Upon the death of my sabbatical

Tomorrow I will attend the first day of a two-day “retreat” at which my colleagues, bosses, and I will discuss the future of my institution’s business department. Which means, as much as I hate to admit it, that my year-long sabbatical is really, truly over.

Let’s get this out of the way: no one deserves a sabbatical, and I am hate-worthy just for being sad. Just as anyone who complains about getting tenure deserves all the hate email she gets, so anyone who dares to bitch about having to show up at the office after more than a year away deserves to be skewered in the worst way. That said…

I am grieving the end of a great year, which was both restful and productive (and partly funded by a grant). I did research and I walked my kid to school. I spent time in libraries and I enjoyed great coffee shops and restaurants. I wrote pages and pages of blog posts, articles, and book chapters and I binge-watched several television series. I attended conferences and I meditated and did yoga. I networked with people in the biz and I hung out with family and friends. I worked diligently, yes, but I also relaxed aggressively.

What I did NOT do was equally wonderful. I did not grade any papers or spend any time bitching about how the public school systems are not preparing kids for college. I did not argue with irritating colleagues or whine about my institution’s administration. I did not prepare for classes or feel put-upon for sitting on yet another committee. Because I moved all the way out of town, I did not even see anyone from work except on Facebook. In short, I did not have to persist in my professional persona. I got a break from being my usual self. I didn’t have any great epiphanies about what to do or who to be when I grow up, but there was at least time and space to wonder about that question and its related mysteries.

I wish everyone could have a “year off” from the usual routines, if only to realize that some other life is possible. Some other self is possible. We are different people in different situations, but there is almost no way to know this without actually getting to step outside ourselves. Maybe it’s just postmodern foolishness to think that life should be about developing a self that both feels authentic and doesn’t make us want to jump off a bridge, but hell, if one has the ridiculously gracious chance to do so, shouldn’t one make the most of it?

Rest in peace, sabbatical. I loved you well.

Anger, Buddhist Style

I visited Drepung Loseling Monastery last night, on the north side of Atlanta, to hear Geshe Lobsang Tenzin talk about “The Wisdom of Forgiveness & Patience.” He never quite got around to forgiveness or patience, but instead spent the time laying the groundwork by discussing anger. The cause of anger is quite mundane, he told us; it arises from frustration either over encountering a thing we do not want, or over not getting a thing we do want.

Summarizing Shantideva, he listed four types of blind or inordinate desires, or “improper attention,” that are most likely to cause our problems: 1. material goods, 2. praise or recognition, 3. pleasure, and 4. reputation. Not getting these things (or not getting as much as we want of them precisely when we want) causes mental distress which becomes anger at whatever we see as standing in our way. Conversely, we have aversions to the opposites of these things: lack, criticism, pain, anonymity; experiencing these things we do not want (which no human can avoid!) can also develop into anger at whatever brings them our way.

But though the causes of anger are entirely mundane, he said, the consequences of it are disastrous – not just for others, but for the angry person herself. A single moment, a single word spoken in anger, can undo years of hard work and merit. And if religious talk of merit doesn’t convince us, he reported that there is good science to support the idea that “anger kills.” Thus, it is wise for us to cultivate patience and forgiveness, those dynamic states of mind that allow us to manage our expectations with regard to what we want and don’t want. (He didn’t get into the idea of righteous anger, over injustice for example; I am not sure whether he would see it as a potentially positive motivating force or not.)

The timing of the talk was helpful, since I had received some personal email criticism only hours before, from an author who had taken issue with (what I thought was a nitpicky point in) a blog post I’d written. I felt angry, not only at him, but at everyone (a rapidly growing number) who’s criticized something I’ve written. This makes perfect sense, of course, according to Shantideva’s #2 above. I might hope to write for altruistic purposes (though I write mostly because I can’t seem to help myself), but I can’t hide from the truth that I also – like most writers, I would guess – hope for praise or recognition. I’m a little child wanting people to notice me and think I’m smart and good. Conversely, I dread both anonymity and - despite knowing it is inevitable, particularly online – criticism. I dread having others’ anger directed at me.

