I was once told that I raised myself, but that wasn’t true. I was reared by authors and activists, poets and lyricists — by the words, hopes, dreams and wisdom of public figures — who often seemed to be speaking directly to me:
Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap. – Toni Morrison
Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth. – John F. Kennedy
When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace. – Jimi Hendrix
‘God’s plan’ is often a front for men’s plans and a cover for inadequacy, ignorance, and evil. – Mary Daly
I imagined that there could be a heaven on Earth. A place where the highest ideas and thoughts were lived out loud. Where fears didn’t undo knowledge and apathy didn’t strip the good from intentions. Where the poor and poor of heart weren’t suspicious of ideals, and the rich and rich in opportunity didn’t perpetuate myths from rarefied pedestals.
Ah, but then there were The Potato Eaters. So many of them in them in my midst. The people that broke and steeled my heart at turns. They were both the realest of the real and hunchbacked, sorrow-eyed caricatures of God’s own creation, yet I was rooted among them, my vines entwined with theirs, my nourishment taken from their spare and hard-sown crops.
They were rough and adamant. This is the way it’s always been, nothing’s ever gonna change . . . you better get used to it . . . don’t go around thinking you’re somebody, because you’re not.
I fought. I bucked spiritual apathy and hoarded my youthful ideals. I memorized long, promising passages and hundreds of beautiful songs. I wrote poetry to keep my hopeful heart above the grimness of low rent spaces and factory work.
And I thought to myself — how horrible it must be for a girl who lacks imagination. She’ll grow up with a boot on her back and her eyes peeled toward the heavens, learning to turn suffering into spirituality, a strong back into a sense of pride, and pain into a promise of redemption. She’ll drink the bitter and pray for the sweet, and when her own children come to her one day, eyes lit up with hopes bigger than she remembers ever having, she’ll tell them in no uncertain terms to stop dreaming and get back to work. Don’t be a fool, she’ll say, this is the way it’s always been . . .
I wasn’t going to be like that. My imagination was going to save me. My dreams were going to come true. I was going to be happy.
I chose to see the world as a place of infinite possibility. A banquet of second chances, new beginnings and bountiful opportunities. I had a particular fondness for against-all-odds, underdog, or phoenix-like stories — for tales of rugged individualists who beat the status quo and forged their own paths. I wanted to be one of them. I imagined I could be.
I fought against believing too little and instead believed strongly in anything that felt like redemption. It started early, with a red-nosed reindeer who saved Christmas and a cinder-sweeper who became a princess. It grew into folk songs about peace and the brotherhood of man; poetry about love; stories of obstacles overcome; and speeches about justice. With so many beautiful ideals lying just beyond my reach, I grew restless and disenchanted with the painful, long-suffering, gray world I lived in. The world was out there, waiting for me to join in.
It wasn’t long before I’d compiled a list of autodidactic school dropouts, including Jack London, Rod McKuen, William Faulkner, Anais Nin and even Shakespeare. (I hated school . . . the boredom, the cliques, the senseless study of algebra when one could be reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). There was room for everybody in the world, I reasoned, from the giggling girls who got together for Friday night slumber parties to those who cried alone while listening to At Seventeen by Janis Ian. That’s what my heroes and all their many stories and songs taught me. To everything – turn, turn, turn / There is a season – turn, turn, turn / And a time for every purpose under heaven . . .
I don’t have to tell you how the rest of that story goes. I became a high-reaching potato eater, spending my time in the field dreaming about everything else. The empty space between idealism and reality gnawed at me from the inside out, but I couldn’t stop making promises to myself. Work whatever job you have to, but don’t let it define you. Keep learning. Live as closely to your ideals as possible, even if sometimes it can only be in your heart. Never give up.
Self-wired from nearly toddlerhood to believe in Great Big Beautiful Amazing Things, I couldn’t stop wishing for better — from myself, from others, from the world at large — and the more I wished, the wider the chasm grew. Over decades, the insufficiencies piled up. There was just so much ugliness and injustice in the news . . . genocide, rape, broken systems, hatred, torture, murder, inequality, poverty, starvation . . . and there seemed to be so little that was precious and innocent left in the balance. My own life was precarious and susceptible to even the slightest change in winds. In response, I prayed harder, spoke out more loudly and believed more. I vacillated between short bursts of profound discouragement and long periods of hope-filled willfulness that insisted on creating new dreams when old ones withered.
Of course my day would come. Of course there’d be a happy ending. Everything that I held so close to my heart — all those stories and songs and all of my own bright, stubborn dreams — foretold it. All I had to do was keep striving, keep working, keep stoking the fires of my own hopes and passions. Something or someone would come along. All that I’d known, experienced and dreamed about would find a higher reason and a purpose. A Great Big Beautiful Amazing Thing would happen . . . it was just around the corner, waiting for the right time and place.
