Cult Spotting 101: Evaluating a New Group Before You Join

Wow, it’s been a long time since I did a post for my Cult Spotting 101 series! I’ve got a new one for readers today.

If you’re not familiar with this series, I link to a source (or in this case sources) and ask readers to take a moment to identify any red flags that might indicate cause for concern about cultic practices or teachings. It’s designed to give readers a chance to exercise their skills in identifying potentially problematic groups.

Why? Because the best safeguard against cults is learning how to recognize the signs.

This week, I’m looking at the Sisters of the Valley (aka, the weed nuns). They’re a relatively new group, consisting of two Sisters who make Cannabis products to sell online. They don’t have a doctrine or body of teachings to analyze. Rather, we’re going to practice evaluating what they say about the group as if it were a new group we were interested in joining.

They’ve been really popular as a share on Facebook, therefore we’re going to start with one of the videos that has been circulating.


Watch it, make notes about the things that give you pause for concern. If you’re really dedicated, feel free to peruse their website and a Tech Insider article on them as well.

Then, as always, come back here for my breakdown of my own thoughts.

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Welcome back!

When I first heard about these “nuns” and saw this video, my initial reaction was excitement. As someone who appreciates the value of herbs and is interested in seeing Cannabis used for herbal purposes more, I was psyched that people were dedicating themselves to such a cause.

However there were also a few things in the video that took some of my excitement down.

Environmental Control

In the documentary, the nuns describe how they “live together, work together, pray together.” That phrase threw up a flag about potentially unhealthy isolation.

Isolation is one of the foremost ways that abusive people and groups use to control others because, by isolating someone, the group essentially becomes a gatekeeper through which all information must get filtered. Control the environment, and you control who people see, what they read and hear, what the group norms are, etc.

Because we have such a strong drive to belong, what we surround ourselves with heavily influences our own beliefs and values. Having exposure to a range of ideas, worldviews, and personalities is healthy because it fosters critical thinking. Without opposing viewpoints, even horrendous things can come to seem normal (e.g. many children growing up in abusive homes don’t realize that other children aren’t beaten like they are. What they experience seems normal to them because of the environment).

But in addition to the potential for excessive isolation from the outside world, environmental control can also interfere with necessary self-reflection. The concern isn’t just that they describe a communal living situation but that they describe doing everything together.

Wherever there is a group that allows for little interaction with non-group members and also severely limits the time that individuals can be alone with themselves, that’s problematic. Granted we’re seeing a 60 second documentary that obviously has a priority of what to present and may not think their vibrant social life is all that important, but their choice of words is important information that needs to be taken into consideration.

Behavior Control

In the documentary video, the nuns say that “all day, every day” is devoted to crafting and cultivating Cannabis and the products derived from it. That’s a lot of time dedicated to one’s work, even if you feel called to it.

Gardening/farming for a living doesn’t exactly fit into a 9-5 work week, and absent some of the other things I might not be so concerned. However, these “nuns” also wear habits to demonstrate their devotion.

In the Tech Insider article, one of the sisters comments: “We live together, we wear the same clothes, we take a vow of obedience to the moon cycles, we take a vow of chastity (which we don’t think requires celibacy), and a vow of ecology, which is a vow to do no harm while you’re making your medicine.”

Despite claiming that they aren’t part of a religion, they clearly have a whole litany of things beyond making their products that they have to do. There isn’t a lot of information given about what their vows constitute, but a few of the words that stand out include “obedience” and “chastity.”

Gathering information about whether to join a group is a little bit like playing the detective. Most of the time, people will be putting their best face forward, and identifying toxic elements often involves reading between the lines a little bit. When you get key words like that above, that should make your spidey sense tingle. Hone in on that and get more information before proceeding forward.

Spiritual Elitism and Special Knowledge

Their website explains that they are not part of an “earthly religion,” but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own brand of religion. The nuns claim to be part of “an order of New Age Progressive nuns” (stated at the beginning of the documentary).

All of their products are cultivated with prayer, and they claim on their website to prepare everything “during moon cycles, according to ancient wisdom” though they don’t indicate what this ancient wisdom is or where it came from.

I hope my readers know me well enough to know that I have absolutely no problem with a self-designed spirituality; however, whenever a group, even one claiming to have that kind of spirituality, seems to indicate having any kind of “special knowledge” that isn’t available to others, that should make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end.

Combined with a stringent expectation of behavior and communal living that leaves little room for outside involvement or personal solitude, there is a lot of room for a prescriptive spirituality determined by one and obeyed by the others.

The fact that there are only two Sisters currently doesn’t give me much comfort. Their blog post described how Sister Kate was meeting with other “Sisters” and “Brothers” about opening up other venues. The Tech Insider article points out that they hope to have other abbeys spring up. Would they have to follow the Sisters’ brand of spirituality?