So thank you, dharma teachers (and I don’t mean the Buddhist gurus), for once again revealing to me the perverse but natural inner workings of my own mind. I must say I don’t enjoy your pedagogical methods, but I am determined to try and let them change me for the better.

On being a “professional” blogger

I talked with an editor from Religion Dispatches last week. It seems they are interested in paying me money to write two blog posts a week for their site. (I’m on trial for the first month or so.) So far I have submitted two posts that have not (yet?) been published. We’ll see how it goes.

I had to force myself to say yes. It’s not that I wasn’t excited about it; it’s more that I was terrified of trying to produce two posts a week that are worthy of publication. Moreover, it seems like being a glutton for punishment; i.e. I’m just providing more opportunities for people to criticize me, despite the fact that I really hate being criticized.

I can ignore the trolls by simply not reading the comments. (Too little payoff, too much pain.) What I can’t ignore are well-educated friends who know stuff, who write to correct me on mistakes in my writings. I misused the term “pre-emptive war,” for example; a political science friend let me know I should have said “preventive.” And I misused the term “neo-orthodox” in another; a theologian friend let me know that it meant the precise opposite of what I was using it to mean. I have also mis-represented Catholicism, according to some Catholic friends (though I would say what I did was offer a deliberate Protestant interpretation that called their view into question). Folks like these are what I think of as “knowers” – people whose brains seem naturally fit to retain terms, dates, detailed information. The scholarly world is full of knowers, but I’m not one of them. (Though not all of what knowers know is trivial, this quirk in my brain makes me terrible at trivial pursuit.)

It’s not that I think I’m an idiot. I have a quick enough mind, which often jumps around more than I would like but which also makes lots of interesting (to me) connections. I’m a decent writer, and I have fairly high emotional intelligence compared to a lot of academics. But I am rather terrible at the stuff I am supposed to know, despite having a Ph.D. - I can’t remember what Augustine said when, or even necessarily what was in that ethics article I just read yesterday. I would guess I am like most people, in that either something makes an impression on me and sticks, or it flies “in one ear and out the other.” Even my desire to look smart isn’t motivation enough to memorize all the stuff I’m supposed to know.

So look out, RD readers and FB friends. Be prepared for lots of blog posts that may require you to look past my sloppy use of terms. And if you can’t look past them, I will do my best to be gracious in the face of your critiques.

UPDATE: On a related note, I rather liked this “disapproval matrix” by Ann Friedman, of the “Low-maintenance ladyswagger.”

Christians and the American “Baby Bust”

Yet another hand-wringing article about falling American birth rates came out this week. Despite the fact that market proponents usually love to tell us that the magic of markets is precisely that they can adjust to anything, the authors of this article – as with most such articles – seem deeply concerned about the economic effects of the fewer babies phenomenon: “perhaps most damaging would be declining markets and a hobbled economy in which governments are forced to tax the shrinking workforce to pay for the soaring retirement and health expenses of an increasingly doddering population.” The zombie apocalypse, for this generation, is turning out to be an apocalypse of under-fertile women and needy old people.

Occasionally Christian pro-natalists will jump on statistics like these as more evidence of America’s culture of death. But unlike for Jews, “be fruitful and multiply” was not always a given command for Christians. One of my favorite passages from the New Testament is from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. “Concerning virgins,” reads 1 Corinthians 7, “it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.” It’s certainly not a sin to get married, he says, “but those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.” Paul rightly foresaw a lot of suffering coming down the pike for early Christian communities, and didn’t see any reason for people to increase that suffering exponentially with family complications. It made a lot of sense, really. After all, which would you prefer: to be martyred, or to be martyred after watching your spouse and children be martyred? In any case, Paul also didn’t see much point to having kids, since “this world in its present form is passing away.”

Of course, the known world didn’t actually pass away, and most Christians kept getting married (the better to control their sexual urges) and kept having children (the result of said sexual urges). But a number of early Christians took Paul’s teaching to heart and decided not to marry. Women, in particular, found marriage to Christ a welcome alternative to the likely prospects of subjugation to a husband and early death by childbirth. Singleness and childlessness were thus not merely tolerated among the early churches; a case can be made that they were actually the preferred form of Christian discipleship. (Indeed, the Protestant Reformers took pains to undo this powerful tradition.) Economists could no doubt explain this behavior as the rational “group suicide” of an oppressed people who had grown weary of serving the Roman Empire.

