Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Mormon Testimony

Someone asked me if I consider myself Mormon still.  I do, and here I am going to try to explain how and why.

I have always thought, and think still, that it is impossible for me to escape from my past. I can respond to the past. I can grow from it, away from it even, but in the end I am always going to be a product of it.

I am a product of Mormonism. I was raised Mormon, by devout converts. I converted myself as a little boy, reading the scriptures on my own and coming up with an adolescent identity that was very Mormon. My adult identity is also Mormon: I served a mission honorably (with real intent and honest effort: I say this to talk about myself, not to denigrate anyone else); I earned my BA at Brigham Young University; I was married in the Salt Lake temple, to a woman I still love very much (more and more each day). I still construct my identity in dialogue with ideas I learned as an active, devout Mormon (e.g. the Mormon canon of scripture). Even as I have moved beyond my Mormon-ness, compelled by personal need to seek help for problems to which our culture currently lacks useful solutions, I have never transcended it completely. I don’t think I ever will. I don’t even want to.

Unlike some people, whom I in no way judge unfavorably, I don’t wake up wishing I had never heard of the church or that I could escape its influence in my life. I see the good and the bad in my own personal journey as a Mormon, and I embrace both. If I am strictly honest, I have never left Mormonism, and I don’t plan to leave. I have stepped away from the church, because I found the doctrine and practice there hurting my soul more than it healed me, but I retain many of the core values I took from my time as an active Mormon. I still believe very strongly that people require community, that we need ways to offer service (even when that service appears trivial to others or even to us), that rituals are an important constant in human life (an anchor for our wandering minds full of fear of the unknown and irregular), and that people must be free to receive new insight from their individual experience (i.e. “personal revelation”). While I am comfortable with the label atheist, I am equally comfortable with the labels agnostic, believer, Buddhist, humanist, deist, theist, Christian, and (yes) Mormon. I see religion as language. Just as I can speak various languages, I can practice many different religions (rites, ways of expressing human values, including the values we construct to respect things we don’t understand, e.g. God). One language is not categorically better than another, and the point of language is not perfect grammar but meaningful communication--and the minimization of evil (which we all know from our own experience as well as that of others around us). How you practice religion is more important to me, infinitely more important, than what religion you happen to practice.  How you speak says more about your individual character than the language you happen to use.  I do not write in English here because I am superior, and anything good I offer is good for a reason that transcends its being expressed in English. The world would certainly not be a better place if we all forgot how to speak any language but English.

There are things I love about Mormonism: its history contains a lot of heroism to go along with the mafia politics, bigotry, and small-mindedness, and I honor that heroism. I admire the successes of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and I weep for their failures (the same way I do for my own). I respect the moral integrity of other Mormons, including those in power (in the church or outside it), even when I firmly disagree with some strong moral stance that they have taken (e.g. the stance that brands all explicit criticism of priesthood leaders as evil: I do not believe this, and I never will; I see it as a betrayal of everything good in Mormonism, but I respect the right of other Mormons to hold it and defend it). I still get a kick out of watching General Conference (for more than just the eye-rolls), and I think BYU represents a valuable educational experience (for me and other students, Mormon and not)--provided the administration does not curtail academic freedom there.

Even though history has separated me from full activity in the church, probably forever, I am not above making common cause with it, and I will always have a cultural affinity with people who self-identify as Mormons. I wish them and their churches well, even when they do things I would not do, say things I would not say, reveal the will of God as I would not reveal it. Like Joseph Smith, I know what I know, and I have to stay true to that (even when the church doesn’t like it).

Reflections on Sex (and Pornography)

Some friends were discussing Mormon approaches to sex and pornography recently, and this inspired me to write another retrospective reflection on my own experience.

It makes absolutely no sense, in my experience dealing with myself, to validate a worldview in which seeing erotic images (anywhere, everywhere) is sinful (let alone a sin on par with serious offenses like lying to one's spouse, coercing people into sex they don't want, etc.). All this approach does is make me angry--with myself, for being incorrigibly weak, and with others, for being incorrigibly sexy. Neither option is good. I realized early on that I was not cut out for the second kind of anger (directed outward against things that "trigger" sexual thoughts, in my case women): it leads ultimately to slut-shaming, victim-blaming, and a kind of active misogyny (for straight men like myself) that I find utterly disgusting. The first anger, meanwhile, leads to self-loathing, inability to form romantic attachments (owing to the fact that intimacy is evil), and eventually some kind of suicide (the literal thing, or a metaphorical murder of one's masculinity--e.g. by castration). I spent most of my adolescence struggling to contain this self-directed anger (without cutting off my balls or killing myself, since I had reason to believe neither option would be very pleasing to God, whom I was determined to please). It was very hard. It wore on me. While my friends went out with girls, I stayed home and read scriptures. My LDS bishops weren't pervs, looking for excuses to quiz me in-depth about my sex life, but that was no help in my case, since I went to them voluntarily to confess every "impure" episode that seemed "serious" (by which I mean that it made me anxious, angry, in doubt of my ability to serve the Lord worthily as a priesthood holder).

I almost didn't go on a mission because I wasn't sure I could be "worthy"--and I remember really hating myself at that time. My thoughts ran something like this: "I really want to serve this mission. I want to do something with my life. I want to speak up for things important to me. I want to share love and wealth with the world, not sit in some dark corner crying because I have a stupid penis that won't stop working. I am going to live in spite of that terrible thing, that worthless piece of trash that always manages to ruin everything simply by existing. Why did God even create it--or me, for that matter?" When I read the story of Origen taking a knife to his genitals and hacking them off (he was a young fanatic rather like me), I was a little envious: part of me wished I could solve my problems this simply and neatly (since the most anxiety-inducing experiences for me were wet dreams and persistent erections, experiences impossible without a penis). But Mormons believe you have to have a family, so I hung on. I never dated. I was too ashamed, too afraid of staining women with my impurity. I look back and cringe at how rude and aloof I was. Some of that is no doubt my own fault--I have always been something of a jackass, a cynic, and a misanthrope--but church certainly didn't help.

