Violence

I was reminded recently in some separate conversations with friends about something I had written years ago. The conversations involved the angry outburst at the Summit a few weekends ago. One friend was in my corner: when that happens,”I send my blessings, not my energy.” The other was incredulous. “Why didn’t you fight back? Why did you just sit there and take it? That just gives them more power!”

My answer, what I had written, is this: Violence is a parasite- it cannot live without a host. But unlike most other parasites, it cannot live in a host that refuses it. If I can continue to refuse to accept it when it is presented to me, it will have difficulty spreading and be significantly weakened, maybe even die.

And what I experienced was violence. Anger, hatred, shame, abuse (both physical and emotional-including gossip), greed and fear are all violence in thin disguise, and I don’t want them in me.

I was reminded of a story of the Buddha:
A very angry and rude young man came up and began insulting the Buddha. “You have no right teaching others,” he shouted. “You are as stupid as everyone else. You are nothing but a fake.”
Buddha was not upset by these insults. Instead, he asked the young man, “tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong ?” The man was surprised to be asked such a strange question and answered, “it would belong to me because I bought the gift.”
Buddha smiled and said ” that is correct. And it is exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.”
The rude man’s anger was converted by this loving and wise response, and he became the Buddha’s devoted follower.

Dissent

It was bound to happen eventually. But I thought the irony was rich- and so was the timing.

I was giving a presentation entitled “Guilt, Confusion, Reality” at the Montana LGBT Summit in Bozeman over the weekend, explaining the experience of people in my care, the experience of people I know well, and drawing heavily from my own life. I spoke of the effects of shame and internalized shame on LGBT persons which come at us directly and indirectly from people, structures and institutions in our world. Barely beginning to warm up to my topic, a person near the back of the room spoke up, loudly saying, “Why are you lying?”

I admit, I was flummoxed. In the space of four seconds, several things happened.

Thought one: “Who are you, and what rock do you live under?”

Thought two: “This is probably the most significantly rude thing to ever happen to me.”

Thought three: “I think he really believes what he’s saying”

Thought four: “How do I keep this civil?”

Thought five: “Don’t mention Joe Wilson, or Serena Williams, or Town Hall meetings.”

Thought six: “Be kind, Greg. Be kind.”

Fortunately, I have given some thought to being disagreed with. I knew there were going to be people at the Summit who have taken issue with me for one reason or another in the past- and some without any reason that I can determine. I had prepared myself with a response, I just figured it would come at the end of my presentation during question-and-answer time. In that vein,  I asked him if I could finish before he criticized me- to let him hear all the information I had to present before he made a judgment.

No such luck.

” No I won’t let you finish”,he said, “not as long as you continue to lie.” I remember that clearly. I took a breath and let him continue. The dissenter basically said (I don’t remember that as clearly) that kids today don’t have that shame, they have no reason to be afraid, and that he works with kids and tells them the only thing they have to fear is staying hidden. It’s different now.

The room was clearly shocked and nervous. I heard a few people talking to their neighbors. I saw friends and strangers looking at me, waiting for my response.

I made an effort to be respectful and honest. “Maybe you see it differently and that’s fine. I guess I understand how you could see it that way, but that’s not my experience.”

I could have said a lot of things, but that’s what came out. I could have quoted statistics that I know, like LGBT teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. That 26 percent of LGBT youth become homeless after coming out to their families. I could have shared stories of unnecessary pain and suffering, very recent and from students in Montana schools. I could have shared stories of violence related to me by friends and the media. I could have shared my own stories of discrimination and violence. I could have used the very near example of Matthew Shephard, or Lawrence King, or Angie Zapata. I could have come down hard.

I didn’t.

Part of the reason was personal. I don’t believe that anger and hatred should be met with anger and hatred. That just escalates the conflict. I also feel that I need to respect someone who disagrees with me, at least in some way, because they are probably threatened and scared and in a place familiar to me if I take the time to look. I also know that I don’t want to be a person who becomes ugly and defensive in the face of another’s opinion- nothing saps credibility faster, and I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the material that I present in public, I believe in what I say, and I want to give the audience an opportunity to honestly consider my views.

