It Feels Good When You Sing a Song: My [Non-Partisan] Playlist for Election-Induced Anxiety

I know I’m far from the only person who is struggling with anxiety in the run up to this year’s presidential election. I’m prone to anxiety anyway, so between politics and a few busy weeks at work and home, life has felt a bit like a big vat of stress to drown in lately. This weekend I’ve been trying to stay off of social media (mostly) and focus on reading, writing, and hanging with my kids instead, and I’m hoping to continue that trend into next week to help keep the anxiety in check and the heartburn at bay.

A few weeks ago, my boys went on a random kick of watching Sesame Street videos that had been sitting around our house neglected for quite some time, and since then, I have found myself humming one of the songs–a number by John Legend and Hoots the owl–repeatedly. Here are a few of the lyrics:

“Sing a sing about new friends.

Sing about tomorrow and yesterday.

Sing a song about old friends.

Why not sing about having a sax to play?

It can’t be bad even if it’s sad.

Sing it loud, sing it strong.

It feels good when you sing a song.”

Sesame Street is a great place to learn things, or perhaps just be reminded of them. So as another strategy to stave off the election blues and nerves, I set out on a trip through Youtube to collect a few of my favorite calming, cathartic, and feel-good tunes. Some of these are hymns, but they all speak to my spirit when I’m stressed out. If you are struggling with anxiety these days, perhaps one of them will refresh your soul as well.


 

“Creation will be at Peace” – A lovely anthem of peace performed by the fantastic choir from Weatherly Heights Baptist Church (Huntsville, AL):


“Be Still My Soul” – Another lovely, peaceful, and encouraging anthem from the incomparable Mormon Tabernacle Choir:


“It’s So Heavy” A sad, cathartic tune to remind us to let go a little when things seem to be too much, from the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Like Hoots sings, “It can’t be bad, even if it’s sad.”


“Stormy Monday” – A truly excellent rendition from the Allman Brothers that I love to play when I’m feeling a little sorry for myself. Lord have mercy…


“People Get Ready” – Now, for the feel-good tunes! You can’t beat Susan Tedeschi having some church with the Blind Boys of Alabama here:


“Let Love Take Control” – A reminder from my favorite swampy bluesman that it’s all about love, not anxiety and fear:


“It Feels Good When You Sing a Song” – And of course, John Legend and Hoots reminding us of the power of music to alter our mood:


Feel free to add to my list by linking to your own favorites in the comments.  I don’t know about you, but I can always use another anxiety-busting tune! 

If you brush off Trump’s disgusting comments, you are condoning rape culture and sexual assault

Like many, I’m disgusted by Donald Trump’s comments about women, particularly the ones that just came to light in which he bragged about his ability to sexually harass and assault women because he’s “a star.” I’m even more appalled by people–including Christian leaders–brushing off these comments as nothing more than idle private talk between men.

If you haven’t figured out yet that rape culture is a real thing, it’s time to wake the hell up. Donald Trump is a prime example of male entitlement over women and their bodies. In addition to his numerous degrading comments about women, he has been accused of marital rape, of sexual harassment, and even of raping a 13 year old girl while hanging out with a guy who is now a Level 3 registered sex offender. Yet even after recorded comments in which he basically describes sexual assaulting women just because he can, some of his supporters are unfazed. Why? Because they are steeped in the rape culture that permeates our country.

Because here’s the thing: the kind of disgusting entitlement expressed by Donald Trump is not in any way limited to misogynist billionaires who think they can get away with it because they are rich, famous, or powerful. It’s the stock-in-trade of way too many boys and men, and it’s so routine that even some women brush it off as being no big deal.

One-fifth of women will be raped in their lifetime, but even that awful number is only part of the problem. I suspect that nearly ALL women are sexually harassed, coerced, or assaulted at some time in their lives. 

Why would I make that claim?

Because I grew up and still live in a culture of male entitlement–in rape culture. I am only one person, but I have dealt with multiple instances of sexual abuse and harassment in my life, and from listening to other women, it is clear that my experience is quite common. If you brush off Donald Trump’s comments, then you are telling me that everything that I and countless other women have experienced at the hands of entitled boys and men is perfectly fine. Here is my (partial) list of the consequences of male entitlement and rape culture in my life:

Because of rape culture and some men’s sense of entitlement over women . . . 

