Working All Things Together For Good: Walking the Line Between Acceptance and Learned Helplessness

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

I grew up hearing Romans 8:28 used to justify everything from cancer to violence and abuse. Within the IFB, it was one of many verses that “proved” that God brought certain things into a person’s life on purpose—even harmful things—and that we should endure suffering for the sake of “spiritual growth.”

It was a theme I also found rearing its head when I explored Buddhism—the concept that suffering is to be endured, therefore we should accept it rather than fight it.

It’s a harsh fact of life that no one has complete control over anything. Catastrophe can strike and upend decades of hard work. A death can send loved ones into a downward spiral. Choices have unforeseen consequences. And people sometimes just take a different path than intended.

In the words of a cynical Simba in The Lion King, “Sometimes bad things happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Some could say that spirituality is all about learning how to cope when shit happens. But where do you draw the line between acceptance and learned helplessness? Between comfort and coercion?

I categorically reject the idea that an omnipotent being can predestine evil and also be loving and good. That particular Christian theology is not only oxymoronic but also toxic and abusive. It turns God into a psychopath, doling out pain to manipulate his children into further obedience or submission.

However, I don’t reject the idea that evil can be part of a person’s path and that good can come of it, but the good that comes from evil is not a result of evil.

It’s a subtle but important distinction to make.

When evil is portrayed as the impetus for good, it necessitates that evil be good.

On some level, one can argue that the good or bad of a situation is largely determined by perspective, e.g. the person who thanks the universe that they missed a bus that later crashed.

However, a fatalism like that quickly becomes problematic when taken to an extreme, such as when an incest survivor is told that it’s “good” that her father raped her as a child because it made her strong or when a grieving mother is told that it’s good that her baby died because he might have been a serial killer.  It’s more than just a heartless worldview. When horrible events or harmful circumstances are dismissed by trying to reframe them as good because good may or has come from them, it makes those events requisite in a person’s life.

If evil is essential in order for a person to grow into who they should be, that means fighting evil is the same as fighting one’s own betterment. In the end, the “everything happens for a reason” mentality virtually requires that people passively accept mistreatment and abuse. It’s a form of learned helplessness that preys not only on the idea that you can’t do anything to change your circumstances but also that you shouldn’t want to.

Spirituality should give people something to hold onto during those tough times to help them get through, but disempowerment shouldn’t be the result.

Most mainstream religions, especially the patriarchal ones, have adopted this fatalistic approach to evil, giving people phrases with which to comfort themselves even as they stifle their own hope. Few want to believe that our lives are entirely at the mercy of chaos, yet they embrace a philosophy that is as powerless as chaos itself. Evil at the direction of a sadistic deity is hardly better than evil for no reason whatsoever.

Is there an alternative? Something in the middle that allows people to take comfort in a spiritual philosophy that promises the development of good from bad without making the bad good?

I believe so.

The verse I referenced at the beginning of this post has most often been credited to God’s power. Good comes because God brings it through evil. However, the actual language in the verse never mentions the source of the good. It just says that all things work together for good.

But if God isn’t the source of the good—if God hasn’t brought evil into someone’s life for the purpose of growing good—where can good come from?

From within the individual.

Bad things do happen. Uncontrollable things happen. Life is constantly changing, and with that change comes the possibility for catastrophe.

And therein lies the opportunity.

The reason that it’s possible for good to come from evil isn’t because the evil was necessary or predestined; rather, it’s because we, as humans, have the tremendous power of being able to engage with life and respond to our circumstances. We can’t control everything, but we don’t need to. We have the power to transform everything. Pain, loss, abuse, destruction—they’re fucked up building materials, but we are wired to create.

Spirituality can’t promise people an easy life. It can’t promise that good will happen. (And if it does it’s a lie!) But it can offer the hope that something can be made from whatever happens in life. Not all change is good, but all change is an opportunity to create good.

