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Monday, November 5, 2012

On legislating morality


In the run-up to tomorrow's vote, I have often been disappointed at the lack of thoughtful debate about the constitutional amendment to define marriage. On both sides, the issue is considered self-evident - civil rights on the one hand, the sanctity of marriage as a foundational building block of family and society on the other. I have waited until the day before the election for the argument to get close to the core of the issue, which is what my illustrious life partner brings up in his post. The core question is: To what extent should we try to legislate morality?

In the 21st century, most of us agree that our laws should not land people in prison for adultery or showing their ankles in public, but they should punish theft or murder. It has little meaning to say that our laws should not legislate morality at all, because they inevitably do. The laws of the modern state lay down common rules so that different people can live harmoniously in close proximity, so that the freedom of one person does not result in harm being done to another. Sometimes that does require legislating morality: Even though some people may not consider stealing to be bad, it hurts others, so the government steps in with laws to make stealing illegal (unless you're a Wall Street banker, but that is a different story).

Now, what category does marriage fall in? Does a loving union of two people hurt others? Some would say that even if a union is entered by two consenting adults, it will hurt them or society in the long run. I say that to follow this logic would also be to forbid marriages between people under 30, those with low incomes, or between Evangelical Christians - all three groups more likely than the average population to get divorced. Using the same logic, someone may come along one day and say that my practice of the Christian faith is a backward mythology that impedes progress and hurts society, so I should be forbidden from teaching it to my children.

For people like me, who find rich nourishment in the Christian roots of our civilization, history is full of stark warnings against forcing others to live by our morality. Without the transforming experience of genuine belief, a legislated morality either produces a fundamentalist response in the opposite direction, or acts as a vaccine against the very faith that gives morality its meaning.

So should we as a society make a new law about marriage tomorrow? I would argue that we should not legislate on who should be able to marry, just like we should not legislate on who can hold a job, have kids or practice their religion. To use a literary metaphor, the laws we produce should not attempt to be a dictionary that defines words just the way we like them; but a grammar book showing how different particles with different logics can form a harmonious and meaningful whole.


Constitutional Marriage

On Tuesday in Minnesota we vote not only for our favorite politicians (or least disliked) but also whether or not to add an amendment to our state constitution to define “marriage” as between one man and one woman.

For the moment I would like to table any discussion of the morality of homosexuality (i.e. the religious judgment that it is wrong or not wrong) or arguments about equal rights and look at the issue from a constitutional lens. This argument centers on the separation of church and state and how this new amendment oversteps the bounds of the government.

I have heard many argue that they are for civil unions but not for gay marriage because “marriage” is a religious word that has always meant a union between a man and a woman. And I think I would be ok with that. I would be ok with a religion defining marriage as between one man and one woman and not allowing members of the same sex to marry in their church. I would disagree with them but that is their choice to do so.

My question is, however, what business does the government have in defining marriage? If marriage is a religious term, then the government should not be calling its ceremonies that it performs at its courthouses "marriages". Rather it should call all of these ceremonies "civil unions". (Both hetero and homosexual) We should leave "marriages" to be decided by different religions.

Now granted some churches would allow homosexuals to "marry" as they defined it and others wouldn't, but that would be up to that religion to decide. Just as it is up to religions to define who is “saved” or “baptized” even though these definitions look very different in different groups and these groups would disagree with one another’s claims.

And unfortunately the state has already adopted this term of "marriage" that it uses in its civil ceremonies. I wonder if it would be possible for us to instead of trying to increase government’s involvement in marriage, to decrease it by actually taking out the term “marriage” from civil ceremonies and have people no longer “married” in the eyes of the state but “unioned”. (someone would have to come up with a better term but you know what I mean) This would put the definition of marriage back into the hands of the church rather than the state.

