An Apprenticeship in the School of Anxiety

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You may not be invited to many parties if all you talk about are boredom, anxiety, shame, and death. Yet facing these troubling realities, directly and honestly, helps one enjoy a more exciting and fulfilling life.

I’m happy to announce the release of An Apprenticeship in the School of Anxiety, a collection of essays that explore the surprising connection between our sufferings and our potential joys, between anxiety and freedom, between shame and ecstasy, and between stress and wonder.

Purchase on Amazon

 

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The Steam Bath Gathering

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How is it possible to feel happy and sad at the same time? Recently I tasted that bittersweetness as I walked the campus of a college I attended almost 30 years ago. The landmarks of warm memories were still there: majestic buildings, the elegant gym, the cozy dining hall. Then I came to a place that held great poignancy for me: the dorm where I had proposed marriage to a young woman. She accepted and we married soon after. Despite our best intentions, it turned out to be an unhappy union. Four years later the marriage ended, leaving both of us exhausted, ashamed of our failure, and feeling foolish.

Aside from the death of loved ones, the lost love from broken relationships may well be our most common source of persistent grief and regret. It seems like the path to lasting love is fraught, with few reliable road maps. According to psychologist Sue Johnson, forming a primary, trusting love relationship is the main survival tactic for our species. It is a great mystery that most of us have to struggle so hard, risk so much, and fail so often to accomplish something so necessary for our well-being. How does anyone go through life without relationship regrets? We would like to think that if only we could wipe away these sad and humiliating experiences our lives would be just fine. Or better yet, we’d prefer being invulnerable to that anguish in the first place.

The sorrows of lost love aren’t the only painful emotions we are keen to avoid. We strive for the thrill of success in all areas of life, and we trust that achieving our goals will produce happy feelings about our places in the world. We reason the good life we seek would be better served by reaching our goals rather than being thwarted from them. But alas, we fail, we fall short, we miss the clutch shot, we commit blunders in life, and we suffer setbacks.

Our failure is often a double loss: there’s the substance of the goal unwon, but perhaps worse is the blow to one’s self-confidence to meet the demands of life, one’s damaged sense of agency in the world. The more entitled we feel to the favorable outcome, the more catastrophic is the failure to the sense of self. What does it say about me if my legitimate desire, good intentions, and best effort aren’t enough to produce success? When my insufficiencies are laid bare before my eyes, how am I supposed to feel about myself? In the aftermath of my divorce, I felt wretched.

My father reached out to me then, inviting me along on his daily trips to the town recreation center “for a light workout.” This included an extended steam bath with his friends who, like my father, didn’t mind the stifling hot steam I could barely tolerate. I enjoyed the lively and candid conversation in there, so I always forced myself to endure the heat and to listen carefully.

These were materially successful men of high stature in the community. They exchanged personal stories, generally not about their successes in life, but mostly about how they had screwed up this or that. Their accounts were hilarious and full of insight. It seemed to me they were also emotionally mature men, now literally and figuratively naked, who fully accepted themselves. They found great fellowship in their common “weaknesses” openly shared. There was no need to impress anyone with what they possessed or what they had done. There was not a hint of competitiveness in their conversation.

A frequent theme in their stories was the necessity for failure that preceded success. Sometimes the misfortune was unjust, but mostly the men were the perpetrators of their own folly. Far from feeling bitter, guilt-ridden, or regretful over failures, these men seemed grateful about how their lives had turned out. They shared a winsome humility expressed as kindness and generosity. I felt nurtured by the unguarded masculine energy in their presence, an unusual display of strength and vulnerability, and I think my father found emotional sustenance with them as well.

This was an unusual experience to have with my father. For decades our difficult relationship alternated between periods of hot and cold wars, open conflicts and long, quiet truces. Attempts to express honest feelings too often deteriorated into reactive, defensive arguments. We loved each other, but we couldn’t seem to connect in a way we both understood as acceptance by the other. I learned to avoid telling him what I really thought and felt.

In a group situation he was normally a boisterous, entertaining storyteller who commanded the room. But with these men, who seemed like apparitions through the steam, my father was uncharacteristically quiet. I believe both he and I were silent because we recognized we were in the presence of exceptional men. I came to see my inclusion in the steam bath gathering as an act of fatherly love. In generous humility, my father allowed other men to instruct his son in the higher ways of the examined life. We both benefitted because in this group we could partake in deep emotions together in an unthreatening way. In the hazy cloak of the steam bath, my father could more comfortably be my dad.