It’s Easter weekend, and everyone around me is seemingly celebrating resurrection. I am too, but I’m not celebrating the resurrection of a god. I’m celebrating the resurrection of the human spirit.

 

Cult Spotting 101: Breaking Down Multi-Level Marketing Schemes (Guest Post)

Today’s cult spotting is a guest post. My partner did a breakdown of Multi-Level Marketing Schemes after being invited to join several in the last couple of years. Since MLM’s have scammed several people we know and love, I thought it would be good to post his assessment of the mathematical improbability of success and the manipulative ways that most MLM’s suck people into their schemes.

A friend recently asked me to visit his home to talk about an exciting business prospect. He wouldn’t tell me much about the company, except to say it was an incredible opportunity to augment my income, and he wanted me to watch a promotional video. I am suspicious by nature, having grown up in a cult, so I researched the company before confirming my interest. If you’re like me, you want to believe your friends and family when they rave about something that changed their life. But as I read about multi-level marketing (MLM) businesses like this one, I slowly realized that many of these companies seek out this trust to exploit it.

RECRUITMENT

The basic structure of a multi-level marketing plan is that you recruit other people to sell the product for you, thereby gaining profit from their sales. The problem comes when the MLM structure reaches its seventh or eighth level. Let’s say you are the founder of an MLM. You recruit 10 people to sell the product for you, and you promise your sellers 20% of the profit from the product they sell. Those 10 people each recruits 10 people, who each recruits 10 people. By the fourth level, there are 10,000 sellers, which is more than the population of the capitol city of Vermont.

By the sixth level, there are 1,000,000 sellers, which is more than Vermont’s entire population. And by the eighth level, there are 100,000,000 sellers, which is three times the amount of people in the United States and double the population of the entire North American continent including Canada and Mexico. This exponential growth cannot sustain itself because, if (after the fourth level) the entire population of a small city is selling the product, there is hardly any market left to buy the product. Its ever-expanding nature makes its eventual collapse almost inevitable.

FINANCIAL MANIPULATION

This financial instability requires a different form of income in order to remain profitable. MLMs claim to focus on their products, but the main draw of the MLM structure is the Customer Acquisition Bonus (each MLM has a different name for this), whose name is misleading. You are not acquiring customers—you are recruiting sellers. The irony, however, lies with the fact that most MLMs require new recruits to purchase their own training, training materials (videos, books etc), subscriptions to the corporate service, other yearly or monthly fees, and start-up capital, often totaling hundreds of dollars. Most sellers never recoup their start-up money. In the end, buying into the scheme was the real product all along.

This is a huge red flag for me, because real businesses that are making profit from selling the actual product itself would pay for the training of their employees and often pay for their training materials. These real businesses operate within the basic supply-and-demand structure of our capitalist economy. Such MLMs, which cannot produce profit after a certain expansion point, must rely on other methods of obtaining profit—namely, selling the idea of making large amounts of money on minimal work and by profiting from others’ work.

Ultimately, this second form of income also fails mathematically. Let’s use the 20% example from above. If you are promised 20% of your recruits’ sales, when those recruits recruit more sellers, 40% of the profit has been paid out as a bonus. Upon the fifth level, there is no more profit to be paid out. Corporate doesn’t get any money; you stop getting commission; and the entire business stops working. This, of course, would be true only if our example MLM were operating like a normal business based on the profits of their product.

Instead, most of the money that enters the business comes from its recruits and their unsuspecting, trusting families and friends. This incestuous business model most frequently sucks a seller dry of contacts and resources long before the seller makes any profit.

THE LIE OF GET-RICH-QUICK

As noted above, the draw for getting people to buy into MLM’s is the promise of reaping large profits. If the business model itself isn’t obvious enough in the flaws, a quick verification check of the Income Disclosure statements can reveal how exaggerated claims of MLM’s tend to be. Check out SendOutCards’ Income Disclosure statement from 2012.

