to an end- that if this wouldn’t/couldn’t end in marriage it wasn’t worth my time. This was a problem because I don’t have any strong desire to get married right now, either.  I just have so many other things that I’m concerned about.

In many ways, even though I’ve changed, I’m not that comfortable with just “dating for fun” or the whole one night stand thing. I’m not very comfortable with my sexuality, and I’m very guarded when it comes to relationships. I do hope that I find something happy and lasting, but if it doesn’t come I’m okay with that too.

A Wasted Opportunity?

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

Today at my job, I ended up in a conversation with a woman about genealogy and tracing back your roots. I guess you could call it a conversation, but it was mainly one-sided. She was pretty much talking non-stop without giving me much of a chance to interject, but I was somewhat okay with it because what she was talking about was really intriguing.

That was, until the conversation went in a different direction. She suddenly started talking about the history of the Israelites/Jews- who she referred to as God’s chosen people- who were in exile in Babylon and the heathen King Cyrus was used by God to restore them to their former lands. This of course led to her saying that the plight of black people under their white masters was similar to the Jews under slavery.

It then started getting weird when she started saying that God had given wealth to some people and allowed others to be poor, but that physical wealth wasn’t really what mattered because Jesus gave us the gift of eternal life and treasures in heaven.

She concluded it all by saying that it wasn’t about race, but that in the end we would all be under “one kingdom”- that it wouldn’t be about being Buddhist, Muslim, or Hare Krishna but that everyone would be subjected under the rule of the one King Jesus Christ. She also said that the Jews who trusted in God would be allowed into the Heavenly Kingdom but that Jews who did not would be destroyed.

For the nth time I once again didn’t say what I really intended to say. Even when she was talking about how black people couldn’t keep wealth because a lot of times their motives are wrong, I didn’t say what I should’ve said and instead mentioned Michael Jordan, saying he was still wealthy- but qualifying that he carried himself with “humility” and “had a good spirit” man I feel like an idiot.

The problem with these conversations is that I am so used to responding in the “standard” or “Evangelically correct” way that sometimes I just say something “in character” out of reflex or habit. It’s like I’d rather just have them nod in approval and feel really satisfied with themselves- and hopefully end the increasingly more uncomfortable conversation- rather than say something contrary that might provoke a heated debate and keep me embroiled for even longer.

I know that people say you should “pick your battles”- she was a customer, I was an employee; it’s pretty much my job to keep her satiated and happy. On the other hand I keep thinking about how easy it would’ve been to just interrupt her when she started going on about the whole Kingdom of Jesus stuff and just say “Ma’am, I don’t believe that”. Yet somehow I saw in her my earnest parents’ faces and displeasing her seemed to be so close to displeasing them- even though they were miles away and would never have heard our exchange.

I am almost twenty-six years old. I’m tired of this.

I think that religious people take it for granted that they can just speak out about their highly subjective beliefs like they’re fact, and have most people just automatically agree with them. Especially religious people of color who talk to other people of color- there’s this unspoken assumption that, I look like you, so I must of course also go to church (or to the mosque) and have all of these “standard” beliefs on Jesus, that I probably have a “praying mama” somewhere (well, half of that’s true). I think nonbelievers of color have it really hard, and that’s probably why “Black Nonbeliever” groups on Meet-up are so strict with their admission standards.

My dad always used to say, if a person is not financially providing for you- they’re not feeding you, they’re not clothing you, they’re not otherwise keeping you alive- that it basically shouldn’t matter what they think. I wouldn’t take it that far, but I think he has a point.

There is absolutely nothing that woman could’ve done to me. If I had been rude, she could’ve complained to my supervisor- but I wouldn’t have been rude, I would’ve just calmly and kindly expressed a dissenting opinion. Of course, neither of us would’ve changed the other’s mind- but the difference right now is that she goes home peaceful and satisfied thinking that she had a great conversation, and I’m wracked by disquiet and the torment about having kept silent.

There’s also just my extreme politeness- I will be almost effuse in my gratitude- like I told this woman “Thank you so much” even though there was really very little to be thankful for. Of course though that could be interpreted many ways- “thank you for coming to our business” or “thank you for the first half of the conversation before it got all weird” but I knew that I was being a little bit insincere.

Of course, I don’t do this just when I’m put in awkward positions by religious people- and they often pick me as a target for some reason- but also with anybody.

A patron that I currently refer to as “coupon guy” came into my work. He’s constantly giving me coupons for everything from massages to dental work. He’s very garish and flamboyant and is obviously trying to flirt- just doing it in the most awkward way possible.

Anyway, today he told me “I have something for you- and this is a big deal because I don’t usually share these with people” so in my head I’m thinking, Lord, what is it this time? but I really should’ve already guessed.

He pulls out a small piece of paper with a Redbox code for a free day’s rental- he said it came off of a 79cent Big Gulp cup, and admits that he sometimes collects these things from cups that he finds on the ground, because, “That’s money, and people are just throwing it away”.

Sexy.

