The Benefits and Limits of Mari Kondo’s Method

Like many people this year, I found myself swept up in the fever of Mari Kondo’s “Tidying Up” on Netflix. I loved it and quickly found myself sorting my clothes while watching episodes of others sorting theirs. And then I expanded that to other areas of my life, asking myself, “Does this spark joy?” for both material and non-material objects.

I quickly found that there were some ways in which Mari Kondo’s method was incredibly helpful! I can honestly say my dresser drawers have never looked better, and I got rid of so many cds, knickknacks, books, and craft supplies that I began to realize were never really going to be used because I didn’t like them (it’s amazing how much you can horde out of guilt that you “should” use it someday but don’t actually have a desire to).

I even deleted over 500 files from my computer after realizing that I had no intention of returning to that short story again and didn’t need to keep that paper from high school anymore.

Probably the most important shift was finally having the courage to deactivate my Facebook account. It wasn’t a hard answer when I asked if it sparked joy. The answer for months had been a resounding “NO!” It was a source of stress more than anything, but because of how important Facebook had been in helping me build community and find support when I first came out as bisexual and when I began my recovery journey from the cult, I had a hard time letting go. Kondo’s advice to offer gratitude as you released something was the missing piece I needed to be able to finally say, “I no longer need this in my life.”

There’s a certain amount of truth that in releasing the things that don’t really spark joy, I have more energy for things that do. I’m more likely to grab a cd and pop it into my car knowing that the ones on my cd tower are the ones that I actually enjoy. I also have returned to some old hobbies and creative projects now that Facebook no longer clutters my mind, and I’m finding ways to increase the meaningfulness of my connections with others through letter writing, text, and phone calls.

But I also found there were limitations to her method.

For me, it’s not enough to touch a book as a way of “awakening” it before deciding to keep it or not. I have to read it because, until I know what it contains, I don’t know whether it has joy or value to me. Reading through my books and choosing to release the ones I don’t like has been a project I’ve been working on for over a year now. It’s a slow process that doesn’t offer that immediate satisfaction of releasing like Kondo’s method, but ultimately I think it’s a more thorough gauge.

There’s also a limit in how much one can do solo when you co-habit with others. My partner is decidedly not on the konmari trend, and so much of our possessions have become intermingled that I can’t really decide on my own whether something should be removed. And unless I took a whole week off work to sort, I can’t really afford to pile things into the middle of the room by category. Perhaps that’s my own limitation more so than the limitation of her method, but I’ve become resigned to the fact that it’s just not going to happen.

However, probably the biggest limitation is in applying the joy question to the things from my past, the “sentimental” things, as Konda would call them.

She recommends saving those until last, but it was inevitable that as I sorted through desk drawers I would come across pictures, diaries, notes, and various other things from my past. After having my PTSD triggered sky high by uncovering some pictures and sermon notes from summer indoctrination camp shoved in the back of a drawer, it hit me that the question of “Does it spark joy?” was horribly inadequate given my history, even if I save it until the end.

“Joy” is not a word I would apply to my childhood. Even the best of memories are laced with the pain of trauma and loss. There’s a part of me that would like to just burn anything that reminds me of abuse, to eradicate any evidence of the unusual life I led, and to bury anything that reminds me of all I lost in trying to break free.

But I also know that if I did that, I would be left with nothing from my past, and I’m not prepared to erase who I was entirely. Some of those memories are important, even if they are painful.

Keeping it all probably doesn’t make sense, but figuring out what to release and what to save is going to require more than the joy question.

It’s going to require processing the painful memories, discharging the triggers, and integrating those parts of myself. And that’s a time-consuming, slow process that will only happen in increments. Only then will I be ready to say whether something is meaningful—and I say meaningful because I doubt that I will find it “sparking joy” even then.

I think what I’ve found in the last few months of playing with her approach is that I like her “spark joy” standard as a beginning place. From there, if it’s not sparking joy, I think I have to find another set of questions to ask myself.

I’ve become comfortable with this method with books. Not all of the books I keep are books I like. Sometimes they’re books I think are important to keep on hand for utility purposes or because they are important for reference.

The same goes for anything else. Expecting nothing but joy from the things in my life might be naïve, but I can at least expect that the discomfort they create will be purposeful. If it’s not sparking joy and the stress, pain, or discomfort isn’t serving some important purpose, it needs to go.