When I did finally manage against all hope to find my wife, still having no romantic ability or experience to speak of, I continued "taking things slow" in a manner that most people would find intolerable (with good reason). Until we were married, I never kissed my wife (for kissing was practically sex, i.e. murder). I wondered if I should confess to the bishop every time I found myself thinking about sex again--though I was older and wiser, and it was about this time that I realized the confession ritual was a piece of destructive adolescent folly rather than any kind of help. I ditched it, and told myself I would never do that again, no matter what might happen to me over the course of my life. The first year or two of marriage was very eye-opening for me. I learned so many things about myself--and my sexuality--that completely gave the lie to everything I tried to do as an adolescent. I realized that I couldn't live my whole life hating something that is an inescapable part of me. I realized that the sex I hated didn't have to be hateful--that it didn't have to make me destructively angry or horny. I could learn to control it the same way a toddler learns to use the potty. Yes, I would make mistakes, but these need not be felonies (or come anywhere close). Contrary to everything I taught myself as a teen, I was not a rape-machine, though some people will always see me that way (and I understand: I saw myself that way for years). I realized that sex is like language or sport, that I could approach it as an interesting game instead of a fight to the death (in which there is no such thing as valuable "failure"). I realized that perfect sex does not exist--that sex is about process rather than results, and that the process is more about playing nicely with other people than rendering abject homage to some arbitrary list of rules (mistakenly taken for the final word of God).

As for God, I came to realize that he need not be as hard and unyielding as I took him to be. After years of reading Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount (i.e. "whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after he hath committed adultery with her already") as an angry accusation ("stop seeing women, you evil bastards!"), I realized finally that they were merely pointing out that we all lust. There is no such thing as a slut in the conventional sense, Jesus says. We are all sluts. We all have limbic systems. We all desire something, and we follow that desire, the way dogs follow interesting scents. Without denying the reality that our lust can prove dangerously poisonous to ourselves and others, I can nevertheless learn to see how this is not inevitable--and even if it were, the best response is not anger (homicidal or suicidal). I learned to accept my lust, as I never could when I was younger, and in acceptance I found that I could turn it to very good use. I could use to make relationships stronger instead of weaker. This required some effort, of course, some mistakes, but as long as I maintained respect for myself and others the pay-off was always greater than any damage (in hurt feelings or unmet expectations). If you can learn to be respectful, to take turns, to be safety-conscious, and to listen thoughtfully and attentively when other people talk, then lust doesn't have to be a big deal. Sex can be murder, but it definitely doesn't have to be. I wish somebody could have told me all this when I was younger. I wish I could have realized the futility of hating myself sooner. But we all have regrets. I am just glad I finally found a way to live without hating myself and others, or causing too much hurt.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Problem with School Today

The problem with school these days is that it over-values success, at the expense of process (which always involves failure, especially if one is ever going to succeed in doing anything really, practically useful--as opposed to aesthetically pleasing). School wants us all to look like winners without actually doing the work required to win (i.e. losing over and over). 
I like grappling, so I imagine wrestlers. School wants you to have the achievement record of Alexander Karelin without his medical record (lots of injuries on the road to that much Olympic gold).

School today inverts the old Latin dictum esse quam videri (briefly translated "be rather than seem," i.e. it is better to have real experience than to look experienced). People are afraid to study things they aren't good at, because it will show up on their record, and people reading that record will say, "Loser!" and give whatever prize they have to somebody else. What gets lost in the shuffle is the reality that we are not all going to get the same prizes no matter what happens (life exists by creating winners and losers, always)--and depriving oneself of loss just makes the inevitable that much more painful when it comes. When you talk to guys like Karelin in the locker room, most of them aren't stuck-up assholes (who think they are where they are because they are somehow superior in every fashion to every other human out there). They see the costs of their success. They see its precariousness (a few points ground out on the mat after hours of sweat in the gym, getting pummelled by team-mates and berated by coaches).

Many people whose success is not the result of actual physical hardship have a much less humble view of themselves (and a much more arrogant attitude toward their fellowman, especially when he loses). Worst of all is the academic, politician, or economist who never lost a debate (or an election or a buttload of money). These types are insufferable--convinced that they have figured life out and that the rest of mankind are just worms who somehow fail to appreciate their excellent example and stop failing. "Why should you flunk calculus, Billy Stupid? I never did. Just try harder next time! (And no, I will not hire you to take out my trash: only A-level garbage men on my team. I cannot have your loser-ness bringing down our morale and/or killing our phenomenal performance, which is entirely the result of our own excellent moral qualities.)"

Monday, December 2, 2013


Teaching ancient philosophy this semester, I finally read through Augustine's Confessions entire and was very impressed.  Like him, I spent a great deal of time as a young(er) man trying to find some good that was not also evil.  Like him, I came late to the realization that this sort of thing is not of this world.  Like him, I still love telling stories, but I no longer read them as materially true, simply true, arguably true.  Matter is always false, it seems to me, the only thing falser being the mind that pretends to understand how this is not so. ("You think matter is evil, but I have discovered how it is good!  I have transcended material limits to see clearly and precisely how the Good exists objective and absolute!"  I am not interested in understanding God, for I now know that this is impossible.)

Here are some rambling reflections regarding my journey (to which I may add as time goes on: I just didn't want these particular ramblings to vanish into the void as quickly as most of my Internet ramblings).

Teaching chapters 7-9 of the Confessions, wherein Augustine discusses how Platonism leads him to Christianity) has led me to a possible positive aspect of Academic philosophy (i.e. Platonism, a philosophy which values the immaterial over the material, contemplation over application). As practised by people like Augustine (not people like Dion, remembered in Plato's Seventh Letter), this philosophy exists to inhibit controlling actions rather than inform them. The "skeptical" Academy (which arose after Plato and Dion and the rest) earned its name by undermining positive arguments (arguments for action, e.g. the arguments offered by "Socrates" in the Republic or the Athenian stranger in the Laws). It made "the Good" something immaterial and only imperfectly accessible to humanity (which finds itself cumbered by matter, inherently unable to understand immaterial reality with the precision necessary to play God). Augustine approaches God much as these guys approach the Good--as mystery of reason whose rationality exists (as other schools of thought deny) fundamentally outside human ability to understand, predict, or control in any way. We can be grateful for blessings and suffer through punishments, but we cannot know that either is bad for our character: the punishment (even when it is fatal to us) should be counted a blessing from God. We should not court it--or blessings--and we should not take pride or shame in it. We should accept with grace whatever God gives, seeking to control things as little as possible (specifically by avoiding "public life"--Augustine retires as a professor of rhetoric to become a Christian in company with several close friends; being bishop was an accident, it seems, and does not appear anywhere as part of his program for goodness). Looking back over his professional and religious career (as a heretic on the fringes of Catholicism), Augustine sees his persistent effort to make his ideas material as sin. He wanted to concretize good and evil, to quantify them rationally and then conduct a just measurement that would yield material virtue (the Good in some particular material form). Reading Platonist literature of the time (he is vague, but I might try looking at Plotinus) convinced him that this was wrong-headed (that the Good is not that kind of good). Reflecting on the reality that one can read Plato either to be a fragilista (when we apply the dialogues literally to life, e.g. trying to create a society like Kallipolis) or something different (when we see him as pointing up the impossibility of such projects, e.g. Socrates' repeated remarks in the Republic that his experiment is one that would never be practicable) reminds me of the quote from Heraclitus (earlier than Plato): "The way up and the way down are the same." How one reads Plato is more important than what Plato says.