  • When I was a child, a deacon in my church (probably in his 70s) tried to sexually molest me in a Sunday School room. Fortunately I was able to run away and hide in the women’s bathroom before he got too far. I was too young and afraid to ever tell anyone this. This is not the only such experience from my childhood, but I’ll move on.
  • When I was in middle school, I was repeatedly sexually harassed by two boys who would put their hands in my lap under the table in our reading class. Like Donald Trump, they thought it was acceptable to “grab her pussy” and do whatever they wanted to a girl without her consent. In fact, one of them threatened to tell on me when I used a pencil to stab his hand, which happened to be up my shorts.
  • When a male teacher was told about one instance of this harassment by me and a male witness, the teacher did nothing to punish the harasser and only moved him to a different table, near other girls. The groper in that case later harassed a friend of mine, and was also accused of rape a few years later although he was never charged.
  • Another boy harassed me for months during my freshman year despite my attempts to evade him and the fact that I complained to teachers about his incessant and unwanted attentions.
  • When I was in college, one of my boyfriends thought it was fine to push me into types of sex-play that I did not want, and to try to coerce me into compliance through emotionally manipulative behavior. Fortunately, I got out of that relationship, but its emotional consequences lasted quite a while.
  • At one of my first jobs, a male coworker thought it was okay to play pornography on office computers and to cozy up and touch me without my consent in order to make another coworker jealous.
  • When I was at a club with female friends one time, a young man ignored me when I said I had a boyfriend and was not interested, and tried to french kiss me and put his hand down my pants. Apparently he and Donald ascribed to similar ideas about women. This is only one of several memorable times when I’ve been subjected to unwanted touching, especially in crowded places.
  • When I was traveling alone once and had attended a musical performance, I hid in a bathroom to avoid a man who had attached himself to me despite my clearly expressed lack of interest in his company. When I came out of the bathroom, he tried to follow me to my room, and when I stopped to tell him to leave, he grabbed me and touched himself sexually in the middle of the street. I extricated myself from this assault by screaming at him and gouging him with my large room key (cliched, I know, but effective nonetheless). I am firmly convinced that if I had not made a scene that caused him to stop following me, I would have been forced into my room and raped.

Despite all of this (and even what I have omitted because it is too personal to talk about), I count myself lucky not to have suffered rape or serious sexual abuse, and if you think about that for a minute, you may realize how ridiculous it is.

Why in God’s name should I feel lucky–grateful even–to have only been repeatedly groped and harassed, and only semi-assaulted in the street? BECAUSE RAPE CULTURE IS REAL AND EVERY WOMAN IS ITS VICTIM. Some of us are victimized more, some of us less, but NONE OF IT IS OKAY. Trump’s words are not okay. They are not jokes, or idle chit-chat. They are not simply lewd. They are the language of dehumanization, assault, and rape. They should be intolerable and indefensible to anyone, male or female, with even a shred of decency and respect for women.

If you brush off Donald Trump’s comments or any similar language from anyone else, then you are actively condoning a rape culture that allows and even encourages all of the behavior that I described above, and much worse.

If you “don’t give a rip” about Trump’s comments, you are telling me that it isn’t a big deal that some boys and men have always felt they had a right to grab me sexually or to try to force themselves on me, and you are telling your mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and female friends the same thing. If you’re a woman, you are justifying both your own victimization and the routine abuse of your fellow women at the hands of men like Donald Trump.

I for one, won’t stand for it. I consider myself and my fellow women worth more than that.

We deserve better.

We deserve dignity, respect, safety, and ownership of our own bodies.

We deserve better than to feel lucky because we’ve never been raped. 

#NeverTrump  #EndRapeCulture  

 

 

On Being Created and Constructed, Part 1

This semester I am teaching my international cinema class, which I enjoy because it gives me a chance to delve more deeply into topics that interest me but that don’t exactly fit into most of my Spanish courses. The course is focused around the themes of gender roles and identity  (both masculine and feminine), gender disparity, and sexual orientation. We talk about gender stereotypes, the oppression of women, the treatment of LGBTQ folks, and the way that standards of masculinity harm men as well as women. It’s a fun class, but it has the potential to become a minefield of sensitive topics.

Early in the semester, we read an essay on the social construction theory of gender. For those of you who aren’t up on feminist thinking, social constructivism opposes the idea of biological essentialism: that our identities as men and women are biologically determined by little more than our anatomical sex. Or, to put it another way, biological essentialism means that if you know which type genitals a person has, you can also assume a great deal of other things about them: their dominant personality traits, their potential skills, their suitability for certain careers, their role in a family unit, their rights and responsibilities, etc.