Anyway I was like, “Oh wow thank you” and do you know that I saved that little piece of paper even though I’m not even going to be going to Redbox any time soon? Primarily so I wouldn’t lose it and feel compelled to lie about it. The question is though, why should I even care? This is a guy who seems to fancy me but apparently only thinks I’m worth some random coupons that he finds on the ground. Yet I’m more concerned about his feelings than he seems to be about mine.

I do this all the time. I will do everything to make myself seem invisible, unobtrusive, everlastingly accommodating and I think it needs to stop. Obviously yes- sometimes it isn’t worth it to get into contrary conversations with strangers, and so what if a rando keeps giving me coupons that I may never use? These things are little in the grand scheme of things, but every time I force myself to bite my tongue I’m perpetuating a belief to my Self that my opinion is not worth it, my feelings are not valid, and my rights are unimportant. If they can speak, so can I. If they have a right to be offended, so do I.

I’m going to promise myself, that the next time I have the opportunity- I’m going to actually come out and say something. I think it’s really hard to do this when I’m used to my survival hinging on my ability to be agreeable. Even though now I’m an adult and in control of my own life, the old subservient attitudes cause me to automatically clam up, and that has to stop.

I’m my own person and I have a right to say what I feel without being intimidated.

It’s a Slow Fade

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

I gradually began to attend my church group less and less. At first, I used school as a [legitimate] excuse, but now that we’re in the middle of the summer break, I really don’t have anything in my schedule to prevent me from attending.

There is nothing preventing me in my schedule, but there’s a whole lot more preventing me in my heart.

So when a combination of boredom and loneliness compelled me to attend “one last time”, I got in my car and went. It turns out that my indecision had made me even later than I realized, and I had missed out on the food and socializing and arrived just in time for the service to start. Also, my indecision had caused me to fail to realize that the first of the month was worship night- there would be no sermon, just more than an hour of worship.

The pull for me to be involved, to shout and dance and sing with all the rest, was strong, but I remained a very subdued version of my former self. I sat quietly and watched the lyrics playing across the screens, scoped out the atmosphere of the room. I felt like an outsider in this room of people who were being “moved by the spirit.” On top of the stage behind the singers there was a young man painting a picture- “prophetic painting” as it has been so named. I focused on him for some of the time, too- how he carefully fleshed out what was actually a beautiful design. I tried to just allow myself to enjoy the music and be at peace.

Of course, if I focused too hard on the words, the weight of my new beliefs became once again apparent to me. I could no longer objectively sing “you gave yourself for me” or “you died so I could live” when I no longer believed that blood sacrifice was necessary for someone to be “clean” in the eyes of God. I couldn’t say “I sing because You are good” if I was singing to the Christian God, because I am not convinced that the God of the Bible (or Koran) is good. I couldn’t pray to the Christian God when I wasn’t sure if He was alive and well to answer- or if there was evidence that He really cared if He was.

In fact, the more I travel along my spiritual/idealogical journey, the less evidence I have for believing in “hidden agency” at all (see more here ) Hidden agency is a term used to describe the belief system that suggests that hidden/invisible “agents” are influencing visible agents/elements in our world- such as believing that natural disasters are caused by angels/wrath of God or disease is caused by evil spirits. It also could be expanded to include the idea that the dead walk among us as unseen spirits. Either way, the more I see, the more that I am convinced that the whole idea of invisible forces somehow influencing our world is extremely subjective, and that the ideas vary so greatly across cultures that it is impossible for them all to be factual.

In the same way, I’m starting to believe that other mystical beliefs- such as a belief in karma or the belief in the law of attraction may be equally problematic. Bad things still happen to good people, and some bad people seem to prosper and to go unpunished. Also, if we believe that people can somehow “attract” or “repel” things into their lives by performing unrelated actions or rituals, it perpetuates the belief that victims of misfortune are somehow to blame for their own victimization or “bad luck”. While it is true to an extent that your “attitude determines your altitude” and “the man who says he can, and the man who says that he can’t, are probably both right” there are times when determination alone cannot enable you to succeed. It doesn’t mean that you’re “wrong” or “broken” or you just need to “think positive.” I believe that part of life is trying your very best- but also knowing your limits.  So in other words I believe in “pragmatic optimism”- in having high hopes but also being firmly centered in reality. So as Hayley Williams put it, “keep your feet on the ground, with your head in the clouds.”

Of course, I still have my faults. When things seem to go strangely well, I want to thank someone “above” for it all having gone out smoothly. When I think of something I’d like or need, and it is shortly thereafter provided to me, I’d like to think it was a synchronicity– that somehow the universe was rewarding me for having that thought or desire. It feels weird after years of being raised so religiously not to perceive hidden agency on multiple occasions in the course of a day.

It makes sense too, that if we think hidden agency is involved when good things happen, we tend to apply it to the bad things as well. If we end up not being so “lucky” and we aren’t able to avoid the car accidents, physical assaults, losses, and diseases- and especially if we suffer many of these things in a short time frame- we wonder what we’ve done “wrong” to “deserve” such misfortune. We may blame generational curses, hexes, poor attitudes, karma, etc., but the truth is we don’t have solid proof for these claims, only circumstantial evidence as it were.

