“Adoration of the Magi” by Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi Gallery
Upon becoming mothers, our identities as women are all too often subsumed by the mother role. We seemingly cease to be “whole” persons and tend to identify with, and allow ourselves to become primarily defined by, this one aspect of ourselves.
In effect, there’s a splintering of the female identity that tends to occur post-motherhood and is often accompanied by feelings of isolation and abandonment — physical and emotional — following childbirth. We become divorced from our prior selves as we go from sexual beings (whose sex can be a source of creative energy and power) to reproductive beings and consequently can feel a real disconnect from our prior lives.
During my children’s newborn stages, when I was in the throes of what I didn’t realize at the time was postpartum depression, I internalized it all and believed I needed to change in order to fit the role. Fun, freedom, and adventure became distant memories, replaced by feedings, sleep schedules, and chronic boredom.
Much of this dissonance, in my view, can be traced to the archetype of the Mother, which is deeply ingrained in our culture (irrespective of faith) and which many of us internalize when we become mothers.
We effectively split our identities and cease to be whole individuals but rather become framed by this Mother archetype who’s supposed to be virtuous, pure, virginal, self-sacrificing and, above all, loves unconditionally without any expectation of love in return.
We become defined by our relationships, as mothers and wives, rather than as individuals and, as a result, cede not only our parts of our identity but our power as well. That is, in defining ourselves by these roles, we become limited by them.
Becoming a mother can certainly be a part of our purpose in life — an important and, for some, even a primary one at that — but it doesn’t have to be our only purpose as women. We are multi-faceted beings whose goals can encompass much more than just raising our children. We are also responsible for realizing that purpose which does not need to end when our children enter this world. It’s time for society to reframe its view of women and mothers and reject the limited notion of motherhood that strips away parts of our identities as women and leaves us incomplete.
Among the most harmful aspects of the Mother archetype are the conflicting notions of self-sacrifice and unconditional love.
The very idea that we should give love without receiving it in return leads to fundamentally imbalanced relationships. Moreover, how can we be a constant source of love without a sense of self-love, which is negated by our self-sacrifice? Indeed, how can we love ourselves when we’re led to believe that it’s selfish to prioritize ourselves over our children, to have our needs met over theirs? The reality is that we need to be able to achieve self-love so that we don’t become depleted and unsourced, which can lead to a great deal of anger or resentment.
At the same time, we need to stop judging ourselves and each other as mothers as well as those who choose not to have children. The limited notion of motherhood often pits women against each other. We see it play out in many stories: working moms versus stay-at-home moms; breast-feeding moms versus bottle moms; organic moms versus the who-gives-a-shit-about-pesticides moms; free-range moms versus helicopter moms; and thin versus less-than-thin moms. A large part of the reason for these divisions is because so many of us remain divided within ourselves. We cannot process the social expectations of motherhood, expectations about “bringing up bébé”, without sublimating ourselves to them. There is too much noise and too little opportunity to listen to our own truth, which is overshadowed by petty differences. When mothers tear other mothers down, more often than not it’s because they can’t make their peace with how judged they feel in their own roles and, as a result, they end up projecting their own internalized judgment and dissatisfaction onto others.
My existence as a woman should not be defined solely by child-bearing and child-rearing. I am, first and foremost, a woman. Yes, I chose to have children, but I refuse to allow that choice to be all that I am. At my core, I have managed to find a deep reservoir of love which helps me find the patience I need to be present for my children while I pursue the things in my life that fuel my passions.
It’s not just about finding balance, but about being able to find complete partnership with those I love. To me, that’s what motherhood is about, deep and abiding partnership. And, if we want a greater society that includes equality and a world that is based in compassion, then it’s time to elevate women as equals and support motherhood in a way that is both beneficial to women and children so neither feels abandoned.
“The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery
It’s time we give up the listicles. We live in a society that’s obsessed with them. Take a quick look around Medium, and you’ll no doubt come across someone promising that if you adopt or abandon 8, 30 or even 50 behaviors you’ll be well on your way to a new and improved you. There’s something comforting about listicles. Their finiteness gives us a sense that something is achievable with limited effort. What’s troubling about listicles — which garner an extremely high number of “recommends” on platforms like Medium — is that these lists don’t speak to our individuality. At best, they offer pithy ideas for the mind or ego to consume: watch less TV before going to sleep, meditate more, create don’t think!
The truth is that no other person has the solution that will break us free from our realities and put us on the path to self-discovery and self-improvement. NO ONE. Only we do. Yet, the numbers have an allure that’s difficult to resist. It’s understandable. We’ve been conditioned to believe that someone else holds the key to our salvation. Religion, patriarchy and traditional education all condition us to surrender our power, to believe that someone else knows better than we do. As a society, we are constantly told what’s best for us and led to look outside of ourselves for answers rather than within. It has become so ingrained in us to trust someone else’s truth as opposed to our own that we click the moment we see these lists.