“Once you’ve experienced the growing with your own hands and the turning of that into medicine, it is very hard to walk back into a different kind of life.”

This quote from the documentary was the first thing that set my radar off. It simultaneously expresses difficulty in leaving and returning to a previous life as well as a sense that only in this lifestyle can life be fulfilling.

Most groups think they have something to offer others, but when a group starts trying to convince you that they and only they have fulfilling or holy lives or that you have to join them in order to obtain your desire (to help people, to be healthy, to make money, to reach heaven), proceed with extreme caution.

Substance Use

“It’s time for the people to revive their spirituality,” Sister Kate declares, “and we believe the path to that is through Cannabis.”

While I don’t think substances should never be used for spiritual purposes, I am very cautious about them being prescribed for spirituality. Substances require safeguards and an extremely safe space because they lower inhibitions and make people more suggestible and easily manipulated. If there isn’t a dedication to protecting the autonomy of individuals in a communal spiritual space, the use of substances can quickly become an abusive practice.

Blending Business with Spirituality

Perhaps more concerning than just the Sisters designing a New Age spirituality is the way it gets tangled up with the business.

In the blog post on their site, Sister Kate described having meetings with others who she hoped would join her cause. Tech Insider gives a prime example of the doublespeak surrounding whether she’s establishing a religion or a business, at once calling these other hoped-for establishments “franchises” and “abbeys.”

At the end of the article, Sister Kate expresses how she hopes the habits will be an identifying mark of the abbeys.

“We would like it to be such that wherever you saw women in their blue jean skirts, white blouses, and hats … those women know about cannabis.”

So on the one hand, they’re purporting to be expanding their business, but their business expansion comes with the hope of expanding their brand of spirituality, lifestyle, and habits (pun intended).

Suddenly it doesn’t sound so much like a business as it does a religious group that happens to sell products. The difference might seem to come down to semantics, but the semantics are significant.

Summing it up

If my initial excitement had gone further into a desire to be part of this movement, how might I handle these red flags that indicate the potential for environmental control and isolation, limited information and access to reality checks, behavior control, spiritual elitism, and muddying the distinction between business and spiritual lifestyle?

I wouldn’t have enough information just on this to feel certain about whether they were indeed a toxic group, but I would have enough to indicate that I shouldn’t jump into this group head first.

We’ve taken the first step of evaluating some sources, including their own words to describe themselves. If we were dealing with a group that had been around long enough to have ex-members, speaking with them might also be a valuable source of information about what life is like on the inside and what they faced when they decided to leave.

I would also eventually want to talk to current group members and ask questions, paying attention to the way they answer, not just what the answer is. Do they seem open to questions and push-back? Do they give vague answers that don’t really contain helpful information?

Any red flags that came up in the initial evaluation would be something I would want to feel certain had been sufficiently addressed, either in direct conversation or through observation of how they interact. If it seemed impossible for me to answer my questions without fully joining the group, I would walk away.

Disclaimer: My use of this documentary or group as an example doesn’t constitute an accusation that the group is necessarily a cult. The documentary could just be over-simplified, highlighting what seems unusual, quirky, or interesting while failing to show other aspects of the nuns’ lives . . . or it could be a warning of something deeper. That’s why I’m giving you practice with spotting red flags, wherever you may find them. They are a symptom that should alert you to be careful and use your critical thinking.

More Than a Joke

“Smallish things cast big shadows.”

I saw the comment on a Facebook link to an article about Orlando Bloom’s penis shadow. I couldn’t care less about Bloom or his penis, but the comment made me cringe. I shot out a quick, straightforward reply debunking some of the myths and value-judgments implied about penises and size.

With a verbal eyeroll, the guy quickly replied, “Sometimes a penis joke is just a joke.”

…just a joke.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard this kind of an excuse in response to expressing anger or discomfort about something that someone said.

Keep your hand up if you absolutely loathe that bullshit explanation.

Okay, now anyone else who is sitting there thinking that humor gives you license to say anything you want, pay attention. This post is especially for you.

IT IS NEVER JUST A JOKE!

Humor reveals a lot about the person telling the joke as well as about the people hearing the joke because (drumroll please) jokes are always—ALWAYS—rooted in an opinion, attitude, or idea.

Humor is probably one of the most powerful forms of communication out there because it does allow someone to say something that wouldn’t be tolerated in a more straightforward way…and therein lies its power…and danger.

Humor promotes its seed thought, and because it’s “funny” and “lighthearted,” it brings its message in a less threatening way, bypassing some of the defenses that people have towards more overt forms of influence like debate and argument.

Satirists know this and use it to highlight the flaws of society in extreme and absurd ways in an attempt to help people to overcome the natural defensiveness that comes with being critiqued and to be open to thinking about the way their political, religious, or cultural stances can harm.

