Broken, busted, fucked up

I spent years as a kid demanding perfection from myself and everyone else. My mom tells me I used to come home from kindergarten complaining about how stupid all the other kids were. I needed to achieve every goal perfectly. I needed to get straight A’s, I needed to get everything right on the first try, and I expected everyone else to do the same. I don’t think this came from any outside source. I wasn’t ever pushed to be the best. My parents, in fact, have always been wonderful about helping me and my siblings follow our own goals and interests. No, something in me demanded the impossible from me, and I set about trying to achieve it.

That’s probably a big part of why I had a nervous breakdown in second grade. No, really. There were other factors at play, but I think my own demands for perfection were at the heart of it. My anxiety was so high I was making regular trips to the hospital with crippling stomach cramps. I came home every day crying. I actually remember very little of this, but enough to know it really happened.

And I think that somewhere in there the drive for perfection became more than just a demand I put on myself. I implanted the idea that to be worthy of love, from myself or from anyone else, I needed to be perfect. Love was something I had to earn with perfection, and keep through never being anything less than perfect.

Growing up in a Southern Baptist church didn’t help either. The double pressure to be both “normal” (I tried, and I didn’t know how!) and perfect was terrible, but also played into the “truth” I’d created for myself.

That’s part of why I stayed in an abusive marriage for so long. I thought that if I just found exactly the right thing to do and always did it, then things would have to get better. If I provided the appropriate care for my mentally ill wife, she wouldn’t need to direct her manipulation and threats toward me any more. If I was perfect, things would be better.

I’ve spent a lot of time rebuilding myself since my divorce. It’s not easy. I still expect perfection from myself. I still convince myself that love is something I have to earn. Luckily I have two wonderful partners who do their best to disabuse me of that notion. Still, thirty years of self-programming that was reinforced by a fundamentalist church and a decade+ long emotionally abusive relationship… well… it doesn’t go away overnight. Or over the last 7 years.

Lately I’ve begun wondering about the ways that I affirm myself. I tell myself that I am good. I am worthy. I am beautiful. I am perfect.

I think I might still be going about this the wrong way.

Lately I find myself thinking that when I tell myself these things, what I’m really doing is convincing myself that I do meet these impossible goals I set for myself as a child. I tell myself that what I’m doing is perfect. I tell myself that I am worthy of love.

I think I need a new tactic.

Hi, my name is Gabe, and I’m a colossal fuckup. Everything about me is broken. At 37 years old I still don’t know how to deserve love. “I’m not perfect. I’ve just been going through the motions of being perfect, and inside I’m screaming.”

Maybe instead of telling myself that I am perfect, I am good, I am beautiful, I am smart, that I reach all those illusory benchmarks, I need to tell myself that I fail, I am not good, I am ugly, I am ignorant and unintelligent. I need to tell myself that I missed every mark I ever set for myself. And that I am still here. I am loved. I can love. I don’t deserve that love and that acceptance, but I have it. I didn’t, I can’t, do anything to earn it.

I need to let go of all the things I’ve told myself that I should be, and even all the things I’ve told myself that I am. I need to accept that I am broken, busted, fucked up. That I deserve nothing.

Love is not about what you deserve. It’s about grace. You can’t earn grace, or lose it. It simply is. It doesn’t hold us to our own standards. It is a miracle, a mystery, that sort of thing that religions try to point toward, but can’t really describe.

I can stop striving. I can stop demanding. I deserve nothing. I have love. I have everything.

A slap on the cheek (to cheek to cheek)?

Last year John Shore published an interview with a polyamorous woman on the blog Unfundamentalist Christians. I thought the interviewee spoke a little too broadly about other polyamorous people and how relationships are named, but I was thrilled to see a relationship like mine presented in a positive light in a Christian space. It’s not something you see too often, especially with fundamentalists crying that if we legalize same-sex marriage then polyamorous marriages will be next, and progressive Christians saying “That’s not true at all.” Whatever issues I had with the particulars, it was one of the few times a Christian talked about polyamory without dismissing it.