The other part was that my presentation was about confusion in the LGBT community. I said we confuse sex and intimacy; tolerance and success; safety and secrecy; youth and vitality; chronic illness and health; intoxication and happiness; abuse and affection. We have few role models or examples to teach us about these things, and we’ve learned not to trust the world’s wisdom with our health, safety and well-being. We need people with experience and knowledge to help move beyond these confusions.

To conclude, I had asked over 100 Montanans to answer a couple of questions: “What is your perception of the LGBT community in Montana?” and, “What do we need?” The answers were varied, but mostly critical. They included the perceptions that “there is no community here”; that we are “cliquish”; we drink too much; “People in Montana have guns-I can’t be myself”; my friends are wonderful;”we don’t take care of each other, just our friends”; we’re competitive and mean to each other; we don’t respect the coming out process; “we are not all white with perfect bodies”; “we don’t look at the full spectrum of masculinity and femininity and accept it.” And probably most telling, “I’m more afraid of my LGBT peers than the rest of society- they can hurt me more.”

I had hope that these words from real people would help everyone, including the vocal dissenter, see others reality and respect it, after all, these were not my words, they belonged to our peers- and many of the ideas were repeated over and over, mostly involving safety and the need for a unified community spirit.

I was finally able to continue, although I admit, I wasn’t as calm and collected as I would have liked.

I concluded with the statement, “Our job is to steadily conquer fear by gently and firmly speaking the truth, both to ourselves and to the world- the truth of who we really are.”

And in the end, I have become grateful for my dissenter. I believe that angry, rude voice made my point more eloquently than I ever could have.

Turn and Look.

It’s been an interesting week for me.

We’ve been working to keep a 91-year-old woman in her home- she really wants to stay there, and the only thing preventing that is an upstairs bedroom. She has refused to consider any kind of assisted living. I asked her why she was so resistant to any kind of change. After some prodding, she was finally able to tell me that her fear is that she’ll go into a nursing home and “just die”. Her other fear is that she’ll have to give up her dog, Oscar- really one of the great reasons for her continued quality of life. I said, “Well, you know, that’s not the only option.” She seemed surprised. I said, “What’s the problem here? You going up and down those steep stairs every day. How could you live here and not have to do that?” She said “I was so scared to bring it up- that I’d have to go to a home, that I couldn’t really think of another way I could look at it.”

Talking to some friends and professional people, her daughters and extended family, we came up with a plan. She could move her bedroom downstairs. She’ll lose a dining room- but she doesn’t really use it anyway. Looks like she’ll be able to get what she wants, and those of us who love her are assured that she’ll be in less danger of hurting herself on the steep stairs to the second floor of her home.

It’s been a great reminder for me.

Sometimes, when life starts becoming a little more difficult each day for no obvious or dramatic reason, it can be difficult to find the cause. There may be this gently slipping sense of satisfaction or a slowly degenerating feeling of self-worth, difficult to see as it happens, and only obvious after it becomes a problem. Even then, it can be very confusing.

The reminder I mentioned above is to ask myself “What am I afraid of?”

Living with a gnawing, nagging, nameless fear can be insidious and debilitating. The unconscious mind can form these scary thoughts based on a tiny piece of information, usually pulled out of any context of reality. Then, fed in silence with any combination of denial, low self-esteem and suspicion, this tiny thought grows into something louder and larger, slowly shutting down the ability to reason properly, to feel optimistic, capable, or even lovable.

We have a strange way of dealing with these thoughts. There seems to be a prohibition against speaking of them lest “they become real.” Many of us believe our voices give credence to any out of control thought- that speaking them out loud makes them stronger. I’ve seen it with patients and I’ve seen it in myself.

In fact, the opposite is true.