But it’s not just satirists who use humor for the purpose of promoting. Generally satire is more overt because it’s attacking the status quo, but every joke either perpetuates or undermines certain ideas.

And it’s important to think about the idea a joke is presenting, no matter how innocently the joke may be told.

Humor allows us to touch on untouchable subjects, things that seem too big for somber conversation, too taboo for casual talk, or too volatile for peaceful discourse. It can take the sting out of a topic to a certain extent.

It can also capitalize on vulnerable people’s pain and oppression.

And that’s where the outrage often comes in.

If a joke gets its punchline from racism, sexism, homophobia, body-shaming, ableism, or any other form of prejudice, then it is not just a joke.

It is a harmful joke made at the expense of others.

It is perpetuating problematic attitudes that have real-world consequences for people.

A few years ago, after comedian Danial Tosh made some deplorable and unfunny rape jokes and threats (I say threats because declaring to an audience that it would be funny if someone raped one of the audience members because she was upset about the joke isn’t in any fashion a follow-up joke). He did the typical shrug off, it’s-just-a-joke thing later, and there was a large Internet discussion about whether subjects like rape should be within the purview of comedians to cover.

On some levels, it was a really good discussion encouraging comedians to think about the effects of their jokes, but ultimately trying to decide whether something should be joked about or not was somewhat of a red herring.

It’s the idea at the root of the joke—the thing that must be accepted in order for someone to find the joke funny—that is really the issue.

Sarah Silverman showed the world that it is indeed possible to make a rape joke that is funny and that doesn’t perpetuate rape culture or make fun of survivor’s pain because her jokes were pointing out the insensitivity of our culture towards survivors, gathering laughs over the culture’s need to change, not the survivor’s scars.

Silverman’s jokes were intentional for the ideas presented in them and directly challenged the attitude that Tosh brought to his humor. Tosh’s were cheap shots that devalued people.

I see this explicitly demonstrated with the recent election. There are those who use humor and satire to highlight the danger that Trump poses to democracy and freedom…and then there are those who take cheap shots at his appearance.

The same goes for Clinton critics. Some will poke at her policies, her flip-flopping, etc., whereas others target her as a woman, degrading her for her gender alone.

The ironic part is that usually those targeting the one candidate with vicious personal mockery are condemning those targeting the other in the same way. They seem to think it’s fine to make fun of Trump’s skin color but not okay to make fun of Hillary’s face, or vice versa.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter which candidate you’re going after; you’re being an asshole if you think it’s okay to ever make fun of someone over their gender, body type, clothes, or cosmetic choices. It’s schoolyard bullying behavior.

But often worse than the jokes themselves is the defense. It’s just a joke!

It’s as if the joke-teller thinks that someone somehow missed that fact.

Here’s a secret: if someone speaks up about the root of a joke being problematic, more than likely, they’re not missing the fact that someone is making a joke. They just don’t think it’s funny because in order to think it’s funny they would have to accept the message of that joke.

In the instance I described in the beginning, I didn’t think body shaming was funny. In fact, I thought it was problematic enough to have to take a serious moment to debunk some of the harmful stereotypes about people’s penis size.

That doesn’t mean I lack a sense of humor. It means I take humor seriously enough to recognize the harm that can come from thoughtless jokes.

A joke is an idea—dressed up in a playful laugh and lighthearted wink—but an idea nonetheless. So if you aren’t willing to own the idea you’re presenting when it’s stripped of its pretty ribbons, maybe don’t make that joke. You can dress up a box of shit, but it’s still just…well, you know.

 

Expanding Feminism with Archetypes: Hestia vs. Hera

Recently I’ve been reading a book called Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women by Jean Shinoda Bolen. It’s an older book with a fair bit of binary language and a slight over-emphasis on literal application of archetypes to women’s lives, but it has clarified something for me that I’ve struggled with for quite some time.

I like to clean. I like to cook. I like to do a lot of things that might be associated with “typical women’s chores.”

At least, in the right circumstances I do. Sometimes I loathe it and feel boxed into the housewife category. Sometimes when I enjoy dusting or doing laundry, my feminist mind observes with cool disapproval.

I could sort of recognize that the times I enjoyed cleaning were different from when I felt trapped into cleaning, but it still felt like maybe I was caving to gender conditioning or expectations.

That all changed when I read Bolen’s descriptions of the goddess of the hearth vs. the goddess of marriage.

Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, is not a very prominent goddess. According to Bolen, she was honored in every house and temple by the central fire, but she was also pretty unassuming, preferring to sit back and take pleasure in the quiet maintenance of the hearth rather than running off on wild adventures like Artemis or seeking out trysts like Aphrodite.