92.26% of their employees are Senior Distributors who average a gross annual income of $35.56, which probably doesn’t cover the materials and training costs. Managers make up 3.86% and average $404.11 annually, while Senior Managers make up 2.36% and average $2,483.31 annually. This means that a total of 98.48% of SendOutCards’ employees averaged less than $3,000 annually.

Advocare, whose 2013 income disclosure statement states that 91.35% of their employees averaged less than $2,500 annually, and 96.87% averaged less than $1,300 annually.

Beach Body’s 2011 income disclosure statement shows that 67.4% of their employees were retail sellers only selling the product and not participating in the MLM portion of their company – these sellers made an average of $360 per year. Another 25.7% of employees also participated in recruitment, collecting such bonuses, but even these employees only averaged $2,319 per year. Yet another 4.5% averaged less than $14,659 per year, meaning that of all Beach Body’s employees, 97.6% of them averaged less than $14,659 per year leaving roughly 2.4% of average profitability.

SequenceInc, a forensic accounting website, reports that in 2009, employees of Avon made the following:

• 36.1% earn 0 – $4,999

• 15.8% earn $5,000 – $6,999

• 26% earn $7,000 – $11,999,

• 17.6% earn $12,000 – $29,000

• 4.4% earn $30,000 and above. 

If a physical, bricks-and-mortar business used a business model that functions only on promises and hope while paying 98.5% of its employees so little, the world would condemn the business as ludicrous; yet MLM’s, which rarely deliver on their promises, continue to deceive people through puffed up promises of profitability.

THOUGHT CONTROL AND BLAME

Most MLM plans remind me of cults in the way that they function. The times that I have been to a couple meetings for other such plans, the followers are invariably blind to the mathematical problems inherent in the model. When faced with the facts from their particular favorite MLM, they usually have no answers for me but are absolutely certain that I must be incorrect. They often refer me to their mentor, the person who recruited them.

Also like cults, these groups blame failure on their constituents for lacking hard work, persistence, skill, leadership, or competence. Even when I’ve seen people pour time and money into their MLM with more fervor than most would approach any other commission job, I’ve watched as they eventually cut their losses under the assumption that they just didn’t try hard enough, never considering that it might be the business, not them, that is the problem.

PYRAMID SELLING IN DISGUISE

Many (if not most) MLMs remain legal even though they are not financially viable. Their followers point to their legality as proof that they are not pyramid schemes or scams, which usually results in an argument based on circular reasoning when pushed (How do you know they are different from pyramid schemes? They’re legal. What makes them legal? They’re not a pyramid scheme).

The only legal difference I can see between an illegal pyramid scheme and a legal MLM is the pretense at selling a real product. To be fair, most real businesses have a natural pyramid-shaped income disparity with CEOs making big bucks on top, and grunt workers making hourly wages on the bottom. However, the viability of the business model rests with how closely tied the income is to the product being sold. And most MLMs in my experience are selling people and promises, not products.

The Federal Trade Commission has this to say of MLMs: “Not all multilevel marketing plans are legitimate. Some are pyramid schemes. It’s best not to get involved in plans where the money you make is based primarily on the number of distributors you recruit and your sales to them, rather than on your sales to people outside the plan who intend to use the products.”

CONCLUSION

So when you’re approached with a too-good-to-be-true opportunity, be careful. Ask difficult questions that annoy the recruiter. Look up the company’s income disclosure statement and ask the recruiter why nobody makes much money. Ask them whether you must front money, and ask whether you make the majority of your profit from sales of actual product or recruiting new sellers. Check Wikipedia’s list of MLMs for this opportunity. Ask yourself whether the business preys on your family and friends instead of selling real products to people outside the company. Think for yourself and do your own research; most scams cannot stand the test of reason.

Disclaimer: This post is used as an example of cultic thinking and doesn’t constitute an accusation that the organizations mentioned are necessarily part of a cult. This series is designed to give you, the reader, tools to spot red flags of manipulation and potential abuse. It is not a series meant to name and expose cults. The red flags are symptoms that should alert you to be careful and use your critical thinking, but it is ultimately up to you to decide whether a group or organization is safe. 