It seems that we are going the wrong direction on this.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Giving Notice

As of this week I have officially given notice to my work that I will be leaving in two months to prepare for our move to Poland.  Leading up to this week has been full of anxiety, worrying about what  my bosses will say, what my coworkers will think and how my clients will take the news.  Quitting at a therapy clinic is not an easy endeavor.  I went back and forth for a long time trying to decide how long of notice I would give and decided on two months notice.  All my friends thought I was crazy for giving this amount of time and I was feeling badly within myself for not giving more.  I rationalized that  two months was enough to still do some work with a new client and a good point to stop the flow of intakes coming to see me.  Now I am on the other side of giving notice which, while less anxiety producing, is rather surreal.  There is still a lot of work to do at work closing down shop and a mountain of paperwork to tackle but reality is different now.  We have already bought one way tickets (which were free with frequent flier miles) but this was the step that made it even more real to me that we were actually going to move.  Somehow I thought we could return those tickets if we needed but with work I don't think I can take back giving notice.  Even if there was an emergency that cancelled our trip, my identity in the company is forever changed.  What has been spoken has been released into the world and cannot be recaptured.  Yet now there is no more waiting in ambiguity, a decision has been made and has been announced.  There is only preparation and enjoying the friends, family and places around us.  I now feel free to face forward into the wind.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Book of hours

All who seek you
test you.
And those who find you
bind you to image and gesture.

I would rather sense you
as the earth senses you.
In my ripening
ripens
your realm.

I need from you no tricks
to prove you exist.
Time, I know,
is other than you.

No miracles, please.
Just the laws
that appear clearer
with each generation.

(Rainier Maria Rilke, translation after Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

He is Risen

This weekend is Easter and what should be the most important day of the year in my tradition. In the family I grew up in Easter always took a back seat to Christmas - maybe not in words but definitely in actions. In the morning there was always a trail of jelly beans leading to an Easter basket full of candy the Easter bunny had left. Then it was time to go to church and then to my grandma's house for a boring lunch. There was a hollowness when I compared it to the excitement that came around Christmas time with its lights, presents, christmas carols and a contagious atmosphere of good cheer. The subdued pastels, white lilies, and jelly beans of this spring celebration never really appealed to me and the holiday has imprinted in me the same feel of the plastic grass I used to get in my Easter basket. This feeling of emptiness has been intensified because many of my closest friends and acquaintances that I spend time with are burned out with Christianity. Either they have survived a traumatic childhood with strict and fundamentalist parents or they have had the life slowly drained from them by years of pastel sermons and cliche slogans that Easter no longer has any meaning.

This Easter I find myself longing for authentic faith. I long for hollow cliches to be filled with meaning. I want to say "He is risen" and have it actually mean something. I actually want to pray and reflect on the meaning of what I sincerely feel is the most moving and hope-filled story that I have ever encountered. And I am not usually one for devotional time or reading the Bible daily but I actually want to today. I find myself returning to the old traditions like a prospector to an abandoned mine, desiring to bring the rusted machinery back to life, to get old gears and pulleys moving. Last night I had a strong desire to take part in communion and invite some friends that were over to take part in this tradition that is close to my soul. Unfortunately, my fear prevailed and I kept silent, not wanting to risk the rolling of eyes or the wrinkling of noses. And now today in the daylight my fear seems so absurd and I realize that when others feel that something is meaningful to you, they will respect it and maybe even gain something from the experience. This Tuesday I am attending a Jewish Seder meal that a good friend is facilitating, and I am so excited to take part in and learn from this friend's tradition. Why is it that I don't expect others to respect my own tradition in the same way? I just need to have the confidence to enter into that experience and to share myself and my heart with others with courage.

I think next year will be different.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

On having or not having children

Last night, we had the pleasure of sharing a a delicious last-minute dinner with our friends Joel and Crista. Being in a very similar place in life - young, married professionals with no kids, able to meet up at a day's notice - we slowly wandered into a conversation about the dilemmas of starting a family.

Like for so many people our age, the decision whether to have children is weighed by a huge disconnect between the family model we know and the world in which we live.

We grew up in families where both parents worked, but the mother either gave up her job when the kids were little, or continued to work part-time with some loss to her career. Women made large gains in equality in the workplace, but it was still assumed that the woman would naturally carry most of the responsibility for making a home and raising children. This is the model that we know from experience, and I've blogged before about the residual effect that it has on my expectations of myself as a wife.