I deeply appreciated the company of these men, and yet I still struggled to accept their main message: that if I were open-minded toward my own vulnerabilities and failures, I would be a freer and stronger man. I found it distasteful, even dangerous, to relinquish the belief that my worth and happiness depended on succeeding at things, not failing. I thought that to feel free and strong required I take command over the structures in my life, to increase my sense of agency in the world.  By word and deed, these men affirmed something else: that one must recognize and accept one’s limitations to reach the place of our deepest needs.

In his book about finding one’s lifework, Crossing the Unknown Sea, poet David Whyte agrees with that view:

We have the strange idea, unsupported by any evidence, that we are loved and admired only for our superb strength, our far-reaching powers, and our all-knowing competency…. We try to construct a life in which we will be perfect, in which we will eliminate awkwardness, pass by vulnerability, ignore ineptness, only to pass through the gate of our lives and find, strangely, that the gateway is vulnerability itself. The very place we are open to the world whether we like it or not….[is real] intimacy…based on mutual vulnerability.

It may seem cliche to some that vulnerability to failure precedes success. But it is nonetheless true, not merely because ‘losing’ illuminates the techniques of ‘winning.’ Failure imparts necessary knowledge of self, which brings new meaning to both winning and to losing.

When two highly trained boxers stand in the ring, they’ve placed themselves in a position of intense vulnerability. If the fighters give their absolute best effort, they may embrace at the end of the bout, no matter who is the victor. Why the embrace, when moments before they were each trying to take the other’s head off? Because meeting a worthy adversary furthered the common quest for self-definition. A post-fight embrace may be the sign of a more nuanced and internal success for both fighters: the clarity of an expanded sense of self.  What a fascinating paradox, that accepting our limitations can expand the inner life.

Limits are external forces imposed by the social structures, institutions, and relationships around us.  Limitations are the shortcomings within ourselves: the deficiencies, failures, frailties, and weaknesses shaping thoughts and actions.  One’s limitations are constantly rubbing against one’s limits, and the chafing is often measured by degrees of suffering: felt stress, anxiety, or sadness. However, seen as an opportunity for self-discovery, the friction between one’s limits and limitations produces indispensable knowledge for life. To see your limits and to understand your limitations is to know yourself.

What I observed in the older men of the steam bath was authentic humility: the emotional freedom that accompanies this acceptance of one’s own limitations when they have been truly tested.  Once accepted, the men there no longer needed to take refuge in resentment, self-pity, or grandiosity. The evidence of this freedom is a non-judgmental kindness toward others that made it pleasant to be in their company.

The Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr affectionately describes such a man as a Holy Fool for whom “…being human is more important than self-image, role, power, prestige or possessions. He can lead, partner or follow when necessary. He has it all!”

My steam bath friends were a pack of Holy Fools. They gently introduced me to a new perspective about what it meant to be strong and what it looked like to be free. Could I accept the man I was, and find my freedom and strength from an honest appraisal of myself? Could I be okay with the bittersweetness of surrendering my old and rigid view of what made me strong and capable in life?

I now grasp better how dearly I need a sober view of my limitations. This openness toward my life experience is now central to my well-being. And its lessons are more precious to me than any recognition, award, or trophy.

Posted in Depression, Divorce, dual nature, Facing old wounds, Failure, Fathers, forgiveness, freedom, Grief, happiness, Joy, meaningful life, Music, philosophy, recovery, shame, sobriety, spirituality, Suffering | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Spiritual But Not Religious

An atheist friend once caught me off-guard when she declared, “There’s a reason for everything.” It turns out she meant there is a rational, scientific explanation for everything that exists or happens, not that there is a Divine Purpose behind events. Her faith is in scientific progress to bring safety and stability to her life and to reveal life’s mysteries, given enough time. Despite this apparent secular worldview, she calls herself spiritual.

As for so many, her spirituality focuses on personal growth and her desire to be in sync with natural forces governing the known world and holding it together. This spirituality also favors ethical, psychological, and political interests more than metaphysical ones. There is no necessary belief in the existence of a spirit realm or souls that live on after the body dies, much less faith in a religious concept of God.

This disenchantment with traditional ideas of God and long-established creeds has led to popular use of the phrase spiritual but not religious (SBNR). The implication is that individualized beliefs are more consciously arrived at and are more sophisticated and equipped to handle the complexities of modern life. World religions based on the embrace of objective truth are assumed obsolete – too rigid and narrow to serve the needs of individuals in the Information Age. Acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese lamented the difficulty getting top actors interested in his religious-themed movie Silence, saying, “Several actors didn’t want to get involved with anything that smacks of religion in any way.” It’s curious that those calling themselves religious are usually comfortable calling themselves spiritual, but the point of SBNR is to maintain a clear distinction from religion.

