Moving forward in my counseling program, I find myself wondering what really helps people. Last night Alma asked me, “What helped you?”
How do people change? Why do some people overcome profound loss, abuse and tragedy, while other people just fade away? This is a particularly sensitive question right now as we watch a loved one struggle with serious mental illness and addiction. We both look back on our troubled younger years and see so many forks in the road where we could have taken a lethal turn–and didn’t. And so many others did. So what made the difference for me?
1. Relationships. I am blessed with an awesome family that has always supported me. I have always had good friends. Relationships are a double benefit. People were there to help me and talk to me, which was invaluable; and just knowing that they loved me was itself a powerful incentive not to hurt myself. Though I considered suicide many times, I never attempted to end my life–as soon as I thought about how I would do it, I thought about the people I would leave behind, especially my little brother.
2. Radical consciousness. I got into social justice at a young age, and it’s been endlessly valuable to me. I learned that just because you’ve been told you’re disgusting and worthless doesn’t mean you are. Society is often wrong. I learned how to see myself as in the same boat as other marginalized people. And I learned that respecting them meant respecting me, too. I could sink really low, but pretty soon I’d see the injustice of it all, and then I’d get angry–and then I didn’t want to die anymore. Radical consciousness allowed me to adopt a stance of defiance instead of defeat.
3. Religion & spirituality. When things started to get really scary for me as a teenager, I retreated into my religion. I studied Jewish philosophy and kabbalah, and I talked Torah with rabbis ranging from Reform to Hasidic. I read about other religious traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. I saw myself at a crossroads, and I had a choice: the path of life or the path of death. I chose life, and clung desperately to every scrap of help and meaning I could find; for me that was God, and my tribe, and my tradition, and mysticism of many varieties. Religion gave me the sense that there is meaning in the universe, the sense of being connected to a tradition across place and time, and a rich repository of narrative and poetry to draw upon in times of need. Ecstatic experiences of awe made me feel life is really worth living. I embraced life as a quest for connection and truth.
So that’s what helped me. But does that really account for it? Through these three things, there is still something unexplained, an x-factor. I always sensed the meaning and value of relationships, radical consciousness, and religion; I was able to take advantage of them. I wanted to take advantage of them. Perhaps that is the key ingredient. But what is it? Did I really just help myself? Why was I able to? Is it will to live, random chance, hope, strength, luck, faith, genetic predisposition, destiny?
I wish that I knew.
I enjoyed this recent article on Outward about celibate LGBT Christians. What is the place of celibate people in the LGBT community? And what is the relationship among religion, the choice to partner or be celibate, and LGBT lives?
Although author Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart throws around “LGBT” and “LGBTQ” like free condoms at a Pride parade, the piece is really about celibate gay and lesbian Christians, as far as I can tell. These are not ex-gay culture warriors, but people who accept and openly share their gay/lesbian orientations, who choose a life of celibacy in accordance with their religious convictions. Unfortunately, celibate gay/lesbian Christians face ignorance and hostility both in their conservative Christian communities and in the mainstream LGBT community. This question is a bit different for trans people, as sex and marriage aren’t the be-all, end-all of acceptance issues for us. However, I think there are also some transgender people who embrace their gender identities and choose celibacy based on the teachings of their traditions.
First, I’d like to say I have total respect for all LGBT people who are making meaningful lives that work for them. We’re not all the same, and we don’t have to be. We can respect each other and work together, and live very different lives–indeed, we already do.
One complaint with the article: Vitiello Urquhart sets up a dichotomy between religious, celibate, LGBT Christians on the one hand, and the mainstream, secular LGBT community on the other. These two groups both exist, but they are far from the whole story.
This convenience obscures several important axes of diversity among LGBT people. First, of course, Christianity is not the only religion with LGBT followers. There are many LGBT people within Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Native American religions, etc. Within these religions are many communities, with different views on LGBT issues. And there are also many Christian communities that support sex and marriage for LGBT people.
I imagine this issue in terms of 4 possible perspectives:
Sex & marriage permitted
Sex & marriage permitted
To be complete, the conversation must span the full range of viewpoints in our community. That means including religions beyond Christianity, and viewpoints beyond just 1 and 4. Viewpoint 3 is held by pretty much no one and not all that relevant, so count that out.
But what about viewpoint 2–religious people who support sex and marriage for LGBT people? We make up sizeable contingents of both LGBT people and religious people. What those holding views 1 and 4 may not understand is that we support full inclusion for LGBT people directly because of our religious beliefs.
My own views on LGBT acceptance are grounded in my faith and the teachings of my tradition. This runs so deep, I’m not even sure how to capture it. I can cite verses and traditions that support my views, but really, this isn’t about one teaching–this about the basic orientation of Judaism to human life. Consider this story.
A man wanted to convert to Judaism, on one peculiar condition: that a rabbi could teach him the whole of the Torah while he stood on one foot (i.e., very quickly). Continue reading