Above I said, "We cannot know that punishment or reward is good for our character."  This is probably not what Augustine would say.  He would say we can always know that whatever happens to us is for our good, even when we cannot see how. He would affirm that we should not judge others for their outcomes (condemning the failures or worshipping the successes)--preferring instead to see both as the grace of God (who exists outside our ability to comprehend, though we can perceive his existence if we try).

Some Mormon Mysteries

I interrupt a long hiatus to offer the following responses to two simple questions: (1) What is God to you?  (2) Are families forever?

(1) I would say that God to me is uncertainty, probability, unpredictability, the blind spot in my human mirror onto the vast thing that is reality. I am a machine for looking into reality and seeing discrete variables causally: I see X, and I see Y, and when one follows the other I can always tell you why. Unfortunately, I will not always be right. But this does not mean that life is utterly purposeless (or utterly random: we experience things that are regular all the time, even when there is no possibility of doing a scientific study to rule out coincidence as ultimate "cause").

I can do many things with my blind spot. I can paint it to look friendly or scary. I can personify it, pray to it, wear little trinkets and whatnot to remind me of it, or I can take an opposite route--depersonifying it, refusing to pray to it, finding some other reason for whatever little trinkets I want to wear. The approach I take is heavily influenced by my personal history. Who are my mentors? What books do I read? What music do I know? Do I interact more with Jesus or the Pharisees in my particular faith tradition? (Every cultural tradition includes people focused on broad principles, that can become too broad to make useful sense, and people focused on narrow laws, that can become too narrow to be useful. If I am poisoned by hippie Jesus' lackadaisical approach to life, then I am likely to react by running towards a more strict Phariseeism to correct my fault, whereas if I am poisoned by strict Phariseeism, I become more likely to course-correct by running towards hippie Jesus. I am in the latter category, but I have met quite a few people on the opposite trajectory.)

Eternal families? I don't really know what eternity is. If it is temporal, then it is just time going on and on and on without stopping (physicists, is that really even possible? I doubt it, since time is something that exists relative to other things that change, e.g. when universes bang in and out of existence). What would one do forever? How would one live (without going insane)? I don't know. I like some change, some narrative, some regrets, and an end to life's story (with possibilities for new stories: who knows what comes after my story? not me, surely). When I see "the eternal perspective" invoked in Mormonism, I also note a disturbing trend towards preserving some (galling) injustice in the status quo: "From an eternal perspective, it does not matter so much that you are currently unsuccessful (unmarried, female, black, enslaved, etc.). Just live with that, and God will eventually set it all right" (by having some king and priest who isn't a loser like you look after it? this isn't what is meant always by any means, but it is often the message transmitted, unfortunately).

The useful eternal perspective for me exists outside time. Eternity is not time going on with no end, but a space outside time, a metaphorical space where possibility exists untapped, unexhausted, unreached (and in some sense unreachable) by human understanding. It is what Buddhists call emptiness (not nothingness, but the indefinite possibility that something might happen--or not). Instead of inspiring us to come up with self-serving stories to justify evil in the status quo ("blacks are roughing it here because they were fence-sitters in the pre-existence, women because Eve ate that damn apple," etc.), it reveals to us the poverty of material success. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, and I choose to love him (and life) anyway. Replace "the Lord" with Nature if you like. Feminize him (it, them). Do whatever you like! It is your life's work to make art of your religion. But you will not exhaust reality; you will not escape the blind-spot built into your humanity. That is not a bug, I fear, but a feature--and the only cure we have found is death (not really so bad, when one approaches it correctly: I can have really happy thoughts about rotting somewhere in the ground, providing nourishment to the biota all around me--the same way so many other beings have died to keep me alive through my mortality; I want to give something back).

(2) Families? I don't know how they exist or last universally (for all observers everywhere). I don't think I ever will, but I know that I love mine. I know that I value them in a way that I cannot value others (not because I have no use for non-family, but because I cannot be that intimate with all humanity, let alone all sentient life). In the context of my own life-story, they are essential: they are the people who hear my story, who share it, who find meaning in it, and who enrich me with their own stories--stories that contain meaning I can see (because I am close to them, for whatever reasons). I don't know how we are together. Forever? What would that mean? My sons eternally in diapers? Eternally squabbling because someone threw up or punched someone? Eternally meeting with relatives each Thanksgiving to spread diseases (and good cheer)? I prefer to think that we are together now, and that I hope to remain with them for the duration of my story: no matter what happens, they will always be important to that story. That is all I can say.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Good Religion

In response to this.

There is no such thing as a religion of peace. Historically, all religions become religions of war when they need to. Christ brings a sword, too, just like Mohammed and the Buddha. So people who go around expecting practitioners of one religion to be uniformly peaceful will always be disappointed (or shocked, or whatever) when circumstances reveal (again!) that this expectation is not justified. Buddhists respond to this reality by saying that we live in samsara, which I suppose somebody could translate as "hell" (though the Buddhists themselves imagine hell-realms that are even worse than our world and use that word for these places).

Similarly, there is no such thing as a religion that only produces "civilization," by which the article seems to mean something like "good behavior." In my view, there is no such thing as good behavior that is not sometimes bad (and vice versa). Historically, civilization is certainly both good and bad: good when we replace pillage and piracy with a free and peaceful market; bad when we wage total war on people we don't like, for reasons that may be justified or not.  War is always bad, and really destructive war is not possible without the awesomely terrible WMDs that civilized people create.  Note that the religious orientation of civilized people has relatively little effect on their capacity for generating and deploying WMDs.  The nation with the most nukes and the most nukes deployed is definitely not Buddhist, and the Buddhist Japan that we bombed to hell in WWII was not particularly peaceful, either.

“He who does not climb the mountain of Christ does indeed fall into the abyss of Buddha.” He who does not climb the mountain of Mohammed does indeed fall into the abyss of Christ. He who does not climb the mountain of Thomas Muenzer does indeed fall into the abyss of Martin Luther. He who does not climb the mountain of Torquemada does indeed fall into the abyss of St. John of the Cross (or St. Teresa of Avila). He who does not climb the mountain of Hugh B. Brown does indeed fall into the abyss of Bruce R. McConkie. So what? Chesterton is a great wit, but I am not sure what he is trying to say here.

