Saturday, June 22, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 22, 2019 - Being Normal

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City and the birth of the modern LGBT civil rights movement. Back in the mid-20th century, police had made a habit of conducting regular raids of the city’s gay bars. On June 28, 1969 the gays had had enough. They fought back. For two nights the riots raged, and simmered for days after, bringing public attention to an issue that had mostly gone unnoticed by mainstream society.

Each year during the month of June those nights of revolt are celebrated around the world with festivals and parades which use the word “pride.” For some it’s hard to imagine why that would need to be so. The argument of, “Why should there be gay pride parades? Why not straight pride parades?” is as equally a tonedeaf response to the LGBT movement as the reply, “all lives matter” in response to the statement, “black lives matter.” Of course all lives matter. Of course we should all have pride in ourselves. But that’s not the point. And it’s not a proper response to the sentiment.

Those statements aren’t for the mainstream. They are for the minority. They are reminders to those of us who have been historically marginalized that we do matter, that we are worthy. Because for generations, people of color as well as those in the LGBT community have been deliberately instructed to believe they are less worthy than others. And we have believed it.

The idea against the term “straight pride“ is not an encouragement for heterosexuals to be without pride. It’s that they were never instructed to believe they should be ashamed in the first place. They don’t need a reminder to have pride in themselves for being straight. The LGBT community needs the reminder. We still need public opportunities to reclaim the pride which was taken from us. Until we are accepted as part of the definition of the word normal, that need will continue.

If we were to ask the real founders of the gay rights movement what their ultimate dream would be, they might not be able to answer you truthfully. Not because they would be lying, but because what we all really want, deep down, is to forget we were ever un-equal in the first place. Ideally, it would be to not know discrimination at all. To be simply accepted as a part of the fabric of the human experience without question, without interrogation, without comment. As normal as an arm or leg.

While it’s important to remember the hard work, it’s also important to remember that the purpose of it was for us all to move forward with ease. This might seem insulting to those who risked and even lost their lives so that we could be accepted into common society just like everyone else. But that’s what acceptance into common society means: becoming common. Becoming part of the definition of the word normal.

That’s what our forebrothers and sisters fought for, really: to be simply accepted, to be taken for normal. No extra rights, no special privileges. We just want the same things that everyone else wants. We just want to become another beautiful thread in the fabric of humanity. Unique, perhaps, but not special.

In some ancient aboriginal cultures, we were considered the “third gender.“ We were the shamans, the culture-bearers, the healers, the caregivers, the teachers. Not typically bearing children of our own or forming hetero-normative relationships, we were free to place our energies toward tasks and disciplines which those who bear children have little time for. It means we all had our place in society. We all had something to contribute to the tribe.

In separating us from what is considered “normal,“ we were pinched off from that gift, and the rest of society lost out as well. We were segregated from contributing to the tribe. If you choose to observe cultures which are not being allowed by others to live up to their potential, have a look at the prevalence of addiction among them and wonder why that is so. The LGBT community is only one among many who have been sidelined from normalcy. Society always pays a price for excluding others. Addiction and disease cost us all dearly. Not just those who suffer from it directly.

What will society one day be like when we have forgotten that there were those who were ever considered abnormal in the first place? What will it be like when diversity is accepted as part of the norm? That’s when we will know we have arrived. At what, remains to be seen.

Honor those who fight for freedom, because the fight is dear and costly. Respect the freedoms you have, because they have been paid for with blood. Vote. Volunteer. Participate. Welcome others. It is not just a right, it is a duty.

We are on the right path, never forget that. The struggles we see are struggles worth having. They have come because we have, all in our own ways, decided that the world we live in tomorrow shall be better than the one we lived in yesterday. And we can all take some pride in that.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 15, 2019 - Collect Life

As a child I remember reading stories about people who had traveled the world, knew fascinating people and had learned numerous and interesting skills. Literary and film characters like Mame Dennis and Missy van Hossmere, among others, illustrated these qualities perfectly. They literally collected life.

Long ago I made a pact with myself to do the same. It’s all in how you evaluate your choices which makes the difference. Poet Robert Frost, whether he meant to or not, taught us to choose the road less traveled by, assuring us that it would make all the difference. I’m not sure he was right. Beyond the fact that experienced readers of poetry recognize that the mainstream view of Frost’s words is entirely different from the actual words he wrote, we have gleaned a meaning for ourselves. We have declared a desire for lack of convention.

But I encourage you to not be afraid of convention. In fact, I don’t think one should give convention any thought at all. What we should be on the lookout for is not the road more or less traveled, but the road more or less interesting.