These debilitating fears grow in darkness and ignorance, they grow in denial and avoidance. I’ve often said that sometimes our fears are like the monster that we do not see chasing us in a dream. In the dream, the monster is loud, scary and makes the most ferocious and horrifying noises as it chases us- so terrifying that we are unable to turn around and look at it. But if this fear is a problem, we must. When I’ve helped others turn, look, and shine a light on the thing, the “monster” is often just a tiny little nobody with a very loud voice. Nothing to be scared of at all. Just a product of an imagination unhindered by reality. After taking a good long look, we often realize the  fear really is tiny after all, that the words it has yelled are untrue and not the great worry they pretended to be.

That was my reminder- to take some time and take a look at what I’m afraid of, see if they’re real, and live my life. Because the fear of a thing is often more debilitating than the thing itself.

When I first became sexually active, I was terrified of AIDS. The fear of the disease dominated my thoughts for years. My mind played out scenarios of death, of being alone, unsupported, estranged, chastised and shunned. It was a circus of fear. And that tiny fear of something real morphed into something not even I could imaginatively do justice. I went on antidepressants, postponed testing appointments, went to therapy, sought comfort in friends, but I still never mentioned to anyone how terrified I was.

Then I was diagnosed with HIV.

All the fears evaporated in the face of reality: of the gift of my life, my family, my friends, my dog and my doctor. All of those crazy fears. Gone. That monster on my back that lied to me for years and years was suddenly replaced with my own thoughts, renewed by the gifts of compassion I received from others and from myself. In a way I was forced to turn and look at the “monster”, but it worked just the same. He disappeared.

And I can honestly say, I have never felt that fear since.

Life is no picnic for someone with HIV- taking meds, finding insurance coverage to pay for them, negotiating relationships, making distinctions between privacy and secrecy, in many cases being unable to move out of the State of diagnosis for insurance and financial reasons. Many of us have fears of losing our health insurance (If we have it in the first place),losing our jobs if our employer finds out about our status. We fear making too much money in order to keep our eligibility for medication coverage- which is important- my meds cost $25,000.00 a year, almost as much as the salary of a therapist. We worry about social stigma, personal safety, health issues, and on and on and on.

There can be a lot of worries.

But, honestly, there is not the terror that lived with me day and night before the diagnosis. Now, for me, the worries do not begin to outnumber the blessings.  I learned my lesson, and now I take the time to turn and look at my fear.

That monster has no power here.

“Why” is sometimes not a useful question.

I have plumbed the depths of philosophy academically and personally, enjoying the adventure of following the question “why?” to some sort of conclusion. Probably you are the same, enjoying speculative conversations with friends or colleagues and bantering about various points of interest and disparity. It can be fun and educational. Many in the scientific community look at asking “Why?” as an important first step of curiosity in the exploration of natural phenomena, leading to brilliant discoveries and a greater understanding of the natural world.
However, when I’m looking at human behavior and thought patterns, either in myself or a client, “Why?” can often be a stumbling block to understanding. It can often remove the inquirer from the present moment, rocketing them off into the fuzzy realms of philosophy, and consequently can lead to more questions, many of which are unable to be answered.
In my years of work, both personally and professionally, I have found another question to be more helpful. I prefer asking questions beginning with “What”. It’s much more aligned with the present moment and can be a great help in focusing the attention. For example “What am I feeling right now?” Or, “What did I get from this behavior?” These specifics can help create an understanding by giving particular information- by being direct rather than circular. In short, it’s more efficient. This is particularly valuable when working with depression, anxiety and/or substance abuse issues when time can be a very important factor to a person’s health and well-being.
I’ve also found that “Why?” is often a distraction, my way of pretending to deal with an issue but not actually dealing with it directly. We humans sometimes love to take the long road, but the problem with using “Why?” as a starting point is that it often leads farther away from a solution rather than closer. Many of my “Why?” questions have no answer- it may be fun to explore these questions, but if I’m really looking to get more information in order to make better choices and increase my self-understanding it’s not the most productive.
Most of us want the truth sooner or later- but it’s often much easier to deal with if we discover it for ourselves.