Recently, I got into a heated argument with a friend over dinner here at the retirement community where we both live. The argument was about political issues, which always seem to be hot-button triggers for me, quickly bringing forth feelings of being misunderstood, being viewed as crazy, not being heard, along with frustration over my inability to make someone else see what I feel is true and vitally important, and then boiling anger. Suddenly, I couldn’t take it for another second. “Fuck it,” I said, throwing down my napkin, leaving the table and striding out of the dining room.
My friend called me an hour later to tell me she loved me and greatly valued our friendship, and I felt my heart open and tears replace the anger. I was struck by how often this has happened in my life—disagreeing over politics, feeling enraged and separate, different and isolated, self-righteous and certain about my views, frustrated that others can’t see “the truth.” How often I’ve felt the inner tightness, hardness, and pain of this. In the days after this happened, I could feel my heart opening and then closing again, over and over. I did The Work of Byron Katie, sat in silence, and then fortuitously happened to watch a movie that touched into this whole thing very deeply. The movie was Women Talking.
For those who haven’t yet seen it, it is about women in an isolated Mennonite community where some of the men have been drugging and raping the women and girls and then convincing them it was either their imagination or the work of demons. Now the rapists have been exposed and taken off to jail, the remaining men have gone to town to post bail for them, and the women are meeting in the barn deciding what to do. The men will be returning soon. Should the women forgive them as they are supposed to do, or stay and fight for a better community, or should they leave? The whole movie is basically this group of women in the barn talking—and listening. There are different personalities, differing views about what to do, and strong feelings. All of them are trauma survivors. Emotions run high at times. But they talk, and they listen. They have insights, they change and open, and gradually, they come to consensus. It’s a beautiful hopeful movie that I very highly recommend. It’s about love and faith (in the best sense) and listening. And it isn’t just about some strange religious group, of course—it’s about all of us.
I then stumbled upon and began listening to “The Witch Trials of JK Rowling,” an ongoing podcast series that I very highly recommend, created and hosted by Megan Phelps-Roper on The Free Press. Although the podcast centers around Rowling, it is more deeply about broader issues of belief and certainty, the impact of social media, the breakdown of civil discourse, the cancellation and demonization of people, extreme polarization, book burnings, death threats, violent protests, doxxing, etc. Rowling is simply one perfect example of someone to whom all of this has been happening. She was attacked first by the far right and fundamentalist Christians over Harry Potter, and now she is under attack by many trans activists and much of the left for her views on the transgender issue. Whether you agree or disagree with her views, the extreme and hateful reactions to her concerns about women and children are certainly troubling.
I happen to largely share Rowling’s concerns on this subject and find them quite reasonable and certainly not transphobic or bigoted. I’m a gender agnostic, genderqueer, nonbinary, androgynous, mostly lesbian person who seriously considered a gender transition and who sees myself as being somewhere on the transgender spectrum. Like Rowling, I am in no way against trans people or transitioning, but I do have serious concerns about some of what the movement is demanding and the potentially adverse impacts on women and children. Perhaps these concerns will be proven wrong or irrelevant, but at this stage, they are, in my opinion, certainly worthy of serious consideration. Instead, those who raise such questions are often demonized as bigots and sometimes forced out of their jobs and subjected to death threats and doxxing. That I find deeply troubling.
Megan Phelps-Roper, the host and creator of this podcast, grew up in the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, demonstrating as a small child against gays and Jews, and later celebrating at funerals of military people because, in the view of this church, America was being punished for the evils of homosexuality, divorce, atheism, etc. Megan was indoctrinated from birth in this ideology and believed that all of this was the will of God. But eventually, in large part as a result of interactions on twitter with people who challenged her in a kind, friendly and respectful way, she began to question her beliefs and actions.
Finally, in her twenties, she left her home, family and community—the only life she’d ever known, and set out on a journey of discovery, shedding her old beliefs and befriending the groups she had once spurned. She has since worked with schools on anti-bullying campaigns and with tech companies on what she describes as “the intersection of safety, free speech, and the value of dialogue across ideological divides.” She wrote a moving memoir and is creating this excellent podcast. Her memoir, Unfollow, is a fascinating inside look at the WBC and also a profound exploration of indoctrination, the certainty of belief, and the process of breaking free and questioning everything. I very highly recommend both the ongoing podcast series and Megan’s book. You can find the podcast and more information here:
We’ve probably all had the experience of needing to leave something that had been a huge part of our lives, often something that in many ways we loved or were dependent upon, or something that was at least familiar—our family of origin, a relationship, an organization, a country, a spiritual or political group, a career, a gender identity, a belief system, whatever it might be—and then leap into an unknown future as JK Rowling, Megan Phelps-Roper, and the women in the Women Talking movie all had to do. (Rowling was once a single mother on welfare fleeing an abusive marriage). We’ve probably all had to endure being viewed in a bad light by some person or group, sometimes in very minor or fleeting ways, and sometimes in severe and ongoing ways. We’ve probably all had the experience of demonizing someone else or some group of people, even if only in our thoughts. We’ve probably all done things we regret. These are common human experiences. We each see a unique movie of waking life, and no one else agrees with us about everything.