Hera, the goddess of marriage, is a little more well-known as Zeus’ wife. She’s often portrayed as wildly jealous of Zeus’ affairs with other women but is also fiercely devoted to her role as wife. The convoluted issues of jealousy aside, Bolen describes her as being primarily driven by her union—the stereotypical fifties wife who promotes her husband’s career and doesn’t exactly have a lot of interests of her own.

Hestia and Hera both can be seen doing somewhat similar things sometimes, but for different reasons.

Hera is the type of goddess that would dust and clean because a clean home is a comfortable home for her man, the type of goddess that would probably throw a dinner party to help her husband get a promotion.

Hestia is the type of goddess that would dust and clean because it brings her joy and peace to be in a space that feels good. She would cook because she enjoys the act of preparing food.

I can identify very strongly with Hestia. I like beauty, cleanliness, and harmony around me. I enjoy doing the things that bring that to my surroundings. I know that even if I were single I would still do much of what I currently do in my marriage.

But I loathe being a housewife!

If I’m doing my own laundry, I’m happy as can be. If I’m doing someone else’s laundry, suddenly the task seems like an enormous burden, demeaning as well as time-consuming. If I am cooking dinner because I want to have yummy food that carries the magic of having been prepared by hand, I feel content and absorbed in the process. If I’m cooking a meal because I feel obligated to have dinner on the table when my partner comes home from work, I find the process overwhelming and depressing.

I was conditioned to be Hera, so I’m not entirely without that influence. I do find myself periodically running around trying to be the perfect housewife, and that’s when I really hate household chores.

Feminism has been key in helping me buck that obligatory mindset, but I didn’t quite realize initially that rejecting the notion that I need to clean and cook to “make a home” for my partner didn’t necessarily mean that I would want to stop doing home making things entirely.

To some extent, I think certain facets of feminism contribute to that. There’s a certain amount of judgment or shame that sometimes gets directed towards women who might actually want to be a housewife or carry the greater burden of chores in the home.

It’s not everywhere. There are also feminist circles that uphold the value that a woman should get to decide what she wants to do, even if that is doing things traditionally relegated to women. But it’s present enough that when the Hestia archetype would take hold and I found myself enjoying the process of organizing a closet, I would feel guilty, wondering if I was falling back into old conditioning.

I can see now that Hestia and Hera are vastly different motivating forces. The one chooses to “keep the hearth” because it is valuable in and of itself to her. She probably wouldn’t do it if it weren’t personally fulfilling because she isn’t driven by duty or public opinion.

The other chooses to “keep the hearth” because it contributes to what she thinks a wife should be.

Hestia does her thing for herself whereas Hera does her thing for her husband.

It’s such a subtle but important distinction.

Hestia is a natural part of my personality. Hera is not (though she might be for others). When I find myself driven by the conditioning of “should’s,” I embody the patriarchy’s mandate that I should want to be the housewife that I’ve been told I should be.

This is one area where I think feminism can grow–in helping women see the difference between doing what they choose to do for themselves vs. doing what they are expected to do by patriarchy.

Rejecting the imposition of Hera on me doesn’t mean that Hestia disappears. I can still feel called to keep my hearth for reasons that are authentic to me.

A Tarot Reading from an Undecided Voter

The cards I drew. Deck: Mystic Dreamer Tarot by Heidi Darras and Barbara Moore

Truthfully this election has been agony. I didn’t want to blog about it again, but I drew some tarot cards in connection to this week’s blog topic (The Devil, The Tower, and Temperence) and knew that I would be talking about my fears and frustrations with the presidential race. Each of the cards brought to mind stories. This is a long post, but I’ve broken it up according to the stories and the associated cards. I hope that makes it more readable.

Story #1, The Devil:

Back when I was having my first car-buying experience, I remember the moment when I realized it was all a big game. I had diligently done my homework, looking for the kind of car I wanted online within a price range that I could afford with a good maintenance history and crash report history and at a mileage that was serviceable.

My partner and I drove out to the dealer and asked for the car that I was interested in, only to hear, “Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t have that item on the lot anymore. Can I interest you in something similar?”

Naively, I was disappointed that the car had sold but agreed to take a look at the one the sales person wanted to show to me. However, when I test drove the car, I noticed that the engine had a funny feel. Doing a visual check-over, I noticed that the carpet and door jams had water ring stains. A little more digging, and I discovered it had been refurbished after a flood.

I declined to take the other car and walked away.

Later, when I talked to others about how frustrated I was that we didn’t get to the car dealership in time to see the car, I was surprised when others told me that it was a pretty common tactic called a “bait and switch.”

Likely, the dealer never had that car or never intended to sell that car for that price in the first place and merely put it online to lure potential buyers in so that they could be pressured into buying something not quite as good.

As a nation, we’ve had a bait and switch. The Democratic Party was recently revealed to have been colluding to prevent Sanders from taking the nomination.

Hillary didn’t win fair and square. It was set up—a rigged match.

