Monday, February 27, 2006

Accountability and Compassion

Events of late have me thinking a lot about accountability and compassion.

We are all accountable for our actions. Nobody has to hold us accountable. We just are. The universe is made that way. When we make decisions and take actions, we put the universe into motion. You throw your rock, you make your splash...and then the ripples come. The old phrase, "It's time to pay the piper." comes to mind.

I'm not talking just about punishment, though there are times when that is one consequence of our actions. The ripples that are less direct are often more painful because they're so far-reaching. A punishment, like a jail sentence, for example, is finite. You do something, you get caught, you get convicted, you serve a sentence for X amount of time, and you're done. True accountability, on the other hand, has no time limit. It is the result of the universe set in motion by our actions. Sometimes the pain is direct. Sometimes it comes from watching others suffering because of something we did. It can be harsh and brutal.

Compassion is the act of recognizing that a fellow traveler took a turn that caused them pain. It's acknowledging that we, too, have taken and will take many such turns, and will suffer our share of pain. It's knowing that, inevitable as the consequential suffering is, it's the way most of us learn the most important lessons in any lifetime. It's actively hoping that the lessons are learned and not repeated.

We all pay the proverbial piper, all the time. And yet, when someone does something we clearly find unacceptable, makes a mistake we haven't made personally, and we see them suffering because of it, it's easy to feel superior. If we or someone we love were injured by their actions, we may even feel a little thrill at their discomfort. But is that good for us? I don't think so. It may not be possible to feel purely compassionate, but I believe we should actively cultivate compassion because it's spiritually healthy and emotionally healing. When I focus on compassion, it helps to keep anger, hurt, and betrayal from consuming me.

The definitive example of compassion, for me, is in the movie, "Dogma." [Heartsong's note: My daughter recently told me I have the actors/characters reversed in the following recap. I remember the story clearly; it's the faces that are fuzzy. If you are bothered by such (alleged) inaccuracies, be warned.] Matt Damon's character is an angel who has been banned from heaven for eternity. He and his fellow heavenly expatriate (played by Ben Afleck) have come up with a scheme to get back into heaven. It doesn't work and both characters go a little nuts when they realize they'll probably never get another chance to go home. Loki (Matt Damon) is now facing God (Alanis Morrisette). He has violated all the rules and now God's going to destroy him. He's is heartbroken and tearfully explains that all he wanted was to go home. In the silent interchange between Loki and God at that moment, we're shown the very heart of compassion. God looks at him with eyes that say, "I wish it could be some other way." Loki says simply, "Thank you." God nods...and destroys him. Loki was accountable for his actions. There was no escaping that. Yet the same God that understood there could be no escape from the accountability still felt the pain and acknowledged it.

We don't have to punish. The universe will do that. We have but to be accountable for our own actions, try to do what's right, and be compassionate toward those who are paying their piper. May they grow in wisdom as we, hopefully, grow from our own accountability.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Changing the world...

My husband found this quote this morning and shared it with me. "This is you...", he said...

The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt. -
Frederick Buechner

I was honored, first of all, that he pays close enough attention to my ramblings to recognize my perspective in the quote, and I was amazed at how accurately it reflected my own approach to affecting change in the world.

I have experienced a bit of inner conflict in the past about whether or not I was shirking responsibility because I do not choose to be politically active. I do vote, and I do pay attention to what's going on...but I don't practice the "political activism" the some do. To this point, I've never stood on the roadside with signs or volunteered for a candidate. My approach has always been that I would affect change one person at a time through my interaction and my life.

The conflict, I suppose, comes from the fact that I admire the bold, visible steps taken by those who call themselves activists. It takes time, energy, and courage to do what they do and there is no doubt that they are instrumental in raising awareness and mobilizing others to action. Often I would wonder if I was guilty of ignoring my own responsibility in such things. You won't find anyone more devoted to the cause of peace than I. You won't meet anyone who believes more strongly in fair and equal treatment for all. You'll never meet anyone who wishes more for the end of racial injustice and conflict. If I believe so strongly in the causes, why aren't I out there with the other activists?

The answers came when I turned inward and looked to the source of the conflict - me. I was the one asking the questions, after all. And I realized that I was concerned mostly that others would think that I didn't care because they didn't see me participating in political activity. And if they thought I didn't care about those things, they would never realize how important I believe the message to be and how vital it is to work toward peace and the end of injustice.

So, I asked myself, is that true? Is it reasonable to think that those who know you and those who observe you in the world won't know how you feel? That, of course, led me to examine my life - a process that is always beneficial and rarely comfortable. Would my daily habits, my interaction with the world around me, hold up against what I profess to believe?