The modern world is not unique in being "on the verge of a mental collapse" (assuming it is): humanity is on that verge all the time, and we periodically fall over (witness the fact that history has always been about wars and rumors of wars, paranoia, obsession with our neighbor getting his clothes and sex habits right, etc.).  Life feeds you poison, all the time, in the form of phenomena that your faculties (mental and physical and everything in between or beneath or above) cannot help but respond to.

Historically, different people manifest different kinds of response. Some meditate this way. Some meditate that way. Some read and chant Sanskrit. Others read and chant Latin (or Greek, or Arabic, or Chinese, or any number of other languages). Some manage to deal with their particular demons without causing themselves or those around them undue harm. Others don't. We cannot say precisely why. We can try to make generalizations, but history falsifies these ruthlessly, revealing to the most honest and far-seeing among us (no matter what our religion might be) that the good life lies outside human ability to predict or control perfectly. Ancient people called this Fortune or Luck. Some worshipped it as a god apart from other gods (like the god responsible for justice). Others considered it an aspect of perfect deity (God contains luck the same way he contains justice, making him utterly incomprehensible to us limited humans, who cannot experience these things as commensurate). But in the end we are all flying blind. We are gambling with power(s) we cannot perceive or control (even if we can influence them in particular moments). Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. Pick the gaming strategy that comes easiest (and most helpfully) to you. Make your own bets with Nature (or God or whatever), and stand by them (even when the consequences are bad: own that, learn from it, die for it if your life is required).

The real question that matters to me in all of this is not what religion should I practice? but how should I practice religion? How can I place bets with Nature that I am willing and able to stand by? Where can I find tools and training helpful to developing and deploying my innate ability to see and place those bets that we all must make every day? Not all people need to eat the same food to be healthy. My diet is not a universal diet. What is good for me right now may not be good for me in 10 years, and it may not ever be good for you.

I came to Buddhism not as a believer but as a skeptic, and I don't feel that I owe it any special allegiance. I have heard many horror stories of people who fled into the arms of predatory Buddhist gurus, giving their life to enlightenment (and the guru) the same way Christians are supposed to give their life up to God (and the priest or prophet). There is nothing magic about Buddhism per se. It is just another religion, another language, another tool for dealing with human reality that can easily become a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands (and we all have such hands, near to us if not attached to our own arms). I have not "taken refuge" at this point (the Buddhist analogue to Christian baptism), and I doubt I ever will--mostly because I don't like committing myself totally to an idea. My history has broken me from the habit of "finding absolute truth" and then clinging to it no matter what.  I cannot do that.  Truth in my experience is like a series of small life-rafts that come together and fall apart regularly in a swirling ocean of uncertainty. You have to be ready to ditch your truth when it breaks and starts to go under. This insight is not something I "found" in Buddhism: I found it before I found Buddhism; Buddhism just has a history of admitting it as a valuable insight, which makes it easier for me to talk about it and approach it usefully among Buddhists (who unlike Christians don't cut me off halfway through my attempts to communicate with, "Silence, thou fiend of the eternal pit! Vade retro, Satana!").

Part of my affiliation with Buddhism is accidental. In the West, Buddhism is very weak. It cannot demand the kind of total submission from me that it does demand from monks in India, Tibet, or Japan. I like that. I don't want to be dominated and subjugated and "civilized" by religion (or religious masters). If I moved to Asia, to a community where Buddhism is much more entrenched and domineering, I might easily defect to some weaker religion (even some variety of Christianity: I have nothing against Christianity per se). For me, virtue is not primarily Christian or Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish: it is primarily human, and secondarily whatever particular historical people and traditions make of it. Christian charity and Buddhist compassion are just two historical faces of the same human love. They are not opposed necessarily, or even very different from one another (I would argue that their similarity is more compelling than any difference). People who point to one historical instance of difference between them ("this Christian works in a homeless shelter while his Buddhist brother goes on a violent, homicidal rampage") ignore the importance of accident in human affairs--and the fundamental likeness between humans that appears clear to people like me: Islam is not more violent than other religions; it just wears an angry mask right now, as other religions have in the past, do now, and will in future. When Christians go on violent rampages, it will not be an indictment of Christianity, but of the rampagers (who are not bad Christians, but bad people, plain and simple).

I see myself working not for this tradition or that one, this religion or that one, but for humanity--human virtues, human integrity, human goodness (which comes in more varieties than I can usefully pretend to comprehend or define, other than to recognize that all historical religions seem capable of facilitating their expression). I am first a humanist, and only then a Buddhist or a Christian or a Mormon or a Muslim. I have no intractable hostility for Buddhism or Christianity or Mormonism or Islam as ideologies (or families of related ideologies). My conflict with religion is not about opposing this or that idea (all ideas are more or less dangerous and helpful at the same time), but with the way people practice their ideas (whatever those are). I want to avoid implementing my ideas where they are bad, saving them for the time when they are good. I want to avoid your ideas where they are bad, taking them where they are good. I don't think that moral problems can be solved by making all the world convert to the same ideology (any more than I think the problem of miscommunication should be solved by making us all learn the same language).

I want people to use ideology (religion) well. From my perspective, this happens more when life gives us multiple ideologies (religions)--different maps of the same human territory that we keep traversing but never really understanding (because it lies ultimately outside our comprehension: we can never understand it as it exists, larger and more complex than we will ever be). I want people to practice many religions (and speak many languages). Of course I want them to practice these religions well (giving more benefit than harm to themselves and the communities where they exist). I am always interested in improving myself and helping others improve (in ways that they can recognize: I don't want to make others agree with me or my ideals where these become dangerous to them). If your moral improvement requires you to become a Catholic monk with no outside affiliations (no fraternizing with degenerate Buddhists for you!), then that is fine. I am not invested in making you practice Buddhism against your will (any more than I am determined to make you learn Latin against your will).

I am not interested in forcing myself on anybody where they don't want me, unless I really have to be there: I will not come to Catholic mass and chant Tibetan prayers, but I will not tolerate Catholic monks invading my home or the local Buddhist shrine to shout me down with psalms, either--not even when these psalms are rendered in exquisite musical harmony. I do not mind if you want to wear a burkha, but I will not let you force it on me without vigorous protest (not even if you convince a majority of our fellow-citizens that my donning the burkha is essential if our community is to preserve its traditional values and avoid the wrath of Allah).