To make matters worse, when the DNC chair stepped down in disgrace, she was rewarded by Hillary Clinton.

Now we’re being told that we have one choice if we want to prevent Trump from getting the Presidency—vote for Hillary.

With my car situation, I wasn’t desperate for a new one yet. I had the ability to decline the bait and switch and be appropriately angry about the manipulation. Had my current car been totaled and I was reliant on independent transportation for a job, I might have felt more pressure to go with the deal in front of me, even if it wasn’t the best one I could find.

I don’t know if I feel like I can walk away from the Democratic bait and switch. I’m still thinking about it. I think a lot of Sanders supporters are.

What concerns me, though, is that so many people are okay with what happened.

Whereas during my car search those around me were equally disgusted with an attempt to trick me into buying a worse car for more money, fellow liberals seem to think that outrage over what happened in the primaries is an over-reaction.

I get why some Sanders supporters are refusing to vote for Hillary in light of everything. If a party is so corrupt that they’re unphased when caught in the midst of their corruption, it makes it seem ludicrous to trust them.

Story #2, The Tower:

My last year at BJU, as I’ve described here, I was beginning to dip my toes into activism, fighting a corrupt system, standing up for people’s rights, and all that fun stuff that has become such a cornerstone of who I am and what I do. On the heels of when my friends and I began to anonymously but publicly question the abuse of power on campus, the school announced their spiritual growth theme for that semester: “unity.”

They preached sermons on unity, had Bible studies on unity, talked about unity in class. It was everywhere… Of course, it doesn’t sound like a horrible theme on the surface; however, it soon became abundantly clear that what the administration considered unity was actually conformity and submission.

It was their version of “sit down and shut up”—sent out to our little anonymous, Harry Potter inspired rebellion.

In their minds, there was no room for unity and dissent to coexist, for unity and calls for accountability, for unity and individuality, or for unity and diversity.

It was a word I had positive connotations for prior to that semester, but I didn’t realize until I actually looked it up that one of its definitions is: “absence of diversity; unvaried or uniform character,” (Dictionary.com).

Any pushback from students wasn’t seen as investment in the school being the best it could be or concern for integrity. Rather it was “sowing seeds of division.”

We were encouraged to unite because division within would distract from the true, common enemy without (Satan, the world, homosexuals, feminists, etc. etc. etc. etc.)

But I also learned another word for what they were talking about: groupthink. And outside of the cult, I learned that groupthink was a toxic to a group—that a truly healthy group has dissent because it is only in dissent and diversity that you can reveal blind spots and discover pitfalls. Conflict is the stuff that groups grow on. Perfect unity is a death knell to creativity and resiliency.

But that’s a cult for you.

I feel like I’m facing déjà vu as I listen to the Democrats plead for “unity” behind Clinton.

Unity that would mean progressives need to shut up about their outrage over corruption, the rigged elections, and the contributions of the two-party system that led to this moment in the first place.

I’m all for trying to change a system from the inside before deciding that system can’t be saved. That was largely my reasons for participating in those activities at BJU. While the administration perceived our efforts as undermining and destructive, our goal was to stimulate positive change and critical thinking.

However, eventually I reached the point where I realized I could waste my life trying to change a system from the inside simply because I didn’t have the courage to step out of the system. I was watching people do it.

So I left, and my world shattered in such a terrible, annihilating way. When the dust settled though, I could see that I had broken through to something far more authentic and healthy.

I distrust the Democratic plea for unity. Sanders tried to change the party from the inside. And they balked. More than that, they fought back viciously.

There’s no denying at this point that the two-party system is failing to adequately provide democracy to the people. People are hungry for something to change, but they’re also scared.

There’s a line from Halsey’s “Castle” that has been sticking with me lately: “If you wanna break these walls down, you’re gonna get bruised.”

At this point, I don’t think it’s possible to change our system without it hurting to some extent, but one of the things that attracts me to third parties is that they’re the only ones who are suggesting it’s possible to embrace this moment for change to break out of our current system—to break through to something stronger and better, maybe not found in any individual presidency that could come this time around but in the hope of true choice, in the dismantling of fear politics, and in the rejection of both fascism and corporatist oligarchy.

The question is: do we have the courage to leave behind the paradigm we know to reach for something else?

I recognize that some don’t feel this is “the time” to break out of that paradigm. They feel that Trump is too much of a threat.

For me, I don’t think there is going to ever be a “right time.” The deeper we go into the dysfunction of our current system, the more it will cost to change the system. Regardless of what the election outcome is this year, we will face a crisis of choice around the new-fascist energy that has gained so much momentum.

The question is no longer about when the right time is but whether changing hurts less than staying the same.

We’re gonna get bruised.

Story #3, Temperence:

When I decided to get married against my parent’s wishes (and thus leave the cult), my family pretty much tried every psychological mindfuck in the book to stop me.