Social constructivism (not a new idea) claims the opposite: that biology doesn’t have much to do with our gender identities. Instead, this theory claims that from the time we are born, we are socialized into certain behaviors and beliefs according to what our society deems is appropriate or ideal for a man or a woman. This starts with our obsession with gendering infants (just do a Google image search for “baby girl clothes” and “baby boy clothes” and see the predominance of pink vs. blue, flowers vs. baseballs, etc) and then progresses to the differing behavioral standards and expectations that we often set for boys and girls (again, you can see some confirmation of this with a quick image search; this time, try “toys for boys” and then “toys for girls” and think about how nearly all of the items fall into clear categories of active/violent vs. passive, mobile vs. stationary, outdoor vs. indoor, beauty/appearance based vs. skill based, domestic/maternal vs. career-oriented, etc). Thinking of this always reminds me of a day when I picked up my then four-year-old son from day care and the new teacher apologized to me because when I walked in, my son was playing with the baby dolls. Clearly, she felt uncomfortable being caught allowing this subversive behavior that was so ill-suited to my man-child!

This semester, I’ve had one student who has repeatedly challenged me on the “truth” of social constructivism, which is fine by me. I have seen enough evidence of it operating historically (especially in my area of expertise/favorite pigeon hole, which is 19th century Spanish gender ideology) and in my own life to be quite convinced that much of our gender identity is shaped by our socialization. I have seen how women in different times and places were expected to be and how that formed their identities. Why, if I had lived 150 years ago, instead of writing this, I might be writing in a women’s magazine about how a woman shouldn’t go to university because 1) women aren’t capable of abstract thought, and 2) all that intellectual rigor might affect her delicate nerves, irritate her uterus, and make her less fertile, and 3) everyone knows that women are divinely ordained to be wives and mothers! Fortunately for me, my uterus survived my PhD, and I came out of it buying into the social-constructionist view of how we become manly men, feminine women, or (thank God), sometimes another category entirely.

However, I have also carried, birthed, and nursed two babies and I know from those experiences and others that our biology and our hormones certainly can influence us as well. I remember that during the hormonal onslaught of my first pregnancy, something seemed to change in the way my brain worked, and I felt like I couldn’t process and speak my second language as well (fortunately my students did not seem to notice!). As a result, I think that the source of our identities lies somewhere in the middle of biology and construction. I suspect that there are biological/genetic/neurological factors that tell us from deep inside whether we are men or women (or neither), and whether that perception matches our physical body or not, as may be the case with transgender or intersex individuals.

But, once we are labeled with a gender (by society or by ourselves) there are a host of socially-constructed expectations revolving around that gender that we either accept or rebel against–from who gets to wear fingernail polish to who gets to speak up first at the meeting. Some of these rules are stricter than others, and transgressing them has a variety of consequences: the girl who doesn’t cave to feminine standards might be labeled a tomboy, or a bossy bitch, or a butch dyke, or the girl who just needs a good f—, or the wife who needs to be ‘put into her place’ with her husband’s fists or a gun. The boy who doesn’t measure up to masculine standards might just be the sensitive guy, might a sissy, might be a fag, might be the kid who gets beat up in the locker room or left to die on a fence post. Because no matter how we arrive at it, this shit is real.

I joke sometimes about being the liberal college professor out to corrupt the youth, but the truth is that I have little interest in turning any of my students into clones of myself by pushing a particular ‘truth’ or agenda on them. I’m still getting to the ‘truth’ of things myself, and I find that there are very few things in this life that don’t deserve some critical scrutiny or that should not be subject to revision now and then.

If there is anything that I do want to model for my students, it is the ability to hear other people’s stories with openness and compassion and to revise our own understanding of ourselves and others when needed. We can debate academic theories or religious beliefs all day long, but in the end it comes down to how we react to the people who challenge our expectations for what is ideal, normal, acceptable, or even comprehensible.

It’s okay to not ‘get it.’ If you are straight, if you are comfortable in your body and with your assigned gender roles, and perhaps especially if you have been taught that certain ways of being male or female are wrong, it’s okay to not understand why that girl wants to look edgily androgynous, why that guy is attracted to other guys, or why that other guy at the office now wants to be called “she.”