When you shine a light through even the heaviest of fabrics, it's easy to see the holes. I have holes. Lots of them. Fewer now, I believe, than when I started the inspection, but there are still enough to let me know that I have work to do, enough to keep me busy for many lifetimes.

But here's the thing: All in all, I'm satisfied that my life is my political activism. I try, imperfectly though it most certainly is, to live the ideals that I hold dear. Every touch of another life, however brief, is an opportunity to demonstrate the behaviors and beliefs that I would have spread throughout the world. Each contact is an opportunity to treat others with respect, to look for the unique good in each person, to assume innocence first and realize that people act according to what they believe, even when they don't recognize the belief. Every meeting, chance or planned, is an opportunity to consciously decide to open my door, open my heart, and open my mind to a fellow traveler. Every encounter with people who are different from me...culturally, racially, sexually, an opportunity to practice what I would preach, to put aside prejudices (and we all have them, after all) , and to know the individual human being standing in front of me.

This is political activism, one person at a time. I am the sign I carry on the street corner. I am the pamphlet I distribute. It is through my actions and my example that I have the opportunity to touch another life, a life that will touch countless others. Who knows where the trembling may stop?

And soon, a parting...

I learned tonight that my Aunt Louise, my father's oldest sibling and a woman I love very dearly, had a massive stroke and isn't expected to survive. She will turn 89 if she lives to her birthday, just a few weeks away, but I doubt that she will make it that far.

Aunt Louise and I didn't get to spend much time together; she's lived for as long as I can remember in Gig Harbor, Washington, near Seattle. Yet that tiny little woman - all 5 feet or so of her - is very close to my heart. She is wonderfully warm, smart, funny, open-minded, loving, and lives every moment of her life fully. Whenever I talk with her, she says, "I am so grateful for my life. I have a wonderful family that take care of me and would do anything for me. I have many, many friends who range in age from 2 months to 90 years, and I love them all. I have had a good marriage to a man I love dearly. I am blessed." She loved my father very much, and he loved her. They were closer than any of the other children in that big family. My dad loved Uncle Jim, too. Uncle Jim died several years ago, and my father cried like a baby when heard the news.

My eyes look to the west tonight. The Old Ones will soon welcome one of their own. Rest well, Aunt Louise. Well done.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Things I am grateful for right this minute...

  1. My class this week. I taught a presentation skills class four mornings this week to a group of eight guys at work. It was a wonderful experience! They were all sincere, honest, and willing to hold themselves and each other accountable and do the uncomfortable and difficult work of putting themselves on the line in front of their peers. I was on top of my game this week, too, and felt really good about the class. What a joy it is to have a job I'm good at and to know that others benefit from what I do.
  2. My daughter's blog posts this week. Amy (or Amybeth as she is known to many) is an excellent writer so her posts are enjoyable to read, but it's her insights that amaze me. We don't always see eye-to-eye (as she likes to say, "If it's not one thing, it's your mother!), but she provides a whole different perspective that is so valuable. Her honesty is delightful and I love her more than breath.
  3. My husband. Always. The man I was destined to walk through whatever we have left in this life with. He is a big, strong, powerful man who chooses to walk gently on the earth. He chooses to love, actively and visibly. And he chooses to love me. I am blessed beyond words.
  4. Cottage cheese and mandarin oranges. A simple, mundane pleasure that just makes my day.
  5. My boss, Teresa. She has a lot of good qualities, but one of her best is that she is faithful to say thank you for the work we do, to praise when it's deserved, and to pass on the praise of others. It makes work a much better place to be.
  6. This computer and the ability to use it. I can reach out and touch friends and strangers. I can reach out and grab knowledge. I can be entertained. I can be productive. I can be silly. This is all good. Really, really good.
  7. Plans to get away with my husband this weekend. If you want to know why, see #3 above.
  8. The book "Simple Abundance" by Sarah Ban Breathnacht. It's an absolute delight and a beautiful map for the year long journey into your own authentic heart.
  9. Sleep. I've been making a real effort to go to bed earlier these days, targeting 10:30 as my bedtime. I find that I feel better in the mornings, and that I start looking forward to bedtime around 9:45.
  10. Music. I am surrounded by it and it enriches my life in so many ways.
For all this and more, I give thanks right now. Life is good.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

I love questions...

...because they give me a starting point for the next post. Thanks, Tonja.

