47th Story of Transgression: I Refuse to Bow to the Mythology of Self Sacrifice

Sacrifice (verb): to surrender or give up, or permit injury or disadvantage to, for the sake of something else.

Origin: 1225–75; (noun) Middle English < Old French < Latin sacrificium, equivalent to sacri- (combining form of sacer holy) + -fic-,combining form of facere to make, do1 + -ium ; (v.) Dictionary.com

To sacrifice originally meant to make holy or sacred. But Western culture has lost all sense of what is sacred and sacrifice came to mean diminishing our needs/desires in order to meet the needs/desires of others, especially those in power. Self-sacrifice requires the belief that something outside of ourselves is superior to our own needs/desires and we must offer up the best of who we are to serve it – whether family, king, cause or god. The myth of self-sacrifice believes in the value of caring and serving those in power regardless of personal cost (which non-coincidentally characterizes attitudes toward women’s work). It is often in the name of sacrifice that we diminish who we are, who/what/how we love, or what we stand for. Instead of honoring our own holiness/sacredness, we give our light away and call it noble (which is also a questionable concept that requires sacrifice for one’s role in the family and/or superior class in order to maintain one’s privilege).

Sacrifice and belonging go hand in hand. Humans have a deep need for belonging. If we refuse to sacrifice ourselves to those who claim superiority, we may be punished and/or exiled. Refusal to sacrifice may mean we lose our belonging, so we choose to offer our bodies, hearts, and souls on the altar in exchange for our inclusion.  

“Stories save your life. And stories are your life. We are our stories: stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison.” Rebecca Solnit

Our cultural prison is built upon the mythology of superiority and the consequential requirement of self-sacrifice. If you look closely at our stories, from television to religious mythology, sacrifice is offered as the most important story we can live. We venerate sacrifice over sovereignty, elevating the person who gives themselves away over the person who directs their own life.  We celebrate giving oneself away to god, king/country, cause, or family as if it is the greatest thing a person can do. The worst thing we can be is “selfish” and follow our own ideas rather than the script we’ve been given. To be sovereign is to be transgressive.

Why does our mythology exalt giving ourselves away and living for other people? How does this mythology profit the systems and people in power, from governments to businesses?

The Western mythology of self-sacrifice began with the Greeks, where stories tell of men giving their lives for a nation and heroes giving their lives for others to live. Then came the story of Jesus making “the greatest sacrifice” to save us from eternal damnation (and before that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on an altar simply because God told him to). Christianity, the dominant religion of the West, demands kenosis – the self-emptying of one’s own will to become entirely receptive to God’s divine will. It’s an ethic of sacrifice that requires surrender to the will of a superior being that may or may not exist, but who has plenty of intermediaries that will speak on its behalf for their own gain.

Why do we assume a divine will that is superior to our own? How does that set us up to believe in the superiority of others’ will, whether our parents, government, CEOs or religious leaders?

Why is the sacrifice of life required to appease god? Why do we believe god to be transactional? Could it simply be our way of imagining we have control over the chaos of life? Perhaps we look for salvation outside ourselves because we’ve never taken the time to imagine how it comes from inside ourselves. Or because we haven’t been allowed to look inside ourselves by an authoritarian culture that thrives on a lack of self-awareness.

How many stories do we ingest daily that involve someone sacrificing their own life/existence so that others may live/exist, as if some lives are worth continuing more than others? Or stories where someone in power chooses who is more worthy of life?

Our culture is built on the mythology of superiority and diminishing ourselves for the elevation of others. Our mythology conditions us to give our power away to someone who supposedly knows better than we do about everything, including ourselves. We have to dig deep to unravel these conditionings if we are to be liberated from them.

We need to analyze the myths we currently live by if we are to transform our culture. Right now our stories are our prison, but we can turn them into crowbars. We need new mythologies that show us what is possible beyond the stories of supremacy that we’ve been conditioned to believe are real for thousands of years. We need to recognize that all of life is story and we have a choice as to whether we live by our own story or someone else’s.

I no longer believe in the mythology of self-sacrifice. Giving myself away led me to martyrdom and breakdown. Instead, I believe in the power of choice, choosing what is sacred, or set apart, from the rest of the possibilities. I no longer believe in family-of-origin obligation, which my narcissist mother wielded as a weapon, I believe in choosing my people. I no longer believe in compromise, I believe in choosing to make agreements based on agency and intimacy that allow a relationship to work for all involved. Choice and agreement honor sovereignty in a way that self-sacrifice and compromise do not.