The sum total of our beings involves our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual bodies. Listicles typically focus on the mental and emotional, and occasionally the physical bodies, making them far too limited when it comes to addressing our whole selves. No single aspect of our beings is greater than the other, which means they must work in perfect harmony in order for us to be fully connected beings. More often than not, because of our stress-filled approach to living and the push/pull nature of relationships with others as well as ourselves, we fall short of this. So we compensate by focusing on one or another of our bodies at a time: the physical (exercise more, eat better); the emotional (doing things that feel good); the mental (knowledge is power); or the spiritual (pray and leave it up to God).
The trap of listicles and the life advice many of them offer is that they lead us to believe that the answers to our greatest issues can be boiled down to a few easy steps. It makes us hopeful to read that a specific practice of 7 or 8 of someone else’s ideas, packaged with some nice-sounding quotes they’ve found online or in books, will make us better person or a happier person or at least, a less miserable person. It gives us hope that the answer lies between some finite set of numbers.
What’s particularly upsetting is that these listicles have a somnolent effect on followers and disempowers them from becoming thinkers for themselves.
These lists and the individuals who write them feed the disconnect many are experiencing with what they know to be true and what they believe. Knowledge is fed from the outside; belief comes from the inside. Both are fundamental to our human experience and understanding, but only personal belief transcends and opens us to true Consciousness.
We know what’s right for us and don’t need a list to tell us. All these listicles serve up is what we already know to be true, e.g., eat less, exercise more, and show gratitude because someone always has it worse than us, rendering them pointless at the end of the day.
Our realities are in the midst of a massive undoing and transformation so we can better connect to our own truth and discover our Consciousness. There’s no promise for a better world if we cannot look within ourselves and build it from there. If there’s one thing you can do to change your life, it’s to give up reading listicles, to avoid listening to others’ advice and to begin following your own. Clickbait articles by authors simply seeking to increase their stats or gain followers do not serve us. In the end, no one can tell you better than yourself what it will take in order to come into harmony with yourself. It takes time, not hours, days, months or years, but a lifetime of building an open, honest, loving relationship with yourself to be able to come into your truth.
This past opening weekend, Beauty and the Beast set a number of box office records. Yet, this latest fairy tale remake has me shaking my head once more. At the risk of sounding like a broken record myself, I ask again: When is Hollywood going to stop “retelling” these stories that — in this case, by its very name — smack of patriarchal sexism? As The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri tweeted last year when Disney released the trailer for the movie (which also broke viewing records), Beauty and the Beast “is just another story about a hairy guy with a bad personality whose friends think he deserves a beautiful smart woman.” Ain’t that the truth. What’s also upsetting, however, is that in selecting the fair Emma Watson to play the role of Belle in this live-action remake, Disney chose yet again to define beauty as a white woman.
From the feminist perspective, the message behind Beauty and the Beast, like its fairy tale brethren, is insidious. Nonetheless, an article by a female journalist on Time’s Motto.com lauded six positive things girls can learn from the story, including that “[i]t’s not always the man that does the rescuing”. To me, the very notion that a person needs “saving” is one of the most insidious aspects of these stories, as well as much of today’s romantic fiction. Fundamentally, the fact that even the male protagonist needs to be saved is just as sexist as the man coming to the woman’s rescue. That is, the act of saving itself puts the rescuer in a position of self-sacrifice, which does not allow her to evolve to a greater state of being beyond martyrdom.
Moreover, when a man saves the woman in a story, he’s branded as the hero. Yet, when a woman saves the man, she’s generally portrayed as exhibiting her good and virtuous self. This subliminal theme, which equates goodness with sacrifice, is detrimental to women. In fact, from a young age, girls are conditioned to be “good girls” while it’s acceptable for boys to be “bad”. The underlying message to young girls is that in order to be “good” they must ultimately sacrifice themselves for another, in this case a beast who manages to prove he isn’t just a sad, insecure, pathetic creature.
The very title of the film, Beauty and the Beast, is objectification at its worst and reminds us that no matter what the story preaches about looking beyond the surface to know someone, beauty is still everything with regard to women while men can be beastly and hairy or even have a “dad-bod”. Part of the problem with this objectification of beauty is its abject subjectivity, which serves to marginalize those who don’t fit within certain prescribed parameters, especially women of color. We’ve been socialized, not only by these stories but also through images in the media, to regard a very particular type of body, hair and skin color as the paragon of such beauty.
The obsessive focus on being beautiful has kept women from remembering that they already are beautiful. They were born beautiful and a profound and ageless beauty resides within each of us. And yet, that sense of their own beauty is squashed by the dangerous storytelling to which young girls are exposed during their formative years, inculcating in them that they’re not pretty unless they’re a Princess who looks a certain way. Disney’s latest remake is just another incarnation of the same story that continues to hurt women who face patriarchal values of beauty every day, as well as minorities who are faceless and underrepresented in these insipid princess movies as well as Romance stories.