Gaslighting: What It Is and What It Isn’t

When I was still living with my parents, just before I got married and made my escape from the cult, I almost had a nervous breakdown. I was under tremendous stress, and that on its own was probably enough to drive me a bit batty. But I had more than a little bit of help in reaching a point of actively questioning whether I was going insane.

It started subtly at first, with my parents denying things that had happened years ago—long enough ago that it made sense that we might remember those situations very differently. But then it increased to more and more recent events with my parents painting very different pictures of what had happened than what I remembered. At first, I didn’t think anything malicious was involved, even as I increasingly began to question my ability to remember something accurately even a few hours after it happened.

Then one night, the veil was lifted, and I saw clearly the terrifying reality that my parents were trying to destabilize my sense of reality. The night before, I’d heard the sounds of Pete’s Dragon wafting from the living room to my bedroom. I barely took note of it as I went about doing whatever I was doing. But then the next night, as I walked through the living room, I noticed they were watching it again.

I paused and asked, “Didn’t you just watch this?”

I didn’t need them to tell me that they had. I knew they did. It was more a question of why—why watch the same movie twice in a row?

But they looked at me and feigned confusion, so I clarified, “You watched this last night. I heard you watching it last night. Now you’re watching it again tonight.”

Without missing a beat, they told me, “No, we didn’t watch this last night.” Their faces were calm and direct.

I felt the familiar stirrings of the paranoia I had increasingly been experiencing rising up in me, but I was confident enough in my hearing, if not other aspects of my memory, that I reasserted I had heard the movie playing last night.

They denied it again…and again…and again. I lost count of how many times they told me they hadn’t seen the movie the night before. I knew it was impossible that they wouldn’t remember watching the movie twice in a row, but I never dreamed they would lie to me. The only other explanation was that my mind had officially broken.

I was on the verge of a panic attack and actively wondering if this was the moment I would go insane when their façade broke and they began to giggle, admitting that they had indeed watched the movie the night before. “We’re just playing with you!”

It was that moment that I realized they were actively enjoying my distress. I didn’t know what to call it at the time. It would be years later that I would discover the concept of gaslighting. But I could tell that it was intentional in that moment and that it was designed to unsettle me.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had the “but this happened”/”no it didn’t” argument with them. It wasn’t even the most serious incident because, honestly, them watching a movie twice in two nights had no bearing on my life. But it was the first time they had slipped up enough to lose the mask, their mirth leaking through.

I went back to my room, sick with the knowledge that for sport and control my parents were willing to actively fuck with my sense of sanity, that they were willing to lie to my face about my own experiences…and that they were damned good at it.

They never admitted to doing it again, but I recognized the signs from then on. I could not shake the paranoia they had instilled. Each time it happened again, I felt like my brain was going to snap. I resorted to transcribing conversations in my journal or on my computer immediately after they happened so that I had a record of what was said–and that it had even happened. Eventually I began refusing to have conversations with them without another person to witness, usually my fiancé phoning in over the phone, because I couldn’t trust them and had lost my trust in myself.

To this day, I get sick thinking about how close they came to causing a psychotic break in me. There are no words to describe the horror of feeling like your mind is someone else’s play thing.

Today, I see so many social justice activists tossing around the word “gaslighting” for anything and everything, and it concerns me to see how watered down the word has become.

Gaslighting is a terrifying and extreme experience. It’s a very serious form of abuse. But it isn’t what many people are using the word for.

Samantha Field has also spoken out on this issue, and I want to acknowledge that she has some great things to say but I want to expand on what gaslighting is and is not because I think it’s vital that social justice and the left stop using this word as a catch-all.

Gaslighting is not disagreeing with someone. It’s not disagreeing with their worldview, holding a different perspective from them on sensitive issues, or actively disagreeing with their interpretation of politics and society.

If someone thinks something is a result of sexism, it’s not gaslighting for another person to disagree with that and think that they’re misinterpreting what they experienced. That might feel silencing, demeaning, infantilizing, minimizing, and a whole lot of other things, but it’s not gaslighting.

It isn’t gaslighting someone to disagree with their interpretation of yours or someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or intentions. None of us are mind-readers and none of us can know the internal experience of someone else. There is room to disagree when someone else is purporting to know what a person who isn’t themselves is thinking, feeling, or intending.

It isn’t even gaslighting to remember the same situation in different ways. People’s memories are made of what their brains perceived as salient at the time; therefore, it isn’t uncommon for two people to have been in the same situation and have different memories of that situation.