What I’m saying is that when it comes to the power of positive thinking and mind over matter — think it and be it, keep your heart focused on the good and your eyes on the future — I was one of its biggest adherents. Nothing was going to get me down or keep me down for long.
And the thing is, I’m still that person. It was only a couple of months ago that I found reason to let another would-be Great Big Beautiful Amazing Thing steep in my consciousness and fill my heart with the joy of possibility. The thing didn’t happen. The words that sounded believable weren’t true. The price of not being able to differentiate between polite lip-service and sincerity is paid by false hopes. I’ve willingly emptied out my pockets thousands of times just for the chance to believe. I imagine that some part of me always will. It’s harder to kill an idealistic heart, perhaps, than one that beats for more practical reasons.
* * *
So I come to you from this imperfect, messy place, where there are still times the empty cupboards are seen as a reflection of a life that needs and wants for less . . . where broken hopes are used to create new, colorful mosaics . . . and oh, good god . . . sometimes I just felt so much that I wish my heart was like a well that could be taken from instead of like a reservoir that keeps filling itself up.
I come to you alone. Because in reality sometimes there are no second chances. Because sometimes all the trying, wishing, hard work, hoping and praying in the world doesn’t make Great Big Beautiful Amazing Things happen.
Part of me wishes I could keep this between us — one idealistic potato eater to another — just to avoid the wrath of the contentedly self-righteous, but you know how that goes. Disgust tends to spring up whenever the harshest truths of life are laid bare, especially when that life is a woman’s and the cinder-sweeper is still in rags at the end. The self-righteous like a convenient ending, but if they can’t have one, they’ll drag the dreaded word “victim” out as a contrivance. You and I know better, though. We’ve hardly laid down and played dead. We’ve dreamed of the best, lived through the worst, and kept our spirits up and thriving. When it comes to resiliency and strength of heart, we are victors.
Yet . . . we are also vulnerable. Particularly when it comes to the social machinations and cultural attitudes of a world in which we’re already derided for not being gifted enough, savvy enough, smart enough, well-connected enough or beautiful enough to escape the barren field of poverty.
* * *
Enter the spiritual gurus.
EVERYTHING in your life you have attracted . . . accept that . . .it is true. You are the only one that creates your reality. – Rhonda Byrne
Everything that happens to you is a reflection of what you believe about yourself. – Iyanla Vanzant
What we believe about ourselves and about life becomes true for us. – Louise Hay
Nothing comes ahead of its time, and nothing has ever happened that didn’t need to happen. – Byron Katie
Under the guise of self-help and positivity, today’s spiritual gurus are selling the self-immolation of truth. They are deepening the divide between the have’s and have not’s. By creating false gods of Self, they are killing off the ideals of empathy, awareness and understanding. They are pouring the poison of self-hatred and blame on the heads of the less than privileged, while ginning up indifference and entitlement among the upper middle-class and wealthy.
Whether the spiritual gurus are perpetrating the myth of self-as-god, or the concept of divine, universal preordination — in which every human experience is the intention and will of some higher power — one thing they all have in common is this: A blinding disregard and lack of compassion for the objective realities of others.
There are no social evils, systemic failures, or bad acts that can’t be quickly done away with under the law-of-attraction or higher power umbrella. Whatever ill someone else experiences, whether by way of a political and social system, or directly at the hands of someone else, is something they brought upon themselves. The poor are poor simply because they wish or expect to be. The woman who was raped must have believed herself unworthy of non-violence. The child who was abused needed to be for some cosmic reason.
If I were to believe that I attracted brutality or grueling circumstances onto myself, why wouldn’t I feel self-loathing? If I believed that a loving God / Higher Power /Universe decided I should suffer, why wouldn’t I turn on myself as undeserving? I dislike poverty, violence and despair — but the spiritual gurus would have me believe that despite my best efforts to avoid them, my psyche was secretly desirous of them all. I can’t think of a more crazy-making set-up for depression and confusion, much less the building of false hopes. (I wonder how many poor women read books like The Secret and tried to imagine themselves into prosperity?)
Most people would consider it outrageous to tell women in crises to seek her answers through an Ouji board or tarot cards, but somehow it’s become acceptable to tell them that their minds, in conjunction with an unknowable mystic entity, hold all the power in the world and that whatever reality they face hinges upon their thoughts and beliefs alone. Want a million dollars? Write yourself a check and believe it into reality. Want to be healthy? Dream it into existence. Wish you weren’t so sensitive to the bad news and painful abuses in your world? All you have to do is believe that everything that happens needs to happen for some higher reason. And if none of that works? The spiritual gurus have a readymade out: You just didn’t believe enough. You must have not been ready for the blessings you sought. You must have needed to learn a lesson.
So who do these self-as-god, will of the Universe beliefs really serve?