The phrase spiritual but not religious was popularized by Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. He believed the desire for intoxication was primarily a spiritual impulse and that alcoholics were unconsciously trying to “grope their way to God” as they sought reliable fulfillment in alcohol. In Bill Wilson’s view, religious belief requires a higher order of maturity and complexity than does mere spirituality. But even as he greatly respected religion, Wilson made clear that Alcoholics Anonymous did not require religiosity for recovery from addiction. His use of SBNR was a practical and wise acknowledgement of legitimate emotional wounds some alcoholics suffered in their religious upbringing. A large number of alcoholics also had an aversion to anything churchy, stemming from religions’ typically moralistic approach to alcoholism. For him SBNR was a frank statement of humility, the need for rudimentary spiritual assistance, and was not necessarily a declaration of permanent independence from religion. Wilson insisted, “…good theology ought to ask every man’s question: Do I live in a rational universe under a just and loving God, or do I not?” His AA sought to provide emotional room for alcoholics to get physically well while still wrestling with that question.

Wilson and his co-founder Bob Smith chose the term higher power, not highest power or God, to assist alcoholics in their efforts. Wilson and Smith might have found it ironic and maybe disheartening to see the modern practice of the SBNR idea move away from religious thought, rather than towards it.

So then many calling themselves SBNR do believe in a non-material realm and even cite experiential “touches” of the transcendent without specific mention of God. This person finds in a spiritual practice a bridge to the mysterious, and a way to gain agency over fearful and potentially threatening things in the experience of living. Love is often identified as the ultimate spiritual value, having mystical and protective properties within itself without a necessary connection to deity. God is love evolves into Love is God, with fear being the primary antagonist to spiritual growth. Oprah Winfrey espouses this approach in her faith declaration, “I believe every single event in life happens [as] an opportunity to choose love over fear.” The objective is a therapeutic one, based on a personal growth model of spirituality rather than on obedience to the will and purposes of one God, or gods, or a higher power. The road map to love means first loving the self: one must listen to oneself and follow one’s own dreams.

This approach may even lead to organized groups and communal rituals, but without a defined object of worship that is higher than the self, the desire for self-fulfillment becomes the foremost concern and the primary power with which to contend. One’s intentions are imbued with a quasi-omnipotence, attaining divinity status. If one’s intentions are faithfully released to the larger Universe, then the divine in oneself aligns with the divine in the Universe to bring the intentions to fulfillment, goes the belief.

American political discourse increasingly appropriates this self-help language to stigmatize opposing views as necessarily fear-based. Political opinions and actions are less frequently assessed in a moral context as right and wrong, or even in a utilitarian way as better or worse, but instead as choices between one view or a fear of that view. A SBNR might dismiss an opposing point-of-view as a symptom of mental instability or as an irrational fear: something-phobic.

Despite the potential inaccuracy of that linguistic ploy, it may well be that the reaction against fear, or more specifically anxiety, is common ground for both the self-described SBNR and the religious person. Every human being has a keen desire to be free from internal anxiety. This is not a new concept emerging from the uncertainties of modern life. How to understand anxiety within the human condition reflects ancient questions and conundrums between philosophy and theology. Do we reason our way to transcendence or are we awakened to it, as something revealed? Is spirituality uncovered or birthed? Are human beings like onions whose crusty, brittle exterior just needs to be peeled off to reach the pure center? Or are we tainted throughout and in need of transformation? Every side to these questions have had their true believers for thousands of years.

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How then does the modern seeker find clarity with such long-standing questions that have challenged the greatest minds of all time?  I’m exceedingly reluctant to say what others should do, but here is an account of a spiritual experience that gave me some clarity I desperately needed, illuminated beyond intellect.

At age 21 I decided to give college life another try. My previous attempt was interesting but directionless, so I quit and went to work. After several low-paying jobs serving affluent people, I was resentful. So I resolved I’d never be among those who bowed to the rich. Back at a different university, I was hungry for knowledge and ambitious to learn something useful.

