Identity Crisis

From where do you get your sense of identity? This question has come to the fore with the revelation that US ‘black’ activist Rachel Dolezal was in fact born a freckled white girl. John Elder in a Sunday Age article about Dolezal writes, “In a post-modernist world, identity has become a do-it-yourself project.” This week I was running a consultation with business leaders around the importance of relationships in the workplace. Inevitably at one point in our conversation, the focus turned to social media. Someone made the apt comment that everyone is now a brand. On Facebook and LinkedIn people promote themselves like advertisers promote a product or sell an image with a particular brand.

The promotion and selling of the self as a brand raises many questions; What is the true self? What is false? What do we enhance? What of these things do we believe to be true about ourselves? Do we end up believing our own lies? Concluding the same article by John Elder, Dr Monima Chadha a philosopher from Monash University says, “A deluded inauthentic identity is one which has few, if any, convergences with stories that others tell about us.”

Stephen Covey in his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989 but still very relevant today, talks about beginning with the end in mind. In this section of the book, he asks, what would you like people to say about you at your funeral? He believes that if we can get a picture of the self we want to be remembered for, it will help us shape our present, future and ultimately our identity.

So we come back to the core question, from where do you get your sense of identity? Training I first undertook in the mid nineties and still teach from time to time asks the question this way, How do we form the picture we have of ourselves? Many of the answers given are outlined below.

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 Some that are missing include, the media, colleagues, achievements and natural abilities. A picture is then drawn that looks like a dunny on an island. The island is seen as the true or potential self that is fluid and changes with every encounter and experience. In contrast the dunny is seen as a fixed structure, rigid, with part of it protruding outside the real or potential self. This represents the picture that we believe to be true about ourselves, even the parts that aren’t true ie those bits outside the real self, which we call the illusion. Dr Hayakawa of San Francisco University says that we spend the majority of our time protecting, reinforcing and enhancing the picture we have of ourselves. Seems to fit with the brand culture that many portray on social media. But the diagram is not finished. A line is drawn from within the dunny stretching through the real self to the outside. This represents the difference between I can and I can’t and the fact that we base our decisions on whether we can or can’t do something on that small picture we have of ourselves.

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In the Dolezal conversation it’s the illusion that is of interest. Through events in her life it seems that she has been led to feel a stronger affirmation with the ‘Black’ community than her own genetic background, even to the extent of working to change her appearance. An article in The Conversation by Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University (http://goo.gl/EJTA1t) relates, referring to work by psychologist Shelley Taylor. Taylor calls the illusion benign fictions, which are essentially the lies we deploy to defend our happiness. Linking thoughts, Hamilton sees that if we deceive ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses, we create a veil that distorts our vision of the world, rendering it more agreeable. To the extent we do this, Hamilton believes we maybe sacrificing the opportunity to find a more authentic self from which to live.

The search for the authentic self has been a live topic for me over the last 12 months. It even resulted in me leaving my role as CEO of a small not for profit to pursue writing, teaching, storytelling, study and hopefully, eventually a career in academia. This journey has not been a simple one and led me to anxiety and depression, a state it seemed that I needed to enter to begin to hear and listen to more of my authentic self.

Although the journey has not been easy I believe the benefits far outweigh the cost. Hamilton sees that if we continue to fabricate a false self in order to find happiness we become open to manipulation and ultimately we sacrifice our freedom. It’s been interesting reflecting this week with my wife and a friend, about an organisation that we were all apart of. We each recognised there were times that due to the perceived urgency of the task and its believed importance in the larger scheme of things we made choices that were not true to who we really were. At those times I believe we were operating off a false self that sort amongst other things approval and belonging.

It’s been affirming that as I’ve begun to better listen to my true self I am less susceptible to that kind of manipulation. It is with somewhat of a red face that I admit last year to being inspired by West Wing and certain that I was destined for a career in politics. So glad I never acted on that conviction. I used to be able to notice myself swaying slightly under different influences in the drive to be recognised, approved of, wanting to make a difference, these potential wanderings were made possible by not listening to my authentic self. There is a peace that comes as you settle into your own skin, who you were created to be and then act out of that realisation.

It is very obvious that for whatever reason Rachel Dolezal is not happy in her own skin and until she becomes so, she won’t have the opportunity to truly appreciate who she is and the wonderful person she was created to be. Sad really!