Obviously that was too good to last. A couple of days ago, in response to a letter he received from another polyamorous person, John put up another post, this time on his own blog, about polyamory. He states up front that he does not see how polyamory itself is a moral issue, even going so far as to say what’s the big deal if three- (or more) person marriages happen. That’s a lot more than we get from a lot of progressive types.

“I love two people; they both love me; they also love each other. Where is the harm in that?” they ask.

That’s a fair enough question, don’t you think? It’s one that I’m asked all the time—albeit usually by right-wing Christians (always, alas, bitterly) making the point that if gay marriage is legalized, why shouldn’t three-way marriage also be legalized?

Why indeed? I see nothing at all inherently immoral about polyamorous relationships. If three people living in such a relationship say it is working for them, why should anyone argue it? If no one is being hurt, how is it anyone else’s business?

Pretty freakin’ cool, no?

Unfortunately the rest of the post is about how my relationships and others like it are just… not as deep, intimate, or loving as monogamous relationships. In discussing why he and his wife choose monogamy, John says, “I don’t want the power of our intimacy diluted by one-third.” Cat, John’s wife, goes so far as to say “I think being in a polyamorous relationship is a way to avoid emotional intimacy,” and John agrees.

After this John goes on the defensive about how his monogamy doesn’t make him “barbaric or simplistic.” I understand this response, as there are so many polyamorous people who insist that polyamory is better, more ethical, more enlightened and non-possessive than monogamy. I wish this would stop, because we don’t need to tear down other people’s relationships, relationships that are fulfilling and loving, in order to build up our own.

Unfortunately, John feels the need to do just that. He tears down my relationships, decrying them as less intimate, diluted, even a tactic of avoidance, in order to build up his monogamous ideal. Despite couching it in “personal opinions,” he makes general statements about how love, intimacy and romantic relationships work for everyone. Because I love and share my life with both Kristi and Elizabeth, John says I’ll only ever know them half as well as if I had but one partner.

You want intimacy? Put four adults (in my case it’s myself, my two partners and one of my partners’ best friend) in one three bedroom house. Four people with different temperaments, habits, desires, priorities. Now have those four very different people dedicated to one another. Dedicated to being there for and supporting one another. Dedicated to making sure everyone is cared for. Dedicated to being a family, however odd our family may be. You think that doesn’t create intimacy? You think there’s anything in that situation that can be classified as “avoidance?” No, we can’t live like that and avoid much of anything. We have to face everything, including each other, head on.

But even if it were the case that I could only ever know my partners half as much because there are two of them, I’ll take that, because the idea of life without knowing one or the other of them is heartbreaking. There are tears in my eyes just considering that.

Our intimacy may not look like what others have. Our family certainly doesn’t look like what other families look like. But it is deep, it is powerful, it is loving beyond what I ever thought was possible. And until you see what goes into the ways we love one another, kindly keep your opinions about my family to yourself.

Crushes

This week, after putting some serious time into considering the possibility, I decided I had a crush on a friend of mine. On three separate occasions I told each of my partners and this friend about my discovery.

“… and today is different from before how?”
“Well… yeah.”
“I knew… and I thought I was oblivious.”

Each of these people found this hilarious, because of course I have a crush on her. Everyone knows this!

I used to get lots of crushes. And for a while there I pursued pretty much all of them. At one point I was dating four people. That, for me, is a lot. Then one of them moved (and eventually decided to let me know they’d done so). Another one was self-medicating way too much, and we amicably parted, not being terribly good for one another at that point. The remaining two relationships flourished, and are still flourishing. It’s been amazing.

After that point I still had a crush here and there. Every once in a while I’d flirt with them, or more. But far less often than before. My energy went into my existing relationships. Building them, strengthening them. Proceeding deliberately (or as deliberately as we could manage). The last time I had a crush… and I don’t mean merely finding someone hot, or enjoying their company. I mean that kind of thing where your legs feel a little wobbly and your entire torso feels full of butterflies whenever you really pay attention to them. The last time I had a crush on someone who wasn’t one of my partners, and pursued it, we had a great time together. We clicked, emotionally and physically. It was awesome. But what she needed from me was something I didn’t have the resources to give. Because of that we had to stop seeing each other, even as friends, for a good long while.