In a similar vein, gaslighting isn’t forgetting details of a conversation, encounter, or event that another person seems to remember well. (This is where it took me some time to recognize it happening to me because there was a genuine chance that my parents didn’t remember something from five years ago the way I did. There’s also a chance I could have encoded my interpretation as opposed to the actual words that were said).

It’s not gaslighting trying to persuade or influence someone to agree with you using emotionally persuasive or manipulative tactics. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation, but not all manipulation is gaslighting.

I’ll even go so far as to say that denial and lying aren’t inherently gaslighting because gaslighting is a far more sinister technique that goes beyond merely trying to escape accountability.

Gaslighting is a campaign to undermine a person’s sense of sanity by making them actively question their ability to trust their memories and sensory perceptions (e.g. what they hear, see, smell, etc.). And it requires a relationship where the gaslighting person is in a position of trust and uses that trust to break down a person’s own ability to reality check themselves.

The term comes from a movie in which a husband actively drives his wife to the brink of insanity by insidious toying with her environment such as removing things from his wife’s purse and pretending she removed the thing and doesn’t remember doing so or causing noises and sputtering lights but then pretending that his wife isn’t seeing what she saw or hearing what she heard.

It’s part of what makes Shutter Island so terrifying, wondering if DiCaprio’s character has just been insane the whole time or if it’s all an elaborate plot to convince him he is because he knows too much. Once they can convince him he’s insane, they can control him.

This is not a tool in the average person’s tool box. It’s calculated and deliberately orchestrated. It’s not something a stranger can implement. It requires time…first to build up the victim’s trust in the perpetrator and then to erode the trust of the victim in themselves. I believe that’s important for people to understand.

As Samantha points out, misusing the term “gaslighting” whenever a discussion becomes uncomfortable and triggering waters down the meaning, but I’d also say that it discredits the word as well. People will remember being accused of “gaslighting” unjustly or seeing someone else unjustly accused of it, and it will influence how seriously they’ll take the concept.

Abuse survivors have a hard enough time as it is being believed when they disclose that they’ve been abused in various ways. False accusations, though comprising a small percentage of accusations, manage to undermine the credibility of all accusations.

In other words, those who cry wolf don’t just damage their own credibility, they damage the credibility of everyone who is watching out for wolves.

Which means we have to be careful about how we use terms that connote abuse like “gaslighting” (or “violence,” which could be a whole post on its own). We cannot allow these terms to come to mean merely that someone has made us uncomfortable by disagreeing, has stimulated difficult emotions, or has inadvertently triggered past trauma.

Those of us who know what it is have a responsibility to speak out when we see it being misused or misapplied. Otherwise, we assist the wolves. People will get so used to hearing “wolf!” that they’ll stop paying attention. They won’t see that someone is being psychologically eaten.

EDIT: my partner pointed out a caveat in which trust may not be present but extreme dependency is. I think it’s fair to say that in instances in which someone has power over defining someone else’s environment, as in the case of captivity, that gaslighting can happen in the absence of trust. The captive may not trust the captor but may not have another source of reality testing and validation available. For most people, that is not a circumstance they will encounter.

Reclaiming Negative Emotions: Dancing with Regret

Where there is risk, there is the possibility of regret, but there is no great reward without risk.

I used to brag that I had no regrets and actively worked to live my life without regret.

I also didn’t take many risks.

I was a cautious person, afraid to make a choice for fear that it would be a mistake. I would often hold back from making large decisions until I was desperate and absolutely certain that the only viable option was not staying with my status quo.

My biggest risks were in some ways leaps of faith—things like choosing to leave the cult. I had no way to predict how they would turn out. But the risk was mitigated by my understanding that it was, in some ways, the cost of keeping my soul alive.

Spontaneity and impulsivity were foreign to me for many years.

I can no longer say that I have no regrets though. It was inevitable, really. In order to be authentic and alive, I had to eventually make mistakes.

Initially my regrets began as things that I hadn’t had the courage to pursue, and the pain of realizing I had squandered an opportunity that I could never, ever get back.

That followed by a period of what I thought was “grabbing life by the horns,” enacting the grief of lost opportunities on other (in hindsight, less appealing) opportunities. And let me tell you, I got gored by those horns! I’m still crawling out of the hole of shame, self-doubt, and pain that my impetuous never-want-to-feel-grief-again blindness brought on.

Yet both regrets have taught me something invaluable—there is pain in being too scared to take a worthwhile risk, and there is also pain in being too eager to take mediocre or bad risks. I had to learn the former before I could learn the latter.