But for a variety of reasons, this model can no longer be taken for granted because for many families, it simply no longer works. We live in a world where the economy is increasingly indifferent to the physical strength of men. The skills and abilities required in today's workplace - like emotional intelligence and the ability to work well with people - are predominantly female attributes. There is strong evidence that "the modern economy is becoming a place where women hold the cards" - women already get the majority of Bachelor's degrees, hold the majority of jobs in the US, and dominate in 13 of the 15 job types predicted to grow the most in the next decade.

We see this shift among the families we know - it is often the woman who has the more lucrative degree, gets the better job, and makes more money than the man. All this has profound implications for family life.

As it often happens, the shift in the economy coincides with a shift in prevailing attitudes. It's been interesting to observe this change in very different families we know - conservative and liberal, in Poland and America, both religious and not. It is no longer assumed that the woman is the automatic caregiver for her children, and we see many mothers continue their very successful careers while fathers scale back on work and take a much more active role in raising the kids. While it is hard for some at first, this new arrangement is no longer raising eyebrows like it used it.

This is nothing new. For example, at a time in ancient Mesopotamia when women were in charge of the fields and gardens, the society was a matriarchy and worshiped female gods. Then the means of producing food changed with the invention of the plough. The plough was much heavier and gave men the advantage over women in economic production, and it was right around the time when it was adopted that Mesopotamian society shifted towards patriarchy, with male priests and gods. It is crazy to think that differences in the status of women to this day are tied to whether their ancestors tilled the land with a hoe or the plough. We are now seeing a reverse shift - when the economy begins to favor women, women gain in freedom and social prominence.

Now, I would be wrong to claim that the model I grew up with no longer works for anybody. It works rather well for many women and my close friends who do a beautiful job at motherhood. But there is an important difference with the past - the decision for the woman to stay at home or scale back on work is not automatic, but the outcome of a mutual understanding between the partners. It is no longer assumed that it is mainly the woman's job to nurture the children - how that is arranged depends on a mutual decision.

So where does that leave us? We face the task of reaching a mutually satisfying understanding about how our family is going to work for two professionals who both find great fulfillment in our jobs. Is it possible to strike such an agreement in the 21st century? In the next post, I will talk about the many reasons why it's extremely hard. In the next one after that, I will try to explain how it might be possible. Meanwhile, the thoughts and comments of our mysterious seven readers will be much appreciated.

Friday, October 21, 2011

This is all it took today


Dear Gmail: I would love to consider including David Gillner. More than anything in this world, I would love to do that. In fact, that is all I think of. I consider including him at the dinner table when I count the plates. I consider including him when I find a piece of great new music, and when I hear Danish on the train and wonder what it means. I consider including him in the group of us traveling together, and in the list of Christmas presents, and the people who should be wishing me a happy birthday. I consider including David Gillner in choosing the names for my children and writing my eulogy. I consider including him in the tally of who should ride in which car to the funeral, only to realize it is his.

The thing these days, however, is that I can't include him. I wish your fancy algorithms were right this time, but death does not figure too well in your formula. How about if you consider fucking yourself.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Lord Have Mercy

I have been speaking to a very godly man recently, much to my frustration. He is very rational and intelligent and has a very systematic and air tight theology that is very difficult to penetrate if you disagree with him. In fact disagreeing with him often ends, for me, in feeling unintelligible or irrational. I admit that I do have an irrational streak in me yet I reject the negative associations with that word. I have come to realize that there are two different types of folks in this world, those who are lovers of beauty and those who are lovers of logic. Now I believe that neither of these are inherently better than the other yet both have a lot to learn from one another. My wife ,for example, is a lover of logic and I am a lover of beauty. She needs to understand the systematic rationale for believing in a certain idea before she will believe it where as I will often use my intuition to determine whether something is true or not and then possibly come up with rational reasons afterward( or not, much to the frustration of lovers of logic) The goal, I believe, is to attempt not to look down on one another's orientation yet learn from one another.