One night, my brother and his wife invited my partner and me over to their home for a visit. My brother proceeded to spend the evening lecturing us about how we were going to kill my father if we proceeded with our plans.

At another point, my parents told me the same thing, except this time they accused me of killing my grandmother.

At the time, it seemed like a very real possibility that one or both of them would have a heart attack and die from their strong feelings about my life’s direction, and I had to work through all of the (false) sense of responsibility I felt about that.

Obviously, I chose to continue with my plans to get out of that toxic environment. But that motif arose again as an internalized message when I came out as bi and again when I came out as non-Christian.

They’re miraculously all still alive, but it took me years to realize that even if either my dad or my grandmother had died (or even committed suicide) following one of my life choices, that I wouldn’t have been responsible for their deaths.

I would later come to learn that it’s part of a pretty classic cycle of abuse and falls into similar categories as the “you made me beat you” or “you deserve what you get.”

I’ve often heard people ask, “Why didn’t you just leave?” In some ways, that’s the opposite form of blaming. The abuser might declare that the victim “caused” their abuse. Outsiders might say that they “could have prevented it.”

One of the goals of working with survivors is to help someone in an abusive situation realize where their power to leave lies. BUT to do so in a way that never blames them for the abuse. It’s a really delicate balance of uncovering empowerment while honoring vulnerability and often involves planning when it’s most feasible to leave successfully, both practically and emotionally.

In the past few weeks, I’ve heard undecided voters or third party voters accused of being responsible for Trump’s election and anything horrible that follows, and I categorically reject that idea. The only people responsible for Trump’s election are the people who choose to vote for him.

Let me say that again. The only people responsible for Trump’s election are the people who choose to vote for him.

Trying to blame those who are fighting his election with their vote for someone else is manipulative and abusive.

That being said, I also recognize that my vote is an important decision not to be made lightly. I don’t lean towards a third party vote because I don’t care about the results of the election. I care very deeply and desperately want to make a choice that I think will be the best option (taking into account the conscience of my vote as well as the effectiveness of my vote).

I’ve been accused of being privileged for simply considering not voting for Hillary. The reality is much more complicated. We are all overprivileged to some extent and underprivileged to another extent. As a bi woman, I face a certain amount of risk. As a cis, white, American, I have a certain amount of security.

Both my privilege and my vulnerability go into my decision.

In some ways Hillary seems like a very appealing option.

On the one hand, I feel certain that a Clinton presidency would affect me and certain groups fairly little in the short term (although I also believe we have been progressively moving towards stripping basic Constitutional rights away from the general populace even while we’ve made great strides in Civil Rights for marginalized groups).

However, I don’t necessarily believe that a Clinton presidency would be good for immigrants or various other marginalized groups. Trump talks a scary game, but Clinton has also supported unjust wars and the bombing of civilians. She backed a genocidal military coup and deported child refugees (read here, here, here, here, and here). The Democrats have repeatedly demonstrated support for human rights violations such as Guantanamo, the Privacy Act, and various other initiatives disguised as anti-terrorist measures.

So does protecting some areas of vulnerability justify the oppression that would result with more colonialism and imperialism in the White House? If we can guarantee that human rights violations would stay overseas, would that be reason enough to vote for Hillary to avoid Trump?

To me, that seems like using my American privilege at the expense of others.

I don’t see privilege as something that should necessarily be rejected. Sometimes, yes. But sometimes privilege represents having a voice that others will listen to and a power that others should have, in which case I think privilege should be used to dismantle systems of oppression so that others gain that voice and power as well.

In that way, men should use their male privilege to speak out against sexism in spaces where women don’t have access or wouldn’t be safe to do so. White people should use their privilege to undermine racism. Straight people, cis people, able bodied people, the list could go on.

In this case, if the oppressive system is a two-party system that holds people’s votes hostage to fear and threatens the lives of those who can’t even vote, then am I not using my privilege to contribute to that system of oppression by blindly following Hillary?

Yet I cannot simply wonder, “Why don’t we just leave the two-parties?” because I know it’s not that simple to break out of a toxic system.

In conclusion, I suppose the cards could be read in multiple ways. One outcome could be that we join with the “devil” (note, in this instance, the devil is the two-party system, not Hillary herself) for the time being but still undergo a paradigm shift that leads to a more balanced future.

The other possibility is that we reject the binds and toxic manipulation of the Devil card, experience painful shattering of our current worldview, and come through to more balance that way.

Ultimately, this election is a mess, and I don’t necessarily think there can be a good outcome regarding who gets the presidency. What we can get from this though is the motivation to think carefully about our choices.

The Devil asks, How do they contribute to our entrapment? The Tower asks, How do they help us create new options? Temperance asks, How do we use our power and our vulnerability alchemically together to create the best outcome?