They serve those who are already privileged. They feed into the moral superiority of the upper middle-class (I am deserving of every privilege I have, while lesser others are not) and the ethical apathy of the rich (no new taxes, my coffers can never be full enough, let them eat cake).
A self-as-god, will of the Universe spirituality serves the egos of the self-absorbed, who wish not to be bothered by any circumstantial reality that is not their own. Instead of having to consider the lives of others, they have the convenience of believing that all is fair, just, and as it should be . . . perhaps even preordained. If others suffer, it’s because God wants them to or they brought it upon themselves. So why spare any empathy, consideration, or deeper thought? Why bother with idealistic concepts like justice, fairness and equality, when it’s lesser others who are responsible for their own lack of opportunities, disparities, suffering and tragedies?
In the last few years, in the midst of economic turmoil and increasing fears, I’ve seen a rise in the type of uncompassionate, unthinking charges that spiritual guruism creates. Stories that are not positive or redemptive in nature are often met with scorn. The homeless are assailed for seeking sympathy when they really just need to get a job. The freshly wounded are commanded to stop wallowing. Those who are hurting, fractured in spirit, confused, sick and despairing are sternly reminded that they have no one but themselves to blame. It’s difficult for anyone to openly talk about their own personally grim reality without provoking charges of undue pity-seeking — and very often from those who claim to be loving, spiritual beings. In a world where compassion is viewed as currency, lines will always be drawn over who is deserving and who is not. As the nation’s purse strings tighten, so it seems do our hearts — yet we continue to buy snake oil instead of contributing to solutions.
Whereas a truly positive spirituality would seek to reflect the highest ideals we know in all situations, for all people, a self-as-god spirituality seeks only what is best (most convenient, gratifying or affirmative) for one’s self.
I’ve told the story before of a wealthy man I worked for who turned away a pleasant and well-qualified job applicant for a job as a receptionist because she had crooked teeth. “If she can’t take care of her teeth, how can I trust her to take care of my business?” Bob said. I was young then, but soon came to appreciate just how often people are marginalized, shut-out, and turned away for all sorts of shallow, small-minded, self-serving, irrational, judgmental, prejudicial — and wholly human — reasons. The reality, proven by it’s own tangibility, isn’t that some divine Universe orders up this kind of ugliness. People do that. If men like Bob feel disdain over other people’s genetic makeup or other perceived flaws or differences (like skin color, gender, sexuality, general attractiveness or background), it’s not because others attracted their ill-will — it’s because men like Bob just don’t feel any obligation to be decent, fair or kind. They have no qualms about using their power to advance their own bigoted agendas or to harm other people.
The most positive thing that can be said about the woman who didn’t get the job is “well, at least she was spared from working for Bob.” I’d go along with that, but if I was thinking in terms of a divine Universe that constantly tests its subjects and doles out favors for passing, I could also say that the woman with the crooked teeth was presented to Bob as an opportunity to correct his prejudices. However, Bob suffered no tangible consequences for failing the test while the woman remained unemployed, which leaves the Universe theory rather impotent.
Many people — and I believe most of the idealists who have been quoted through hundreds of generations — would agree: As a society and as individuals, we know better than our actions would generally show.
This is the truth that I believe today’s spiritual gurus aren’t only avoiding, but attempting to subvert. In promoting the falsehood that each person has the god-like power to control their own circumstances, opportunities, reality and destiny — that each person attracts nothing except what is right or self-determined — the actions, behaviors, and beliefs of others no longer matter. Community no longer matters. We no longer have to strive toward ideals of social equity, more level playing fields, empathy, understanding or awareness — we just have to believe that “everything happens for a reason” and that whatever people believe about themselves becomes true and that everyone creates their own reality, for better or worse. Instead of being brothers and sisters in a shared world, we’re each the gods of our own.
I’d ask you again — who does this type of self-absorbed spirituality really serve?
No matter how self-sufficient we may be or strive to become, none of us live in a bubble. We are born to others and spend almost all of our lives engaged with others, affected by others, dependent upon, or interdependent with others in some way. Our lives are determined in part by the society we live in, the systems we create and the social and political climates.
It isn’t antithetical to spirituality to believe that people, together and individually, make the world what it is. What if we acted upon that belief? What if we acted like everything we said, invested in, believed in, loved, voted for, promoted and acted upon actually mattered? What if, instead of helping perpetuate myths about who suffers and why, we actually worked toward ending needless suffering? What if, instead of creating and re-creating the myth of a finite pie, we created a reality of infinite possibilities?
We wouldn’t need spiritual gurus to fill the vacuum between what we know and what we see with false beliefs. We wouldn’t need to escape into the straw sanctuaries offered by mysticism. Instead of looking to change only ourselves, we might try actually changing the world we live in — the one that right now we continue to try to invent cosmic excuses for.