Which leads us to the real trouble with virgins: they don’t make good subjects. You can’t build an empire (or a religion) when young women, such as the much-ignored Thecla, refuse to marry and bear children. Child-free adults can be fearless about challenging the status quo, while those with children to feed are much more reliable supporters of the established order. “An unmarried woman is concerned about the Lord’s affairs,” wrote Paul, “but a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world.”

I can’t help thinking of Paul when considering the near hysteria in some sectors over America’s falling birth rate. Christians, it seems to me, have no business worrying about such an issue. This is not because humankind is a cancer or deadly virus upon the earth. On the contrary, humankind is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and humans – individually and collectively – have the potential for great good. I am often frankly astonished at the miracles of which humans are capable, and such capabilities are worth celebrating. But it doesn’t therefore follow that all of us should be furiously procreating to make sure the world doesn’t run out of humans; at 7+ billion of us, it seems fairly certain humankind will live on (assuming we don’t destroy the earth). Christians need not feel a duty to have “quivers full” of children because, at least in theory, the church has replaced the biological family as their primary community.

Instead, Christian decision-making around children should center on what kind of people we want to be. Traditionally, Christianity has called for qualities like hospitality, inclusiveness, compassion, generosity, and peacemaking – all of which may or may not coexist with parenting. Does having children make you more self-centered, paranoid, nationalistic, acquisitive, or xenophobic? Then you probably shouldn’t do it. Does having children make you more compassionate toward all people everywhere, each one of whom has hopes for their own (and their children’s) flourishing? Then it’s probably a good idea. But it’s important to remember that parenthood is not the only way to foster solidarity with one’s fellow humans; biology can divide us just as easily as unite us.

Finally, it is not Christianity’s concern whether America can “project power” or “preserve its place in the world,” dependent as that place is upon military and economic shock and awe. From a Christian standpoint, there is no competition between American children and Chinese or Pakistani or Nigerian children. All of us are humans, and thus ineluctably tied together in our flourishing. (No doubt many Buddhists, Muslims, or atheists would say the same.) As Christians love to say, “For God so loved the world” – not just the USA or Italy or Israel. With more than seven billion of us around, there is an abundance of opportunity to spread the love. People concerned about falling birth rates could more constructively spend their energy loving the neighbors they already have.

The Conundrum: Starting at Hopelessness

I just finished – about a year late – reading David Owen’s The Conundrum (Riverhead 2012). The essential problem that underlies environmental degradation and climate change, he argues, is not that we don’t know what to do to change course. It’s that we do not want to change course. Or rather, we want to change course only in small ways – for example, making air conditioners more efficient – which often ends up making products cheaper and more readily available, so more people partake of them, raising demand such that it cancels out any reductions in consumption that might have been made in the short term.

Owen’s target audience, and the group who receives his sharpest criticism, is not Republican lawmakers or oil company executives. Such folks are far too easy to blame. On the contrary, the party he singles out for complicity are “eco-conscious do-gooders“:  the tree-hugging, latte-swigging, hybrid-driving elitists who believe “the Prius fallacy” that the earth can be saved with nips and tucks – in other words, without any real sacrifice. His target is people like me. (Owen admits that he, too, is part of the problem, having left earth-friendly Manhattan for the suburbs when his family started growing; the finger he points is directed at himself, which makes him a more credible prophet.)

Owen argues that it doesn’t matter what I drive, what matters is that I drive, thousands of miles a year. Not only that, I use air travel for work and pleasure at least several times a year. Though I avoid factory-farmed meat, I do generally consume more food and drink than I need to be satisfied, much of it imported, heavily processed, and/or government subsidized. I don’t water my lawn, but I shower (almost) every day and flush my toilet at will. Though I have only one child, he has in his eight short years already consumed more of the earth’s resources than most human beings ever will. Though I turn out lights when leaving a room, my house is never totally dark because electronics like the fridge give off an ever-present glow. And, oh yes, the lattes I swig surely did not come from coffee beans grown in my home state.

