Stereotypes, Identity, Spirituality, and Halloween–e.g. word vomit

At the beginning of October, I did a post on creating meaningful costumes. One of my suggestions was to dress up as a stereotype or caricature of yourself.

Apparently I’m not the only person who thinks this is a good idea. It seems to be a theme among other witches as well. Huffington Post has a wonderful article going into depth about how this particular costume idea can be used in a powerfully beautiful way, creating opportunities for self-exploration as well as conversations with others about what the stereotype means and how it fails to capture the complexity of true identity.

Identity is a funny thing. That’s one of the first thoughts that came to mind when I started trying to write out a biography for myself when I began this blog. There are certain labels that are very important to me, and I wear them loudly and proudly.

Yet there are times when I really struggle with identity.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a gemini or because of the trauma of coming from a cult, but I never feel like I entirely fit anywhere…nor do I want to.

Labels come in handy in trying to express something. They give a quick snapshot of a personality characteristic (like manic pixie dream girl), a belief (like witch), or group belonging (bisexual, feminist, woman).

But as soon as a label starts to feel stifling–when trying to adopt that label erases me more than it helps me be seen, then I start to chafe.

In the beginning of my spiritual journey away from the IFB, Christian wasn’t a bad word to me. I wanted to be a “Christian.” I wanted to reclaim that label for myself the way I had claimed bisexual and feminist. I spent a good three years trying to find a way to fit into Christianity on some level or another. I knew conservative Christianity would never accept me, but I had hope for a more liberal strain of Christianity.

But Christians had other ideas. Everywhere I turned, I found myself confronted with demands of what I needed to believe and do in order to be a Christian. There was nowhere that I could go within the church to work through my own beliefs and figure out my own brand of Christianity. There was nowhere I was given the space to be me.

I still mourn the loss of my religion. It was a big part of my identity, both given and chosen (or at least I tried to choose it). I walked away ultimately not because I didn’t want to believe anymore but because I couldn’t find a way to keep the label and be free at the same time.

In hindsight, I think it was good. I’ve discovered a spirituality that feels like what I was born to be, with a label that lets me define what it means for myself, not for everyone else. In fact, it’s such a perfect fit that I haven’t really even thought about my former religion with much emotion for at least six months, maybe even a year.

But as I use Halloween as a spiritual exploration of my darkness, my demons, my hell, and my identity, I’ve discovered that there is still a very deep, bitter grief surrounding Christianity for me.

My theme this year is blasphemy. Although it was meant to be and will still be incredibly fun, I am discovering that it’s more of a final destruction and burial of my former religion. This is the saddest Halloween I’ve celebrated thus far as I prepare to put on a stereotype of the only identity I ever found consistently applied to me within Christianity–sacrilegious abomination.

 

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The Different Shades of Rebellion

Who is more rebellious? The girl wearing makeup, a skirt, and high heels? Or the girl with baggy pants, a shaved head, and a dozen piercings?

Stereotype would say the latter is far more rebellious, and not too long ago, I would have agreed.

Not anymore.

I’ve been reading Shiri Eisner’s Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, and it’s completely shaken my assumptions of what makes up a rebel. (Yes, it’s the same book that I was reading when I wrote this post, and yes, it’s my first reading still. I’m slow with nonfiction books. Don’t judge me!)

I never considered my sexual orientation as an asset to rebellion. As a bisexual female married to a guy, I often feel like I’m the most benign version of “queer” out there. There’s no way to avoid passing as straight unless I stand up and wave a flag in people’s faces (which I’ve enjoyed doing at Pride parades). However, Eisner has helped me see that it’s that very facet of my identity that makes it so much more subversive because it challenges what people think about relationships, sexuality, and identity in general.

Whether I fit into or challenge the stereotypes about bisexuality, either way I challenge stereotypes about what it means to be straight or queer. My very existence undermines the invisible certainty of monosexuality.

In other words, me being a bisexual woman can be seen as an act of rebellion. Yay me!