Despite my optimism I was very nervous about my future. But living with chronic anxiety was so normal for me that I wasn’t aware life could be conducted any other way. At the time I described myself as spiritual but not religious, though I understood very little of what I meant by that. In the midst of my confusion I had the first truly spiritual experience I am aware of, which happened shortly after my arrival on campus.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was lounging around my dorm room when there was a loud knock on the door, a guy from down the hall. “Hey JJ, you wanna make twenty-five bucks for two hours work?” You better believe I did. This was 1979 when minimum wage was three dollars an hour, so this was good money. Off I went with him. “What are we going to do?” I asked. “Sell t-shirts,” he said.

A famous rock band was playing at the big arena on campus and there were already long lines of people outside waiting to get in. I was introduced to the boss man and he explained the deal: we were to sell bootleg t-shirts outside the arena. The official and legal merchandise happened inside the arena and were totally controlled by the band. We were illegal so keep your head down, he said, and if you see the campus police, keep moving. T-shirts were $5.00 each and I was given a box of them filled to the brim.

The boss let us in on an innovative sales technique: since we would run out of XL sized t-shirts first, we could still sell a t-shirt to someone requesting XL by reaching into the box with both hands, one hand holding a shirt and the other holding the tag that had the size labeled on it. Then, he instructed us, quickly pull out the t-shirt with one hand, thus ripping off the tag in the process. This way the buyer couldn’t see they were getting a medium or large-sized t-shirt instead of the XL they requested.

You might think cheating the customer this way would arouse pangs of conscience. But at that time, despite my claim to a personal spirituality, I placed greater value on personal shrewdness. I was determined to never play the fool for anyone. I found satisfaction in ripping off institutions and groups of people, especially if I considered the groups to be wealthy. It was vanity and avarice that really governed my thinking, but I easily deluded myself into believing I was striking a blow for the common man. I was a big fan of Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman the Yippie leader who advocated small acts of subversive criminality to undermine the established order.

On the surface I affected a confident pose about myself, but deep inside I felt the confusion of my sloppy value system. In a conversation with a “religious” guy a week before I had asked, quite sincerely, “How do you know the difference between right and wrong?” He said, “When I’m considering the morality of an action, I ask myself two questions: Does this please God, and does this glorify God?” I had no idea what he meant by glorify God. It sounded like the kind of high-handed religious talk I was moving away from. Pleasing God seemed simple enough though, in theory. Just do good deeds.

Back at the arena I began walking around with my box of t-shirts. They sold quickly, with people gathering around thrusting five dollar bills at me. In twenty minutes I had sold several dozen and I had a fistful of cash to show for it. I was feeling flush with success, but then I reached the point where someone asked for an XL t-shirt and I had no more of them. As instructed, I accomplished the maneuver of slyly removing the tag, thus cheating the customer.

As I mentioned, this normally wouldn’t have bothered me much. I would have fairly easily convinced myself that the larger objective of getting over on a big corporation, even a rock and roll one, justified this small indiscretion against the customer. But for some reason those arguments weren’t available to me this time. My stomach felt queasy.

I stepped aside to sort out my thoughts. The two questions I’d heard the week earlier came unbidden to my mind: Was this pleasing to God? Was this glorifying to God? My stomach still hurt.

No, I decided, what I was doing was neither pleasing to God nor glorifying to God – how could it be? I immediately found the boss and gave him all the money and remaining t-shirts and told him I quit and didn’t want any payment. “What’s wrong?” he asked, holding the wad of cash. I surprised myself by saying, “It’s not honest,” the words coming out all by themselves. He smirked and said, “You’ll learn someday.”

As I walked back to the dorm a startling euphoria settled on me. At the same time I felt lifted up, like I was walking on air, relieved and happy. Back in my room I put on a record, a Beethoven symphony. The music rose and I could almost see it filling the tiny room and swirling about. I was possessed by a beautiful sweetness, completely free from anxiety, at least for now. This moment was clear, utterly sober and superior to any experience I had before. Something far more expansive than myself was present and drawing me closer.

I mark that day as my first conscious contact with a spiritual – – something. Or was it religious? This much I understood: it was something new I lacked within myself by nature, something far grander than I could then fathom, and something that changed the way I felt about living. It was exciting, like finding a treasure or falling in love. I wanted to pursue it.

I pondered my religious friend’s advice. Pleasing God was about choosing right over wrong, I reasoned. But my understanding of right over wrong was incomplete, I intuited, until I could understand the second question. What was it to glorify God?

The following Summer some help came my way. I was leisurely strolling in downtown Manhattan on a beautiful sunny day, feeling great. A man sidled up next to me, matching my pace. It was a workman carrying a large package on his shoulder.

“How’s your faith?” he asked.

A little surprised, I said, “Uh, good I guess.” He had the word Shekinah emblazoned on his t-shirt.