Nowadays, I’m trying to find my passionate self again—or should I say I’m trying to develop my passionate self because I’m not entirely certain I ever had her.

My cautious self—that wounded part that is scared to repeat the mistakes of risk-taking—is painfully inhibiting. Whereas before she only had the threat of regret to hold me back, she now has the experience of regret to draw on. “Look what happened last time you were impulsive,” she pleads.

At one time, I might have thought the answer was to squelch her, but I understand that she is there to protect me. Her holding me back isn’t out of spite; it’s out of concern for everything I hold dear. She doesn’t want me to get hurt.

So I have to respect that cautious self, but I also don’t want to return to living in such a cautious way that I am reined by my fear–which means that I have to work with both caution and desire as I develop my passionate self.

I’m learning that caution and desire are not necessarily antithetical to each other. Caution adds important gifts that make passion truly sustainable–foresight, self-control, and wisdom. Without those, it’s just mania. Caution is the fire screen that contains the fire of passion.

I’ve been taking some scary risks lately, coaxing myself to try things that I’m curious about but would have probably held back from five years ago.

They’re not life-changing things, by any means, singing karaoke, trying out ecstatic dance, getting a bold new haircut. But they are things that challenge me, push me out of my comfort zone. Each felt terrifying in its own way as I approached the juncture of decision. And they give me an opportunity to practice evaluating whether a risk is worth taking.

What I’m learning is that all of me has to be present in making a decision to take a risk. The regrets have to be ones I can live with if they come true. And there needs to be a promised reward even in failure—the reward of greater freedom and pride in myself for having tried something hard.

I no longer necessarily want to live without regrets—because I realize now that would mean not truly living.

I want to learn how to dance with regret so that I can also dance with passion.

But I do want to live in a way that if I have regrets, they are chosen with my eyes wide open because the reward was promising enough to make the regret worth it.

As I build faith in myself with these smaller decisions, my cautious self will learn to trust that I will hear and honor her in larger decisions.

It’s Halloween! (So Let’s Talk Scary Movies) #2

On Thursday, I rewatched the first horror movie I had ever seen in a theater–actually the first movie I had ever seen in a theater, period. It was probably one of the most intentionally rebellious things I ever did as a teen. Movie theaters were “evil” places in my cult, and I was forbidden from going to them, even to watch a Disney movie.

Horror movies were also considered evil and demonic for the obvious reason that they often deal with dark topics and the cult didn’t know how to recognize a metaphor.

So, what do I do when I decide to sneak out to a theater for the first time? I go watch Silent Hill, of course.

I remember being scared shitless, but I didn’t remember much about the movie itself. Watching it this time was sort of like watching it for the first time all over again. This one quickly took a place amongst my “movies that are metaphors for the importance of darkness.”

Spoilers in case you haven’t actually seen a movie this old yet.

Silent Hill is a moody, thrilling underworld journey about abuse, revenge, and facing your dark side. Whereas IT focused on facing and conquering fears, this movie is about encountering the dark, painful parts of ourselves.

The story opens with Sharon, an adopted little girl, sleepwalking and dreaming about this place called Silent Hill. It’s implied that these types of episodes have been going on for quite some time, with no response to medication or medical attempts to manage the sleep walking. Her mother discovers that it was a town in the state in which she’d been born that had become a ghost town after coal caught fire in the mines and drove people away. Thus, Rose decides that the only answer is to take her daughter back to this burning town to see if they can figure out what is haunting Sharon.

Rose and Sharon end up separated, and the movie follows Rose’s attempts to find her daughter in a land that has become a nightmare. Her searches eventually lead her to discover a bullied little girl who had been burned by religious fanatics for being a witch. Down in the bowels of the hospital where Alessa was put on life support after her burns, Rose encounters a little girl who looks exactly like Sharon…if Sharon were a demon.

Rose learns that Sharon is “what’s left of Alesssa’s goodness.” Her look-alike is Alessa’s revenge. They had sent Sharon to Rose to be cared for, eventually calling both of them back.

Rose also learns that the religious extremists plan a similar fate for her daughter. Although Alessa’s mother, a member of the cult, had abandoned her when the group had chosen to “purify” her, Rose has an opportunity to save her daughter from the religious extremists by taking in the darkness of the other half and carrying it to the church where the extremists hold their meetings.

It’s a powerful movie with so many characters playing off each other that my Jungian heart goes crazy with the possibilities for analysis.