I want to rid us of the practice of sacrificing ourselves for others. Instead, I want to identify what is sacred to each of us and what our devotion to the sacred looks like. For example, because honoring my children’s wholeness was sacred to me I devoted much of my life to them. It was never sacrifice, it was an ongoing act of intentional devotion. Because writing as an act of self and communal awareness is sacred to me I set apart sacred time and space for the practice of writing. Because community is sacred to me I set apart time, space, and labor to build and nurture community. I am not giving anything up by choosing these things, I am taking a stand for what I am devoted to.

I want us to make our lives full of the sacred instead of relegating the sacred to religious/spiritual places and rites. This is a big piece of what inspires my theology of the God-Between-Us. If God is in the space between us where relationship plays out, then relationship is sacred. If God is in the space between me and the earth (the force of gravity), and between me and the natural world (the sun, plants, animals, etc. generously giving themselves to my subsistence), then my relationship to All of Life is sacred. In my relational practices, from god to plants, no one is superior and sacrifice is unnecessary.

Western culture has got it all backward. When we honor each other as we are in our complex humanity, and when we are free to follow our hearts (without causing harm), then we experience thriving together. Right now we are more disconnected than ever, partly because we are exhausted by the mythology of self-sacrifice and how it plays out in our daily lives – our work, our activism, our relationships. We are tired of sacrificing our work and livelihood on the altar of capitalism. We are sick of sacrificing our own well-being to make others comfortable. We are overwhelmed by sacrificing our needs for the community because the structures for community care are missing. We are isolating ourselves because we want the space to be authentic to our needs and desires and we believe we can only do that by staying away from humans that may try to place further demands on us. We are afraid of each other and how we might be diminished if we relate.  

If we are to come back to each other and create the community bonds necessary for long term survival in a world on fire, then we need to work out new ways of being together where no one is superior and no one is required to make sacrifices in order to belong. We need to honor the power of choice, in ourselves and in one another. We need to make communal relationship sacred again and put structures for community care in place. Most of all we need stories that show us how.

Image by kellepics at Pixabay

46th Story of Transgression: I was Raised by Addict Parents

                                Me at My 6th Grade Graduation

In 6th grade we lived in a one-bedroom apartment alongside the off-ramp of a highway (our building was once hit by a semi truck). Ours was the only residence on a block with a car dealership, liquor store, and mini-stripmall. If I remember correctly, we were living on combined alimony and child support from my dad, which came to about $650/month, in addition to a tiny income my step-dad was making by picking items for a thrift store a few hours a week. Many of our household items came from this store.

My resourceful stepdad, Jay, built a wall of shelves to separate the living room from the dining room and create a 2nd bedroom. My younger sister and I shared the regular bedroom, but we had no privacy since everyone had to go through our room to get to the bathroom and go through my parents’ room to get to the kitchen (though it was certainly better than the 18 ft trailer we lived in the summer prior when I would wake up to my parents having sex).

Our front yard was a concrete rectangle between the two one-story buildings of five apartments each that made up the complex. The ends were contained by waist high metal fences with a gate. When our parents forced us outside for hours at a time so that they could sniff crank up their noses and smoke pot with their friends, my sister and I would bring a cassette player out to the porch and play Madonna or the radio and make up dance routines.

It was the year I started public school after attending a Christian private school since kindergarten. The only music I had heard up until this point were church hymns and Neil Diamond, the one secular singer my mom refused to give up for my dad’s conservative Christianity. As a musically inclined child I quickly fell in love with pop music and the icons coming up at the time – Whitney Houston, Prince, and Michael Jackson. I had a secret dream of joining the drill team at junior high the following year. I was trying my best to choreograph routines, but while I had a good sense of rhythm I was not at all inclined towards choreographed movement. I never worked up the courage to try out. Even if I’d had, we couldn’t have afforded the uniform or any other costs that inevitably come with extracurricular activities.

Sixth grade was also the first year that I had to manage going to school while living in poverty with addicts.

My most vivid memory of this apartment is the night that my parents simultaneously got drunk and high on crank and then fought, which had become our new normal. But on this particular night, Jay, in his ridiculous inebriation, pissed in the refrigerator, which set my mom on a record rampage. The fight ended with Jay on the roof of the apartment building, hooting and hollering like a monkey, and waving a 2×4 around while the police forced him down (were any of us able to look our neighbors in the eye after that?). During another substance fueled argument Jay pushed over the wall of shelves he’d built onto the floor and many sentimental items of my mother’s were broken. He never hit my mom (he was gentle and adoring when not inebriated), but he did take his overwhelming frustration with her out on property. We went through several phones that year.