“What’s Shekinah?”

He said, “God’s glory.”

“Really?” There it was again. “But what is it?”

“Shekinah is the manifestation of God’s presence on Earth. With you, maybe. See ya.” He turned sharply into a building and was gone. A shiver of recognition passed through me, thinking of my uplifting experience of months before. Could that euphoria be a Shekinah? What an interesting thought this was. I no longer cared if this new glow I had was called spiritual or religious or even weird – it was just too splendid to worry about that.

This guy used the word presence – yes, it was that. A veil I didn’t know existed was lifted, certainly not by my powers of reason or imagination. A highly personal presence that was not mine had beckoned me in. It was glorious, and sublime. If this was God’s glory on Earth I was more than willing to call it Shekinah and follow where it led me.

Whatever Shekinah was, it banished my anxiety. I wondered what more I could do to glorify God. Maybe all I needed to do was stay out of the way and Shekinah would come to me as before.

In the end I settled on calling this a spiritual experience. It changed me and set me on the spiritual path I’m on to this day. A path that draws me along – I take steps without knowing exactly where the path will lead. But as I take them my natural anxiety is muted and I am aware of a growing assurance that I am going to be okay.

 

Posted in addiction, Alcohol and drinking, Depression, freedom, happiness, Joy, Kierkegaard, meaningful life, philosophy, recovery, sobriety, Spiritual But Not Religious, spirituality, Suffering, Teun Hocks, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I Dig Your Mirth

Hippie busIn the late 1970s I lived in a rural university town where a significant number of people were thought of as hippies. They rejected prevailing bourgeois values and led back-to-the-land lifestyles. I respected their bold, independent ways and imagined myself a kindred spirit, even though I myself was thoroughly bourgeois.

One day I was reading a book in the “radical cafe” near the campus when a hippy-man sat down at my table. Sharing tables was common in that cafe, which espoused a more Marxist, communal way of doing things. When I glanced up from my book to acknowledge the man, he started talking. Eventually he explained his philosophy of life and his solutions for what ailed the human race. One of his big ideas involved bananas.

He said, “Everyone’s so depressed and you know why?” (I did not.) “They don’t have enough potassium, man! If everyone ate bananas they’d get enough potassium and they wouldn’t be depressed. It’s all in the bananas!” This made me laugh and so we talked for a while, enjoying each other’s company, laughing at each other’s jokes. When he got up to leave, he paused and with genuine sweetness said, “I dig your mirth, man.” We shook hands, then he was gone and I never saw him again. But the memory of him and our brief but warm encounter still makes me smile and appreciate the connecting power of humor.

Sometimes humor can penetrate our discouragement when all else has failed. Ten years ago a friend of mine was admitted to an inpatient addiction rehab clinic. I sat with him for moral support while a staff counselor conducted the orientation interview. For my friend, entering rehab was a moment of real defeat—just barely better than going to jail.

The counselor asked, “Do you smoke cigarettes?” My friend looked at her with despair, as if this were the final indignity, and answered, “I’m trying to quit”—which made all three of us laugh out loud, considering where we were. I greatly appreciated his sense of humor and how it slightly but significantly mitigated his misery in this situation.

Mirth at its best is a shared experience that has power to reduce obstacles to intimacy. When I worked with incarcerated men, laughter was a great therapeutic tool that often eased them closer to each other, creating bonds and softening the hardened edges that men sometimes form around their deep sadness. As one inmate astutely observed, “If I didn’t laugh, I’d cry, but laughing makes crying feel better.”

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A shared laugh is a great leveler, a way to feel human together, even a way to restore dignity. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Hungary during WWII who saved tens of thousands of Jews from extermination. After the war, he was arrested by his former Soviet allies and charged with espionage. He was presumably taken to Siberia, and no one heard from him again.

Information about Wallenberg in captivity is scant, but one prisoner who escaped a brutal Soviet labor camp described a brief but humorous encounter with the great man: One day as Wallenberg was being treated roughly by his captors he called out, “Taxi!” —much to the amusement of his fellow prisoners who, despite their privations, were heartened by his gutsy gallows humor.

A sense of humor in the face of suffering can be a saving grace that strengthens resilience and suggests a spark of hope. When we laugh we are fully present in the moment, if only briefly. The clarity of that present-ness is pleasing despite what other burdens we carry. As they say, laughter is good medicine, but it can also be good food, water, and oxygen.