The movie points out that “to a child, mother is god,” highlighting both the incredible power that mothers hold over their children. Most children, even when their mothers are harming them, still see their mothers through rosy glasses, requiring the child to take on the interpretation of “if good mother is doing these things to me, it must be because I am bad.” It’s nearly impossible to consider, as a young child, that mother might not actually be good. In keeping with this theme, Alessa’s mother is never actually touched by Alessa’s revenge. Even though she’s one of the people that Alessa could easily blame, she doesn’t.

In a similar way, cults like these ones often portray God in a similar light. It takes a lot for a member to question whether the group (which represents God) is doing the right thing, whether life circumstances are indeed deserved. Alessa’s mom wasn’t a good mom because she hated her daughter. She failed Alessa because she herself was under the same spell with the group.

Rose is contrasted with Alessa’s failure. Rose is able to save Sharon the way that Alessa’s mother should have saved Alessa. In some ways, I like to think that Rose is the internal mother that can be developed to heal from religious trauma, but I think the literal interpretation of her being an adoptive mother is also legit.

In turn, Alessa is contrasted by the split girls, identical except that one is good and one is…not exactly evil, but definitely dark. The good child, Sharon, is easy to love. The one that carries Alessa’s pain and anger is harder because she’s scary and unpredictable. But Rose can’t save Sharon without accepting Sharon’s other half.

Alessa’s mom is horrified by the shadow side as she watches her take her revenge on the religious fanatics, but there’s an interesting question even in the violence. Who is the true monster? Yes, the fanatics have been hiding from this dark child, but they also were the ones who created her. They burned Alessa, blind to the evil they themselves perpetuated. We also find out that they’re dead too—that they died in the fire they started, but that they are avoiding awareness of how they have destroyed themselves until Rose forces them to confront the shadow they have created.

Right towards the end, after Rose has managed to cut Sharon down from the stake (technically a ladder more than a stake, but serving the same purpose), she’s holding her and rocking her. Suddenly, the dark duplicate appears and looks into Sharon’s face. The scene cuts away then, and Rose and Sharon wake up later and head home.

It’s unclear from the movie whether the dark one just leaves Sharon alone after she looks at her or if she and Sharon reintegrate with each other in that moment, but my guess is that they integrated because neither were whole on their own. They had been split by the horror of what happened (good metaphor for trauma), and the healing came through Rose offering the corrective experience of a mother who doesn’t abandon her child. Rose needed to love both the shadow and the light in order for the little girl to fully heal.

Five Ways of Resisting Without Punching Nazis

Wow! It’s been a hell of a week, and if you’re like me, you’re feeling pretty damn raw and emotional.

There are many people who are scared, angry, grieving, etc. over the events that happened in Charlottesville.

Many are calling for measures to suppress free speech, seeing it as inextricably linked with the violence of the previous weekend. There are others arguing that we should go around and punch Nazis, harass them, send them threats, and “make them afraid” to show their faces in public.

I get it. I do.

But I can’t help but cringe at how these responses merely contribute to the problem. We’re dealing with extremism, and we have to be smart about how we deal with extremism. I believe, from what I’ve seen, that it’s safe to say that these white supremacist movements qualify as cults and that they have a very deliberate recruitment program.

And you getting pissed off enough to punch someone in the face for their ideology is part of that plan!

You getting pissed off enough to dox someone online or harass someone or prevent them from speaking at a college event is part of that plan.

Because they really want to convince angry, scared, and vulnerable people that they are being persecuted…and the more that you can give evidence of that, the better for their recruitment agenda.

But I also get that some of this extreme response to extremism stems from a very legitimate place of fear.

Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery writes about how revenge fantasies are not uncommon in response to trauma because they offer the illusion of rebalancing the trauma. People desire resolution, and sometimes the idea of becoming the big bad aggressor who makes the oppressor afraid the way they have been afraid seems like the only or the best way to go about resolving the trauma and regaining a sense of safety.

It doesn’t work though.

Perpetuating violence against others can actually compound trauma. That’s part of the reason why soldiers can get PTSD—it’s not just the threat to their own lives; it’s the memories of what they’ve done to others that can haunt them, even if that “other” was an “enemy.” (Edit to add: based on feedback from others, I’d like to clarify that I’m not condemning self-defense or protecting others and that those can be healthy responses to physical threat–they can also result in trauma, but not necessarily).

But we’re feeling helpless, and we need somewhere to turn, something to do.

So here’s a list of five ways that you can resist extremism and white supremacy that I think have a better chance of being effective than lashing out.