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Consumerism: The Not So New Religion

I once had a religious experience in a shopping centre. Driving into our local Ikea, we parked under the building and proceeded to join the happy throngs in ascending to the showroom. On arrival, it was like an epiphany, I became aware of the religiosity around the act of consuming. Like in many churches you follow some set rules to ensure that your experience is as smooth as possible. There is a certain order that you observe. The order encourages you to think a particular way about the goods and services you are encountering. Of course at the end of your experience you pay your money and proceed to the café for fellowship.

What happens after the ‘service’ it could be said is where we see the most striking resemblance occurring. This resemblance relates to our motivation in seeking the religious experience in the first place. Both consumerism and religion seek to fill a gap in our lives, inject a sense of meaning in what Victor Frankl refers to as the ‘existential vacuum.’ Think about it for a moment, how do you feel as you are making a significant new purchase for example a fridge, washing machine, surround sound home theatre, a car? If you are like most people there will be a rush of endorphins as you purchase the new item, get it home, unwrap it, set it up etc. There will be a sense of satisfaction, the world will feel right for a time. Your drive for meaning will be usurped or fulfilled by the joy of the new thing.

Similarly for many as they go to church and enjoy the ceremony, they leave with a sense of fulfilment, their longing for meaning fulfilled by consuming the religious goods and services on offer. The search for fulfilment quenched.

Advertisers have picked up on this vacuum of meaning and are perhaps the prophets of this not so new religion. Many of the ads we see on TV are dripping with value laden language and concepts. The ads tend to sell the lifestyle that the product promises as opposed to the product itself. Vicki Cosstick in her article Hijacking the Holy: The use and abuse of Spiritual Language in Advertising, Believes that the search for meaning in our culture has been diverted by the advertisers. Ultimate questions such as Who am I? What am I here for? How and to what do I belong? How can I achieve wellbeing, happiness or fulfilment? Are answered by a new car, a soft drink or a fantastic insurance package or holiday.

Traditionally religion and particularly Christianity has sought to answer these ultimate questions through an explanation of creation, election, salvation, ecclesiology and eschatology. However in the new cultural landscape that we find ourselves, advertisers have the jump on most expressions of religion. Advertisers know that in order to entice people towards their goods and services, they need to bring them to a state of desire and then provide the answer to their longings.

According to Caroline Cat and her animation on YouTube Religion and Advertising we are drawn to this state of desire through our emotional connection to the familiar. However there comes a point where the familiar becomes ineffective and so advertisers have needed to invest in new strategies to continue to draw us. This has seen the rise in the use of religious concepts and imagery to ‘shock’ us and point us towards the solutions to our longings (https://goo.gl/HQ4bLd). Thus putting religious values on what would have traditionally been seen as non or even anti-religious. One of the earliest examples of this was a Xerox ad where a monk pens the copy of an important religious document. He takes it to the head monk who then asks him for 500 copies. The next scene is the monk in what seems to be a copy shop of some sort, where the copy guy sets up to do the 500 copies. The end result is the monk receiving the 500 copies, looking up to heaven and saying ‘it’s a miracle.’

Since these humble beginnings advertisers have melded our search for meaning, belonging, community, transcendence, wellbeing, flourishing, even generosity (https://goo.gl/iZqkvy) with the selling of their products. An old Honda ad says it well. You may remember the encouragement to dream the impossible dream. It was particularly spectacular when played at the cinema (https://goo.gl/L13obE).

So what are we to do with these competing ‘religions’ both offering us, and to a certain extent delivering similar qualities? Perhaps this guy sums it up, https://goo.gl/j05GSa. On a more serious note, an Erasmus article from 2014 (http://goo.gl/skLx9g) draws some distinctions. Pope Francis sees the advertisers promoting a consumerism with its capitalist roots that gives priority to the outward, the immediate, visible, quick, superficial and provisional. I guess its appeal is the promise of a quick fix, but like any quick fix, pretty soon another is needed and then another. Sociologists tell us that our happiness increases with wealth and the more we have, up to a certain point, usually around what we need to adequately survive. After this the curve flattens out dramatically and our levels of happiness do not increase.

So perhaps a more sustainable future is to strive towards some of the values that religion and advertisers hold out to us. Values such as connection, belonging, purpose, meaning, generosity, compassion, forgiveness. I suspect however we are not going to find these in a product, even a very good one or specifically in a particular religious expression in and of itself. Though together as we work towards a society with these values, we may just touch the divine.

Family, Can’t Live Without Them…

I haven’t seen my Mum and Dad for close on 12 months, and today is the day. In a little over 4 hours, we’ll meet them at the airport and there will be warm embraces, opening the opportunity to share life face to face for a week. I’ve been married for close on 21 years and for the majority of that time we have lived interstate from both sets of our parents. I sometimes wonder what the relationship would be like with my parents if we had lived closer together. Would we have shared Sunday lunches, regular family outings, done more life together, or would we have been distant emotionally, like we are geographically.