Because this book hit me where I live, again and again, reading it should have been entirely depressing. It left me with virtually no hope for earth’s future, in light of 7 billion (and counting) ravenous humans who all hope for long, comfortable lives for them and their children. Even if, by some miracle, the whole of resource-greedy North America and Australia suddenly converted to living in small apartments, gave up meat and the internet, and never used plastic again, up-and-coming economies like China and India are just getting started. The people who actually have the power to make large-scale changes in the global marketplace will always also have the power to shield themselves from the negative consequences of consumption, while the people who suffer most from the world’s consumption will always be those on the margins of society.

But strangely enough, I found this utter hopelessness invigorating, perhaps because it brought things into focus, removing the amorphous weight of the world from my guilt-laden shoulders. Guess what? I am not the whole world’s mommy, and therefore can’t fix the world’s problems! I am not responsible for every individual in Congress or the marketplace or indeed, even in my own family. No matter what changes I make, I cannot force anyone else to come along – though as a teacher and writer I obviously believe in the power of persuasive arguments, and as a citizen I believe in the democratic process. We are all caught in a broken system, yes, but we also (at least those of us adults who do not wonder where our next meal is coming from) have economic and environmental agency that we must exercise.

This leaves me with a renewed sense of the importance of mindfulness and self-examination. Am I prepared to make any real sacrifices in my ridiculously comfortable life? I am convinced that Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man is the model to which environmentally-concerned people should aspire. Mind you, “reflection” of his sort doesn’t mean navel-gazing while sitting in the dark. He keeps a blog, wrote a book, started an active political movement, and even ran for public office. But he and his family started with radical changes to their own everyday lives. He and Owen have forced me to look in the mirror and see that in my life, it really is “too easy being green.”

What about you? Do you feel hopeless about the earth – or what gives you hope? What sacrifices have you made for the sake of conservation, and how did you work up the will to do it? [By the way, I’ll be back again with more hopeful thoughts from Frances Moore Lappe’s book, Eco-Mind, which is much more uplifting. I strongly recommend it!]

Rape is God’s problem, too

So, the following submission was rejected by HuffPost. Since rejection, too, is joy, I’m posting it here.

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Quick – which famous religious personality voiced this angry tirade: “Remove your veil, take off the skirt, uncover the thigh… Your nakedness shall be uncovered, your shame will be seen; I will take vengeance”? Or this: “It is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up, and you suffer violence… I myself will lift up your skirts over your face, and your shame will be seen”? Or this: “She did not give up her whorings… in her youth men had lain with her and fondled her virgin bosom and poured out their lust upon her.Therefore I delivered her into the hands of her lovers, for whom she lusted. They uncovered her nakedness… and they killed her with the sword. Judgment was executed upon her, and she became a byword among women”?

Yep, you guessed it: The God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Isaiah 47, Jeremiah 13, and Ezekiel 23). The translations of these shining examples of victim-blaming are clear enough, despite the old-fashioned language: I’m angry and you’re going to suffer for it. You deserve to be raped because of your sexual exploits. You’re a slut and it was just a matter of time till you suffered the consequences. Let this be a lesson to you and to all other uppity women.

While Christians, when faced with rape stories, might find it convenient to point fingers at others’ misogyny, our energies would be better spent looking into our own traditions. The sacred text that functioned to justify the genocide of Native Americans, as well as centuries of enslavement and oppression of African Americans, also functions to justify the oppression of women. The God of the Bible, if not a rapist himself, is at best an accomplice and a wife batterer, explicitly using violence to control his “wife” in hopes of beating her into submission and making her grateful that he loved her enough to choose her as his one and only. (Christians who protest that the New Testament God is much nicer than the Old Testament God have much more work to do; they will not get off the hook so easily.)