Good religion, in my mind, is about retiring from the public square--not charging out and seizing it (for God or Allah or nirvana or Zeus). The public square is like a marketplace where many different traders come to offer wares (all of them at once different and alike: different because Ali's pots are not exactly the same as Karma's; the same because they are both pots, useful for holding food or the severed heads of slain enemies). A good marketplace has many traders, many varieties of pots, and the people there get along with one another--even when you buy Ali's pots and I choose Karma's. I may think Ali's pots are shoddy merchandise (or I may not). I may try to convince you that Karma's are better. Somebody may use Karma's pots (or Ali's) to commit a terrible crime. The best solution to these problematic circumstances (we don't like the same pots, and pots can be tools of destruction) will never be violent suppression of some pot-trader we think of as evil. Ali's pots are just as good for committing crimes as Karma's. Crime is a problem of people, not pots (or ideologies, which all of us possess and use in the same way we possess pots, and knives, and cars, and bombs, and other tools). As long as I am not being coerced to do business I cannot believe in (to buy pots I don't want and cannot use), I have no problem with the marketplace (or the existence of vendors selling pots that I personally don't use or endorse for others' use). This attitude does not change even when I wind up being appointed market-controller.

As controller, my job would not be to put "bad" traders out of business. I would merely keep people from committing clear criminal damage against each other where possible (i.e. where it is clear what the damage is and that the people inflicting it are doing so without the consent of their victims). If you sell pots that nobody wants or can use without immense suffering, then the market will put you out of business much faster and more effectively than I could. If I interfere with violence (in the form of a political referendum banishing you, say), then I set a terrible precedent. I teach the market to depend on something other than peaceful negotiation for its results. I teach the traders to avoid trusting their customers (and vice versa), endorsing the formation of cartels (which aspire to become monopolies and control the violence I have let loose in the marketplace). To will the supremacy of one trader or group of traders against the will of the market, to will the supremacy of one religion (or religious cartel, e.g. Judaeo-Christian values, sharia, Catholic values, Buddhist values) against the will of hapless converts, is in my mind to destroy everything I love and cherish about human virtue (which religions should exist to protect, I think). As market-controller, my place is to encourage people to get along civilly, peacefully, and authentically: you can wear your burkha, and I can wear something else. Nobody has to die, or go to jail, or pay massive fines, or suffer otherwise for buying one brand of pots rather than another.  The pot you buy for yourself is its own punishment (or reward).  Just don't force your neighbor to buy it against his will.

Good religion is about what I as a person do in voluntary association with other people.  It is not about me forcing people to do things against their will or inclination, and it does not require everyone to have the same ideology (or the same language), thank goodness.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


Someone remarks casually that "it's hard not being the top dog," and I have a sudden torrent of thoughts to offer.

I think it is actually pretty easy not being the top dog. It can be problematic when people have radically different views of where some collaborative project is (or should be) headed, but even in the latter case I think it is easier to get things done with peer-to-peer conversation rather than command-and-control.

In my marriage, for example, nobody presides. This was true even when we were newlyweds (and were approaching our relationship even more naively than we still do). My wife and I talk about things, express opinions, come up against decisions that must be made quickly, and work things out (without making somebody "be in charge" of everything or have "the final say" in whatever we do individually or together). At some point, I suppose we could become incompatible: even if that happened and we went our separate ways (divorce), I would like to do so amicably rather than angrily. In the same way, if I am ever collaborating with other people in the workplace (or anywhere, really), I always want them to feel free to give honest input, and to walk away if at any point they are too uncomfortable with the way things are going (or some much better opportunity presents itself to them and they feel a real desire to take advantage of it).

The difficulty of leadership is that it really isn't such a good thing, when life is going well. Historically, the great leaders are the people who encounter some disaster and react against it powerfully (with some kind of communal support), unilaterally (without backing down)--and most importantly, successfully (they achieve something that the world recognizes in hindsight as success, e.g. victory in war, economic prosperity, survival in a savage wilderness). But life is not always throwing us into do-or-die situations (wherein we must all look to Napoleon and hope that this is Austerlitz and not Waterloo). We shouldn't deliberately put our backs to the wall and then look for somebody to play Julius Caesar (and "get the bad guys" at all cost by "being a great leader").

Ideally, we never have any need for leadership (the way it is commonly understood). Ideally, we never find our backs to the wall as we gamble everything on the success of some singular encounter with fortune (who giveth and taketh away without regard for persons: even "great leaders" can lose--at terrrible cost to themselves and their communities). Ideally, we don't make every decision an occasion for Caesar to throw the dice and cross the Rubicon. Never cross the Rubicon unless you really have to. If you really have to, then by all means be a leader--just as you might become a murderer to save your own life or the life of someone you love. But don't love leadership (or homicide) for its own sake. I am pretty sure it doesn't love you back; if it does, then history says that its love is really dangerous (as likely to kill you prematurely as to save you from present danger).

Ideally, instead of leadership we have peer-to-peer negotiation. Instead of noticing something bad in the world (e.g. people are dying in Syria!) and responding with leadership (e.g. bomb the crap out of Syria, stat! show the world that we mean business, that Caesar is burning his boats and preparing to take Britain at all costs!), we should respond with negotiation (e.g. how can we help refugees? is there anything we can do to encourage better behavior among enemies? maybe not all crises need to be solved with bombs and other tools of leadership). Leadership will always be with us (like death and other such things), but it need not be the only thing available when problems arise. We should actively cultivate alternatives to it (or alternative forms of it, if you like, but I mistrust the word too much at present to be interested in redeeming it).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Civil Society

We are all limited. We all express ourselves in ways that reveal those limitations (not always where they are flattering to us or other people). So we are all bigots. But we don't have to be uncivil about this. We can learn to express ourselves in ways that pointedly leave room for valid alternatives.

We can be aware that others are not like us, that being like us does not make one a good person, that it is possible to hate us and still be an exemplary human being. We should aim to inspire our opposition to be better than we are by acknowledging that they might be. Heterosexuals who dislike homosexuality (as something they might do or "condone" or whatever) should deliberately make room for gay marriage to exist (and fail on its own merits or lack thereof, if it must fail). Christians who dislike Islam should pointedly refrain from banning its practice, instead giving it room to "do its best" (not worst) by deliberately keeping the level of social discourse high (avoiding the temptation to sling insults and/or bombs). A bad enemy becomes good when he has to model civil behavior to engage you (i.e. elicit a meaningful response). If so-called "freedom fighters" went around doing voluntary business with "oppressed" people in ways that benefited them, this would be (and is) a much more effective means of persuasion (and improving social discourse) than "shock and awe" (which creates more negative blowback than positive compliance, and solidifies the idea that a conflict must be pursued by means that are uncivil).