As a Romance writer, it’s clear to me that our distorted notion of beauty has also warped our view of love, keeping it superficial and void of anything truly real.
In our world, beauty is measured, literally and figuratively, by how others perceive us. If our view of beauty expands so too will our capacity to understand holistic love because it would be inclusive rather than exclusive.
The Beauty and the Beast retelling is just one of many examples of what is sorely lacking in the story-telling arena. Minority women, misperceptions of beauty, misogyny and sexism continue to prevail. The challenge remains for people to begin to expand their limited perceptions to see beauty in every being, to reverse the damage that has been done and is being done to girls and women with dark skin, with layers of fat, or with less-than-proportioned features.
It’s time to recognize that the only way in which we can lift up the next generation of women is to give them a new story in which they can see themselves portrayed as they are — perfect — not because of their external beauty, but for their ability to see and express their internal beauty. Enough with the broken record, I say.
Mindfulness has recently emerged as a trendy modality. It’s almost impossible to go through the day without an article, a celebrity, a meditation studio or an Elephant Journal quote touting its effectiveness in bringing about personal peace and awareness while allowing for complete presence in this world. As a therapeutic concept that’s been around for several decades, mindfulness has provided a way to approach our very imperfect world and enabled people to make sense of their often tumultuous human experiences. However, as with many things born decades ago that were a good idea at the time (think moon shoes, crimping irons and creepy crawlers), it’s time for our own understanding to surpass the concept.
It doesn’t serve us to hold onto this notion that working on ourselves through the mental body will help us solve our issues when the reality is that it takes so much more than that to bring about actual change within and without.
One of the reasons mindfulness seems to have become popular again is the way it’s been attached to meditation. Like mindfulness, meditation has made its way into mainstream consciousness, although it’s been around a lot longer (in fact, thousands of years longer). I’ve no doubt that the world would be an entirely different place if more people incorporated meditation into their lives. Mindfulness, however, is not meditation. Nevertheless, there’s been an effort by meditation studios to further bolster their cachet by incorporating mindfulness, which is problematic.
True meditation does not access the brain in order to allow for transcendence. True meditation is the melding of all the bodies (mental, physical, emotional and spiritual) in order to connect to the one true source that emanates from the heart center. The heart center is the multi-dimensional place through which we can access our deepest selves. This cannot be achieved through the mind, but only through the heart.
The more mindfulness is connected to meditation, the more it takes away from the holistic nature of what true meditation is and breeds the notion that the awareness we allow to come from our minds is what defines our realities. Actual awareness, much like meditation, does not begin or end with the mind just as it cannot begin or end with our emotions.
Depending on our minds for awareness risks a level of narcissism that befalls many who pursue meditation. A strong meditation practice divests the self and brings Oneness in its place.
It is not and has never been about “me time” or self-awareness. Telling ourselves to take deep breaths, be aware and feel without assigning meaning is not a complete representation of our experiences. Our minds have long been twisted by our past and our current worlds which have informed and dictated very old belief systems that many people have not yet released. These systems often skew our understanding of our present and create confusion, which the mind, so often ruled by the ego, is good at.
Awareness through mindfulness is not true consciousness. Consciousness, like inner peace and meditation, can only be enabled through the heart. If we rely on our awareness to be first perceived by our minds, it will be shaped by a narrow filter developed as a result of our minds being corrupted by a number of distorted realities. This means that by the time it reaches our other bodies (physical, emotional and spiritual), our understanding is a limited one.No one is exempt from this mental filter. There are many mainstream “spiritual” beings who hold strong opinions about a spectrum of topics and claim to “speak from the heart.” It strikes me as incredibly antithetical to spirit when we hold others in judgment. To be fair, it’s not that these “spiritual” people are lacking in awareness or spirit; rather, they’re lacking truly evolved Consciousness. They’re allowing their awareness to be drawn from their minds which cling to polarized belief systems such as love/hate, right/wrong, good/evil, heaven/hell, etc. It’s not that these belief systems make them less spiritual, but it’s their mindful approach to their awareness, which can be often confused with Consciousness, that distorts the message.
Consciousness is Love. Love embraces and allows. It does not hold anyone, any place, or any thing in judgment. In the face of what is perceived as evil, love embraces. In the face of what is perceived as injustice, love allows. In the face of what is perceived as fear, love increases exponentially.
It is our mind, ruled by our ego, which is entirely defined by our fears that limit us and our understanding of our potential as humans. We have, by virtue of our histories, been taught to believe we are less than our own creative genius. Sadly, our minds (a.k.a mental bodies) have succumbed to this. We regard fearful situations and become stuck in half-truths and lies. While mindfulness may teach that we should be less reactive, the reality is that it only results in our own paralysis. Reactivity is positive and even necessary when it comes from a place of love. And our minds cannot teach us how to love or whom to love or where to send our love. Only our hearts are able to do that.
Heartfulness, by contrast, is the state of being and standing in complete love. It allows us to embrace ourselves and others without relying on our state of minds to define or understand our current realities.