Don’t get me wrong I and we as a family generally have a good relationship with my parents. There are issues we see quite differently and aspects of each others’ lives that we don’t fully understand, but on the whole things are positive. We are certainly products of our respective generations. The baby boomers tending to work for the security that their parents never had, or at least perceived they didn’t due to war and the Great Depression. For us in the Gen X camp we experience the legacy of individualism and a breakdown of community including extended family. In the midst of that whilst there still is a strong urge towards individual acquisition, aging as a generation there is an increasing search for the meaning of our existence. Our children in turn are tending to be more conscious of the environment, politics and broadly speaking the betterment of the world.

In all of this what is family and what part does it play in our continuing development as people? According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the 2012-13 statistical year, Australia consisted of 8.9 million households, 74% of these were family households. That’s 20.1 million people living in famiies! A family household is described as couples living in registered marriages, de facto, step and blended, single parent and parents with visiting arrangements. Families with children of any age make up 58% of family households (3.9million), 74% of those have dependant children, 2.8 million with at least one child aged 0-17 years. 14% of families were single parent families (http://goo.gl/SkSqIG).

Family in this context is seen as people living together in predominantly a single household or at a stretch, when a parent lives elsewhere. Those in the conservative Christian camp have been concerned about the constant barrage on this unit. They would see the ideal family consisting of a Mum, Dad and their biological kids, known as the nuclear family. The term is a relatively new one although there is some evidence that the concept dates back to before industrialisation, perhaps even thousands of years. Since industrialisation, the nuclear family has been seen as a viable financial unit. From the 17th Century in Western Europe and New England the nuclear family concept has thrived due to the influence of the Church and successive theocratic governments (http://goo.gl/tuJW3).

Don’t hear me wrong, I like the nuclear family, I’m a product of one and I live in one and I’m very happy about that. However over the years as we have lived away from family an interesting phenomenon has taken place. Those around us have become family. At times those I have been working with have taken on parent roles, there has been and continues to be brothers and sisters, comrades in the work that I have felt closer to than my own flesh and blood. At those times my family has been geographically distant, at times understanding the work and standing with me, other times not appreciating the journey in the same way as those around me. I’m writing this conscious of the way my own family particularly my Mum and Dad may feel when reading this, however I’m wrestling with the role of family verses other forms of connection.

Whilst I’m reflecting predominantly on the relationship between parent and adult children, I’m also aware that as a nuclear family our relationship with our wider family has not been particularly strong. I’m not in regular connection with any aunties or uncles, similar on my wife’s side and for her there is only one sibling out of three with whom she has regular connection. Now there are all sorts of reasons for this, however the role of the broader family has certainly been picked up by colleagues, friends and those around us.

There are some idealists who want to structure society so as to encourage familial care, particularly as family members age. However because of life choices, conflict and a whole plethora of other reasons, I see this as unrealistic and have experienced and see developing new types of family emerging on the landscape. I long for the day when the communities that we live in, though they may not be flesh and blood actually reflect family, where people can experience deep connection, where they can have the freedom to explore who they are and develop towards their discovered potential.

From one ideal to the next… we may never reach what I am describing however as we look at the universal brother and sisterhood that my faith points to we see a Dreamer who dreamed that the world He created might one day reflect the perfect community that He experiences. My sense is that as we work towards this ideal, we are joining with Him in His longing and struggle and that’s got to be a good thing.

It’s time to Let Them Out

The debate around same sex marriage in Australia is on again, particularly in the wake of the Irish referendum. Irish revellers took to the streets last week as the yes vote resounded around the country with 62% of voters in favour of allowing marriage between people of the same sex. Ireland joins another 21 countries that either fully or at least in some states support same sex marriage (http://goo.gl/IIBUvu). In my view it is time as a society and as people of faith to let the LGBTI community out of the closet once and for all.

The political journey towards same sex marriage

In Australia we have been slow to join the rainbow parade and sanction same sex marriage, despite the legislative pathway being relatively simple. Like so many other significant issues, that we as a nation need to tackle, gay marriage has become politicised. In an article in ‘The Conversation’ Carol Johnson from University of Adelaide outlines the political roadblocks (https://goo.gl/V03jmy). Firstly, with no definition of marriage in Australian Federal legislation, the Howard government introduces legislation in 2004 banning same sex marriage. Howard’s hope was to use a ‘values’ issue to sway conservative Labor voters. Labor agreed with the legislation and it became law as they feared losing the worker vote in Sydney’s west.