However, I have noticed in my conversations with this godly man that we both are very set in our ways. He with his arguments and I with my intuitions, and we come to very different conclusions on matters. Despite being confident in my beliefs I find that after talking to this man I start to wonder how one of us, if not both of us, are wrong and how on earth are we going to be able to change if we are both so stuck in our ways? At the present moment I don't have any inkling of changing my positions and I am pretty sure this man is not going to change his mind. So it seems that we are at an impasse. Which scares me. I think in some sense we all think we are right about what we believe and it seems like it would take a miracle for either one of us to change our beliefs. There is probably no argument that I could muster that would change this man's mind and I have to admit I have my doubts whether he could show me any beauty that would sway me. So how then do we change? Do we simply wait for the resurrection and the Deus ex machina? Or God, do you have any miracles up your sleeve? Lord have mercy on us and our deeply held convictions.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why I don't blog about academia

Somebody asked me today why I rarely blog about my graduate program or the work that I do at the university. It is a fair question - I have the rare privilege of studying something I truly care about, and I get paid to think and write about these things in my job... So why not write about that?

Reason #1: I have a pervasive fear of turning into a boring academic whose friends flee at the very mention of the words "dissertation" or "research findings." I realize that many of my friends and family still shake their heads in disbelief at my choice to stay in school for any longer than absolutely necessary, and it would just not be fair to bore you with the details of university governance structures or strategies for graduate employability.

Reason #2: I stare at a computer and write academic papers for my job. Then I go to class, where I listen to academic lectures, or write assignments for these classes that require more intense thinking and staring at a computer screen. When I get any time in between these activities, I think and write and tear my hair out over another big academic paper called a dissertation. In the rare occasion when I have it in me to stay at the computer screen just a bit longer to write a blog post, theoretical frameworks or research paradigms are about the last thing I want to think about.

That being said, I have recently been inspired to chip away at this self-constructed wall between work and life by two distinct sparks. One of them was an article by C.W. Mills on the sociological imagination, which is academic in nature and so will remain undiscussed until my inspiration turns into reality. ;) The second spark is my new friend Thomas, who is a political scientist and an expert on the Middle East. He has a vast and deep knowledge of his subject area, and he consciously breaks outside of academic circles by writing for newspapers, submitting corrections about untrue press reports, posting headlines and commentaries on Facebook, attending protests, etc. He has perfected the ability of bringing his knowledge to bear on the life that goes on around him every day, be it the protests in Tunisia, unrest in Egypt, or the arrest of a Chechen man in Austria. He has inspired me to bring my daily work to bear on what I see in the news or talk about with friends. My field, after all, is education, which affects pretty much everyone. So I conclude this post about why I don't blog about academia with the concession that it is perhaps only right that I should.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rachel getting pregnant

My friend Rachel is pregnant. She and her husband Darren are the first in our immediate group of friends to pass this big milestone, and Rachel is the first close friend whose pregnancy I've gotten to witness in a day-to-day fashion. We used to joke around about who would have kids first, but it was always rather obvious it would be her - my labor phobia combined with our itinerant life plan pretty much guaranteed that. We even once went to an art fair together, and I bought a card especially for her that said in big letters "I'm glad you're having a baby," and in small letters "and I'm not." After the card gathered dust for a few years, I finally got to dig it up a couple of weeks ago, and I had a moment of profound awe as I placed it in the mailbox. I've had a similar feeling every time I see Rachel with her tummy slightly bigger than the week before. While the message of the card still holds true, and I do not feel anywhere close to ready to join in the club, I find it moving and, well yes, sort of epic, that my friend is becoming a part of a story that will reach so far beyond her and be told long after she is gone. To her little baby boy, she will be the first Woman. She will be somebody's mom, that defining figure he will associate with warmth and love; the mysterious force he will one day try to describe to a partner or decipher in therapy like I still try to decipher my parents. Maybe one day he will say to me: You knew my mom before I was born. What was she like back then? And I will answer - yes, I knew her. I saved a card for her for three years before you were born, saw her belly grow each week, and helped paint your baby room in their first house. Let me tell you about the art she made everywhere she turned, from stationery to food. In fact, let me tell you about the time...