When faced with a choice we often have a tendency to choose something that feels somewhat predictable or safe, or worse, expected by those around us. Sometimes that’s OK. An interesting life doesn’t always come from being a rebel. In fact, sometimes that can be quite a lonely existence.

Choose an interesting path. Choose the one that sparks your curiosity the most. Select the way which will make the most interesting story later on.

I created a term for this, at least for my own use: future hindsight. When imagining ahead into the later years of your life, how will you look back on the decisions you’re making now? What, on your deathbed, will you be proud of, interested in, eager to share? What would be said at your eulogy? That’s the metric I use when deciding which path I should travel today.

Many years ago when I was a professional actor I had different types of opportunities before me. It was relatively easy for me to get work as a performer. Thankfully, I often had my choice of gigs. Nearly all paths for acting have a thread of mainstream reality to them. Most occur in theaters, often requiring travel from city to city. I did many of those. But I remember in the late 90s making the decision to walk on the path of a more interesting life. Even among two very interesting choices I committed myself to choosing the one slightly more so. I took my first six-month contract as a lead vocalist, MC and stand up comic on a cruise ship. A few years later I did it again.

Collectively, I spent over a year at sea living on board two different vessels visiting over thirty countries, three continents and two hemispheres. I met hundreds of people from all over the world. I experienced pleasure and fear, friendship and romance. I saw real poverty, like nothing in this country. I saw a level of wealth I’d never even read in books. I learned firsthand what the world often thinks about Americans. It typically wasn’t pretty. American tourists are the worst. We are definitely exceptional, but not often in the ways we most like to believe. I allowed myself to be humbled by it.

While on these ships I often chose the most interesting options of where to go, whom to meet and what to see. I’ve kissed a fish while crossing the equator at sea and sipped champagne in a sex club in Buenos Aires. I’ve watched and listened to the thunderous sound of glaciers calving in Alaska, I’ve seen the minefields of the Falkland Islands which are still being cleared of landmines nearly 40 years after the war which placed them there. This may not have been the road Robert Frost envisioned, but it is a road I am grateful I took.

Choosing the most interesting path, literally collecting life, collecting stories, friends and skills is more than a mission. It’s a raison d’etre, the reason and purpose of my existence. I have made it that way by choice.

Of course, one doesn’t have to travel the world in order to choose the most interesting path for themselves. Between right and left, one is bound to be at least slightly more interesting than the other. True, we may not know all that we need to know in order to make our choice. We may see the more interesting path as also being more expensive, more risky, and with a greater quantity of the unknown. But don’t let that stop you. Place your faith in the idea that all shall be well. And proceed.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 8, 2019 - A Page from Job’s Book

I have sat at the bedside of dying friends and wished I could simply make it all better. I wished I could come up with a cure, a solution, a miracle. I have thought to myself, if only I could relieve them of this burden.

It’s human to feel that way. In fact, I don’t think we would be very human at all without it. But we are so discomforted by our inability to control life that we sometimes miss the real purpose of our exposure to sorrow.

Our job in life is not to fix, heal, or mend someone else. It is just to accompany them on their journey. Make their burden lighter by encouraging how well they carry it. You can’t carry it for them anyway. Don’t bother.

Many have heard the term describing someone as having “the patience of Job.” This is a reference to the Old Testament narrative about a man who had everything taken from him by God in order to prove his piety. It was a test to see if he would give in to his misery and curse God. Job (pronounced jobe) was patient, I suppose, but not indefinitely. He, like all of even the most patient of humans, had his limits. Eventually, he too, succumbed to excessive complaint. He complained so loudly and so long, eventually God replied. If only to shut him up.

But at the zenith of his grief, earlier in the story, when things had become just as bad as they could possibly be, his friends showed up to share his sorrow with him. For seven days and nights they just sat with him, in silence. They didn’t try to fix him. They simply accompanied him in his grief. Like a pianist playing the music which best supports the melody yet manages not to overcome its truest purpose: to know the full depth of the song, for itself.

That’s a somewhat over-poetic way to say that we try too hard to fix everything and everyone. That’s not, and never has been our job. We only get in the way when we attempt it.

And like Job's friends, we too succumb to old templates for wondering about the purpose of sorrow in the world. Job’s friends concluded that since God is just, It would not punish anyone without reason. Job must have done something in order to deserve his punishment. But who is to say what defines punishment? Or what shall be concluded reasonable, for that matter? We don’t know what we don’t know. And telling someone they must have done something to deserve their suffering, is no way to be a friend.

Job’s story is an ancient parable reminding us that we cannot know the purpose of suffering, so we are therefore ultimately powerless to prevent it. It may be that suffering has a purpose still to be discovered. We shall not know.