Our world, as we’re currently witnessing, is evolving too rapidly for our minds, which are tethered to old stories and teachings. Releasing our mindfulness will give way for our understanding and awareness to come from our hearts, which are directly connected to our spirits. It’s not about being spiritual or even meditation (although it can be a good way to get there). It’s about accepting that deep within all of us humans is a reservoir of love, and our hearts are the channel for it. Once we can fully access and come into Consciousness through our hearts, we will be able to access all the gifts our minds and our physical bodies have to offer because we will no longer be bound by their limitations. The heart is limitless, and Consciousness is limitless, which means that when we come into a full and open relationship with love, we become limitless.
Less than two years ago, in my first piece on Medium, I asked why we, as women, continue to produce and consume books that reinforce the very stereotypes which place women into submission and argued for the need to write a better a story, one that elevates the status of women and portrays them as strong and equal. I was (and continue to be) tired of seeing books that demean female characters and make them subservient to powerful men continue to top the bestseller lists out of a sense of pride that, as women, we can do better. In fact, I believe we owe it to ourselves and to women around the world who find themselves in the reality of servitude — rather than the fantasy of it — to write a better and brighter story for women.
With the upcoming release of the Fifty Shades movie sequel (Fifty Shades Darker), I ask myself if anything has changed in Romance books over the past couple of years since the release of the first film based on the bestselling series. Sadly, one look at the Romance bestseller list and the answer would be, you guessed it, no. The clichéd and lamentable story lines remain the same from dominant billionaires to insta-love to the “I-swore-I’d-never-love-again-after-my-cheating-husband-but . . .” and the “all-she-wanted-was-a-summer-fling-but-fate-had-another-idea” stories. Worse yet, these romantic tropes have spread to “New Adult” books that have flooded the market since the popularity of Twilight (Fifty Shades’ predecessor), thereby indoctrinating the minds of new generations of women at an earlier age.
At some level, I get it. Romance is a billion-dollar business for a reason, and the fact that it is so lucrative is why nothing has changed. Readers cling to the familiar, and Romance writers continue to churn out their stories through this money-printing machine.
Regrettably, while it makes perfect economic sense to look at demand and deliver a product that seeks to satisfy that demand, continuing to follow trends set by sexually-biased books laden with inherent misogyny is never going to be ground-breaking and will probably lose women the right to vote. Of course, the latter is not true, but as women, we should really consider how much these stories and Hollywood films hurt the perception of women and female readers’ own views of themselves — whether consciously or subconsciously. It doesn’t take more than a look at the past year in the U.S. to see how this very theme of misogyny played out in the political sphere.
In a majority of these Romance books, the predominant trait of the female protagonist is low self-esteem. This typically stems from some sort of trauma caused by a terrible relationship or a family member or perhaps just the character’s overall view of her own self-worth. She doesn’t realize that she’s pretty until a man tells her so. She doesn’t realize she’s a sexual being until it’s awakened by a virile man who has a lot more experience than she does. And she doesn’t realize how intelligent or smart or capable she is until the man brings it out in her.
How these storylines came to be embraced and expected continues to be a mystery to me. I thought we were the generation of strong, educated women who are capable of anything. We’ve been encouraged to break molds, shatter glass ceilings and make our own rules. Yet, these stories, devoured by an enormous female readership, don’t encourage or exemplify it. On the contrary, they end up a stark reminder that, despite how far we’ve come, we seem more interested in reading about all the stereotypes we’ve sought to destroy.
Ironically, if you take a close look at the books in the genre that purport to have an “empowered” female character, it typically only means she’s gone to college and has some sort of professional job; but actually she’s just waiting for the “right” man to fulfill her — or make her subservient to his needs, which she will inevitably allow because she just loves him so much.
And love, as many of these books like to portray, is really about sacrifice. You must give to get, and the price for the woman is at the very least her body, and at most, her self-respect.
Of course, this seems perfectly acceptable because that “love” (and I use the word loosely) — and the person who is the object of such love — is how the female character will find her greatest happiness. The so-called “empowered” woman in those stories is, in reality, a one-dimensional character whose interaction with a man is sadly what makes her complex.
And yet, we wonder why, as women, we struggle with finding satisfying relationships or justifying why we stay in mediocre ones. By the same token, a lot of men struggle to live up to or satisfy perceived expectations based on the male characters in these stories.
While these narratives are not necessarily setting the standards for all relationships, they reinforce the gendered roles that have become embedded in our subconscious and thereby limit how we regard each other. It’s always the same story: man saves woman who, in turn, saves him back by restoring what he lost because he didn’t feel loved by his mother or was treated poorly by an ex.
These narratives remove the individuals’ responsibility for improving themselves and place it on others to “better” them. It should be no wonder why relationships can feel so dissatisfying when our expectations are this skewed.