  1. Self-care. No seriously! Self-care is super important right now. Burnout and secondary traumatic stress (basically becoming traumatized from witnessing or hearing about trauma) are major risks, especially when there is very graphic footage that is being virally shared from last weekend.The symptoms of burnout and secondary trauma can compound the unhelpful aspects of this situation and interfere with your ability to think about and do things to help you and your communities heal.

    So, make sure you take breaks, get rest, meet your physical and emotional needs, do things that are pleasant, comforting, and hopeful.

    And if you notice yourself having nightmares, being hypervigilant, having intrusive thoughts or memories (or flashbacks), experiencing extreme mood swings, or other symptoms of trauma, consider seeing a professional and getting some extra support.

    You can read more about self-care after tragedies at this post. There are also some great resources on the Orlando Grief Care Project website for dealing with grief and stress that I would recommend you check out.

  2. Donate to Life After Hate, the Southern Poverty Law Center, or some other group that is working to counter the violence, racism, and extremism of our current times. I mention these groups specifically because they specifically focus on resistance without oppression.Life After Hate reaches out to people who have become embroiled in the cult of the alt-right. They are working specifically to help people leave these ideologies…which is way more effective than trying to silence the ideologies.

    It might seem like a slower approach, but every person that chooses to walk away from that movement is one less person at those rallies and one more person with connections to others and the ability to influence others who might be going to those rallies.

    The SPLC has released a handbook outlining how people can effectively counter white supremacists coming to campus without damaging the right to speech. I get that free speech doesn’t seem as valuable to many right now in the face of neo-Nazis, but if we are really up against a group that wants to implement fascism and we already have someone sympathetic to their cause in office, we definitely don’t need to help break down the protections of citizens. Once we start dismantling free speech for others, it’s only a matter of time before that gets used against us (see my post about Pussy Riot for a deeper discussion here).

  3. Learn some ways that you yourself can engage with cults and totalistic forces that are likely to be more productive than force.It’s important to understand why people get involved in cultic groups. They often don’t start out as radical as they seem after they join. Many join because they’re scared and angry and confused. Transitional/stressful times make people more vulnerable to cultic influence because cults promise to solve people’s problems and provide a simple worldview that clarifies all of the complexity that makes life scary.

    Cults offer certainty in a world of seeming chaos, and they subtly manipulate people’s emotions and beliefs in ways that most don’t recognize at first, sometimes leading to actions that baffle the rest of the world with their violence—the Manson murders and Jonestown being very prominent examples.

    But the good news is that there are ways of reaching people even while they are in a cult. Megan Phelps-Roper has a lovely Ted Talk about how she was able to break out of Westboro Baptist Church due to the compassionate but worldview-challenging dialogue that others offered her, and she offers some great tips on how individuals can engage with others in some of those difficult conversations. Her Ted Talk often reminds me that dialogue is the first line of defense against extremism.

    I also recommend reading the following for a better understanding of what we may be facing right now. These inform much of my own approach. Having the knowledge of how extremism and totalism work can go a long way in knowing how to reach out to those influenced by it.

    Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism by Robert Lifton
    On Tyrrany: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
    by Timothy Snyder
    Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steve Hassan
    Cults in our Midst by Margaret Thaler Singer
    The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo

  4. Do healing activities with your own communities and connections.It is healing to get together to sing and dance. It is healing to spend time with loved ones. It is healing to engage in comforting touch like hugs and hand-holding. While organizing or participating in events that involve art or music or dance or other touchy-feely activities may seem so far removed from the issues at hand, it can be just as important as self-care.

    Healing trauma for an individual often involves a dance between dealing with the painful issues and doing comforting or pleasurable things. And healing as a society from collective trauma, societal trauma, and historic trauma needs the same thing. Peter Levine calls it the healing vortex and describes how it can counter the vortex of trauma that tries to pull you into a repetitive, unhealthy cycle of avoidance, re-enactment, and re-traumatization.

    If you’re involved in activism, give attention to community healing. It doesn’t have to wait until racism seems to be conquered—it can’t wait until then!

    At a social justice conference I attended this year, I was struck by an observation made from someone who was an activist originally from a different culture. They said that Americans are too serious about our activism. We don’t learn how to laugh and have fun even while we are fighting oppression. This person had come from a war-torn region and talked about how dancing and laughing were essential in keeping the work going, essential to not being overwhelmed with despair.