A Geek Girl’s Guide to Overcoming Social Anxiety at Work

I’ve been at my new job for two full weeks now, and in that time I’ve met so many new people that my social anxiety skyrockets as soon as I open my eyes in the morning.

I thought working retail forced me to interact with strangers, but I’ve discovered that it’s nothing compared to what I’m doing now in human services.

With retail, I had a prescribed set of interactions—greeting people, offering to help them, ringing them out, etc. It was easy to get into a robotic mindset where it wasn’t really me interacting with others, just my role. Now that I’m not able to hide behind a register, I’m reminded of how terrifying it can be to try to carry on a conversation with someone I don’t know (or with dozens of people I don’t know).

If my workplace were a party, I would sneak off after a few hours and go home to hide under covers with a book. Unfortunately, in this instance I don’t have the luxury of deciding my social meter has maxed out and that I need to get away.

Somehow I needed to find a way to make meeting people interesting and exciting rather than terrifying and draining.

And being the imaginative person that I am, I couldn’t go with a typical solution (those never work anyway). I had to try to make it magical, which I discovered was rather easy.

At some point this past Monday, I realized that my social anxiety wouldn’t exist if I were meeting elves and gnomes rather than humans. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time reading Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Maybe this is just an indication of how obsessed I am with fantasy worlds…but I suddenly knew how I needed to approach my own world.

My first week at my new job, I was just meeting people.

The second week at my job, I was meeting mythical creatures! (It’s okay to be jealous)

With each new person I met, I would try to see which race or species they would be if they came from Tolkien’s, Rowling’s, or Pratchett’s worlds. And it actually worked! This past week, I’ve met some really delightful personalities.

So far, I’ve come across a hobgoblin who certainly wouldn’t be someone I’d go hunting to find but who has proven to be adorable in her unconventional way,  a troll who is rather gentle and lovable despite the thick skin and somewhat obtuse point of view, and a couple of elves whose artistic souls peak out of their shy, distrustful eyes.

There’s even an orc. I’m equal parts terrified and fascinated by him at the moment, but I comfort myself with the idea that a single orc is probably far more scared of my fairy power than I am of his gnashing teeth.

My game has allowed me to look beyond the human mask that tend to be so terrifying and uncomfortable to see the beauty of their souls. Connecting people with mythical creatures keeps me mindful of the fact that they have a history, a story, a personality, even talents; and being mindful of their histories, stories, personalities, and talents reminds me to look for them rather than getting lost in my own anxieties about whether they will like my history, story, personality, or talents.

It hasn’t taken all of the stress out of my interactions. I cried during week two of my new job only slightly less than I cried during week one. But bringing magic and myth into my workplace with me has helped me find an enthusiasm for meeting new people that I never thought I would experience. Dare I say I’m even looking forward to meeting more creatures from my magical world? I may have to drop the label of “introvert” if I keep having this much fun with humans!

 

 

 

Creating a Womb Wish Box

As a childfree woman by choice, it can be hard for me to relate to the idea of procreation, pregnancy, and motherhood that is often present in stories, especially mythologies surrounding the divine feminine.

On some levels, I’ve often felt that it’s a cop out when people overemphasize the fertility aspects of the Goddess and feminine identity. When fertility is approach with such a literal perspective that it excludes any women who choose not to or can’t have children, I think it becomes more detrimental than helpful as a spiritual symbol.

However, there are some beautiful and vital qualities that are often associated with the womb or motherhood—nurturing, growth, creation. They’re important attributes (for both men and women), and it would be equally detrimental to ignore them and the womb altogether.

This year, in preparation for my second annual yoni party, I decided I wanted to do something that honored the symbolism of fertility without resorting to the trite reference to physical pregnancy or childbirth (in other words, something I, as a child-free woman, could relate to as much as a mother could).

I came up with a womb wish box.