People make and respond to signals. They cannot help it. The most we can do to influence the process is alter our signals, broadcasting invitations whose outcomes appear better to us (for some reason). Unfortunately, many of us become hooked early-on to the rewards of signalling anger violently (or dismissively). While this kind of signalling inevitably has its place (as something necessary in the human collection of signals), over-cultivating it is disastrous (especially when we move away from small societies with primitive arms into large societies with WMDs). In the latter situation, we want to inspire discord that is constructive (even and especially when parties involved are hostile): we cannot afford to be violently angry (responding to every "terrorist attack" with a counterstrike that escalates the destruction of civil society, at home as abroad). We must de-escalate the conflict by changing its terms, making it a contest to win people over (as grudging allies or neutrals) rather than a race to see who is annihilated first.

The really civilized person recognizes that there are limits to what we can do to defend civil society with dismissive, aggressive imposition (verbal or physical, legal or illegal). If we have to wage total war to save it, that society is already lost: it is no longer civil. Its security does not matter, since it no longer represents something worth securing. It has become nothing more than a giant collection of dynamite wired with what we hope is a really, really long fuse.

We should look for excuses not to intervene. We should absolutely not try to "defend marriage" (or family or virtue or modesty or charity or honor or patriotism or some other seeming public good) by imposing our view of it on others against their will. We should resort to violent imposition in extremis only (e.g. when somebody attacks and we are in process of stopping them from crashing planes into buildings), and our response should be as brief and un-impactful as possible. Minimizing security should be the ideal, not maximizing it. We should openly warn people that the best way to "defend" their way of life (whatever that is) is to practice it peacefully, non-confrontationally, and contentedly: I should not make my happiness require you to embrace it where it is not yours. I should give you space to be yourself, a self that is not me. If you want to wear a burkha, fine. I must be OK with that, and you must respect my decision not to wear one. There is not "one true national dress" that we must all accept. There should not be. Anyone who proposes such a thing endangers civil society more than he protects it--and must be resisted (peacefully, of course).

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Small Meditation on Modesty

In response to this essay.

Modesty is an internal awareness of the signals (including mating signals) that we all project. We cannot help projecting these signals. We cannot turn them off the way one turns off an electric appliance. But we can become aware of them in a way that will empower us and enrich our human experience (along with that of people around us).

We can condition our response to signals--notice it, temper our reaction to it, and make our participation in signalling more thoughtful, conscious, and compassionate. It is a profound mistake to insist on externalities as being crucially important, when what really matters are internal attitudes: what am I feeling? what do I want or need? why do I feel this way? how are my feelings influencing others? what can I do to make myself and others more likely to respond well to these feelings?  Cultivating an attitude of empathy and compassion for other people is much more important than picking the right wardrobe, language, or bodily posture.

Every day, I actively seek out time to contemplate myself and those around me with compassion.  I look at myself and the world consciously, deliberately, and gratefully--noticing the signals that people send, consciously or not, and trying to see how those signals offer insight into a moral instinct that could be the most beautiful human virtue imaginable (if cultivated properly).  I observe people flirting or snarling at one another, and I try to see underneath the basic impulse to love--to protect something vulnerable, to find and savor happiness without harm.  I see that my misplaced signals, and yours too, are merely bungled attempts at loving, and I forgive both of us.  I laugh at us where we are stupid.  I cry with us where our stupidity causes harm that we didn't want (or that we did).  I imagine how we might do better in future, and I encourage us to keep trying (aiming not for perfect success but for minimally disastrous failure).  This exercise has taught me more about modesty (and other human virtues) than any course in external etiquette (of which I have taken several).  Practice compassion, and modesty (real modesty, not the sham stuff) will follow.  Esse quam videri is a saying that really applies here: you are the only one who can see how modest you really are; your modesty will only improve as you learn to see it through practicing compassion for yourself and other people.  There are no shortcuts (that I have found), no external fixes that effectively substitute for deliberate personal investment in seeking empathy.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Seeking Eden

A friend pointed me to this very interesting article discussing the role that the British played in turning modern Iraq into a terribly dangerous place.  In essence, the article argues that the Brits possessed an idea of their own history that they sought to make into Iraqi reality, at great expense (in terms of life wasted, in pretty much every sense of the word: the idea was so important and compelling that people failed--and continue to fail--to notice how its implementation caused more harm than good).

To me what matters is not so much what people see (a vision of primitive Eden) or even what they do (e.g. become bodybuilders or political propagandists) but how they treat others.

I don't care what crazy nonsense you want to believe in. Believe in anything you like (with or without something I would recognize as good reason). I don't care what you do to yourself as a result of your beliefs. Smoke dope. Do yoga. Build a tent and go into the wilderness, or start a multinational corporation dedicated to spreading the gospel of GMOs. As long as you don't coerce participation in whatever stupid scheme you may have (a scheme that might be "modern" or "ancient" in character, "progressive" or the opposite), I don't mind. I may disagree with you and even work against you (especially if you are into GMOs), but I respect your right to live just as I want you to respect mine.

My problem with the status quo is the recurring trope that demands all of us be on the same page, no matter what. I want the freedom to dissociate, to disavow, to work for Edens that are not yours using means that you despise (even as you despise my own view of Eden, with or without good reason). I don't want to force you into my Eden; to do so would be to invite you to do the same to me, and I would rather rot in hell (thanks, anyway). This means that I necessarily have to make my Eden small and non-threatening: I don't want to "assert myself" on Hegel's stage of history, inviting you to create WMDs and discharge them against the hell you see lurking somewhere in my Eden (just as surely as I see it all over yours: I know you think yours is pretty, that to see it must be to love it, but that just isn't true). I want to step away from "fixing the world permanently" and concentrate instead on doing whatever I can to fix my own little corner of it impermanently.

I cannot dictate to other people, especially not those with whom I must live and rub shoulders every day. Living with others means accommodating (changing my idea of Eden when it proves unexpectedly poisonous to my wife, my kids, my friends, my parents, my siblings, my students, my work colleagues, etc.). Accommodating means paying attention to data that move all the time, changing overnight in ways that are often wholly unpredictable. I cannot become so attached to today's Eden that I fail to allow for tomorrow's. And that is just within my own life--a ridiculously tiny piece of the gigantic throbbing mess that is humanity. Humbled by my own inability to deal perfectly with the impossible vastness of my own small humanity, how could I dare presume to deal with yours? How could I take that charge away from you--unasked, uncalled for, with no respect for the autonomy that Nature gave you (as she gave it to me)? I am not special. I don't know myself (except insofar as I know that the exercise of seeking such knowledge improves my experience). How could I presume to know you? The most I can do for both of us is graciously give you the space you need to meet Nature on your own terms. Make your own Eden. Until you come to blow mine up without noticing, I won't mind (not even if the world ends tomorrow, and it turns out to be all your fault--when God's angels fire up the celestial supercomputer and discover a butterfly effect emanating from something you did or failed to do).