While traveling in India, I lived for a time in a third floor apartment adjacent to a beautiful park. I immediately learned that a Hindu worship group gathered in the park beneath my window every morning at 7AM. What a drag. I was hoping I could sleep late most mornings. Their meetings lasted one hour and always ended with laughter yoga.

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Laughter yoga involves group members looking directly at each other and forcing laughter, in the belief that feigned laughter is as beneficial to the body and soul as spontaneous laughter. I noticed it didn’t take long for the fake laughter to become genuine, leaving the whole group cracking up for real. Sometimes I’d stand at the window and tell jokes at my normal volume and pretend to enjoy the hysterics of my “audience”. What might have been a noisy nuisance became a secretly shared mirth that helped me feel tenderness towards this group of devotees.

Mirth may be a higher order of humor, a deeper kind of delight. The poet William Blake said, “Too much fun is of all things most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth.” It is reasonable to me that a growing sense of mirth, rather than a growing cynicism, is a tremendous asset for a happy life. “Mirth is better than fun” is a strange sounding phrase to the modern ear, which distinguishes very little between the two. Contemporary life offers countless options for mirthless fun, empty entertainment, and banal diversions. Mirth, on the other hand, is uplifting and informative; it has meaningful content. It brings people together and leaves a person physically and emotionally healthier when concluded. Mirth is never sarcastic; it banishes the critical voice that brings toxic judgment to ourselves or to others.

A mirthful approach to life may be akin to meditation, attending fully to the present moment, the opposite of escapism. I wonder how much sooner we’d hear whispers of contentment in our souls if we intentionally cultivated a humorous or mirthful filter for the moments of our day that might otherwise be irritating or discouraging. Mirth enlarges our capacity to take on the poignant struggles of life. For these reasons and others, I dig mirth, too. And with all due respect to my long lost hippy friend, I’d say mirth is probably better than bananas.

Posted in Depression, freedom, happiness, India, Joy, meaningful life, Mirth, philosophy, recovery, Sense of Humor, sobriety, spirituality, substance abuse, Suffering, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Your Sex Life on Porn

Once I was invited to the off-campus home of some male college students.  As I approached the front door I could see through an opening in the curtain of the large picture window.  The TV was on and they were watching a porn film.  I knocked on the door and prepared myself for an awkward moment.  When they opened the door and brought me inside I was relieved to see the TV was off.

laptop-manWhile pornography is attractive to men as ever, gone are the days of taking social risks in public to obtain sexually explicit material.  The Internet has reduced the social and economic hindrances of procuring porn films to near zero.  I read that 30% of women and 70% of men admit to ever having viewed online porn.  My informal inquiries indicate that for college students, that number is closer to 100% for both genders.  A significant percentage of those students assert that viewing porn is a positive and healthy activity.

For many boys, porn was their introduction to sex education.  Naturally curious about the mechanics of sex, boys find basic answers in porn.  Porn also indoctrinates viewers with an ethos about relationships, intimacy and the self.  Most men view porn long before their first real sexual encounter.  By the time a man engages in sexual activity with another person, he has likely received hundreds, if not thousands, of images into his psyche of other human bodies having sex.

Even if watching online porn is now the norm, we do well to ask if viewing porn is healthy for the sex lives of men and women.  Do these films provide essential knowledge that leads to satisfying sexual relationships?  We all agree viewing porn can be a powerful experience. But being moved by something is not sufficient proof of its goodness, as Aristotle cautions us in his Nicomachean Ethics.  How does one make a clear-eyed assessment of the overall effect of porn on a human being?

The desire for sex is primal and mind-bending.  Jokes are legion about how the sex drive can distort a person’s rational powers.  We chuckle in agreement when comedian Robin Williams says, “God gave man a brain and a penis – but not enough blood to use them both at the same time.”  Add the effects of alcohol consumption, and sexual self-governance can be nonexistent.  I’ve known many who were wounded by such situations.

imagesNo one disputes that the human sex drive can overwhelm the rational mind as it cries out for satisfaction.  But there is another cry that may accompany the sex drive, one that is more substantial if not as boisterous.  This is the cry for intimacy.  What then is the relationship between sexual desire and emotional intimacy?

Clark Gable, one of the preeminent movie stars of the 20th century, was once caught with a prostitute.  He was asked, “Why would you, Clark Gable, who could have your choice of women, pay a woman for sex?”  He said, “I don’t pay a woman for sex.  I pay a woman to go away after sex.”  What a striking example of sex without intimacy.