 

 

 

 

 

The Pagan and the Atheist

I go through cycles in my spirituality. Sometimes I’m more focused on meditation, being still, calming my mind, enjoying the moment, etc. Other times I’m all about the visions and trance journeys, dreams, scrying, and working with guides. Still other times I pull out my spellbooks and get down to business with working some magic.

And then there are periods when all of that is fairly quiet and my agnostic side is dominant.

I never worry when a piece of my path recedes because I know that it will come back around again whenever it’s needed; however, I hadn’t realized why my agnostic side felt so disconnected from the rest of that cycle until I read two very different books: The Spiral Dance by Starhawk and The Atheist’s Way by Eric Maisel.

One was a very well-thought perspective that blended a deep respect for the author’s own beliefs and experiences with a kind of casual take-it-or-leave-it attitude. The author could clearly laugh at themselves, recognized that there was a certain level of absurdity to things, and wasn’t invested in anyone else believing as they believed. They expressed a healthy skepticism about the world along with some deeply held values, and they encouraged readers to make sure that reality testing worked with their own belief system as well. They addressed social justice issues and the way their worldview contributed to that. And they demonstrated respect for the whole person (rational, emotional, conscious, and unconscious).

I hardly expected to be blown away by either book, but after I finished the first, I was quite impressed.

The other book, in contrast, had the opposite effect.

From the first chapter, the author exuded classism and prejudice. They demeaned anyone who did not ascribe to their beliefs and presented humans as having to fight against their very nature and to uproot anything not in line with the presented worldview. Even worse, they used progressively religious, fear-mongering language in favor of the strict form of belief presented, warning of “backsliding” to those who dared stray from their path. All in all, they presented some of the most blatant slippery slopes, straw men, unaccepted enthymeme’s, and naturalistic fallacies I’ve seen in a book, religious or otherwise.

Would you believe it if I said that the latter was written by the atheist?

Despite stating over and over that his readers had the freedom and power to choose what they wanted to believe about the meaning of life, it became clear that there was only one acceptable choice in Maisel’s mind.

I guess up until then I’d never realized that I’ve carried around a mild shame over my chosen path. In my personal dialogue with myself about my beliefs, I’ve always said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s real or not because it is nurturing my psyche and helping me accomplish growth.”

But in conversations with others, I’ve always felt a need to hide my beliefs just a tad, especially around atheists.

It was sort of like I saw this hierarchy of spirituality.

Not being tied to a religious tradition out of fear felt like a step up from where I’d been, but not believing in gods at all seemed like the “better” more “rational” stance. (After all, I had basically chosen my own beliefs partially because they seemed more fun than believing in a non-magical world.)

But the truth is, I’d be much prouder to be like Starhawk than like Maisel.

Maisel’s atheism hasn’t made him more open-minded or more logical. In fact, I dare say that atheists like him and Dawkins are closer to religious fundamentalism than they would like to think. That’s not the kind of person I want to be!

I certainly don’t think all atheists are like that.

When I no longer have a bad taste in my mouth from this last book, I look forward to reading more atheist writers to round out my experience.

At the same time, I also no longer feel the inferiority of choosing to believe in the power and value of my own path.

Maisel was right, I do have the ability to choose the worldview I want to give my life meaning. What he failed to realize is that atheism is not inherently better. As Starhawk reminded me, my spirituality can enhance the meaning I find, strengthen my social justice commitment, and create harmony between my rational and “child-like” self.

Even if it’s based in make believe, I think that’s better than a worldview that cuts me off from parts of myself, makes me fear my own spiritual longings, and participates in systems and patterns of oppression.

 

 

 

 

I’m Going on a Pokemon Hunt!

Today is a day filled with shame! I’m so humiliated about the blog topic I want to cover that I feel I should be banned from blogging forever after this week.

But here goes.

Pokemon Go!

I love it. I’m delighted with it being all over the freaking internet and with the way that every time I go outside I can spot so many people playing.

Gah, please save me!

When my partner started playing Ingress, Niantic’s precursor to Pokemon Go, I rolled my eyes on good days and actively railed against the waste of time that it was on bad days.

But over the last week, I’ve found myself squealing over fuzzy virtual creatures and begging my partner to go on walks and drives and adventures to locate more pokemon.

At one point, I even dreamed about it!

I’m trying to keep a sense of humor about this new obsession of mine, but I have to say that there are things that I really admire about Pokemon Go (obsession aside).

The game is coaxing people outside! And not just onto streets or into their yards. It’s actually getting them to explore and be in nature.

From what I understand as a newbie to the Pokemon world, getting gamers out and about has been a goal for a while, but the Ingress technology has made that more possible than ever. This is an amazing development for video games, I think, and people have been reporting about the physical and emotional benefits of being out in nature even within the first week.