It’s pretty simple, building off of the idea of a standard wish box. Any box will do, but I chose to use an oval one. I painted it red, mostly because that’s the acrylic paint I had but also because red feels very feminine to me. It’s the color I associate with sacred sexuality, which is the first step to sacred creation.

Paper Mache boxes are inexpensive, easy to paint, and make for some wonderful "gift wrap" that also functions as a gift.

Paper Mache boxes are inexpensive, easy to paint, and make for some wonderful “gift wrap” that also functions as gifts themselves.

After sealing it with a thin coat of mod podge to prevent the pain from scraping off or bleeding onto other things, I glued a ribbon uterus to it.

Okay, it’s really an upside down triangle with two pieces coming off the sides, but it looks enough like a uterus to pass in an artistic way. The scalloped ribbon created more of a uterine effect than straight-edged ribbon.

I added two little crystals as the ovaries, and voila! A uterus to nurture my hopes and dreams in. It’s a simple project, with a beautiful way for me to honor the creative potential of my body.

My own completed wish box, ready to be put on my altar.

My own completed wish box, ready to be put on my altar.

 

Allies are People Too

Did you hear? Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died this week.

And, of course, all of social media lit up with everyone’s opinion about the significance of his death and the “appropriate” response.

I’m not interested in adding to that dialogue. We each need to figure out how to respond to the social blight that was Westboro’s founder, and we’re all going to have different responses. I have chosen to not allow it to disrupt my life, just as I didn’t allow his fucked-up opinions to upset me all that much when he was living. I have plenty of other people in my life to be angry at and to hate for the harm they have caused me directly and don’t have the energy to waste on someone who merely hated the idea of me without really knowing me. Others feel differently, and that’s fine.

What I do want to talk about is how we’re approaching the opinion of others, especially of those who are “different” from us.

Right now, the debate is over whether it’s appropriate to revel in the death of Phelps and to protest his funeral. The LGBT community is pretty split. Some think it’s a good idea. Other’s think a compassionate approach is stronger.

When my partner chose to voice his support for the compassionate response, he was dismissed by an acquaintance for being a straight, white male who wasn’t in the military—the implication that he didn’t have any right to add to the commentary about this public figure.

It was the tipping point in the frustration I have had recently with regard to the treatment of allies. As a bisexual and as a feminist (aka, as a bifeminist), I’ve had my fair share of frustration towards allies who claim to “want to help” but who royally fuck up because they simply aren’t willing to listen to how they might be hurting another or perpetuating something negative.

I get it.

We want our allies to be willing to listen to us. We need them to attempt to see from our perspective rather than just from the perspective of privilege.

However, I’m also really uncomfortable with the way allies are treated in feminist or queer groups. For over a year now I’ve watched as men are insulted and harassed because they dared to try to protest the objectification of women in the media in a way that didn’t match up perfectly with some feminists’ ideals or as straight people (or at least people who are assumed to be straight) have been told to shut up simply because they are straight.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t confront someone if we feel they are being insensitive or prejudiced (after all, even the most well-meaning person has internalized prejudice to confront), but I’m concerned that I don’t see people engaging with allies in beneficial ways as a whole. I don’t see understanding and patience towards them as they try to navigate the layers of their privilege. I don’t see any sort of compassion towards them as human beings who are struggling to understand some complex and difficult issues.

I don’t see any room for them to have their own journey and identity development as an ally.

Rather, I see people telling them to shut up, stop thinking, and accept what they are being told by (usually) one person in an oppressed group.

Where do we, as people who have experienced oppression, get off thinking that we can discount someone else’s thoughts because of an aspect of their identity?

We should know better.

Allies need to listen in order to be good allies, but listening doesn’t mean that their perspective and thoughts are automatically devalued.

Dialogue is how social change happens—passionate discussion, sometimes even passionate disagreement.