It was a subtle shift in perspective that had enormous consequences on the way I viewed the rest of the world and my place in the world. Suddenly even mundane activities seemed potentially radical. With the example given at the beginning of the post, both girls could potentially be making a radical feminist statement . . . or a statement about gender . . . or a statement about freedom . . . or a statement about sexual orientation.

I guess it really comes down to two basic ways of rebelling. The first is by abstaining from certain looks, behaviors, or associations. The second is by embracing them.

I’d been taught to view the abstemious method as rebellion, but only because I saw embracing such behavior or associations the same as embracing the norms that society attached to them. How could that be rebellious?

I was faced with that question when I found out about Abercrombie and Fitch’s ridiculous status obsession, from not wanting the homeless to wear their brand to refusing to supply clothes to women larger than they deemed attractive.

I never actually purchased anything from Abercrombie, but I did have a shirt with their brand on it that my partner had found in a thrift store. Normally I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about brands, but I did get a small thrill whenever I wore Abercrombie. It was the only brand that was outright forbidden in the IFB because, as the Bob Jones University student handbook from 2011 states, “Abercrombie & Fitch and its subsidiary Hollister have shown an unusual degree of antagonism to biblical morality (page 32).”

I was more than a little miffed when the CEO turned into the king of snobs. Most of the people I knew wanted to boycott the company (abstinence rebellion). For a while, I felt pressured to stop wearing my thrift-store purchased shirt in solidarity.

Then this guy starts a movement of giving Abercrombie shirts to the homeless to “taint” the brand’s “pristine” reputation. An exploitative move on the part of privilege by using the homeless in status wars? Perhaps. Charitable activist choosing to make a political statement while helping those in need? Perhaps.

Regardless of whether his move was particularly wise or not, the larger idea—claiming something “forbidden”—is a valid though often overlooked form of rebellion. He wasn’t the only one doing the whole “you can’t stop me” act with Abercrombie, but he was the only one I saw that actually got attention. Such a form of rebellion raises a valid question. Would a rebellion be more successful by people boycotting Abercrombie (fiscal punishment) or by “unacceptable” people wearing their brand (reclamation of the forbidden)?

Several years ago, I saw rebellion as an action against an authority or a system of rule. It was a choice akin to standing up when you’ve already been sitting down. It was the radical, in-your-face moments of movies and books. And I’ve had my fair share of those and am proud of them.

But that’s not where rebellion has to end.

Now I’m starting to see that rebellion can be more “passive” than that. It can be as simple as refusing to submit to a false dilemma—refusing to box in your identity.

In this way, my agnostic spiritual life becomes a form of rebellion against fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists alike who want the world to be a choice between each other. My nudity-affirming feminism becomes a form of rebellion against both modesty culture and objectification culture that wants women’s bodies to be all about male arousal.

There is a time and place for marches, protests, petitions, and attention-grabbing speech. By all means we should be making use of those to effect change in society. But in the times when those are not appropriate or simply not feasible, it’s the quiet rebellion, the passive rebellion, that erodes the lines of societal norms. It’s the every-day, mundane kind of rebellion that shifts paradigms.

So, join me this week by going out there and living a rebellious life—a life that says that you can challenge or embrace stereotypes and still be kicking ass and taking names.

 

Transformative Magic: Embracing my Dark Side

In a previous post, I gave a sneak peak into some of the things I would talk about, including one on how “negative emotions are good.” I’ve had requests from several people for more on that, so I thought now, with the approach of Samhain, would be a good time to approach this topic.

We live in a culture where certain emotions are viewed anywhere from simply “negative” to downright “wrong” or “sinful.” No matter where you go, the general consensus is that these emotions need to be resisted, “released” (one of my favorites of the coercive terms because it sounds so innocent. Right up there with “forgive” or “just get over it”), or not even felt if you’re a “good person.” The taboo on emotions is especially strong surrounding sadness for men and anger for women, but it’s pretty safe to say that, in general, “negative emotions” just aren’t considered good or healthy to experience.

But what if we have it all wrong?

