Thursday, February 26, 2009

How Big Can Love Be?

I've become quite a fan of the HBO Series "Big Love" that airs on Sunday nights. The show features a fictional Mormon family who live "The Principle" - the idea that a man should take multiple wives and have many children. I don't know much about The Principle; actually, I don't know anything other than the tiny bit I've gleaned from the show, and I don't count an HBO series an accurate source of information. I do know two things - the show opens up all kinds of thought about the nature of romantic love, marriage, and family, and the show paints a beautiful picture of people trying to live their faith in a positive, loving way.

Ever since I first read Robert Heinlein as a young adult, I've been intrigued by the theory of multiple partner marriages. The idea of love and realtionships simply expanding to encompass as many people as want and are wanted to be there makes perfect sense to me. At the same time, I am personally and intimately aware of the difficulties and pitfalls of such relationships. What I wonder most is - are those difficulties unavoidable or somehow inherent in human nature, or are they the product of our belief that such relationships are supposed to be limited to just two people?

That's not a new or original question. A lot of people ask and there are numerous answers. There are those who firmly believe that the two person partnership is the only legitimate romantic relationship, whether through Divine sanction or human nature, or both. There are others who believe that love will, indeed, expand to include multiple partners. Some, like the small number of Mormon Fundamentalists who continue to practice polygamy, believe that God encourages (commands?) the practice with rules about how it takes place, including the one-man-many-wives rule; others simply believe that the human heart has a limitless capacity for love, that we are not monogamous by nature, and that with conscious choice and effort "polyamorous" relationships of various types are not only possible but desirable.

My own heart is split on the issue. Philosophically, I embrace the idea that love is big enough to share. Ah, but when I think about my beloved with another woman, I feel a strange mixture of compersion and unease. I want him to know all the love there is to know in this world; but I still feel...what? Threatened? Maybe...sort of...though I know he loves me and I don't believe that would change? Jealous? I'm not even sure what that means, to tell you the truth. Scared? Yeah...I just don't know what I'm scared of.

Before I go any further, it's important to add that this is a conversation I have mostly in my own head. My husband and I are monogamous and have had no serious discussion about changing that. We do talk about the idea of polyamory, though, and about how, in an uncertain world with more and more demands on our time and resources, forming bigger families makes sense in a lot of ways.

And I'd like to know what you think...if you even think about these things. I suppose there are lots of people who don't even give it much thought. If you do, though, I'd love to know what you're thinking.

Back to the show, "Big Love"...

Another thing I've enjoyed about that show is the way they portray the lead character, Bill, responding to those who disrespect and try to discredit his faith. In one episode recently, a man contradicted a portion of history that Bill and his family believe to be true. Bill didn't engage or call the man down for it and, later, his young son asked him why. Bill's response was that there was no need to embarrass that man in front of his family. They knew they were right and that was enough. Later in the same episode, he was accosted by a man claiming to be a Baptist minister and behaving very badly. The man was angry and accusatory, telling Bill that they had perverted the gospel, among other things. Bill tried talking to him a bit, but finally turned and left without engaging further.

In my book, the title "Big Love" applies to more than the show's marital configurations. Bill's love is bigger than that of a lot of people I know. It was big enough that he chose to disregard someone contradicting and dishonoring his path rather than embarrass him. It was big enough to walk off and leave a spittle-flinging man arguing with himself rather than engage in a fruitless battle, and without degenerating into the same kind of accusations and name calling.

What I want most is a world where no one disrespects or discredits another's walk or accosts anyone with accusations of perverting whatever sacred text they have decided to follow as the path to truth. Until that day, examples of people who won't allow themselves to be dragged down to the same level are worthy of note, even if they're fiction. We should all be so strong.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Music For Your Heart - Amazing Grace on Two Native American Flutes

Please Meet My New Friend...

...a man whose loving heart and spirit shine through his words. Dr. Maithri Goonetilleke is a medical doctor and gifted writer in Australia. His website, The Soaring Impulse, houses his beautiful poetry and his work toward growing love, compassion, and peace in the world. He is a bright light in the blogosphere and I encourage you to visit his site, read his words, feel his heart and mind and soul. You will be blessed.

Here is one of his poems, shared here with his permission:

Pick up your Pen

When the darkness falls
And you're just barely
clinging to a

on life's frayed garment.

Pick up your pen
And in the broadest,
boldest strokes
you can manage

Write the name of love across the sky

Maithri Goonetilleke Copyright 2007

Monday, February 16, 2009

Interfaith Heroes - Great Stories

I love to share with you things I stumble across on the web.  Today, the find is "Interfaith Heroes" - a section of a website called Read the Spirit. The site features, "...true stories of men and women who risked crossing religious boundaries to heal communities and, in many cases, to save lives."  Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Naht Hanh, The Dalai Lama, Corrie Ten Boom, and many more are profiled here. More stories can be found in the book, Interfaith Heroes 2 and its predecessor, Interfaith Heroes.

We make heroes out of atheletes, business leaders, politicians, and cartoon characters. In a world so hungry for acts of courage, so in need of dialog and bridges to understanding, acceptance, and peace, I'm grateful for these true heroes. May their stories inspire courage in all of us.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Free the Word...Save the World

I ran across a charming website today called My Inner World. It's the gentle work of Michele Bernhardt , filled with pretty illustrations and thoughtful insights - nothing heavy or dense but worth a visit. 