The downside is that all of that nature walking requires GPS tracking and data usage. Paranoid me is feeling pretty weird about a game being able to track my every move, and it’s one of the reasons why I resisted Ingress.

I’ve been checking my data usage regularly to make sure I don’t dig myself into a financial hole without realizing it, but more importantly, I’ve had to ask some tough questions about how much access I’m willing to give a game.

For now, at least, I’m going in favor of Pokemon Go. It’s providing me and other people a happy escape from a really stressful and uncertain time. It’s getting adults en masse to play like few other things have been able to do, and that is REALLY GOOD!

Humans need play, both for de-stressing and for stimulating creativity. Pokemon Go is providing a super simple and easily accessible form of fun and mild escapism. While the exercise and nature are, no doubt, contributing to the boost in mental health reported, I believe the play is also a component of that.

After a few days, I noticed that Pokemon Go, like other video games, was triggering the reward center in my brain with small and easy accomplishments (well, easy compared to getting a graduate degree or curing cancer, though I am still pissed that I lost my Gym battle the other day).

That’s also a good aspect within moderation. Having easily gained accomplishments each day is healthy, I think.

That being said, I’m guarded about the hooking effect of the game. Because games can set off the reward center of our brain more easily than other things, one of their pitfalls is forgetting to live actual life while continually seeking reinforcement in a game.

Pokemon Go has conditioning on its side. It operates on a variable rate reward system, promising and delivering a pokemon often enough to keep me excited and expectant but not so predictably that I can figure out the pattern that makes the pokemon appear.

It’s the same way that slot machines work, and this particular kind of conditioning is especially powerful because there’s always the hope that a reward is forthcoming at any moment.

All this adds up to a potentially addictive set-up, not to the social interaction or the adventuring but to the thrill of discovering a pokemon itself.

So the good and the bad, taken together. What do they mean?

For me, I think this game can be an amazing thing for me but I need to be a mindful consumer. I’m striving to enjoy the connection, the adventure, the fun, and the sense of accomplishment, but also remember that it can’t replace life.

I’m actively resisting the pull for it to become all-consuming, taking days off and planning when I will be playing for seriously. When I wake up in the middle of the night wanting to go out searching for Pokemon, I remind myself how the game functions and use those urges as a way to strengthen my own delayed gratification.

I’m also putting my phone down and going for a walk or an adventure without Pokemon Go serving as the excuse. It’s fun!

So while my partner won’t let me forget how much shit I gave him for Ingress a few months ago, I’m really not all that ashamed of my new hobby. I’m cautiously optimistic about the way that it will benefit my and others lives.

P.S. It’s okay if you don’t understand this current fad and find it uninteresting. However, for those who are bitching and moaning about millennials, please just shut the fuck up. I don’t think it’s worth my time to go into all the ways prejudice against millennials is hypocritical or how previous generations had equally frivolous time-wasters (albeit non-digitalized). We all have things we enjoy that others find silly. Let’s not turn that into food for ageism.

 

Let’s Talk About Race and Violence

I’m at a loss for words this weekend, but I do not want to remain silent in the face of violence towards others. Therefore, I am choosing to redirect to those whose voices are working better than mine currently. Below I will link to articles and posts I have found meaningful over the last few days.

I ask my readers to consider what they themselves can do to address racial issues, especially if you’re white.

Challenge your own implicit bias, open up conversations with friends, listen to the voices of the oppressed.

Shortly after the Orlando shooting, when I was lamenting how little I could do to change homophobia, I was reminded that modeling is one of the most important aspects of change. Change starts with you and with me. None of us have the power to change the world on our own, but we all have the power to influence our corner of it. Choose to use that power to create an environment around you that is better.

15 Things Your City Can Do Right Now to End Police Brutality
Many of these are things I’ve thought about before, but this article does a great job of articulating how and why they need to be implemented. The last point, especially, seems important to me.

The Irony at the Heart of the Dallas Police Deaths After a Black Lives Matter March
This article is important because it shows how some police departments are taking brutality seriously and attempting to create an atmosphere of accountability and transparency. The tragedy is that one of those departments was targeted. I share this article for two purposes: to show how senseless the assassination of those police officers was and to honor the work that Dallas has done to address brutality.

For White Folks Like Me Who Say They’re Mad
This is an important article about addressing racism in everyday life. We have opportunities to bring up racial issues. Sometimes they seem like “not a big deal.” Other times it seems like it would cause more trouble than it’s worth.

It’s worth it. Talk to people.

Implicit Association Test
It is vital that we all be willing to not just challenge our friends, acquaintances, and family about their racially oppressive language and behaviors but that we also be willing to look within to see where we might be conditioned to be racially biased ourselves. This test was designed to assess the subconscious bias that individuals might hold towards people of color. I challenge you to take it and consider how you can use what you learn about yourself to create a better world.