Life is made out of death. I accept that--and live in a constant struggle to be ready to die. Enjoy the journey, and be mindful of others on it. That is really all I have to offer.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Wu Wei (無為)

If all culture is poison, as I have come to believe, then it is also to some degree healthy.  This is true even of the most awful culture anyone can imagine.  Health is a matter of dosage, not substance.  From this it follows that the most dangerous poison in my life is the one that appears to do no harm.

When I first experienced my faith crisis, there were many contributing factors.  One of them was the terrible shame I felt as a result of contemporary Mormon teachings about sexuality.  As a young man experiencing puberty in the LDS church, I felt that my existence as a sexual being made me inherently evil.  Every time something occurred to remind me of sex, I felt evil, and there was nothing I could do to escape the horror of my own judgement (a judgement that I found confirmed by Mormon leaders, rightly or wrongly, on purpose or not: it doesn't matter).  I was wounded a great deal by my experience with puberty, and the church did thrust some daggers in those wounds, causing them to fester.  This is my story.

Moving out into the world, I meet people with stories like mine, people broken by some toxic encounter with culture.  Occasionally, we victims like to imagine a world in which our personal monsters don't really exist--a world in which no young man is ever ashamed of his sexuality (in my case), a world in which authority is never abused, a world in which perfect justice is something impossibly good rather than awfully evil.  The older I get, the less I believe in the utility of such imagination.

The reality of life is that something will always hurt you.  Something will break you.  Something will kill you.  And no matter who tells you otherwise, there is no silver bullet.  There is no Fountain of Youth, no panacea for human suffering that will make it all vanish or reduce it all to something universally benign (let alone pleasant).  Life is hell.  The trick is not to deny this reality, not to escape it, but to meet it head-on in the best manner possible.  If heaven is a place where nobody gets hurt and nothing goes wrong and it does not matter what you do, then heaven does not exist.  To the extent that I am serious about engaging with the world as it actually exists, I must give it up.  I must make hell minimally painful rather than try to replace it with something else impossibly pleasant.

The problem with people who are hurt (people like me), is that we see only what hurt us.  We don't see how what hurt us helps someone else.  We don't see how banning the drug we OD'ed on will not improve universal human health.  We see life narrowly, generalizing from our own experience naively into the experience of others (who are not like us, not even when they appear to be so).

I cannot tell you how to live.  I cannot tell you how to meet the unique and personal hell that you will face in your existence.  I can support you.  I can be a resource for you.  I can offer sympathy and respect.  But more than that would be immoral--harmful to both of us.

Back to sex.  What saved me in the end from the crippling weight of my own judgement was not a sudden lift in universal human sexual taboos.  People continue to have sex today the same ways they have for eons: my story was never about them.  What saved me was meeting people who supported me, people to whom I was not ashamed to bare my soul.  As long as there are people like this somewhere, people like me will be fine: we just need to find the healers.  We don't need to make everyone practice the same kind of medicine.  We don't need to ban sexual shame, no matter what harm it has done us. How could we?  My shame was interior and autonomous.  The LDS church did not put it there.  Its mistake was to treat me with a generic soul-medicine against which I experienced a severe allergic reaction.  Some people need the kind of medicine that the church practices.  Some people need external shame (lacking the kind of massive internal inhibition that I have, not because I am better than anyone else, but because I am me).  Shutting down the social therapists that dispense external shame will not fix the world; a few guys like me might feel a bit better (for a while), but other guys out there will be suffering for lack of the shame they can no longer find.  My life is not worth more than theirs.  My suffering is not worth more.  They have the same claim to health that I have, and we cannot live by the same lights: our health is not the same.

The ultimate lesson I take away from my experience is that I cannot speak for other people.  I cannot tell them how to be happy.  I cannot pretend to design a single regimen for human life that will "maximize utility" (to borrow the convenient expression) for all and sundry with more benefits than deficits.  I don't believe that this "single regimen" exists (anywhere).  There is not one good way of life.  There cannot be.  All attempts to build and enforce such uniformity end up being more evil than good, hurting more than they help.

This means that people have to be wary.  We have to mistrust others and ourselves.  We have to diversify.  Never trust one institution or regimen with all your soul.  Don't worship one god.  Don't attend one support-group.  Don't bet on one stock, one company, one government.  Don't depend on a single career.  Within whatever career you have at the moment, don't depend on a single path to get the results you want.  Be redundant.  Be inefficient.  Doubt everything.  Don't be quick to identify yourself positively with any group or group ideology, even if you like it.  Be yourself.  Have multiple friends, but not too many, and never burden any of them with more trust than they can bear.  Own yourself (including the reality that you have no concrete self, no permanent essence that persists through all the various permutations other people call "you").  Know your limits, and don't let yourself think you can transcend them.  Don't make others dependent on you.  If you must be a leader for some reason, ditch that role as soon as you can (especially if you are successful at it: success attracts people to court ruin, their own and that of others).  Don't hate the things that hurt you (even when they hurt you really badly, even when you have to defend yourself by attacking them head-on).

Be hard like water: hard enough to break rocks, but not so hard that they break you.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Taking Offense

Some more random thoughts about how to construe hatred (hot and cold, small and grand) from other people in a way that minimizes harm and maximizes benefit. 

I. Offense must needs come, it seems to me. If I must be offended in order that somebody else may live freer and at greater ease (with herself and the world), then I am willing to be offended (especially when the offense comes through words). I embrace the reality that my psyche is blind and weak, and I seek to temper it, hardening it through manageable adversity to the point where it can encounter hatred and misunderstanding in the world without falling apart.

Serving a foreign LDS mission was eye-opening in this regard, in a very useful way (as was growing up in the Deep South, where my Mormonism made me an automatic outsider among the evangelical Christians who constituted the majority of my neighbors). People hated me--as a foreigner, as an American, as a Mormon. There was nothing I could do. I might smile or snarl, and the result would be the same (with this one difference, that snarling was likely to cause physical confrontations that might easily end much worse than the endless flytings). I learned to grin and bear it. It was hard sometimes, but very worthwhile. If I could listen to the hatred of the Spanish people for me patiently, then I can listen patiently to feedback from people to whom I appear, to my consternation, as an advocate for chauvinism or slavery or some other kind of thuggish behavior.