Much of the appeal of Romance fiction comes from its emotional persuasion. Romance writers’ ability to draw a tear or turn someone on or deliver the immense satisfaction that comes with a happy storyline is a skill that keeps fans coming back for more. Because of this emotional appeal — the tugging at heartstrings — and the legions of fans, Romance fiction can be a powerful medium for influencing thought and bringing about a conscious change in how we view relationships not only to others but also to ourselves.
It’s time for Romance writers to take some responsibility for what they’re producing and how their stories continue to impact adversely the perception of women as well as gender roles. It’s time we see female characters who take charge of their lives and aren’t afraid of their power, women who can make their own rules and live by them with confidence. It’s also time for male characters who do not seek to subvert this power and have the strength to support strong women. As female Romance authors, it’s especially up to us to write these stories, and as female consumers to exercise our purchasing power to encourage such stories and to empower one another.
The root of many, dare I say all, fears is the notion of not being enough — the idea that we are somehow less than we really are. That we are not strong enough (mentally, emotionally or physically). That we are not capable enough. That we are not beautiful enough. That we are not wealthy enough. That we haven’t lived enough. This is simply untrue. It’s a lie that feeds on our deepest insecurities, which become compounded and create many of our fears.
To truly understand this source of our fears requires us to recognize how pervasive it is. Whether we like to admit it or not, at one time or another we’ve all suffered from the notion of not being enough. This sometimes stems from childhood experiences or our parents’ own issues. We’ve all experienced it and dealt with it in our own way, often by overcompensating and striving for perfection or, at the other extreme, falling into self-destructive patterns of behavior that merely serve to reinforce the very notion.
At the same time, the notion of not being enough constantly surrounds us, underpinning so many of our social and economic constructs. Buried beneath these are the many narratives we’ve been fed and internalized, negatively impacting our sense of self-worth.
These narratives fuel our economy — everything from home and beauty makeovers, to lifestyle, celebrity and matchmaking reality shows, to plastic surgery and fillers, all leading to the excessive consumerism that ultimately leaves us feeling overweight, overspent and overwhelmed.
We’ve allowed these stories to inform our decisions in many ways from generation to generation, thus enslaving ourselves to a system and, in effect, allowing a small cadre of pseudo-elites (in the media and in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington) to assert their superiority and control over the masses. It’s the same lie that historically enabled a select few (from monarchs to Popes) to assert their supremacy over entire populations and nations, the lie that enabled whole races to become colonized or enslaved. It’s the same lie that today continues to keep people on a treadmill of achievement and spending and accumulating debt; the lie that keeps people from seeking true loving relationships and preventing them from accepting the truth, which is that they are deserving of love; the lie that keeps them from realizing their true potential. And it’s the lie that ultimately disempowers us all.
Once we can understand this source of our fears, it takes more to move past it. Seeing beyond the lie takes open-mindedness and compassion to understand how each of our decisions (or lack of decision) or responses has contributed to its continued existence. It takes accepting responsibility for the many times in which we were complicit in reinforcing the lie through our conspicuous consumption. It requires taking ownership for the fact we have, in one way or another, allowed this lie to be perpetuated. And ultimately, it takes forgiving ourselves for this and for the fact that somewhere along the way we gave up on ourselves and ceded our personal power.
What’s most challenging about overcoming the source of fear is facing life after it. That will be the most exciting or most terrifying day because our identities and self-perception have been so wrapped up in the external that we haven’t known our true selves. Up to that moment, we had been directed by the lie at the root of our fears to look outside of ourselves (focusing on what we didn’t have) and to want and desire. We will no longer have to look outside of ourselves to make us feel whole and alive. We will no longer accept half-assed relationships that demand we compromise our self-respect. We will no longer tolerate jobs that drain our life force. Instead we will be able to look within, to learn to friend and love ourselves, to find the kind of pure joy that has eluded us for most of our lives. We will be able to show compassion and receive love in return.
Healing isn’t about just letting go of the lie. It means embracing that it defined who we were, but not who we are — and that is strong, powerful agents who have the power to write our own story irrespective of our pasts. The moment we can truly accept that is the moment when we are truly free of all of our fears. And that is the moment we can create a new world.
During my senior year of high school, I experienced a deep personal crisis, one that severely impacted my relationship with my family, friends, teachers, and school administrators. I won't go into the messy details, but let me just say that the adults in the room overreacted to an inappropriate, unwise, and unfortunate decision by a teenager. At the time, my spiritual mentor, a highly spiritual and philosophical man I met while working part-time at the local public library with whom I'd share many deep and insightful conversations, told me something quite profound: we choose everything that happens to us and we must critically examine our life experiences with the understanding that they all have a purpose and are part of our spiritual growth.
These words gave me perspective, and I was able to make some sense of my crisis, but it wasn't until several years later when, a bit older, I found myself in another difficult situation that I came to understand the true significance of those words and their relevance to my spiritual growth and maturity.
In fact, it had been my own fear of their import—a fear I believe similarly experienced by many—that kept me from fully comprehending and accepting his words earlier. And that is, our spiritual maturity requires that we first acknowledge and own our individual responsibility for our decisions and actions.