We don’t need more people who follow group pressure blindly. We need people who are willing to question the social constructs around them and to dare to disagree with the status quo. Shutting down someone because they have questions—or even because they disagree with you—doesn’t encourage critical thinking. At best, it subdues a person’s willingness to engage. At worse, it alienates them completely.

I don’t think every person in an oppressed group should make themselves available to be the source of information from which the privileged can learn, but I do think that we need to at least develop the ability to turn discussion down kindly, admitting that we don’t feel like engaging with them rather than blaming their privilege (note, if they are asking questions, they’re wrestling with their privilege, not ignoring it).

We also need to be willing to accept where there might be room for genuine disagreement without someone being a bigot, as in this case, with one person choosing to respond to Phelps’ death with love while another wanted to experience the depths of her hatred. If the LGBT community is filled with a diversity of responses to Phelps, how can we disdain a straight person for having as diverse of a reaction to his death?

For the most part, allies are well-meaning and are going through some pretty tough work to confront privilege. There’s no reason to treat them with hostility because they have to go through that process. It’s one thing to get pissed off at someone for being a deliberate asshole; it’s quite another to castigate someone because they don’t see exactly as we do.

I think in our attempts to have our voices heard, we may have forgotten that one of the tenets of both feminism and queer activism is that no one should be treated with disrespect and contempt, no matter what group they’re from. The idea that someone’s voice and thoughts aren’t valid because of their genitals or sexual orientation is the exact same kind of prejudice that we’ve been fighting. We need to treat our allies with the courtesy that we believe should be afforded to all human beings, even if we think they are misguided.

Seven Life Lessons Disney Movies Taught Me

[Note: a friend informed me that Thumbelina wasn't actually done by Disney but by Don Bluth. I'm leaving it in because I feel like most animated movies of this style tend to get the same attitude, even if they're not strictly Disney]

Disney’s Frozen is getting a ton of attention right now, and as with almost every single one of their other movies, the critics are having a field day. I’m counting down to how long it takes someone to find “sex” written in the frost dust coming from Elsa’s hands in “Let it Go.” The song has already been accused of promoting a gay agenda, despite the fact that it has more to do with being alone than with any hint of romance. And of course, even though Disney has made huge strides in offering up a more diverse version of the princess fairy tale, there are those who think Frozen is a failure because it wasn’t quite perfect enough.

I laugh whenever the critics come out to play. It tickles me to try to find all the secret subliminal messages people claim are hidden in movies and amuses me only slightly less to hear the never-ending complaints about the horrible morals, standards, and overall role models Disney princesses present. I get it–when you’re watching a kid’s movie, it’s easy to find fault with all the little elements that suddenly seem so loud, and when your fixated on something like sex, you see it everywhere, regardless of whether it’s actually there. Disney is hardly the worst offender as far as unhealthy media goes, but  you wouldn’t know that with the way the love-to-haters talk. The problem with taking easy shots at Disney is that, by refusing to acknowledge where there is good as well as bad, it makes even the legitimate concerns seem petty.

It’s not that Disney doesn’t have concerning elements. It’s true that the movies tend to present an unrealistic view of love, making a wedding or kiss the grand closing more often than not. It’s also true that they seem to be stuck in one Princess body-type and that sometimes they sexualize stories that don’t need it (ahem, Pocahontas). However, I have always found Disney movies to hold more empowering and inspiring messages than either the conservative or liberal critics want to admit. Here are just a few of the lessons I got from Disney as a child and as an adult:

Dreams are worth pursuing

A dream is a wish your heart makes
When you’re fast asleep.
In dreams you can lose your heartache;
Whatever you wish for, you keep. –Cinderella

From Cinderella to the Princess and the Frog, pursuing one’s dreams is one of the consistent themes in most Disney movies. It’s easy to get distracted by the fact that, for many of the princesses, their dream is to find love, but then again, I don’t necessarily think love is such a horrible dream—it’s just presented a bit myopically most of the time.