Nietzsche goes hard on contemporary Christianity for being decadently soft (if I get him right). I think this is what he means, that too many of us project our own weakness onto other people (demanding that they be strong where we are weak) instead of looking inward and steeling ourselves to face our demons however we must (mustering the courage to let others be honest about how threatening and insensitive they find us, even when we come with what we see as peaceful intentions).

II. It seems to me that almost all attempts to define just hierarchy are doomed (historically, when we judge them by their fruits over some arbitrary time period). I don't believe in just hierarchy, personally (except as a fiction in the minds of philosophers like Plato or Hegel). The most we can hope for is more non-fatal volatility in whatever hierarchy (feminist patriarchy) we have got going at the moment. Shift the burden of leadership around more. Let someone else screw the world (and take the blame for that) or save it (and take the credit). Maximize opportunities for the oppressed du jour to recover from their bad luck without being destroyed.

Sometimes, that means that we have to hear things we don't like (no matter who we are). We need to be OK with that. And at some point it is always good to "shut up and listen" (no matter who we are) and even "take our toys and leave" (no matter who we are, again: nobody should hang about somewhere they feel threatened, even if the threat is entirely harmless to somebody else). My sister has Celiac disease. If she eats our mom's whole wheat bread, she starts dying (literally). I don't. My sister shouldn't have to eat bread because I can. Hierarchy (feminist patriarchy) is like food, I think, a necessary poison that all of us must come to grips with individually, subjectively, as we can (not as someone else tells us to).

There is not one -archy to rule them all. There shouldn't be. To the extent that there is, it inevitably becomes hell on earth (no matter who runs it).

III. Any actionable opinion carries inherent the potential to become painfully, dangerously personal. It becomes personal ("about me") when people judge me for looking or speaking a certain way--as though my superficial physical resemblance to rapists made me a rapist, as though my hesitation to lynch every accused rapist meant that I endorse rape.  

People should do whatever they feel a need to do in order to feel safe. If that means they take me for a rapist, I am open to that--provided I have the option of then avoiding (or ending) any relationship with those who have no use for me (for reasons that I absolutely do not invalidate: if my appearance or expression scares people, then I need to know it, preferably before I am lynched).  

Some of your relationships will always be unsalvageable, historically speaking. Nobody should have to live with constant fear (or domination or whatever anyone wants to call it). Sometimes, divorce is necessary (by which I mean separation physical and psychological, separation that might be permanent). If my wife ever reaches a place where her relationship with me is unbearable, where I am the proverbial ball-and-chain, then I will encourage her to dump me (and not feel any remorse about it, at least not any that she doesn't want to feel). 

Nobody owes me a life free from challenge, a life of "privilege" (however anyone wants to define that). And I don't want to be caste in the role of "leader" (which I have never sought, not even when I come to places like this and write advice that some readers might construe as authoritative: my opinion on anything is worth to you precisely what you make of it, which might be nothing or a great deal--your decision, not mine).

For those with kids, I think the best we can do is emphasize the importance of respecting other people as individuals (giving them maximal freedom to be honest and autonomous without regard for their genitalia)--and then let the cards fall. If that means that my kids crash and burn (failing in every way society measures success, e.g. in terms of establishing themselves in stable long-term relationships and living above grinding poverty), then I will still be happy--provided my kids are polite. I care more about how my kids react than what happens to them. As long as they retain the ability to love (themselves and others) authentically, I don't care much about anything else (though of course I won't go out of my way to set them up for failure!).

IV. We all give offense, but only the really good people take it well.  I cannot make myself utterly inoffensive, but I can learn to attune myself those around me, trying to see how they perceive me and adjust my persona accordingly (so that I don't hurt them unnecessarily).  I can make the offenses I receive opportunities for growth rather than threats to an imaginary personal security (that I must renounce as a dangerous lie: I am never utterly safe--from other people or to them).

One common cause for offense is the natural desire we have to protect ourselves and those close to us from what we perceive as harm.  If I see my wife or my kids (or my friend or my sibling) in a social circumstance where they appear overwhelmed, I step in and try to help them (by talking other people down, shouting them down if necessary, and even "taking charge" momentarily to defuse the situation: physical confrontation is not off the table as an appropriate response, though it is one that I have been fortunate to avoid most of my adult life, probably because of my lucky childhood, which involved lots of time practicing and thinking about fighting). This is not done because I am a man (or a Mormon or a white supremacist or an American or a liberal or a hero or a scumbag), but because I don't like to see people I love suffering uselessly (some suffering is necessary, useful for growth, helpful--a fact I respect).

I think this "urge to protect" is something that transcends gender (my wife can be very protective of our kids and me in this same way, for example)--but it sometimes becomes gendered (when certain people, for historical reasons, assume that having male anatomy means "being the default protector"). The problem with this "default" position is that it inevitably infantilizes and weakens (psychologically at the very least) the "protected" by placing them in a place of default dependency ("help! save me! I need protection!"). Stepping out of a dependent relationship is always hard (like learning to walk after spending one's entire life crippled--a nice/awful gendered example that comes to mind is the practice of female foot-binding in ancient China). For those who have experience with the Mormon "faith crisis" (or whatever anyone wants to call it), it is very much like "leaving the church"--an experience involving shock and awe, anger, defensiveness, aggression, PTSD, and eventually a new stasis (we hope! I like to think I have found one, anyway).

As you move forward from a personal crisis of identity that involves confronting and removing unhelpful dependency, it is not always possible to salvage relationships whose existence dates to "before the crisis" (certainly not in the same form they had then). Ceasing to be a dependent is not a painless process. It produces a lot of "bad results" (no matter whose perspective one takes: I see bad results of my own faith crisis every day), but that does not mean that it is a fundamentally evil process (one that should be avoided or squelched). The only thing worse than dying free is living an entire life enslaved to some empty shadow of yourself that you loathe. This is true whether one is male or female (Mormon or evangelical, black or white, American or not). If women (or Mormons or Americans or black people or white people) want to rebel or hate men (or Mormons or Americans or black people or white people or me personally) as part of their quest for freedom, I am open to that. I embrace it. Be impotent and angry (from somebody's perspective). Waste your life (from somebody's perspective). At least it will be yours, and for that I personally will respect you (even if we disagree about something important and/or you hate my guts).