This is not easy. It requires us to see ourselves not as victims but as the architects of our reality. By taking ownership of and responsibility for the act that drove me into my deep personal crisis, I was able to view the experience more holistically.
Discovering a universal purpose behind our experiences isn't simply ascribing a lesson to each and moving on. As a matter of fact, finding a reason for something that has happened to us is the easy part. The greater challenge is to not only accept the fact that that experience forms a part of our life’s tapestry but to understand that we ourselves are the weaver of that tapestry. In order to achieve full spiritual maturity, we must accept that we alone are responsible for our lives and everything that happens to us.
This demands complete compassion towards ourselves and those who may have hurt or disappointed us. It requires us to explore why our higher selves, our souls, would choose a painful and difficult experience to grow. It involves an active, not passive understanding, one that assumes that we are the creators of each and every one of our stories.
In this regard, many in this world are limited by the normative view of God and humankind's relationship with God. Through that lens, we are all viewed as God's children. Having been raised Catholic and after nine years of Catholic school, I had derived some comfort in the notion of God as the father figure. After all, in the Catholic faith, the Nicene Creed, begins "I believe in God, The Father Almighty." Yet, in this relationship dynamic, we are always children whose fate is dependent on some higher being and are challenged to view ourselves as mature, autonomous beings who are ultimately responsible for our own fates. We must recognize that we are the true makers of our own lives. My mentor once told me that this requires us to view God not as our father but rather our equal.
We also live in a modern society that, in many ways, has perverted our views of individual responsibility. Especially today, we live in such a culture of blame and victimization that we do not share accountability for our own welfare—both physical and spiritual. Moreover, we’re also in danger of developing a culture of dependency on government.
To achieve spiritual maturity and understand our purpose in this world requires that we first accept our personal responsibility toward our own lives and then recognize how it plays into our collective responsibility toward one another, the recognition that in one way or another all of our decisions impact others.
This kind of spiritual maturity can take years to develop. It involves accepting our mistakes and understanding what it means to be a soul having a human experience. Achieving this level of consciousness is not easy in this world because it’s been ingrained in us that so much is outside of our power—whether in the hands of government or some unseen force or an omnipotent god—while the reality is that we are complete, capable and powerful beings, with the power to create and live our own lives, the lives of our choosing. The moment that we can accept that we are truly the architects of our lives and our world is the moment we can truly take responsibility and realize our power to change the world.
As a society, we’re continuously fed the idea that happiness is the end goal, some permanent state of being to be actively pursued and capable of being achieved and maintained. It’s this very notion, however, that leads people down the rabbit hole of the unending pursuit of happiness, which, in many cases, leads to its very converse. Is it any wonder that, as I look around, the people I know who place the pursuit of happiness above all else are the most unhappy, unsatisfied and self-destructive people I know.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with being happy. It is an extremely powerful emotion that we, as humans, are capable of experiencing. It’s the precursor to joy, which is an essential aspect of self-love. Yet, what makes us most human is our ability to experience a wide range and varying degrees of emotion. Happiness, which by its nature is ephemeral, is just one point along the emotional spectrum.
When we can embrace all of our emotions while recognizing and accepting their transience, we can be our most evolved selves. This isn’t easy to do when our understanding of emotions is so narrow. In embracing our emotions, we must do so without judgment and with immense compassion since we tend to judge feeling certain of them as wrong or bad. In accepting them and the fact that they are a part of us, we are able to transcend and evolve, achieving a level of self-actualization not possible when we deny or limit our emotions.
As a child growing up with an Asian “Tiger Mom” (well before that was even a term), displays of emotion — especially extreme emotion — were not tolerated. As I got older and hormones took over, emotional suppression became my coping mechanism. I didn’t attempt to negate my emotions, but rather I figured out a way to compartmentalize them. I came to understand emotions as fluctuating states of being over which I had some level of influence as opposed to being ruled by them. While this allowed me a measure of emotional maturity at a relatively young age, it denied me the experience of feeling certain emotions to their greatest depth.
Fifteen years of marriage to a husband from a culture that doesn’t shun emotion — and seemingly encourages outpourings of it — taught me the power of all emotions from passion to rage to excitement and anger. The greatest lesson I learned in opening myself to it all is that you are what you feel — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s not difficult to understand why we want to escape certain emotions. We’ve been sold the happiness myth for so long that it’s difficult to embrace anything else because it’s too uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
For many years, the emotion I didn’t allow myself to experience was anger. I believed it was a waste of energy to get angry. Yet, when I gave myself permission to experience it and to own it, I realized that I had denied myself something that can be incredibly constructive and powerful. Rather than suppress anger, which is how it can morph into something perverse and violent, I sat with it and it offered me a solution to a situation I had found myself in that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to resolve, at least not without a lot of compromise on my end (which would’ve been the passive/aggressive Asian approach). Since then, the moment I find myself feeling anything that seems remotely unfamiliar or strange, rather than push or rationalize the emotion away, I let it be so that it can become me. Once it becomes us, it doesn’t overwhelm us, but rather finds a place within our hearts alongside all other emotions.