Politicians on both sides of the fence were compelled by binding votes to remain loyal to the spoken view of the party. Thus we saw examples where Penny Wong (a known Lesbian) needed to walk a fine line between her own views and that of her political affiliates. Also Australia does not have a charter of human rights, which played a significant role in bringing same sex marriage to Canada. So it was left to the minor parties and gay and lesbian activists to advocate for same sex marriage, hoping to change the views of the major party politicians. The closest the activists have come to success so far is Kevin Rudd’s recognition that same-sex relationships need to be seen legally the same as hetero-sexual defacto relationships. The definition of marriage was not on the table, which helped to reassure socially conservative and religious voters.

Most recently Labor has changed its platform, now supporting same sex marriage. Rudd on his return in 2013 saw that the church and the state can have different policies on marriage in a secular society. At this point when there was a vote in parliament around these issues, Labor was given a conscience vote, which showed the separation between church and state was not complete, with the vote being defeated.

One comment coming from Johnson is that in Australia the issue has religious framing and has not been fought so much on the grounds of equality. If equality had been the focus, it may have had a quicker path through the parliament. This is where events in Ireland are so important, if a country so steeped in Catholicism can support same sex marriage by a 62-38 majority, we need to acknowledge that times are changing.

Understanding the gay and lesbian journey

Last week, The Australian Christians political party posted on Facebook; “’Progressive’ Christians are destroying Christianity, churches and traditional ethos. You may know them by their support of euthanasia, abortion, redefining marriage, legalising of illicit drugs, severe political correctness and their support of the Greens agenda. We must unite to defend true Christianity and all life, giving true liberty to our society.” Firstly, talk with most ‘progressive’ Christians and they will tell you that their convictions are not as black and white as portrayed by this statement and in fact they may support some of the list but not other parts and for a whole range of reasons. Categorisation and broad statements never reveal the truth of a position and the complexity of the human psyche in coming to that position.

Secondly the Australian Christians is a political party that somehow have gained the opinion that they have the ability and right to declare who is a ‘true Christian’ ie those who think like they do from those who are damaging the faith. Throughout history when political parties have made declarations of this ilk, it has always been dangerous. A view expressed in this way tends to shut down conversation and prevent the true meeting of those who see the world differently so the gift the other has can’t be shared.

The sharing of gift in terms of presence, perspective, search for mutual understanding is something that has repeatedly gone missing in the debate around gay and lesbian sexuality and indeed same sex marriage. I feel heavy as I think of the damage done to countless individuals as they struggled with their same sex attraction. They only found more pain and heartache if they were gutsy enough to speak to a youth pastor or church leader. Being confronted with ‘the fact’ that their orientation was a sin. Then those that truly ‘wanted to change’ (ie the cultural pressure being too much, the cost of staying out, too high, belief that being heterosexual was the only way to be acceptable to God) were led to an ex-gay ministry. Where for many the light at the end of the tunnel was a freight train. Some even became so desperate about not being able to turn the gay off that they contemplated, attempted with some even succeeding in committing suicide.

Anthony Venn-Brown a former Pentecostal preacher and now gay ambassador got to a point where he felt he couldn’t lie to his church, his family or himself anymore and admitted that he was a gay man. In 2007 Venn-Brown appeared on 60 minutes with a live online chat following the program (http://goo.gl/4BtWP3). During that chat he talks about what it was like coming out. He states that for him coming out was not an empowering experience but more a reluctant acceptance of his sexuality. It would take a further 6 years for him to celebrate his identity. He talks about losing everything, but yet gaining a peace and sense of resolution. ‘Had I known earlier that I could live a happy fulfilled life as a gay man, I probably would have made that choice a lot earlier.’

During the online conversation Venn-Brown was asked where he stood with his Christian faith and if he attended church, loved God, followed Jesus. ‘ Yes, initially I thought my choice was to be heterosexual and a Christian or to be homosexual and go to Hell… I now understand that my morality is a choice, my sexual orientation however isn’t. Today I have the most amazing relationship with God that I’ve ever had. Something I thought would never be possible.’ He goes on to make a comment about the homosexual vs Christian debate; ‘(It’s) actually over… There are pockets of controversy, and some denominations that are tackling the issue, but critical mass has already been reached. The rainbow revival has begun.’