    That message stuck with me, especially because my training in helping people with trauma as individuals also highlights that need for pleasure, comfort, and joy. In fact, it’s the foundation. Every trauma model I have studied begins with a foundation of creating a sense of internal safety and strengths through connecting to happy memories or doing positive activities.

    Activism that is, at heart, dealing with collective trauma from injustice needs to be grounded in a trauma model, which means we need to have opportunities for our communities, divided though they may be, to come together in these ways.

  5. Explore your own relationship to and feelings about racial issues. I’m assuming that most of the people reading this would identify as people sensitive to social justice issues, but I also think that everyone’s journey is different. SO…It’s okay to need space to explore these issues even if you feel you strongly disagree with “SJWs” or if you have negative feelings towards the left. You don’t have to be wholly aligned with the most liberal stance in order to explore these issues.

    It’s okay to have questions or make mistakes in your attempt to talk about these issues. Be willing to make mistakes because that’s part of growth, but also be willing to own up to and apologize if you make a mistake because that’s also part of growth.

    It’s okay to want to feel safe and respected while you struggle with examining your worldview, and I understand that those qualities tend to be lacking in many spaces. Call-out culture has become pretty scary and toxic, but that’s not how everyone operates. There are many lovely activists, advocates, and social justice ambassadors (my new term for differentiating from the more antagonistic ilk) who don’t resort to shame and aggression to control.

    Of course, also be willing to feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is not the same as lacking safety…and it’s good to know how to differentiate between those. Talking about racial issues is uncomfortable. Challenging your worldview is uncomfortable. You shouldn’t expect yourself to tolerate feeling completely unsafe, but if you aren’t at least tolerating a little discomfort, you are probably not anywhere close to the growth edge.

    If you have a supportive group where you can feel safe to explore but still be challenged around racial issues, great! In person connections with people you know are always better for these tough conversations.

    You might be able to create a community yourself if you don’t know of one—but make sure it includes people who are respectful and compassionate as well as willing to challenge your thinking and allow you to challenge theirs. I’m currently in love with the deliberate dialogue movements that have sprung up and the idea that it is in the spot with the most tension that the solution ultimately lives.

    Just…don’t create yet another echo chamber. Make sure you’re not just talking to people who agree with you and validate your feelings (and for those who identify as more liberal, this might mean challenging yourself to talk with and explore a more conservative viewpoint. You help no one by insulating entirely.)

    Therapists are also a great place to go if you need a space that is confidential and non-judgmental but hella challenging. Therapists can help you explore your own assumptions and beliefs in a warm, compassionate way, supporting you towards the changes you want to make in your thinking. Generally, they also don’t let you off the hook of doing hard work (or they shouldn’t).

    There are also online groups, though I hesitate to recommend them because the Internet tends to be one of the more vitriolic spaces one can go right now. However, Authentic Allyship is an online group that seeks to provide a space specifically for white people to explore the emotions that come up around being white, including anger and the trauma of being part of oppression.

    It’s designed to be a safe space for “white emotions,” and from what I can tell, the person who runs it (who is, incidentally, a therapist) seems genuinely compassionate and highly principled about the work they’re trying to do. What I’ve read aligns a lot with the mindfulness-based, compassion-based, and non-violent activism towards which I tend to gravitate.

Bonus (because there’s never just five): Get to know the local groups already active in your area. This is something I am challenging myself on more as well. Online activity has always been where I most engage with difficult conversations because it brings me in contact with so many people all over the place. It’s also where I found my greatest supports in exploring my sexual orientation and exiting and recovering from cult life. But online has become more and more toxic lately, and I’ve started wondering if social media is exacerbating the problems we face. I want to give a social media detox a go, get to know more ways to be active “in real life” (which isn’t to say online isn’t important or real, just virtual), and test out other ways of staying informed that don’t involve being bombarded with catastrophic images and articles ALL THE TIME! So, I encourage you to do the same. As always, if you get involved in any group (online or otherwise) that starts to exhibit red flags for cultic or totalistic practices, it’s probably healthiest if you leave, even if you really like the cause they espouse.

 

A Tale for the Times: The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

One of the perks of being connected to a bookstore is getting access to advanced reader copies of books that haven’t been published yet. I’ve had the pleasure of being able to read The Black Witch by Laurie Forest recently (I believe it’s released in early May).

Now, I’ve talked about a handful of books on my blog in the past, but generally it doesn’t feel too important to talk about what I read unless is makes a significant impact on the topics I like to cover.

This book does that, but I have other reasons for also talking about it.