I’m not suggesting giving yourself permission to act out in anger or to punish others when you’re feeling sad. Acting out of an emotion is not how we discharge it. Rather, it’s one of the many ways in which we deny the emotion because we’re forcing it outside of ourselves when it’s very much a part of who we are. When we break something, slam a door, or even threaten others, we’re keeping the emotion from really entering us. This is understandable because it can feel so foreign and strange and we’ve been taught we shouldn’t feel things like sadness, anger or anxiety. However, so long as these feelings remain outside of us, they’re never really dealt with or accepted, so they sit there until the next trigger — or until we manage to stop telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel such emotions and invite them in.
So often our emotions become amplified because we’re instructing them to be something they’re not, which results in the pain that so much of our world is in.
We are so much more than many of us have allowed ourselves to believe. In not giving ourselves permission to experience fully what we are capable of as sentient beings, we have denied our true nature. Only when we allow such a profound connection to ourselves can we recognize our tremendous creative power. This demands that we be able to embrace those emotions that we’ve been taught were bad, or strange or wrong, just as we embrace the “positive” ones. The moment we can accept them is the moment we realize we have nothing to fear.
This month marked the 20th anniversary of Jerry Maguire. (For me, it also marked the 20th anniversary of my 20th birthday). It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years since Tom Cruise first uttered those three words that had women in theaters across America gushing: "You complete me". I must confess his delivery was so fierce, how would someone not believe or want to believe it to be true? However, a husband, two kids, thirteen Romance books and twenty years later, I’ve come to understand the fallacy of those words and how they represent part of a patriarchal system that forces us to sublimate the very essence of who we are, ostensibly in order to coexist with one another.
Those three words, “You complete me,” are a fallacy of the patriarchy that stifles our ability to become self-actualized beings. The truth is that our real power resides within each of us.
As humans, we are uniquely capable of complete emotional and physical autonomy, and yet, many of us never realize it because the notion of dependency—whether on another or on government—has become so ingrained in us that we sacrifice our personal power to the other and to the collective. We give up this power to the patriarchal system and the hierarchical structures that reside within it, from religious institutions to corporations, seemingly in exchange for the assurance of our survival.
Jerry Maguire, like so many Hollywood narratives and so many of the prevailing stories in the Romance genre, foster the notion that we ourselves—we alone—are not enough and that we need someone to complete us. They reinforce those seeds of self-doubt within us, the fear of not being enough, and blind us to the fact that what we really need is not someone else to make us whole but to own our own power as individuals. And rather than confront our doubts and fears, which can be both humbling and painful, we cling to these stories and the corresponding beliefs that somehow make us feel comfort or comfortable and result in limiting us and our potential.
In fact, patriarchy is an expression of power in its ego form. Power in this form is perceived as political, as wealth and as celebrity, which like any exclusive club can only belong to a select few against whom the rest of us measure ourselves. And in this construct, we, as individuals, come to surrender to some purported higher power. But the reality is that no one is greater than us individually. NO ONE.
Not a single being is greater than we are because we are all the SAME. Our differences on the outside do not erase the fact that underneath it all, under that thin layer of skin, we are truly the same human beings. At our very core, we are perfect, complete, whole and infinite.
Only we have the ability to change our own reality, the power to take responsibility for ourselves and in that to exercise our own personal power, enabling us to step into our greatest selves with the knowledge and belief that we can do anything we set our minds to.
That is the core of our being, the most perfect and god-like because it's our creative power. To own that power will enable us to free ourselves of the patriarchal system that promises to take care of us because we will know that we can do it ourselves. This requires having absolute faith in ourselves. And, in order to have this kind of true, unwavering faith, we must also have compassion for those parts of ourselves that we’ve judged harshly or have felt judged as not good enough or ugly or deplorable. It demands that we choose to be truly honest with ourselves about who we are and accept that even in our missteps and perceived failures, we are still whole.
We need to reject the false Hollywood and Romance narratives that make us believe or feel that we are not enough, or that we need someone else to make our lives better, and to avoid the traps of co-dependence—whether emotional, psychological or even financial.
When we can approach relationships from a place of self-actualization and self-love, we can understand that they are not about completing one another but inspiring in each other the expression of one's truest and greatest self.