After my last long, rambling post, Tonja posted some interesting questions. She asked me if I would feel the same way about my kids and sex if my children were all boys instead of girls. Fair question. I read the question earlier tonight and I had an immediate answer. Still, I waited for a while before I answered to see if a little time would change my perspective. It hasn't.

I would raise three boys with the same if not more fervent desire that they refrain from being sexually active until they were truly ready for the responsibility that goes with it. I would do my dead-level best to not let them think of women as "conquests" so cheering them on in such conquests would be out of the question. I would want my sons to grow up with a healthy sexuality, too, and to realize that waiting until they were prepared for the consequences wouldn't deny them their chance to have it and might save them some grief along the way.

As for what I was like at 14, 16, 18... it's almost a moot point. I was raised in such a strict atmosphere and it was a different time. Teenage sex was still something only a few bad girls did (or at least that's what most of us thought) and it always seemed to end badly. I was raised to believe that not only did the big he-god forbid it, he was watching and you would be found out, no matter how you tried to hide it. I didn't even consider having sex as a teenager and was 20 before I got around to changing that. I kissed, made out a little... but no intercourse, no alternate activities.

When I was 20 and I had my first experience, I honestly felt like I no longer had the right to say no. I mean, after all, my moral integrity had been compromised. If I did it with one, what right did I have to say no to anyone else? It wasn't quite that stark, but it was close. The next year or so I had more sex than a lot of women have in a lifetime. And you know what? I was in free fall. I had no clue what I was doing or why I was doing it, save that I enjoyed it...most of the time. It amazes me that I didn't end up pregnant or dead, because I took chances no one should take. Why? Because I didn't have anything to anchor to. I had a religion I didn't believe, parents that just said no and got angry that I even thought of sex, much less considered actually doing it, no concept of who I was or how to look inward and find it.

It's interesting, too, looking back on that time. I looked at having sex as almost a healing thing. Guys seemed to need it so badly, and I had it...why shouldn't I share it? I enjoyed it, they enjoyed harm, no foul, right? Well, the world didn't always see it that way, and it devestated me when someone didn't respect me, especially someone I had been intimate with. Had I had a stronger sense of myself and a better perspective on the world around me, that would have been different. With those tools in place I would have made better choices about who I shared myself with, picking those who would respect the exchange for what it was, and would have been strong enough to overcome it if they didn't.

Does society prepare us for other milestone events like driving, voting, drinking, moving off to college? No...and yes...and it's different. As important and risky as those things are, I don't think any of them carry the emotional weight of sex. And while some of them carry the risk of ending life if mishandled, none of them can create life. That's a huge difference for me.

Of course, that begs the question about same-sex relationships. The danger of pregnancy is gone in those cases, but the emotional vulnerability is still there. And while pregnancy is certainly one of the biggest of the consequences one needs to be prepared for when deciding to have sex, it's not the only one.

No matter how I look at it, I come back to the same answer every time. Waiting is better. If you're going to do something that may create emotional turmoil, wait until you have a good emotional foundation under you. If you're going to do something that carries the risk of disease, make sure you're old enough and educated enough to understand the risks and take the proper precautions. If you're going to do something that might bring a new life into the world, make sure you're prepared to care for that new little person - emotionally, physically, and financially.

You don't get to drive when you're 12, even if your feet can reach the pedals.

The fuzzy lines all start in the maternity ward...

Pagan ethics are a much talked about subject. Non-pagans often make the mistake of thinking we don't have ethics because we don't have a checklist of pre-made, yes/no decisions. There is no equivalent of the 10 commandments for pagans. Pagans, on the other hand, take their ethics quite seriously and can expound at great length on how much more difficult it is to live an "ethical" life rather than a "moral" life. I have to agree, for the most part; choosing the best course of action based on the situation and the consequences rather than simply checking the list of rules and saying, "Nope. Says right here, "Thou shalt not..." is trickier and less comfortable most of the time. It suits me well, though, and even when I'm faced with a right versus right dilemma, I'm happier making my choices based on reasoning and compassion than not.

Some things are pretty easy. Some aren't. I eat meat. Does that mean I'm violating the "harm none" rule? I try to take pretty good care of myself but I'm grossly overweight and still eat cheeseburgers. Is that another transgression? What about politics? Am I ignoring a responsibility by not getting involved politically, or am I (as I like to think) working to affect change on a one-to-one level?