That hurt. And with that hurt I just… stopped having crushes. I placed a moratorium on those feelings for anyone with whom I wasn’t already in a committed relationship. It made sense at the time, and still does, really.

The thing about doing that, though, is that it was the start of my losing awareness of part of my inner life. I mean, I’ve always been oblivious to other people, but not to myself. It got easier for people close to me to figure out what was going on with me than it was for me to figure it out myself. Now, writing this, I wonder if that’s why it took me so long to figure out that my depression and anxiety had gotten the better of me. My partners knew.

But with help, I’ve been recovering from the worst of the depression and anxiety. And I think that in doing so I’ve started to re-open my eyes to myself. I’m not cutting any part of me off from any other part, or at least not doing it as often or as strongly. Parts of me that I hadn’t given light in quite a while have started to get light again.

Probably the first sign of this change was when I started getting to know a new friend, and wasn’t sure if I was just excited to be making a new friend, or if I was experiencing that “crush” thing that I’d pretty much forgotten about. I didn’t pick up on it at the time, but I was in the process of recovering access to parts of myself from which I didn’t even know I was cut off.

And that was a whole lot of heavy stuff just to come back around to where I started.

That friend, way up above? The one who thought she was the oblivious one? I’ve known her since way back when I was still dating four people at once. And I’ve never exactly been secretive about my thinking she’s one of the most gorgeous people I’ve known. Slowly over the years we’ve gotten to know each other better. We started hanging out more often recently, just the two of us, and I’d come away with my mind lingering on this thing she said, or that thing. Or the way her hair fell in her face when she shook her head. Or this, or that, or this other thing, or all of them at once. Using my slowly-returning self-awareness and self-examination skills, I sat and paid attention to these phenomena in me.

“What’s going on here?” I asked myself in all seriousness. “Is this actually different from any other set of interactions with any other people?”

Yes, these are the kind of conversations I have with myself instead of just thinking “She’s pretty. We should do things together.”

No, really. I sat there and recounted to myself different times we’d seen each other or talked over the years, asking what I felt and thought for each of them. That’s probably where I became consciously aware that I’d deprived myself of access to parts of myself for who knows how long.

I came to a conclusion. Yes. Absolutely. This is totally a crush.

Luckily, before I had the chance to start freaking myself out over this (something I can be really, really good at, because have you met my anxiety?) I shared my startling revelation with the people who would have the most investment in this situation.

And what I got it return was kind-hearted, incredulous laughter and gentle pats on the head over this being a new revelation, or at least it being an unexpected development. People know I’m oblivious to other people’s interest in me, but oblivious to my own interest in other people? That’s a whole new level of absurd lack of self awareness.

But, as it often does, my own awkwardness seems to work to my advantage, because this friend said I was adorable. And now we have plans to make out sometime.

Self-awareness, however slow it may be in coming, absolutely rules.

Some thoughts on Paul’s letter to the Philippians

Originally published on Tumblr

So, instead of working today I read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s short, but I don’t think I’d ever just read it straight through before. It’s one of those letters that everyone is pretty sure Paul actually wrote, and I found myself in relationship with him in all his humanness in his words.

I started reading because I saw someone quoting Phil. 4:5, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” So I read the few verses around that. Then all of chapter four, then I backed up and started from the beginning.

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.

Such a beautiful greeting. “Every time I remember you.” How many things do we see, hear, smell, touch and taste daily that go by without our noticing? How many things have we forgotten before we’ve even experienced them? How many people have we forgotten as soon as we’ve become aware of them. Can we remember them? Can we open ourselves to the experience of everything and everyone around us? If we can remember, can we thank God for each thing we remember?

How I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

Compassion is not a detached feeling of “Oh, that’s too bad.” It is a longing. It is a desire. It is such a desire that you start to feel what the other person feels. Compassion is feeling the experience of another with them.

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best

Knowledge and love are tied together. Love must be enacted, and we must learn how to do that. This is a knowledge of lived experience, not of abstraction, nor of empiricism.

Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.

Reading this, I could hear the fretting mother Paul, worried for her children, wanting them to be happy and healthy. Knowing that she’ll be able to relax some when the children are together, even if their mother can’t be there. It’s this humanness that grabbed at my heart. If I can jump ahead to the end of the letter, Paul says:

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.

I laughed. Mother Paul again, saying, “It warms my heart to know you care about me. Not that I need you to pay attention to me. No. I’m doing just fine. But it warms my heart.”

But back to where we left off.

Beware of those who mutilate the flesh!

Paul does not seem to have a happy relationship with his flesh, nor with any other flesh, so this phrase surprised me. It jumped out at me. I was left dwelling on it. “Those who mutilate the flesh” could certainly refer to those who demanded circumcision, and that seems to be who Paul is referring to. But it also refers to those who want to punish the body for the sake of the spirit. Paul says that they “have no confidence in the flesh.” As he’s just sung a hymn of the incarnation, of God in flesh, I can’t believe he is dismissive of the body. I have to read this as having no trust that doing things to spite one’s flesh will bring about rightness or salvation. Mortification does not bring one closer to God.

This is not to paint Paul as a champion of the flesh, but to find in his words an affirmation of the sacredness of the flesh.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Be gentle. Don’t worry. Acknowledge your struggle before God, give thanks, and keep going. It doesn’t say not to struggle. It doesn’t say that struggles, difficulties and work are to be avoided. It’s not an escapist sort of “give it to God.” It’s a reminder to be gentle, to let go of worry, and to act from under the guard of God’s peace.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Once again, I don’t think this is an exhortation to avoid the injustices and violence of the world, but a reminded not to let it consume you. It’s a plea that we take the time to notice other things as well. Spend time dwelling on the true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent worthy things that you encounter. Terrible things can and do make themselves known without our effort, so we have to deliberately notice the good around us so it can keep us afloat. We come back to the first passage I mentioned: “I thank my God every time I remember you.”

Paul wants us to open our hearts, to be aware, to remember, to think about all the good we encounter. It is as important as the bad. If we open ourselves to the experience we may find more good than we ever expected.

Keep on doing the things that you have learned

Rejoice, acknowledge, give thanks, dwell on the good, and keep working.

Finally, Paul closes with thanks for the gifts they had sent him.

You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.

Wikipedia mentions that Paul was always thankful for gifts, but did not always accept them. He accepts gifts from the largely poor people of Philippi, though. On reading this, Paul’s saying “I know what it is to have little” came back to me. Paul, having been without, knows the importance giving has among the poor. I’m speaking from experience here. I grew up poor, and it was always important to share what we had when we could. There is a grace in receiving that gives strength to both the ones giving and the ones receiving. Paul knew this, and refused to turn away from this grace he could share with the people he “long[ed] for… with the compassion of Christ Jesus.”

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

 

On holy ground

20131005_labyrinth

Today I was feeling stiff from laying down too much, and kinda stuck, not knowing what to do with myself. So I got in my car and started driving. I eventually ended up at the labyrinth pictured above. I started walking it, and realized that my boots felt wrong.

“Take your sandals off your feet,” the voice rang in my head, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” So I did.

With bare feet I continued the walk. I felt the bricks beneath me, the cracks in them, the grass and moss growing between them. I felt how one side of the labyrinth was dry and warm, while another part was dry and cool and yet another was dry and damp.

A few times I found myself looking too far ahead, trying to see where I was going. That never works in a labyrinth. Not only will my eyes get lost, but when I stop keeping my current step at the center, then my feet get lost and my mind gets lost. Each time I tried to plan ahead I felt this. My eyes would lose focus, trying to make out the winding path. My mind would start trying to plan and I’d have to stop because I’d lost track of where my foot needed to go in its next step. So each time I brought myself back to my most immediate surroundings. I stepped the next step and no more. I felt the textures below my feet. I trusted my feet to bring me somewhere. It didn’t matter where. There are no finish lines. There’s only the next step.

Somehow I get the feeling I was learning a life lesson. Or at least being taught one. It’s up to me whether I learn it or not.