The strong reaction to Dean Ellison’s recent letter to incoming first years informing them that the university will not “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’” nor “support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” tells me that we’ve reached a crescendo in expectations around political correctness, and it deeply concerns me that universities having to be sensitive to students’ feelings and life experiences are beginning to frustrate the important purpose that universities are supposed to serve.1
Some have argued that there’s more to Dean Ellison’s message than meets the eye, that it’s a move to mask the fundamental issues students claim should be at the forefront, namely greater transparency with regard to the private police force, support for students (e.g., mental health), and basic accountability toward student interests.2 Another former student (class of ’09) argues, “The publicized outcries of politically demanding students and the drastic administrative actions that can result from them are not the cause, but rather the symptom, of a corporate university system more concerned about ratings, money, and reputation than the effective conduct of student education.”3
The corporatization of universities and colleges across the country is a very real and alarming issue that deserves greater scrutiny. And, while there’s probably some validity to these arguments, as an alumna, I believe that something even bigger is at play, which is that universities such as Chicago are struggling to preserve the intellectual freedom that has allowed students to recognize differences in thought, experience and opinion and to transcend them.
The demand for safe spaces recognizes that these differences exist; however, safe spaces do not allow or push for a transcendence in thought, which requires examining and understanding the roots of discord. Only when that point is reached can any individual develop the kind of discernment necessary to be able to reach true objectivity, that is to see a problem, any problem, for what it really is.
In a speech to freshmen back in August, Yale President Peter Salovey also warned of the “false narratives” that so many people, both young and old, cling to in order to make sense of their worlds.4 Universities do not exist to support any kind of narrative but to dispel them in order for students to reach that kernel of truth that resides at the core of any thought or experience. The truth is that there are many ways to view one’s reality. We live in a very subjective world that tends to adhere to the prevailing belief of the time, which we may conveniently choose to adopt if it suits our personal cause. When we study history, we untangle these perspectives and can see the event — whether it’s colonialism, slavery, or war — and objectively examine the motivations and consequences. Of course, it’s much more difficult to be objective when we are standing so close to the precipice with regard to what’s going on around us today.
As a writer, I reject the idea that any restrictions should be placed on my words. People may not like my use of the word “cunt” because it makes them uncomfortable, but I use it precisely because it does so. I want to challenge the status quo of Romance writing just as I want to challenge people’s narrow ideas about love and relationship, which I believe are limiting us as a society.
Making readers uncomfortable is exactly the point. It’s the only real way in which they can achieve any kind of breakthrough by being forced to self-examine and self-assess, to seek and understand the reason something doesn’t feel right to them. Only then are they either able to dismiss the idea as no longer their truth or to strengthen their own truth because they can resolutely affirm that it is truly what they think and feel.
The University of Chicago understands it’s performing a disservice if its students do not manage to transcend their discomfort. I can certainly appreciate a demand for safe space where one feels physically threatened. However, the reality is that many of those who are doing the intellectual bullying and the threatening are doing so because they themselves are unable to make sense of the constantly shifting world of ideas and thought as their own personal beliefs and the narratives they ascribe to are crumbling around them. It’s much too difficult and challenging for many of them to even synthesize and see the truth, so they hide behind their hateful words and threats to find comfort from a world they fear is leaving them behind.
As I’ve written before, the way to deal with a bully isn’t to ostracize him or her, but to embrace the person who is unable to intellectualize or conceptualize their own fear, which blinds them from the truth. (To be clear, embracing the person does not mean embracing his or her ideas.)
If we keep demarcating safe spaces, we risk missing the opportunity to challenge these bullies and to force them to be accountable for their thoughts and words. By stifling dialogue, interaction, and debate, we contribute to a more polarized society.
As the pendulum continues to swing more to the sensitive and politically-correct end of the spectrum, I caution against criticizing an institution like The University of Chicago that wants to stand above the fray regarding safe spaces. It doesn’t take more than looking at news outlets (talk about false and often one-sided narratives) to see the many ways in which our society is allowing a hostile environment to exist with regard to self-expression.
Condemning individual statements and words isn’t the problem. It’s when the goal of such expression is to harm and destroy that we enter a danger zone. Yet few are making these distinctions because they are too busy reacting.And these reactions are distracting us from seeing the truth, which is that we are only scratching at the surface of what can be an incredible breakthrough if we stop demanding safe spaces and ask ourselves what are we doing wrong as a society that we feel we need them. That, I believe, is what we must address first, instead of continually flinging half-hearted solutions toward the symptoms. Like I learned at Chicago, deeply rooted beneath our human existence is a truth, and we must be able to wade through our questions, doubts, and fears in order to reach it. Only once we do can we truly be free. It is that freedom of thought that will release us from the cycle of reactivity and violence that’s beginning to grip and choke our nation.
1 For a copy of the letter, see http://www.uchicagonyc.org/article.html?aid=863.
2 Sophie Downes, “Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and Free Speech, Too,” The New York Times, September 10, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/trigger-warnings-safe-spaces-and-free-speech-too.html).
3 Maximillian Alvarez, “Cashing in on the Culture Wars,” The Baffler, September 9, 2016 (http://thebaffler.com/blog/cashing-in-on-culture-wars-alvarez).
4 Scott Jaschik, “The Chicago Letter and Its Aftermath,” Inside Higher Ed, August 29, 2016 (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/29/u-chicago-letter-new-students-safe-spaces-sets-intense-debate).