And then there's sex...which brings me to the title of this post. I have no real ethical dilemmas about sex for myself. As an adult, I view sex as a natural part of life and a really good thing. My husband and I share similar beliefs that whatever one, two, or more people choose to do sexually that causes no harm, is consensual, and is done with respect is really fine and dandy. We've both explored polyamory and find it a lovely ideal but one that falls short in reality, so we have established our own, slightly broader than usual, boundaries of monogamy. We're happy. And we're happy for everyone else who finds their way to sexual bliss, by whatever path they get there, as long as it meets the criteria of non-harmful, consensual, and respectful. Oh, and I suppose I should add sane, too...though one person's sexual sanity is another person's lunacy. A bit difficult to define, that one. :)

Where the line gets blurry is when it comes to our kids. As open as I am sexually, I tend to be quite provincial about the kids. As a pagan parent, I don't get the luxury of saying, "Chapter 1, Verse 12... No sex!" There isn't any such chapter. So we're left to face guiding our children into sexual maturity (and protecting them until they reach that maturity) with little more to go on than love and gut instinct.

On the one hand, I state loudly and proudly that I want my girls (both the one I gave birth to and the two I now hold so dear to my heart) to grow up happily and healthily sexual. I want them to revel in their bodies and know all the joys there are to know. At the same time, I'm crazy when I think of the two younger ones having sex now.

"But wait," says my brain... "think about what you're saying! Their bodies - all of our bodies - are biologically programmed to hit hypersex mode by the time they're about 13. If we are a Nature-based religion and Nature is giving the big green light to sex at 13, why am I trying to so hard to stave it off until at least 18? "

"Ah, but..." says the same brain (you see why I'm confused), "Their bodies may be ready, but our society and culture have done nothing whatsoever to prepare them for the possible consequences of being sexually active."

"What consequences?" I ask.

"Babies, for one," I answer, "and emotional involvment beyond their matutity level, and disease, and heartbreak..."

"Now wait right there..." I say to myself, "that heartbreak argument isn't going to hold water. Everyone gets their hearts broken and not having sex won't prevent that."

"You're right," I aquiesce. I know when I'm being silly. "But the rest of the dangers are real. "

"Yeah...they are. And I don't know what to do about it, either."

And so goes the discussion...always in my brain, always me and me having the debate.

Then there's the occasional ice water bath that happens that really shakes things up. We attend science fiction conventions and our younger daughters are surrounded by lots of men and women who find them attractive and who, in some cases, would be happy to help them learn the intricacies of sex. I'm not talking about pedophiles...I'm talking about people who see our girls as the young women they are and don't agree with me that sex should wait until one is emotionally, psychologically, and culturally (financially) able to be responsible for the possible consequences. When faced with that, the "Nature says..." side of my brain was drowned out completely by the other part screaming, "Hell, no!"

Why? I had to think about that one a lot. Besides the responsibility for consequences thing, I finally decided it was because there just isn't enough time in 15, 16, or 17 years (or 18 or 20 for some of us) to get a firm enough footing on who we are to not be rocked off-balance by the power of a sexual relationship. And I decided that any adult in or near his or her third decade should realize that and, if they realized it and still attempted to engage my daughters in such a relationship, they should be ashamed. Sex isn't truly consensual unless all parties involved are fully empowered and that takes time. I hope the people involved got the message.

The law says that 18 is a magic number and that everyone, no matter how well or how ill prepared they are, is able to make adult decisions about sex by age 18. That means, of course, that parents can't keep their children in a barrel for 18 years and then expect to turn them out into the world to make good decisions. Nope. Can't do that. They have to be given that responsibility gradually and grow into it.

How do you do that? I've looked in all the pagan books and it's not there. I looked in the Bible and it's not there, either. I've asked others and they don't know. Conclusion? It's a play-it-by-ear kind of thing. You have to figure out how to protect them without smothering and without depriving them of the sense of self and knowledge of their own sexual power that they will need when they enter into adult sexual relationships. A woman needs to know she is attractive without being allowed to become an intolerable tease. A man needs to know that women are wonderful but he can live without them. Men need to respect women in all their facets, and women respect men just as fully. Men and women need to know that same-sex relationships are still relationships and fraught with all the emotional dangers of any het relationship. Everyone needs to know that the best relationships happen when everyone involved is whole and comfortable alone, so that joining together adds to their lives rather than attempting to fill gaps it can't fill. That applies to casual sex as well as long-term relationships. And we need, whenever possible, strong spiritual communities wherein adults display the characteristics they are trying to grow in their children, where trust is held sacred and not betrayed.

So... I'm pretty comfortable with where I fall on this one. It's maybe not the same path other pagan parents will choose. I don't know. But it's the place I've come to. And I'm not dumb enough to think that just because I have arrived at this place that my kids will follow. I pray that the Old Ones will guide my actions for the good of those I love, and theirs, as well. us the way.