A little fairy once told me, “Changing your perspective gives you the power to change your world.” And as many pagans and witches know, the highest magic comes not with transforming the world around you but with transforming your thoughts.

So let’s try some transformative magic.

It’s easy to recognize how a world of continuous darkness would be bad. Life would die because life cannot function without light. It’s easy to see how a world of continuous rainfall would be bad. I’ve seen the floods and destruction that come with a few too many days of rain. But I rarely question the destruction that would surely follow a world that was always sunny. There are times where there is too much sun; it’s called a drought. But I never think about droughts when thinking about excesses of something!

Growing up, I remember hearing preachers disdain the philosophy that “life’s purpose is happiness.” In their minds, such a wasted life was a life spent pursuing happiness. And as much as I would disagree with the reasons for that statement, I find that I actually agree with the statement itself.

Pursuing happiness is a pursuit doomed to failure.

Does that mean I don’t have the right to be happy? Should I be miserable, as those preachers seemed to want?

No, I think I have every right, even a destiny, to be happy! But I am coming to see life’s purpose as wholeness, not happiness. And there’s a big difference. While wholeness certainly involves happiness, it also involves the ability to feel sadness. While wholeness involves peace, it also involves the ability to feel anger or fear.

They’ve been labeled “negative emotions.” They’re portrayed as something I shouldn’t have, something to avoid, something I must drive out when I feel them. But imagine if you could not feel sadness or anger or fear? I’ve thought of these emotions as out of place, but that’s only because I didn’t recognize their purpose. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel anger when I saw a child abused. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel fear when I got too close to danger. Something would be terribly wrong with me if I could not feel sadness when I lost a loved one, or guilt when I hurt someone.

Without them, I would die just as surely as I would die without hope or joy or courage.

A tree requires both sunlight and darkness. Its branches reach for the sky while its roots tunnel into the ground. If the roots are not cared for or fed, if they’re cut off, the top of the tree will quickly die as well. In the same way, I have a shadow side, a side that is buried away from view, that isn’t fun to look at, that doesn’t feel good, that has the potential to make others and myself uncomfortable. But if I don’t embrace that side of myself and accept it as part of myself, I doom it to rot and fester until it destroys that bright side of me too.

Wholeness isn’t about cutting myself off from the shadow side of life. It’s about recognizing the purpose for that shadow side—the purpose for those emotions and experiences—and melding it together with the light side into a single whole. I have so much duality in me. I have light and darkness, reason and intuition, “femininity” and “masculinity”. Heck, my life card is the Sun and my Spirit card is Death. You can’t get much more dual than that. And the amazing thing is, each side, each facet, has a freaking purpose! They all work together to create me! And just as I’ve given up so many other things with fundamentalism, I’ve also given up the idea that there is anything inherently in me that is wrong.

Which means my emotions, by themselves, can’t be wrong.

None of them.

So what is it that makes these shadow emotions seem “bad”? Outside of a general inability to tolerate discomfort and do messy soul work, I think we’ve mistaken the emotions themselves for specific scripts surrounding them. It’s a kind of confirmation bias. When we think of anger, we think of when someone became violent in their anger. We don’t remember the times that anger was constructive or creative or protective. Once you get to the point where you associate the emotion itself with the negative behavior, then you get so busy fighting the emotion that there’s no chance to fight the script that you’ve adopted about it.

As part of my spiritual practice, I’m learning to become comfortable with my dark side. I’m throwing away the scripts I’ve been taught and searching for a new, transformative perspective about the shadow emotions. I’ve come to appreciate this time of year, when the Goddess traditionally takes a journey down into the underworld for a few months until spring, because it reminds me that I also need underworld journeys, as tough as they are. It’s not easy to sit with an emotion. It’s much easier to go back to my scripts. But sitting in discomfort is essential to my emotional transformation as much as it is to my spiritual transformation. The ability to sit with uncertainty and discomfort is, I think, one of the key aspects to true freedom.

And as I take this journey, I smile to myself because I recognize what I never could have from within Christiantiy—that Jesus, too, got angry, felt grief and despair, and considered bailing out from fear.