That being said, the dream songs always make me cry because they remind me that no matter where you are in life—poor, sheltered, outcast, revered, confused, cursed, or just plain bored—you are allowed to define your own desires for your life and to pursue them to the best of your ability.

Tiana surveying the building for her restaurant, from The Princess and the Frog. 2009

Tiana surveying the building for her restaurant, from The Princess and the Frog. 2009

You are your own best guide

If the choosing gets confusing,
Maybe it’s the map you’re using.
You don’t need a chart to guide you.
Close your eyes and look inside you! –Jacquimo in Thumbelina

I love that Disney characters rely on their intuition and heart to guide them.  They may not always make the right choices, but they own their own decisions and stand up for what they believe is right. They are faced with some pretty tough choices, juggling the desires of their families with their own internal needs and beliefs. That’s pretty damn mature, even when they screw things up royally.

Mulan discovered to be a girl impersonating a boy, from Mulan 1998

Mulan discovered to be a girl impersonating a boy, from Mulan 1998

Marrying for the wrong reasons isn’t worth it

How dare you, all of you! Standing around deciding my future?! I am not a prize to be won! –Jasmine in Aladdin

For all the criticism that Disney receives about teaching girls that marriage is the goal of every story, I’ve never heard anyone praise Disney for the way they consistently discourage marriage for wealth, to please family, or to fulfill duty. Their princesses may get married in the end, but they often start out refusing to get married to someone they don’t love. Let’s celebrate that Elsa and Merida don’t even need love interests at the end of their stories, but let’s also give a shout out to Aurora, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Belle, and Mulan for taking a stand against being pressured into marriage.

Jasmine holding the scraps of a suitors clothing.  Aladdin

Jasmine holding the scraps of a suitors clothing, from Aladdin 1992

Love transcends societal lines

New and a bit alarming
Who’d have ever thought that this could be?
True that he’s no prince charming
But there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see. –Belle from Beauty and the Beast

Robin Hood and Maid Marion, Belle and the Beast, Ariel and Eric, Jasmine and Aladdin, Cinderella and Charming, Pocahontas and John Smith, Tod and Copper, Tarzan and Jane, Quazimodo and Esmerelda…what do they all have in common? Their connection to each other overcame their societal “stations.” So many of the stories that Disney writes are stories of forbidden connections, and one of their consistently admirable themes is that love has the power to overcome prejudice and cultural obstacles. Note, not all of these are even about romances. Some of them are friendships.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996

The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996

Being different doesn’t make you bad

Thumbelina: I must be the only little person in the world. I wish I were big
Mother: Oh, no, Thumbelina. No. Don’t ever wish to be anything but what you are.–From Thumbelina 

Yes, Disney does tend to reinforce stereotypical beauty standards with most of their protagonists, but I think they also have a pretty good track record of affirming that difference doesn’t make you bad. Elsa is definitely my favorite misunderstood “villain” at the moment, but the Beat is also a great example of a character who was assumed by everyone to be evil because he was so different but who turned out to be far more civilized than the other people who were “normal.”  Let’s not forget Dumbo, Pinocchio, Quasimodo, Thumbelina, and Lilo who all struggled with feeling different.

Who is the real monster in Beauty and the Beast? 1991

Who is the real monster in Beauty and the Beast? 1991

You are more than your body

You’ll have your looks, your pretty face.
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha! –Ursula from The Little Mermaid

Let’s face it, Eric didn’t fall in love with Ariel’s body. Despite the fact that Ursula tried to convince Ariel that all she needed was her looks, it was her voice, not her body, that Eric had fallen for. And Ursula didn’t entrap him with her beauty; she entrapped him by impersonating Ariel singing.