There are things that I don’t understand about identity and about the choices that some people make to live into their identities. There are topics that once made me uncomfortable, and a few that still do, but I have learned the value of listening to the experiences of others through forming relationships with people who are different from me and through resources like TranspeopleSpeak.org. I have yet to regret engaging with someone else’s story; in fact, the stories of others–in person, on screen, online–have been sources of growth, surprise, wonder, and beauty in my life.

It’s okay to not understand, but it’s not okay to try to force someone else to fit into your understanding of the world, whether that means chiding a little boy for playing with a doll, telling a little girl that she isn’t being ‘ladylike,’ or something much more drastic like yelling profanities and threats at a transperson on public transit (as happened to an acquaintance of mine recently). We need to realize that our expectations of people are just that–our expectations–and that they are neither absolute nor universal truths.

People face unkindness, ostracism, discrimination, and even death because of the ways that we as a society understand and enforce expectations of gender. It would do us all a great deal of good to realize that these expectations are not only constructed, but that they may need to be deconstructed and reconstructed in a ways that let all of us be our most authentic selves–the people we were created to be–without shame and without fear.

So, for any of my students who may stumble across this–as well as anyone else who may be reading–here is the best lesson I can give about when questions of gender identity or sexual orientation get confusing or uncomfortable:

Listen, try to understand, and if even if you can’t, remember to be kind. 

 

Lift Up Your Heads!

An Advent Reflection from Philippians 4 and Isaiah 12

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

– Philippians 4:4-7  (NIV)

Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things;
    let this be known to all the world.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
    for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.

– Isaiah 12:5-6 (NIV)

fall trees

Photo credit: @AuburnU on Twitter

When it comes to academics (but not housekeeping, alas) I’m quite a perfectionist. I’m the teacher now, but I still stress about deadlines and the quality of my work even when no one is waiting with a red pen to give me a grade. Not surprisingly, back when I was a graduate student at Auburn, I dealt with a lot of stress and anxiety, especially while preparing for my comprehensive exams.

I have a crystal-clear memory of the autumn afternoon in 2002 when I walked out of Haley Center after finishing my last exam. I looked up and was astonished to notice that the trees lining the parking lot had turned a brilliant shade of red. They stood out beautifully against a crisp, sunlit blue sky, and I had to pause and take it all in. For weeks, I had been so busy and so anxious that I had missed much of what was going on around me. I’d had my nose pressed so tightly to the grindstone that I had forgotten to look up.

In our “hustle, bustle, and buy” Christmas season, it is easy to become over-scheduled and stressed out in what should be a season of joy, peace, and beauty. This year, let’s try to slow down and not worry so much about getting everything done and making everything perfect. All that we need is already here.

Scratch the to-do list. Enjoy your friends. Love your family.

Experience Immanuel, God with us.

The Lord is near. The Holy One of Israel is among us.

Lift up your heads!

fall colors 2

Photo Credit: @AuburnU on Twitter

Learning to Sit in a Broken Chair

 

Reflections on Faith, and Why You Should (Not) Be Afraid of That Liberal College Professor 

If you know me, or have knocked around this blog a bit, you know that I’m a liberal, feminist college professor. You’ll also know that I’m a person of faith, because, unlike some folks would have us believe, the two are not incompatible. Despite the claims of badly conceived Christian screenplays, the average college professor isn’t out there forcing students to recant or prove their faith in order to pass a class (that’s um, illegal and we would be disciplined or fired for it).

kevin-sorbo-300x189

Not standard academic procedure (in case you were wondering).

Well, perhaps I should say that being an intellectual, free-thinking professor and a Christian are not necessarily incompatible. Because if I’m honest, the way I originally learned to have faith and to believe doesn’t really float my theological or ideological boat these days.

The reason I’m a Christian and a person of faith is not because I’ve clung desperately to the things I was taught in my youth. I haven’t. If I had tried to hold on to that version of faith, I would have failed years ago. It obviously works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

I’m still a Christian precisely because I have let go of some of those ideas and have re-envisioned others-because I have thought and wrestled and evolved. [And there’s plenty more on where I came from and where I’m at these days in my Spiritual Autobiography.]

But let’s take a step back and think about this thing that I’m calling “faith.”

When I was a teenager in a Southern Baptist youth group (which was in many ways an excellent experience with great people), one of the popular metaphors for faith had to do with sitting in a chair. I remember being told repeatedly, in various devotionals and Bible studies, that the act of having faith is like the act of sitting in a chair. When you sit in a chair, you have faith that the chair will support you. Back then, I suppose that I took it on faith that this metaphor actually made sense.