I know kids don't usually ask these sorts of questions about their parents, at least until all their parents' friends are dead; I know these sorts of narratives are more common in literature than in real life. Yet I can't help but realize the good fortune of having friends close enough that the birth of their kids is a major event in my own life, inspiring dreamy and tender thoughts about their future as well as my own.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happiness for Benjamin

My brother is working in the Netherlands for a couple of months, and he feels lonely there all by himself. Today he asked me to send some happiness his way, so here is my best attempt. Dear Benjamin:

Remember the long summer days when we were little kids? Even though mom could hardly get us out of bed on school days, as soon as school was over, we jumped out of bed at first crack of dawn, and we ran down to the back yard to play. Remember how we used to make soup and magic potions out of the berries that grew on the hedge, and soak in the old metal tub when we got hot? Once when you were just a toddler, your sisters and I dressed you in one of our old bathing suits. It was hot pink and very girlie, but you thought it was the greatest thing in the world to look just like your big sisters. We still have a picture somewhere of you in the pink suit, splashing in the tub with a big grin on your face. Those days were nothing but happiness, and it didn't matter that rust was peeling off the old tub or that our family was poor.

Growing up, of course, robs us of the utterly carefree joys of childhood. But its glimmers are still around you in the simple things - the rays of morning sunshine, the satisfaction of a good meal, a hearty laugh with a friend, the way humans still fall in love despite thousands of years of heartbreak. In a way, your ability to feel dissatisfaction or emptiness is the other side of a coin that has a happy face. Until very recently - and in many parts of the world it hasn't changed to this day - all but a few people have experienced heartache and toil as such obvious aspects of daily life that they know little else. You, my brother, feel the loneliness of this season because you have known many other, sunnier ones. The best way I can send you some happiness in this cold time of year is by stating it loud and clear that this too shall pass - so you might as well get out there and earn yourself a better next season. Remembering this is how I survive in this dreadfully frigid place with six-month winters - and you know just how much I hate the cold. Winter is much easier to live through if it's in the shadow of the coming summer. It's not endless, so I might as well enjoy some sledding or snow fights! So think of the warm summer days in our back yard when it gets cold, and I hope they warm you up on the inside so you can put up a snow fight or two before it's all over.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Couch time



Today marked the beginning of a highly unusual week. In fact, I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a week such as this one.

I am not working or going to class, and I don't have any plans for the next seven days.

When I realized this today, it gave me an odd feeling. I couldn't remember the last time this happened! Of course, I remember the last time I was off work for a week: my friend and my sister were visiting, and I was showing them my new home on this side of the Atlantic. The time before that, I took time off to travel to Poland to work at an arts festival. In the last two years, there have been a few week-long research trips or visits with family. But as much as I rack my brain, I can't remember the last time I was home for a week with nothing urgent on my to-do list.

Before I moved to America, week-long periods of rest or mere inactivity seemed a lot more common. It may have had to do with the fact that I lived in the world of academia, but I live in the same kind of world here. It may also have to do with being in a doctoral program now, so perhaps what I say needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Yet when people ask me if there is anything that surprised me about life in this country, the pace of life is usually the first thing that comes to mind. Americans work a lot more and take less time off than people in Poland. While I admire the work ethic I see here, I find that it sometimes goes too far - people seem to take pride in always staying busy, never missing a day of work, or giving back paid vacation days, which creates a whole culture of overwork-ness. What gets lost along the way is time to just be, to sit back and reflect on the purpose of all that frantic activity, be silent enough to pray, to remember friends and think new thoughts.

It is perhaps a mark of my advanced acculturation that the first thing I thought of today was making a to-do list for my week off. There is laundry to be done, my heinously messy closet, shelves I got for Christmas last year still waiting to be hung, heaps of unanswered emails, a Christmas letter that is already late... I didn't make a list though. I sat on this couch for most of the day, at times immersed in a novel about nothing academic whatsoever, and at times mildly uncomfortable in the silence. Tomorrow shall worry about itself - today I had the good sense to leave the worrying to the couch.

Photo courtesy of Becca