Ariel's voice trapped in Ursula's necklace from The Little Mermaid 1989

Ariel’s voice trapped in Ursula’s necklace from The Little Mermaid 1989

Your family doesn’t get to define you

Mother knows best
Listen to your mother
It’s a scary world out there. –Mother Gothel in Rapunzel 

There’s a pretty consistent family model that comes out in many Disney movies—the overbearing, often abusive parent/step-parent who tries to hold the protagonist back and force her into conformity with rules (or just outright kill her). Perhaps the reason that I don’t find the love themes as problematic as some is because I see the lack of love the protagonists have in their home lives. From Cinderella being forced into slavery to her family to Rapunzel being isolated from the rest of the world, these girls are often dealing with unloving, dysfunctional situations, yet they refuse to allow their home lives to determine what love or freedom should look like. To me, it’s less a story of a character falling in love with someone she has barely met as it is a story about a character realizing that love is possible for her and that she can get out of the horrible place she’s been confined to her whole life.

Can you really blame Cinderella for wanting to marry a man she had danced with once when she was a slave to her stepmother? Cinderella 1950

Can you really blame Cinderella for wanting to marry a man she had danced with only once when she was a slave to her stepmother? Cinderella 1950

It’s become almost fashionable to hate Disney. I’ve been told my whole life that I should hate Disney, for liberal and conservative reasons. Although I agree with some of the concerns that others have shared, for the most part I think that people see what they want to see in Disney movies. Sometimes the criticisms start before anyone has even had a chance to consider what is being criticized. Disney is an easy target for those who want an “other” to blame for the corruption of children, but here is at least one child who learned independence and resilience from watching them over and over.

Birthing my Future: Lessons on Transition with Artemis

Since I wrote this post on Artemis, I have felt myself preparing for transition. Truth be told, I’d been feeling the stirrings for far longer than that…almost exactly nine months. For much of that time, the stirrings were more intellectual, dreaming of what might happen, thinking about taking steps, considering what the changes in my life might look like.

Towards the holidays, I started to really feel the need to change my life up. I began earnestly looking at where my path might lead. I prepared for grad school, took the GRE, started looking at new jobs in mental health, even pushed for vacations to get a new perspective on my routines.

But it wasn’t the right time for me to begin my transition.

I’ve had a particularly hard time with the winter this year, and I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I myself felt so frozen, not in a time of rest and dormancy, rather as if my life force were being held captive by the season. I don’t like being held back after I’ve made a decision to move forward. When my initial attempts to get into grad school by last fall fell through, I settled into a restless period of waiting. I felt as if I were crouched to leap at any opportunity, yet not quite desperate enough to just make change for change’s sake. Waiting for the right change to present itself was torturous.

I restlessly surrounded myself with plants, trying to bring a sense of growth into my life, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t will the winter outside my windows to go away.

Yoga with Artemis helped. She gave me courage to keep preparing myself for change when fear tried to convince me to let well enough alone. She gave me the motivation to plunge into the discomfort of uncertainty with regard to the next year. She gave me hope that with that uncertainty might come possibility.

And finally, I’ve come to it. The transition has started. The cards have fallen into place (seriously, you should have seen my tarot reading for this month!).

Now Artemis is standing with me in my birth pangs. In a few weeks, I’ll be starting a new job/career and mailing off my application to grad school. I’m exhilarated and excited, of course. But there’s also pain.

With my new beginning also comes a type of ending. Not a permanent, never-going-to-see-you-again ending, but an ending to the way my relationships and life have worked up until now. I love the people that I’ve worked with for the past several years. They’ve been like family to me. I’ve stayed where I am as much because of them as because of my own needs for incubation. To leave is heartbreaking.

For that Artemis is there with her fierce independence, not scorning my connection, but reminding me that connection, like life, is meant to be fluid. She reminds me that it’s loving to say goodbye when it’s time to go. Life isn’t about staying the same; life is about changing. When I resist change because of connection, I dishonor both life and connection.

I know I’m on the right path for myself. I’m so excited about the possibilities. The uncertainty of the next few months feels gloriously wild…just like the spring that is beginning to peak out from hibernation. But with each new opportunity, I’m reminded that there are also endings. I honor those endings today and look forward to the transitioning of relationships along with the transitioning of employment.