I’m a longtime progressive leftist, but in recent years, I feel increasingly homeless politically. There are things on the left, such as the treatment of Rowling, that deeply disturb me. And the far right disturbs me even more. The mainstream media, both liberal and conservative, seems to routinely lie and distort. Censorship, cancellation and intolerance of people with divergent views has sadly become the cultural and institutional norm, and I am not immune from doing the same. Having different views from people I love on issues that feel important to me can be very painful, but that pain can be interesting to explore. My friend and teacher Toni Packer was always probing these kinds of questions and encouraging us to probe them.
What is under this need for people to agree with me, to see something as I do? Is it possible to experience being misunderstood without that triggering suffering? What is it that generates the suffering? How do I identify with my views so much that I sometimes feel as if my very life is being threatened by someone who disagrees? What is under the intense anger, frustration and depression that can arise? What leads me to bring something up in a conversation that I know will provoke an argument? Am I getting something out of the sense of being isolated, different, misunderstood, and alone? Is it possible to question the certainty I feel about my views? Is it possible to forgive the world (and other people) for being imperfect? Is it possible to forgive myself? Am I taking myself and the world too seriously at times, losing my sense of humor, wanting to control and fix everything? What turns pain into suffering? How often on social media or in a discussion do I fall into some version of the kind of demonizing hate speech that I know in my heart is malignant and unhelpful? If I had met Megan on twitter decades ago, would I have challenged her with kindness, or would I have met hate with hate?
And beyond all that, what belief-system(s) or ways of life am I still clinging to, or feeling trapped in, that I’m wanting to leave, and what is holding me back? On that subject, I wrote a post on Facebook last December called “Solstice Musings” (December 21, 2022). It was one of my most popular posts ever. It poured out of me at lightning speed, and I immediately posted it without any editing. It was raw and uncensored, so there was an energy to it and a truth. If you want to read it, it’s the first entry on this page of my website blog:
After I wrote it, I promptly fell back into some of the things I said had fallen away, and I find myself now frequently questioning what I’m doing or writing or saying, asking myself, Is that really true? Do I know that for sure? Is that really my experience? Is this what I really want to be doing? I’ve continued to see how fickle the mind is, and how I can’t really know what my next move will be—how I have to trust the dark. Sometimes I feel like that goose in a bottle in the old Zen koan, and sometimes the bottle disappears along with the goose. I felt very exuberant and free when I wrote my solstice post, as if something oppressive had dropped away, which in that moment it had, but it wasn’t permanently gone, and the process continues. Maybe it’s a lifelong undoing, I suspect maybe it is.
In the Westboro Baptist Church, doubt was a sign of weakness and the influence of Satan. After she had left the church, Megan Phelps-Roper came to see that embracing doubt was “the most basic shift” in how she now experienced the world. She writes: “Doubt was nothing more than epistemological humility: a deep and practical awareness that outside our sphere of knowledge there existed information and experiences that might show our position to be in error. Doubt causes us to hold a strong position a bit more loosely…. Certainty is the opposite: it hampers inquiry and hinders growth. It teaches us to ignore evidence that contradicts our ideas, and encourages us to defend our position at all costs.”
Megan sees that “the root of Westboro’s ideology—the idea that our beliefs were ‘the one true way’—is not by any means limited to Westboro members,” that in fact, this way of thinking “is common, widespread, and on display everywhere humans gather. From religious circles to political ones.” She notes how this kind of belief “gives a comforting sense of certainty… a sense of stability.” But she has seen firsthand the danger and real harm in black and white thinking, in belief that can’t be questioned, and in “the danger of becoming calcified in a position and impervious to change.”
This book and Megan’s journey speak to me right now, as does the podcast she is doing with JK Rowling, as does the movie Women Talking. I’m highly recommending all of them to you, because they all invite an awakening that I feel is desperately needed in our time. I know that love feels like (and is) a deeper truth than hate. I know in my heart that open listening is far more important than forcefully pushing my views. I’ve seen how suffering begins with the sense of separation and with the belief that what is shouldn’t be happening.
I aspire to contribute to epistemological humility, healthy doubt and uncertainty rather than to comforting beliefs and curative fantasies, and at the same time, I aspire to the kind of faith that is like walking on water—the kind of faith the women in Women Talking demonstrate both in their conversation and in their wildly courageous decision. (And by faith, I do not mean belief). I aspire to keep questioning my own self-righteousness and my frequent failures at constructive, open-minded, open-hearted dialog, knowing that I will fall short of these aspirations many more times. I also know from experience that we never really know what is most helpful or what truly falls short, and I know that failure is part of the soil that brings forth new possibilities, as my fight with my friend, and the stories shared in this post have all exemplified.
Thank you all for being here and for listening!
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Always love your honesty whilst also loving your deep insight (“getting it”) in a “style” that is in a Steinbeck “gut” understanding.
I know how you feel. I often have to take the advice to never miss an opportunity to keep my mouth shut, particularly when I will be adding heat rather than light. When I read Jennifer Finney-Boylan’s denunciation of JK Rowling, I read the allegedly offensive article in question. As I recall, Ms Rowling’s views were nothing more incendiary than concerns over bathroom safety. In this time when we all feel a deep sense of threat, we all. We’d to dial it down a bit.