Regardless, it is not the car we drive which matters. It is how well we drive it, is where we drive it, and the compassion with which we use it that brings forth new strength from hard times. Not just for others, but ourselves.

A good friend knows when to keep his mouth shut. Because there is no true answer for grief. And there doesn’t need to be. It just is what it is.

There is a caution here as well. Remember to stay in your lane. You don’t have the power to re-order the way of things. But you do have the power to soothe. You have the power to be present. You have the gift of embrace. Use it to heal others without conditions on the outcome and the healing shall be yours as well.

We so often have a tendency to want to make the world conform to our expectations. We fuss and struggle to stem the tide of things we may never understand. We sometimes go so far as to become co-dependent upon those who make a hobby of perpetuating drama in their lives. They seek a constant source of comfort and we are fulfilled by their great need for us. That is a pitfall of mindless service to others. We can do better.

Don’t seek to resist sorrow or dis-ease. It cannot be resisted. Seek to comfort those who struggle in the simplest ways possible, by simply being present. It will be less of a burden on your own heart, and give you the power to continue to love and support those who need a hand to hold the most.

A blessing is not an automatic miracle, it is a gift of potential. Give of it freely.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, June 1, 2019 - To Be Co-Observant

I knew a person once who always seemed to have something hanging off the end of his nose. It was very difficult to have a conversation with him. You’re not sure what to do, because you know it will embarrass him to point it out. Yet you also know it might quietly humiliate him to discover it later thinking back on all who must have seen it.

What are the actions of a friend? I’ve always said that a friend will discreetly tell you when you have spinach in your teeth, dog hair on your dress, or if your fly is at half-mast. I should have told that man about his nose. Or maybe he preferred it that way. It happened so regularly he couldn’t be unaware of it. Could he? Is he absent of any real friend who would let him know?

I imagine deep within a single living cell there exists a vast community of little components which comprise the whole. They each have a function. How do they collaborate with one another for the survival—and evolution—of their cell? What do they each do when faced with adversity? What is their job when not all is optimal? Do they notice one another?

A cell either dies or mutates when faced with adversity. If it survives, it often mutates to its advantage. What makes that happen? How does evolution occur? What does a cell have to notice about itself and its environment in order to evolve?

One could argue that the interior of a cell is not only self-observant, but co-observant. The components of the cell must be observant to one another. Beyond the micro level, everything which happens inside a community during a moment of crisis is, in part, a response to what is happening among others of its kind. That’s what incrementally improves the quality of the whole. It is not a process without its grief and trial. But all change and growth comes with pain. Either as an incentive to the change we need or as a result of it. Quite often both. What does the process of change make us notice about ourselves and others?

As a human community we have a responsibility to be self-aware. To take the time to notice everything we possibly can about ourselves. Everything we feel, from our bodies to our minds. How we appear to others matters. How do you appear?

Because others will be observing you whether they mean to or not. It’s easy enough to say we don’t care what other people think, but that would be nothing more than a lie we always tell ourselves. Even a hermit desires to be thought of by others as one who wishes to be left alone. He cares very much what people think because it informs his experience of exclusivity. It’s okay to care what other people think. So long as we keep it in perspective.

It’s crucial, actually, for the evolution of our human civilization, to be deeply co-observant of one another as much as we must be observant of ourselves. The more we know about ourselves and others, the more we can’t help recognizing how truly interdependent we are. The more we understand how life makes us feel, the more deeply we are able to place our feet into the shoes of another person. That kind of society is a cell which does not die, but mutates to its advantage when faced with adversity.

But again it comes back to our awareness of self. Because we are powerless to understand the experience of others without first attempting to understand our own. In addition to what’s going on in our bodies and minds, we must also understand our own belief systems. Because we all have one. And what we believe impacts every action we take and feeling we have. What is your “faith?” What do you believe? Even if it’s a negative view of the world, be aware of it. Notice it. Notice how it feels. Think about where it came from. Wonder how your feelings propel you to act in the world. Now imagine your enemy feeling the same. Have compassion.

One thing humans have over single cell structures is an ability to be proactive. Or perhaps I could be wrong. All life tends to be a fractal of itself. Perhaps the same proactivity occurs on the cellular level which occurs on the societal level. I hope so. I expect so.

In any regard, our ability to be proactive, to observe, to anticipate what might be coming next and work as a group toward a solution, is how we best evolve. That we know we often should keep a tissue in our pocket for the unfortunate occasions when something is hanging off of our own nose helps us remember to be observant of and most importantly, responsive to, the nose-dangles of others. It snot rocket science.