It’s caught the ire of a small faction of vocal, well-meaning, but ultimately…shall we say, reactive…people on Twitter and Goodreads. The majority of these people are declaring this book racist, homophobic, and all around terrible. Most haven’t even read the book and are going on, from what I can tell, basically one person’s review.

Thus, this is as much a post about how I personally relate to the book as it is a defense of an important read for our time that has fallen prey to what I consider an unfair campaign.

I read the review before I read the book, and I could only think about how everything seemed out of context. If I cherry-picked statements from The Handmaid’s Tale, I could also write an angry review about how sexist that book is…but just because characters say, think, and do prejudicial things doesn’t automatically mean that the author is condoning that.

I’ve read enough theme-driven books to come to expect that problematic attitudes are often portrayed as a form of social commentary. After all, writing fiction has been one of the most time-honored ways of critiquing reality since fiction was invented.

So I decided to read the book and judge for myself.

What I found was a story that I might have written. A story about a character who grows up in a religious cult that has taken over the government and who begins to encounter other worldviews for the first time when she goes to university.

Sound familiar?

Hell, parts of it could have been my autobiography, if you take out the glitter skin (which I would probably consider having cosmetic surgery to achieve) and the mythical peoples and creatures (God, I wish I lived in a world with dragons).

I read a good portion of the book waiting to be offended, ready to throw it across the room and rage about how the author failed to address something. I really really really looked for it.

But I couldn’t find it.

All I could see was the incredibly, poignantly realistic struggle of the main character as she questions first small portions of her beliefs and then larger ones. I could feel her fear of the repercussions of such a controlling culture should her brother’s same-sex attraction be discovered or her best friend’s romantic involvement with a Lupine (wolf shape-shifter) be found out. I could relate to the chasm of doubt that opens up once the foundation of her worldview begins to crumble.

The world is a prejudicial world, yes.

The main character (along with most of the other characters) has her fair share of prejudices and stereotypes, yes.

But the story arc is not one of condoning or overlooking prejudice. It is one of changing, learning, and growing.

From experience, I know that journey is hard.

And that’s why this book is important.

There aren’t enough books that portray the journey out of extremist, isolationist beliefs. In the documentary “Join Us,” I learned that the U.S. is one of the biggest harbors for cults in the world, with millions of people having experience with a cult in some fashion throughout their lives. Yet, little to no attention is given to the invisible survivors.

Stories have always been important in the way that they can offer a kind of map through a struggle.

The Count of Monte Cristo, Harry Potter, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Rings are just a handful of the ones that were influential in helping me break out of my cult. They stimulated me to think about my own world and the parallels between my world and the problematic aspects of those worlds.

Orwell opened my eyes to the gaslighting and manipulation of the IFB. Harry Potter, Frodo, Edmond Dantes–they showed me that it was possible to resist and that it was worth fighting for freedom and standing up to power abuse, even with little hope of succeeding.

Had I had access to The Black Witch at the time, I think it also would have been one of those that deeply influenced my journey out because it could have shown me a model of someone who leans into the questions and uncertainty rather than retreating from them.

It’s a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to someone who is struggling with leaving an extremist position, and I’d feel confident that the book would in no way reinforce prejudicial thinking.

It’s not that I don’t have complaints about the book. There were times when the writing fell short, got clunky, or succumbed to derivative tropes. I would also encourage the author to think about at least some portrayal of ethical, consensual sexuality that doesn’t involve life-mating or a form of marriage.

But the story isn’t ruined by those shortcomings. The strengths of the plot and the importance of the message far outweigh the weaknesses.

Some are saying a book like this shouldn’t exist in 2017, but I think this is exactly the kind of story we need in 2017. I can only hope that the current backlash against it will spur those who most need to read it into picking up the book.

And to those who think that the change in the main character is too slow, I’d just like to say, “Check your privilege.”

I say it cheekily because I legitimately hate that phrase and the weaponized way that it is typically used, but it is indeed a privilege to never have had to question the very foundations of your worldview—to never grapple with the fear that you might actually be damning yourself to hell for rejecting a doctrine that has been taught to you as the absolute truth of God.

Until you go through that kind of existential crisis, you can’t understand how terrifying and difficult it is….or maybe you could if you opened yourself up to empathizing with the main character. 😉

Because of the backlash against this book, I feel the need to make a note about comments on this post. If you’re not respectful, I won’t approve the comment, no matter what you have to say. If you’re unsure of my comment policy, you can check it out here.