Intimacy, I dare say, is the precious pearl we all desire from our love relationships.  The need for emotional intimacy is the substance behind the longing for love expressed in practically every romantic song or poem ever written.  To be utterly known by another, and cherished for it, may be at the top of the list of things we desire beyond individual survival needs such as water, food and safety.  Long after sexual desire passes, the need for intimacy persists.  No one commits suicide over an absence of sex, but some do kill themselves over an absence of intimacy, which is loneliness.

Loneliness is abysmal, and yet intimacy is risky.  Authentic emotional intimacy between two people involves an exchange of vulnerabilities, including the vulnerability to rejection.  And rejection plucks the dreadful chords of abandonment and shame in most of us.  This makes emotional nakedness far more perilous than mere bodily nakedness in sex.

teun hocks warmthThis is a conundrum we all face regarding intimacy; live with loneliness or risk rejection.  The ever-present sex drive is all too ready to step into that void to provide a soothing connection.  But to surrender to sex while still emotionally defended further isolates the self that hungers for real intimacy.  It may feel less risky to rely on fantasy, or one may seek to detach the emotions from sex.  But then the sex act becomes little more than a pantomime of human closeness: sex without intimacy, pleasure without authentic meaning.  That was how Clark Gable handled the dilemma.

So what’s the problem with that?  Are there not simple pleasures that are perfectly fine without attachment to meaning, such as feeling the sun on one’s face?  I would argue that all pleasures, even the sun on one’s face, are enhanced by a connection to a greater significance and are diminished by the lack of connection.  This is all the more true for far more complex pleasures such as sex, which influences one’s concept of self on many levels.

Mad-Men-Don-DraperSexual pleasure unsustained by meaningful intimacy eventually drifts towards emptiness.  The sex that once thrilled becomes ordinary, the pleasure more thin, failing to gratify in quite the same way as before.  Nobody wants this, so the experience must then be artificially boosted to imitate depth and sustain excitement: more novel, more edgy, or more reliant on fantasy.

In contrast, the textures of meaningful pleasure are abundant, and become more accessible over time, not less accessible.  We don’t develop tolerance to meaningful pleasure; just the opposite.  We savor meaningful pleasure with deepening sensitivity as time passes.

Consider the excitement of true love and devotion, where the mere touch of the beloved’s hand may elicit long-lasting, passionate delight.  The term “pleasurable” is inadequate to describe the contentment of sex nourished by unfettered emotional intimacy.  This is a full and highly personalized experience.

Which brings us back to the use of pornography.  Porn’s essential feature is that it provides the user with a vivid experience of depersonalized sex, utterly bereft of intimacy, the thing we desire more dearly than sex.  In porn viewing, nothing is demanded that would actually create intimate meaning between living human beings.  Loneliness is temporarily soothed, rejection is avoided, but at a cost.

dummiesThe viewer must see the sex actors, from the outset, as mere objects among many other objects that are used until their usefulness is used up.  By emotionally attaching his sexual self to objects, the viewer objectifies not only the porn actors, but himself as well, so that a non-threatening, fantasy version of intimacy can be held in the mind.  And when the porn image that excites becomes banal, as it must, the viewer is progressively desensitized to sexual pleasure.  Porn seems to yield benefits in the short term, but it is a losing strategy in the long term for pleasure-loving people.

Porn use is hostile to the examined life.  It leaves one progressively dependent on untruth, the crutch of fantasy, and, over time, more lonely and less capable of emotional connection with a true intimate.  Being insulated from our deepest emotions is living small, which increases the risk of anxiety, depression, and old-fashioned unhappiness.  As an overall contributor to life satisfaction, porn is a thief disguised as a philanthropist.

The path that values emotional honesty and intimacy is admittedly risky and requires persistent courage, but the rewards have to do with true love.  Love is sublime, based on the truth, and very likely the best thing out there.

Posted in freedom, happiness, meaningful life, philosophy, Pornography, sexuality, sobriety, spirituality, Teun Hocks | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Soccer vs. Basketball

Which is the superior sport, soccer or basketball?  It is basketball.  Does this question matter?  Yes it does.  Is it even possible to differentiate the moral qualities of the two sports?  Yes it is.  More importantly, do we have the courage to do so?  Yes we do and we will.

A casual analysis would note several similarities.  Each sport has a predetermined number of participants per side, the length of each contest is governed by a clock, and each gives the player opportunity to perfect his thespian skills as he writhes in pain attempting to deceive the official into calling a foul (though soccer players are especially duplicitous in this regard). The more fascinating differences involve which sport is the nobler, which is to say, the more spiritual.  In this respect, basketball is clearly the superior endeavor for the human soul.