My other vivid memory is the night my mom was so high that I had to hold her up and walk her to her bed. I was only 11 years old and already our roles were reversed. Little did I know that we would repeat a version of this scene nearly 30 years later, on Christmas night in my own home with my own children, when she was delirious with sleeping pills and pain medication. She knocked over the tree, breaking ornaments, and she pushed the shower door out of it’s frame because she couldn’t walk straight. I had to babysit her for the rest of the night to keep her contained on the couch so she wouldn’t take even more medication and so the rest of the family could sleep in peace. Eight months later she would die in her bed, alone, of an accidental overdose due to those same medications.

My step-dad was a good man, but he was also a maintenance alcoholic since age 17. He drank a case of beer a day simply to maintain during our more peaceful years. He came from an abusive home and then he was sent to Vietnam, which he never spoke about in detail. Like many men of his generation he was emotionally broken and he self medicated with alcohol, along with different drugs at different times over the course of his life. He left my mom for a woman that offered him heroin. He was a tramp before and after he lived with us. He was incapable of a normal life.

My mom, however, was not a typical addict. She could pick something up and then put it down with ease. But she kept picking things up. She believed she needed something outside of herself to save her from her pain. Men. Jesus. Alcohol. Sex and a codependent relationship with an alcoholic. Crank. Jesus. Alcohol. Jesus. Pain pills. Fentanyl patches. And then she died of a medication overdose. She never found peace with herself. Pain eventually overshadowed everything she put her heart into. And while I can blame the medical industry for her death (a future essay), I know that this habit of escaping her pain – pain that included living with the horror of Morgellon’s her last year – played a part in the end.

When I write stories like this, the ones based in memories that hurt, I think about the girl who lived through all of this. At the time it all seemed normal, but now I am utterly amazed by my own resilience. I am proud that beginning at 14 I did everything I knew how to make my life better. I never allowed culture’s story about me or my circumstances to determine my story. And eventually I learned how to create my own safety, as well as how to be safe for my people to be with (because family violence is inherited).

There is a cultural story about a woman having it all, but that story doesn’t apply to me. After having grown up in poverty with addict parents and the repeated traumas that led to Complex PTSD, having it all looks like having a safe home, a healthy partnership, and the financial stability to support a beautiful little life. That’s it. Anything more is a cherry on top of the sundae that is my life today.

Image: I am dancing at my 6th grade graduation in a dress I made myself because we couldn’t afford a fancy dress from a department store and my mom was an excellent seamstress.

Radical Inclusion and the Soul

It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway; the soul prefers to imagine. We know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth, as when we say certain music has soul or a remarkable person is soulful. When you look closely at the image of soulfulness, you see that it is tied to life in all its particulars – good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.” Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul

One of my early teachers in radical inclusion by another name was Thomas Moore. In the early 90’s he wrote about our culture’s “loss of soul.” He believes a lack of care for and expression of the soul leads to obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning. He believes that caring for our soul – and the myriad of quirky ways it expresses itself through our identities, our passions, our homes, our self care rituals, etc. – is vital for humans to thrive. And so do I. I believe we are having crisis of loss of both soul and spirit in our culture. I believe we need to reignite our relationships with our souls, become intimate with ourselves so that we can be intimate with others.

What I take from Moore’s teaching is that accepting everything particular about who we are and how we are moved to show up in the world is vital to our thriving individually and collectively. Radically including our quirks and collections, our kinks and brain differences, and everything else that makes us who we are leads to a sense of belonging to ourselves and with the people who are willing to radically include all of the pieces of us.

My partner and I have a radically inclusive marriage. What that means is that we accept and include every weird thing we do as a part of who we are, whether it’s my need to hand sew dolls while we watch tv in the evenings or his need to eat jalapenos with nearly every meal or the particular ways we both keep house. He radically includes my moody nature and I radically include his need to have a space of his own, even if it’s just a corner where the dining room would normally be. Instead of experiencing annoyance or resentment with one another’s quirky ways, we choose to include them in our lives with compassion, as well as humor when we need to relieve some tension. We are willing to laugh at ourselves and so we are not offended when the other is amused by our weirdness. These particular expressions of our soulfulness contribute to the joy and vibrancy of ourselves and consequently our marriage.