Besides the pretty drawings and nifty Flash work, I picked up something really useful from the site. Michelle talks about the concept of "freeing a word" in her site, noting the power of words and the associations we form with them. Michelle says, "Words have great power. When you hear a word, act as if you are hearing it for the first time."  She adds, "Try not to allow one thought, one memory or a world view opinion influence your relationship with any word."

Though out of context with Michelle's work (though, I suspect, not entirely), my immediate thought was what an incredible tool for spiritual bridge building!   If we "freed" all the words we use for religious beliefs, spiritual paths, and those who follow them...removed the associations we have with those words and looked at each individual instance with fresh eyes...what might we see?  What blinders and obstacles to understanding might we remove?

Next time someone says, "I am a ....," or, "I follow a ____ path," free the words and hear them as though for the first time. Ask what they mean. Listen.  Freeing the words may not save the world, but it will save us from assumptions that create barriers, opening space to build the bridges we so desparately need.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

What's In Your Cookie Jar? How Spiritual Labels Fail Us

What is it about us that insists on labeling ourselves and each other?

We apply and wear all kinds of labels. Christian, Pagan, conservative, liberal, straight, gay, pro-life, pro-choice…you name it and we’ve got a label for it. We seem to have a need to distinguish ourselves from others not of our kind and to identify with those who are. Labels are a kind of shorthand for describing ourselves and our characteristics, for creating sub-groups to filter the big database of human criteria into meaningful chunks of like and unlike.

Are our labels really helping or hurting us?

Labels for people bother me, and nowhere more so than when we try to label beliefs and ideologies. People are complex, evolving, ever-changing repositories of experiences, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs. How do you label that accurately? And accuracy really matters; once you apply a label to yourself or others, you create a set of expectations that go with that label. Inaccurate labels lead to inaccurate expectations and assumptions. The matter is complicated by the fact that everyone creates different expectations based on what they know or think they know about the label and how it compares to their own labels.

Once we apply a label to something, we create a static image of its contents. If I put a big jar on the counter and label it “cookies,” you immediately get an image of the contents of the jar. But it’s my jar, and I might or might not actually have cookies in there. I could have nails, receipts, money, marbles…or a few cookies and a lot of crackers, some cake, and a pretzel or two. If I do have cookies, are they oatmeal, chocolate chip, or oatmeal with chocolate chips? Unless you look in my jar, how do you know? And if you do look, does that mean the contents will always be the same and you need never look again? If you look into my cookie jar and find raisin walnut cookies, does that mean that every jar labeled cookies can be expected to contain raisin walnut cookies? And if you think cookie jars are supposed to hold cookies and I decide to put pretzels in mine, do you think I’m living a lie, a pretzel-eating hypocrite? It gets complicated.

It’s the same with our spiritual beliefs. Once we take or apply a label, we are then subject to whatever static image is associated with that label by each person who encounters it. If I say, “I am Christian,” you have a set of expectations about what that means. If I complicate it and add, “I am a Catholic,” (or a Methodist, or an Evangelical, or Fundamentalist, or Episcopal…) you may have further expectations. When I say, “I am a Pagan,” you have an image of what that means. When I say, “I am a Witch,” you may have a different image. What image does atheist bring up? How about agnostic? Jewish? Morman? Muslim? Hindu? Buddhist? Wiccan? Druid? Heathen?

The problem with all those images is that we are all spiritual cookie jars, our own, unique vessels containing whatever we put in them, regardless of what the label says on the outside. If you can show me two Christians, two Wiccans, two Druids, or two agnostics who believe and act exactly the same way, I’ll buy you lunch. Yet, we still use the “label and lump” method, using whatever label they or we apply to categorize and sort and make decisions on whether we agree or not, whether their path has value, whether we have common ground. In doing so, we miss the chance to really see the contents of the jar.

Wouldn’t it be better to lift the lid on the jar? Talk to each other? Ask questions? Wouldn’t we know more about the guy or girl sitting in the next cubicle or living next door if we didn’t think of them as one-word summaries, but actually had a dialog about what they and we believe, what we have in common, where we differ and why? What if we said, “So you’re a _____; what does that mean to you?”

My cookie jar contains the total of my experience and learning so far, and changes constantly. If you ask me what I believe, I can answer you with, “My current understanding is…” If you ask, as so many do, “What are you?” – meaning, “What religion are you?” “What label can I stick on you?” – I don’t have a good answer. My beliefs incorporate bits from a number of paths and belief systems because they match my experience of the world around me and are in harmony with my inner voice. I use “Pagan” or “Witch” because they provide a top-level categorization of my belief system, but there isn’t one label that captures everything I believe. Even if I found the perfect label, I couldn’t be confident that it would remain accurate. Every experience and every bit of new knowledge shapes and reshapes my beliefs all the time.

Labels may be handy for initial pre-sorting, maybe even as a jumpstart to conversation. But if we stop with the label and whatever expectations we associate with that label, we’re missing out on the true contents of the cookie jar. Let’s look beyond the labels – lift the lid and find out what it means to the person wearing it.

You may be surprised at what you find in a jar you thought was just cookies.