Soccer, ironically called “The Beautiful Game” by some, is of the earth.  Players are obliged to cast their gazes downward at the staccato, lurching movements of each other’s inelegant feet.  Basketball aspires for the Eternal as participants reach for heaven, fluidly propelling their bodies and souls ever upward.  The basketball players’ arms are open and outstretched, ready to offer gifts to the Creator in the form of shots released, while receiving heaven’s bounty in the form of rebounds.  Soccer players’ arms hang impotently at their sides, reacting to the action, but not affecting it.  One wonders if the writer of Ecclesiastes had soccer players’ arms in mind when he declared, “…all is meaningless, a grasping at the wind.”  Is it any wonder that soccer appeals to communist countries while basketball originated in the Land of the Free and the Home of Magic and Bird?

Furthermore, soccer is a stingy sport, yielding two or three goals in a typical game.  Basketball is generous and inclusive – everyone shoots, everyone can score and, ipso facto, attain prosperity unto holiness.  Or is it holiness unto prosperity?

Aristocratic soccer bestows one player special privileges: a “keeper” who uses his hands to prevent otherwise worthy shots from entering the goal.  This is inglorious.  In egalitarian basketball, “goal tending” is properly recognized as a crime that is legislated against and swiftly penalized.

The physical action of basketball is closer, geographically and theologically, to the heart and mind of its practitioners.  The only time the action in soccer approaches the heart and mind is when the ball strikes the player with great violence in the head or chest.  Photos of soccer players “heading” the ball clearly show facial expressions rife with existential angst.  Oh wretched peril!  Conversely, when a basketball comes in contact with a player’s foot, play is immediately stopped and Grace restored.

When this world passes away and paradise reigns again on the earth, I doubt you’ll see a single soccer ball in the New Jerusalem.  Until that day, we must proceed from one evolutionary step to the next.  As you learn to walk erect, you switch to basketball.

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On Puking

“Listen to your body,” I heard the yoga instructor say.  At that moment my body was telling me it would rather be in bed, but I was awake at the 7AM yoga session at an ashram in northern India.  The rural mountain setting was gorgeous and far from Delhi’s polluted air and insane hustle.  I wasn’t too crazy about yoga, but I wanted to give this ten-day silent retreat a good effort.

The teachers exhorted us to not only listen to our bodies, but to pay attention to our inner worlds in a new way.  Complete silence was required: no talking.  We were also asked to refrain from communicating with each other in any visual way: no interactive facial expressions, no furtive glances, and no saying hello with the eyes.  There was no reading, no computers and no cell phones.  The objective was to create a still and continuous focus on the workings of the inner life.  We were to seek an experience of ourselves much less distracted by sensory input or even language in thought.

I quickly became aware of how difficult this was.  To “sit” with myself minus my usual diversions was highly uncomfortable at first.  No music, no conversation, no little chocolate donuts; nothing to soothe and divert.  No thing to pay attention to except my undistracted self.

After a few days of struggle, I was quite startled by a palpable and delightful sense of freedom from my usual worries. The pressurized concerns normally so present with me in the U.S. – career stress, making enough money, rushing around, paying bills – seemed very far away.  What a sweet relief it was to have detachment instead of distraction, and I wanted it to continue.

I was reminded of this experience while at a recent lunchtime gathering of the excellent St. John’s College RAs.  They were discussing the problem of puke; what to do about the voluminous quantities of puke they had to deal with from students’ drinking activities.  Puke in the bathroom, puke on the carpet, puke in the common areas.  It seems puke is almost everywhere.

None of the RAs spoke as if this were unusual.  Regular encounters with errant puke may be so common as to be considered normal at the College.  It’s not that I’m surprised that drinking and puking go together; I’ve seen enough of both to last a lifetime.  But it’s just plain appalling that any reasonable person would regard puking as an acceptable aspect of their recreational routine.

Puking is a violent ejection of destructive matter from the body.  When someone pukes, their body is speaking very loud and clear.  It’s saying to the substance consumed: get out and don’t come back.  The loathsome reality of this is not hard to understand.  Given that this aversion reaction is designed to give us a visceral deterrent to consume such things again, why does anyone voluntarily repeat the experience?

Students whose drinking produces this kind of violent retching are incapable or unwilling to integrate their drinking decisions with the pursuit of their better selves.  How much puke do we have to look at, smell and clean up before we start listening to our bodies?  Better still, why not listen more carefully to our inner worlds, our own souls’ needs; detaching from what impedes us instead of merely distracting our selves with intoxicants?

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