Back then, it seemed to, because faith seemed that simplistic. Chairs are made to support our weight. We know this. We are certain of this. Unless they are obviously defective, we expect them to do that without even thinking about it.

I also remember-as I’m sure some others do-being yelled at from the pulpit, with a fiery fist thumping into a palm with every repetition: “You got to know that you know that you know [that you are saved, washed in the blood, forgiven, going to heaven, etc.]!”

Back then, I knew that I knew that I knew. Then I left my conservative Christian bubble, went to college, and learned that my point of view reflected only one little corner of human knowledge and experience. I didn’t let go of my faith, but I learned to allow it to evolve into something more expansive and mature [more on that in another post].

Today, I freely admit that when it comes to God, and to understanding the mystery of Christ and incarnation and resurrection and a whole other heaping pile of things, I know very little. I am certain of very little. 

The thing is-that’s okay. Why?

Because faith and certainty are not the same thing. In fact, they are opposed to one another. Faith requires a leap. Expecting a perfectly good chair to hold you up when you sit in it is not faith. It’s common sense. There is no leap, no challenge in that.

Christianity, on the other hand, is not common sense. If you think it is, then you really have not been paying attention.

Well, this is your friendly liberal feminist (Christian) college professor standing at the front of the class calling “¡Atención!” (Did I mention that I teach Spanish?)

Today’s lesson: Christianity is a little freakin’ loco.

I mean, it turns the world as we know it upside down. It asks us to love our enemies, to pray for those who hurt us. It tells us that the least, the last, and the lost are sites of value: the least require our care, the last will be first, and the lost should be sought at the expense of everything else. It tells us that by losing our life, we gain it.

And to top it off, Christianity claims that (to borrow some language from Tripp Fuller) we can see the image of the invisible God in a homeless, first-century Jew. What??

If you grew up in church, that sounds reasonable. If you didn’t, or if you take a step backand look at it rationally, it sounds pretty absurd. It’s embarrassing. It’s offensive to the intellect, to common sense.

This isn’t a chair we can just plop down into and get all comfy in. If you take about five minutes to think about these claims rationally and (perhaps more importantly) honestly, then you must, on at least some level, doubt them.

And that’s okay too. Because doubt is not the opposite of faith; it’s what makes true faith possible.

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard understood doubt as essential for faith. As Tripp writes, “For Kierkegaard, faith is not merely explaining the idea that Jesus is God so that it becomes reasonable or palatable; faith is facing the offense and choosing to believe rather than to be offended. . . . The act of faith is the decision of the individual alone-no professor, preacher, or Sunday School teacher can make it for you.”

broken chairFaith is not an unconscious certainty. It’s a decision that you make in the face of doubt, uncertainty, and even absurdity. Faith is sitting in a chair with three legs, and against rationality, expecting it to hold you up anyway. This is not because God, the ultimate object of faith, is faulty or broken, but because our understanding of God can never be complete. It is always a chair with a few missing parts.

Faith is understanding that and taking a seat anyway.

And because of that, no matter how liberal or atheist or even hostile-to-religion they might be (because let’s face it, there are a few jerks out there in any given profession), no professor or teacher can unmake your decision of faith. You can only do that for yourself. It’s your choice.

Sure, some college professor or some other speaker or writer or friend may introduce you to an idea that will make you question everything you ever believed was true, but that’s a good thing. It’s a process that allows us to reconsider and refine who we are, what we believe, and why-usually for the better.

We have to challenge ourselves and question our own ideology in order to grow, and as most of us learn eventually, intellectual or spiritual growth, just like physical growth, can be an unsettling and painful process. That doesn’t mean that we have to let go of what is most important about what we believe. What it does mean is that we should hold it up to the light, examine it, and perhaps reshape it or whittle away at the bits that no longer seem true.

I know as well as anyone that if you open your mind to new and different ideas, it can radically alter your understanding of the world and of your place in it. In many ways, I have shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other in my journey from Southern Baptist holy-rolling teenage missionary girl to who I am today.

These days I am that liberal, free-thinking college professor that I was told to be wary of many years ago (well, 19 years ago – I’m not that old). And you know what?

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I’m really not that scary.

But I do make it a habit to loosen the screws on all of my students’ chairs. 


 

 

Reference: Tripp Fuller, The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to Jesus: Lord, Liar, Lunatic, or Awesome