So really as I left the church this time, I couldn’t say for certain that I would never go back but my experience has permanently changed. For me, my deconversion has been less of  a “shocking sever” and more of a “slow fade” like the one mentioned in the Casting Crowns song.

The song goes like this;

It’s a slow fade / When you give yourself away / It’s a slow fade / When black and white turn to gray / When thoughts invade / Choices are made / A price will be paid / When you give yourself away / People never crumble in a day…

It’s strange that they’re warning about falling into sin/falling from faith, and I’m using their lyrics to positively describe my deconversion. I do believe there is a price to be paid for leaving the faith, in terms of the loss of relationships, the loneliness, the self-doubt, and the guilt, but if you’re able to go all the way through with it that in the end you’re much better off.

“Hey God, it’s me, ________.”

Previously published on my Tumblr page, http://a-woman-apart.tumblr.com/

“Hey God, It’s Me, Margaret” was a coming-of-age book written by author Judy Blume. It chronicled the life of a young girl who moved from New York to New Jersey (I think) and was being raised by areligious parents; her mother was raised Catholic and her father was raised Jewish. She had a wonderful relationship with her grandmother on her father’s side, but her mother’s parents had all but disowned their daughter after she decided to marry a Jew.

Margaret doesn’t tell anyone about her fervent prayers to the heavens- her parents want her to wait until she’s older to decide which religion she wants to follow (if any at all). Her prayers are of the typical self-absorbed teenager variety- she prays to “get her period” and for boys to like her and to do well with assignments in school. At one point in the novel she gets upset with God when He doesn’t seem to answer her prayers and refuses to talk with Him anymore.

Well right now, whenever I try to pray, I feel like I’m behaving exactly like little self-absorbed tweenage Margaret- my requests for more strength when I feel overwhelmed seem so pathetic. There are moments when I’m confronted with just how privileged I am and I wish that I could just slap myself.

I know, I know- it’s true that just because I haven’t suffered as much as someone else, it doesn’t make my suffering any less valid. That’s not the point. The point is that if I were to go around preaching the power of a positive attitude to make everything okay- which I don’t, by the way- I would definitely be giving out false platitudes.

Let’s backtrack a little and I’ll talk about what brought this on (besides my feeling pathetic already).

Last night, at around midnight, I couldn’t sleep (due to drinking copious amounts of Coke Zero) and so I fixed myself a bowl of cereal and turned on the radio. BBC World News was on and they were talking about a practice in southern Malawi concerning girls who reach puberty. These girls are given a few sex education courses, then turned over to a “hyena”- a man who is literally paid to have sex with these children- for three days for their “initiation” and “cleansing.” This cleansing is supposed to educate the girls in sex so that they can please their future husbands, and also protect their families and villages from bad fortune.

If you thought that was bad, it gets worst- during this ritual it is required that no protection be used. The “hyena” that BBC interviewed was actually HIV positive and deliberately hid that fact from the parents of the girls he “serviced”. So not only are these girls subjected to rape and possible unwanted pregnancy, they are also exposed to any of the diseases that the “hyena” may be carrying.

I think about things like this a lot when I think about our Westernized “health and wealth” gospel.  Here I am praying to get through the work day (and “claiming blessings” for myself), and a 13-year old somewhere across the world is probably praying to make it through 3 days of sex with a man she doesn’t even know. If she refuses, she is said to be endangering her village- think about that kind of pressure.

I also think about things like that- and the religious/cultural beliefs that are behind them. It’s been proven time and time again that people will do amazingly horrific and harmful things in defense of a tradition. For us here in the Western world, these practices- and others, like female genital mutilation, child marriage, and child slavery- are unthinkable, but for people in these cultures it is simply “the way we do things”.

So now I wonder how many things that are acceptable in Western nations today may be equally as barbaric? (Think conversion therapy, forced sex reassignment of intersex infants, male circumcision, and other unnecessary/ineffective medical procedures by greedy doctors).

I cannot believe that a God who is all-powerful and yet does nothing to help the people who are going through these atrocities. Yet I cannot accept a God who is helpless, either- and that’s where my responsibility comes in.

I am not helpless.

I can use my position of privilege and influence to actually make a difference for someone somewhere in the world. If I am able-bodied and able-minded, then it’s for a purpose. No one should have to go through what these children in Malawi are going through but the stubborn tribal leaders insist on telling the people that these unhealthy practices are actually for the good of all the parties involved. If we by word of mouth raise our voices in dissent of these practices maybe we can put pressure on the people to change. The leadership has to be forced to change their stance on these issues.

So now I think it’s time for me to change the way I pray. I need to expand my vision beyond just the limited perimeter of my neighborhood. I need to get out of the mindset of “barely getting by”. I need to stop hiding.

Here’s a quote.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves; Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually who are you NOT to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. -Marianne Williamson

I want to be that light that shines in the world. No more prayers just to make it through the day, or fix that relationship, or what should I do if X invites me to a party and I don’t want to go. That’s small stuff. No more being apologetic just for being, so embarrassed by my own existence that I practically beg to be rescued from it. I won’t be Margaret, and turn my back on God when I don’t appear to get my way- and I also won’t ask God to do for me what he/she/it has already empowered me to do for myself.

It’s time for change.