I believe the same to be true in community. There was an openness to quirkiness in sex-positive community that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Since it takes a certain vulnerability to share sexuality with others, it is easier to be vulnerable in other ways. And since a radically inclusive sex party means that every kind of kink is welcome, everyone consequently feels invited to be the rest of themselves in such a space. Our community was joyous and vibrant because we were not just allowed, but invited to express our soulfulness, whether that looked like a performance on stage or a scene in the dungeon or dancing in a Furry costume or talking openly while sharing a cannabis pipe in the smoking area, we felt free to be and express ourselves in a way that we didn’t experience in the rest of life. That acceptance radiated out beyond parties into community, friendship, and romance.

Nurturing soulfulness in ourselves and in our collective experiences is one of the needed shifts we need to make to heal ourselves of the trauma of oppression. Oppression tells us we cannot be who we are. Oppression tries to crush the soul. Oppression tells us that we can’t express our emotions, dress differently than the norm, transcend the gender binary, queer our lives, or think differently than the mainstream. A world without oppression will mean that each of us can be ourselves and express ourselves as we desire. But it will require that we each rebuild our relationship to our soul, to nurture an intimacy with ourselves as the unique expression of life that we are. And then to spread the radical inclusion of self and soul into the rest of life.

45th Story of Transgression – I No Longer Believe Capitalism’s Story about Purpose

“Passion is for the rich, the rest of us work.” From the Television Show 911

Like many of my Gen X peers, and the Millenials following, I spent a lot of my life thinking about purpose, what I’m here to do. I’ve had a whole lot of ideas since childhood, from astronaut to high school teacher to art therapist to minister to best selling non-fiction author (yes, I believed best-selling to be part of my purpose because purpose and success are all tangled up in capitalism). But now that I renewed my relationship with the ecosystem I live in while simultaneously coming to terms with disability, I’m looking at purpose from an entirely different angle. I believe my purpose is who I am in relationship to the world around me, not what I produce as work. I have lived my purpose in every job, in every volunteer endeavor, in my parenting, in my relationship with plants, and in my relationships with my Beloveds, regardless of my circumstances.

Purpose is a cultural construct that became a primary life goal in the 90s, alongside the idea that work doesn’t have to mean drudgery or corporate compliance. Mythologist Joseph Campbell taught us we can follow our bliss (that’s the first voice I remember saying such a thing) and so we turned finding-our-bliss into an industry where we pay others to help us find our purpose and then turn it into work. Capitalism conflates purpose with making money, which leads to tremendous anxiety and frustration for those who can’t seem to discover what they are “supposed to do,” or those who fail to turn their gifts into thriving work, or those who don’t have the financial/racial/abled/cis privilege to access their so-called purpose through education or entrepreneurship. It also means that we don’t honor those who do work that doesn’t appear purposeful – our janitors and housekeepers, parking lot attendants, fast food workers, etc. The work that is typically considered purposeful is either upper strata services that primarily the middle class and higher can access, or community service work where individuals intentionally choose purpose over wealth because service isn’t honored as a product (non-profit, social justice, spiritual service, etc.). Capitalism’s valuing of purpose focuses entirely on what we do (produce) rather than who we are or what values we live.

I don’t believe it is my purpose to write or make plant medicine anymore than it was my purpose to run operations for service organizations. These are my gifts or passions and I have many that I could turn into work. Purpose is something different. The Universe itself moves toward a singular purpose – to grow and nurture the diversity and complexity of life. That is how humans with our conscious ability to contemplate purpose exist in the first place. It is arrogance to imagine that we have any purpose more important or divine than the Universe that sustains us, and this arrogance may be the end of our species. If we are to survive climate change we need to understand that our purpose is simply to return the gift we’ve been given by reciprocally nurturing life in our sphere of existence, much like Indigenous cultures have done for millenia.

Our purpose is in our relationships, how we relate to humans, non-humans, and our eco-systems as a whole.

Our purpose is in our values – what we value most.

Do we value life or do we value wealth?

Do we value connection or do we value transaction?

Do we value domination or do we value reciprocity?

Do we value short-term individual gain or long-term sustenance for the community?

If we collectively put as much energy into living the Universe’s purpose as we do hustling for our individual purpose, then we would probably have a chance of species survival. But the untangling of capitalism’s belief systems from our innate understanding of our place in the Universe is big work. Capitalism values domination over reciprocal relationship, materialism over honoring the spirit in all things, and infinite growth of profit over nurturing life. Capitalism can’t believe in nurturing life because it would naturally provide a limit to growth and profit. To nurture life we have to sustainably manage resources, but capitalism uses up every resources in its path (including humans)  for today’s benefit without consideration of tomorrow’s consequence (look up the insect apocalypse).