Some might blame the prevalence of rape on the godlessness of American women, e.g., if they were at home instead of out walking around where men could see them, they wouldn’t get raped. It is certainly true that there are some behaviors that may contribute to a woman’s chances of being raped – like, for example, entering a “rape factory.”  But when it comes to causing rape, there is not a single behavior among victims that even comes close to the behaviors of perpetrators.   As one brave survivor puts it, “We need to put responsibility where it lies: on men who violate women, and on all of us who let them get away with it while we point accusing fingers at their victims.”

Rape has always been with us Americans, deeply intertwined with our religious beliefs and cultural practices. We just didn’t call it rape back when women were actually or effectively the property of men; until 1865, an American man could rape his slave with impunity; until the 1990s, he could also rape his wife. Sadly, it seems that a minority of American men are still getting used to the idea that rape is no longer their birthright – to the tune of one rape every two minutes.  (Perhaps that isn’t surprising, since even today, fewer than 10% of rapes are ever prosecuted and only about 3% of rapists actually go to jail.)

What are Christians doing about this? Are we denouncing from the pulpit the violence and misogyny of our sacred texts and communities? Are we lamenting and apologizing for our tradition’s long history of using God as an excuse to murder, abuse, exploit, or marginalize those who don’t fit neatly into our clubs? Are we educating girls and women about the fullness of their humanity? Are we offering services for rape victims, male and female? Most importantly, are we educating boys and men about the importance of not raping?

Sadly, I would guess the answer to most of these questions is somewhere between “sort of” and “no.” Rape is not a topic for polite conversation, much less for Sunday mornings. And calling out the God of the Bible for his inexcusable behavior is dangerous indeed – you see, after all, what happens to those who refuse to submit.

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If you’re still reading, here’s my question: if you’re part of a church, what is the “good news” regarding rape in your congregation? What are the teachings, and what are the practices, that are working toward ending sexual violence? (And just fyi, here’s a nice piece by Jimmy Carter decrying his lifelong religion’s treatment of women.)

“Silence!” says the Inner Troll

So a few weeks ago I wrote a post that many people found obnoxious. A week or so later (after new information about the news event had come out) it actually got published, already somewhat out of date. After that, a few friends took notice. One friend apologized, which horrified me because I’d made her feel guilty, so I wrote my own apology. Other friends wrote nice, encouraging things on FB. One wrote a long, thoughtful blog response. One wrote something quite mean (that paled in comparison to the comments that followed). Last night I came across a stranger’s blog, congratulating the friend who’d written the thoughtful blog response to my (obviously hysterical) piece (Thank goodness there is at least ONE smart woman out there! was the general sentiment). Tonight, after I’d thought the whole damn thing was over, another friend, a really close friend who doesn’t look at FB, who’d only just seen my article, hinted that she’d been offended by the piece. I sent her my apologies and await her response.

The piece I wrote was from the heart and from the hip, and the folks who liked it liked PRECISELY those qualities. But throughout this process, I have questioned myself, because the folks who hated it hated PRECISELY those qualities. Why did I write it? Why didn’t I think more carefully about how I wrote it? Why didn’t I wait 24 hours before submitting? Why didn’t I consider everyone else’s feelings? “You should shut up, Kate,” says the Inner Troll. “Nobody needs to hear what you have to say. You are a selfish, terrible person to waste their time with your quasi-intellectual, overly-emotional drivel. You just make everything worse.”

“But,” replies my Inner Protagonist, “someone has to say such things, otherwise the loudest, meanest people always win!” If foolish gals like me won’t speak up about such things, who will?

“Well, fine,” says IT, “but if you must speak, at least speak in their language, according to their standards of what is appropriate and/or worthwhile, so that you can gently but firmly persuade them to your way of thinking.”

“But,” replies IP, “why do they get to say what the rules are? And why do I have to cut myself down to size just so they can find me palatable?”

“Well,” interjects Inner Wise Voice, “you don’t have to cut yourself down to size. But you do have to be prepared for them to hate or be hurt by what you say. They shouldn’t be mean or sensitive about it, but they certainly will be, so you shouldn’t write unless you are prepared to be made an example of and to weather the storm.”

Anyone out there have a better Inner Wise Voice she would be willing to share? In the spirit of “This, too, is joy,” I am looking for some lessons – but gentle ones.