Picking up Venn-Brown’s point about orientation, the American Psychological Association (APA) states that sexual orientation refers to an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and / or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes (http://goo.gl/eYz1BB). In terms of what causes a particular sexual orientation there is no consensus among scientists. It is most likely a complex mix of genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences. Both nature and nurture potentially playing a role in sexual orientation. The most important contribution that the APA play in this conversation is they state; ‘…most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.’

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) (http://goo.gl/P6EmyX) agrees with this stance, strongly opposing any view that lesbians, gay men and bisexuals are suffering a disorder associated with their sexual orientation. They rightly also oppose any approach to practice or research that attempts to change that orientation, these interventions are often referred to as reparative or conversion therapies (including ex-gay ministries). In their position paper on same sex orientation they state there is ‘no psychological research objectively documenting the ability to ‘change’ an individual’s sexual orientation.’ Empirical evidence shows that attempts to change sexual orientation can be harmful. Research conducted in 2002 reported that ‘conversion therapy’ resulted in psychological harm (including depression, suicidal ideation, reduced self esteem, sexual dysfunction), interpersonal harm (including social isolation, loss of social supports, damage to intimate relationships) and spiritual harm (including a loss of faith, sense of betrayal by religious leaders and excommunication).

Most prominent ex-gay movements have ceased operation for these reasons added to which they have been banned in some countries around the world. Unfortunately in Australia they subtly still exist in the form of emphasis and influence, mainly from church communities. Again my heart breaks at the damage that continues to be done.

A Personal Reflection

For me personally these simple, yet well researched, statements take sin off the table as far as same sex attraction is concerned. Sexual orientation is not a choice, therefore it is something created by God and needs to be recognised as such. Venn-Brown raises an excellent distinction between orientation and morals. There may not be a choice about which gender you are attracted to, however what you do with that attraction is the issue. Reflecting biblically, the weight of the biblical story comes down to love, which in this conversation, talks about committed relationships, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual in nature.

For those of faith how are we to respond? I realise all this can be confronting and can certainly shake our theology and tradition. Taking all the above into account what we have in front of us is an issue of equality. According to Tania a Churches of Christ minister, people of same sex orientation, who are in a committed marriage like relationship need to have the same legal standing as people in hetero-sexual unions. This will enable them to be present in the case of serious medical issues and point of death, as well as receive the rights accorded to ‘widows / widowers.’

Tania believes that as people of faith our key responsibility is to love others as we love ourselves, this calls us to look after and stand up for those who are oppressed in any way. Johann Arnold in his book Seeking Peace agrees. He writes;

In Psalm 85 we read, ‘Justice and peace shall kiss; truth shall rise up, and righteousness smile down from heaven.’ If we have faith in this promise – if we believe that these words can become reality, not only in some glorious hereafter, but on this earth – then we must be willing to risk everything. We must reject injustice in every form, whether economic exploitation, social inequality, racial division or political oppression.

Tania continues and I agree, that as faith communities we need to look at the bible as a whole story and not a grab bag of proof texts. As we do this we see overwhelmingly that that our stance is to be one of inclusivity, that all people are welcome to find a home with God.

A Final Word

Some in the conservative camp have expressed concerns about same sex couples raising children. In 2011 in Australia there were 6,120 children under the age of 25 living with same sex couples. Melbourne University spearheaded the world’s most comprehensive study into the health of children living in these environments (http://goo.gl/eddGxC). They are the first to admit limitations to the study and that it was based on parent reporting. However the overwhelming indication is that these children are faring well on most measures of child health and wellbeing. Fascinatingly the households demonstrate higher levels of family cohesion than other population samples. A core concern were the negative effects on wellbeing as a result of stigma, even when seeking healthcare. This points to the need for societal and policy change, not the effect of being raised in a same sex household per’se.

Tania’s right when she says the issue comes down to love. If same sex couples are prepared to love a child then they should be allowed to express that love, even if it involves surrogacy. In the midst of this the important thing is for children to be exposed to not only loving parents (same or different sex) but a loving community where they can be nurtured by both men and women, exposed to different views and allowed to grow to reach their potential.

Conclusion

Drawing all these threads together, I believe; sexual orientation is not a choice, the damage caused by reparative therapy and ex-gay ministries is widespread and well documented, the call from God is to love and be inclusive, the wellbeing of children of same sex couples is generally very high… so, as a society and as a people of faith more specifically, it is definitely time to let the LGBTI community out of the closet once and for all.

Postscript

I want to acknowledge, as with so many other complex issues this is just the tip of the iceberg. In coming weeks I plan to explore same sex relationships from a number of different perspectives, hopefully opening the door to more conversation and more understanding.