Now that I understand my place within my ecosystem and how ecosystems functions as reciprocal relationships based on generosity, I refuse to believe that my purpose is to play capitalism’s game by turning my gifts into products. I also refuse to believe my partner cannot live their purpose because our circumstances require them to be a UPS driver, a cog in a big corporate machine, for the union benefits that support our lives, my health, and our future. There is enormous privilege in the ability to find one’s “bliss” and tremendous ignorance in believing that everyone can do so within the current system of extreme economic disparity. Bliss isn’t usually a consideration if you come from poverty and have children to support. It may not be a consideration when you have a disabled partner or parent to support, and there may be significant limitations for the disabled or elder person’s ability to work at all. Does that mean a disabled or elder person does not have purpose? Does the entrepreneur who fails to develop a thriving business have no purpose? Between people in poverty and the working class, disabled, elder and trans folk, as well as people who fail to turn their gifts into commodities (most business fail in the first 3 years), there are a lot of people who do not fit into the reigning beliefs about purpose.

The consequences of capitalism’s story about purpose are harmful to most of us. As we untangle ourselves from this brutal economic system, we need to analyze each and every story we are telling ourselves about the world and our place within it. When it comes to work we need to look at the stories we tell about purpose, value/worth, success, and relationship. We need to critique the ways in which we compromise our humanity, and the humanity of others, for the sake of the almighty dollar. We need to look at the ways we commodify the earth that sustains us through generosity rather than transaction. We need to look at the ways materialism has compromised relationship, community, and spiritual life, as well as our future ability to live on this planet.

And then we need to start telling ourselves new stories about our collective and singular purpose – to create and nurture thriving life in everything we do.

Voice and Power

The Word by Meghan Oona Clifford

During our adoption triad healing process with the Alive program last year, our Beloved Friend, who was facilitating, reflected to me the potency of my voice. I have a naturally powerful and loud voice, which can be used as a tool or a weapon (the same is true of my writing).

I used the power of my voice when I played Rizzo in Grease in high school and I could project my voice to back of the theatre to draw all of the audience into my songs. I used it for good when I spoke to and about the Pride and sex positive organizations I co-led and other sorts of speaking engagements I participated in over the years. And I used it for good when I taught people how to create a sense of belonging through radical inclusion. My voice is a strength when I use it consciously.

My voice is a weapon when I use my power and loudness to take up space and be heard in conflict with others. It is a weapon when I yell at my partners. I am aware that I get louder when I believe I am not being heard and/or when I am trauma triggered, but those are not excuses for causing harm. When my loudness is used to try to overpower another it causes hurt and fear. Healthy relating can’t occur if someone is in fear. This is why the Alive program is based on creating safety in ourselves and in our relationships. Some people have triggers around being yelled at because their parents or other authorities used their voices as weapons in emotional and verbal abuse (as my own mother did). Some people immediately shrink when a person gets loud. The last thing I want is diminish or overpower others or contribute to their feeling unsafe.

My Beloved Friend also reflected back to me that when I am in an open and curious space I have a softness that invites people to be intimate with me. And I can see that. I draw people into vulnerability and intimacy with my openness and lack of judgment. I can be incredibly accepting of our humanness and all the complex emotional realities we live with.

And I have a tendency to speak in absolute truths when in conflict (as most people do). When paired with my loud voice I can sound like a know-it-all and put people off. This is feedback I received from several loved ones over the years and it finally sunk in due to my work with the program. When I lose my openness and curiosity, when I put up hard walls and raise my voice, when I become self righteous and contemptuous, I can be intimidating and scary. Again, that is the last thing I want. My heart is wired for connection, not superiority or dominance.

The reality is that no one holds the ultimate truth when two or more people are relating, especially in conflict when our old traumas may cloud our vision. We all have pieces of the truth mixed up with our projections and assumptions. When we are in conflict we need to be able to speak our truths safely so that we can find the kernel of truth between us, which includes using our voice as a tool of connection rather than a weapon. We need openness and curiosity rather than hard edges and insurmountable walls if we have any desire to resolve and repair what is broken between us.

I’ve not spent much time in my life thinking about power, especially my own. But I think it is important to be aware of how we use (or give away) our power, including the power of our voice, in all of our relationships. We each have the power to choose who we are and how we relate to others. We have power in our gifts and our voice that can we can choose to use in the light or be used by in the shadow. We have the power of sovereignty that we direct or allow to be directed by others. Our deepest liberation lies in our own hands, no matter our outer circumstances. This is what Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel teach us. When we live from that place of liberation, we are using our power and our voice to ignite and nurture the flame of liberation in others.