Something that I became increasingly aware of a few years ago was the number of people I was running into that seemed to be focused on a Social Justice Rhetoric over and above everything else. At my mere suggestion that people might be at least partially responsible for their own frustrations, there were some who pushed back as if I was speaking utter gibberish. As I’ve had some time to reflect, I’ve realized that their is a new sort of ‘religious’ movement forming but I believe it’s the symptom of an old human problem.
Long ago, maybe 15 years ago now, I worked briefly as a personal trainer for 24 Hour Fitness. This was not long after quitting Engineering. I was excited, but, very early on in the process, I was also confused. The trainers often seemed more concerned about entertaining the clients rather than helping them take control of their health. This was almost offensive in my mind given my experience with weight loss. “You’re paying a certified fitness professional $60/hr to keep you entertained?!”
It was mind boggling. Since then, I’ve watched fitness be more and more commodified as a product and less and less encouraged as a personal responsibility. There seems to be a greater and greater absolution from personal responsibility. People feel as if life and biology somehow preclude them from health. Work, family, age, income, chronic health conditions, skin color etc are all reasons why people can’t do a thing. These immutable factors have dominated my conversation for years with people as I have tried to encourage them in their personal agency around their health habits. This has been a long battle in my efforts to help others.
I’ve gone into this a million times on this blog, but I have talked with so many people who claim to be ready to get out of debt but are so unwilling to change personal spending habits. I’ve literally had people tell me that they’re not going to adjust any of their expenses but they still want to get out of debt. It’s like basic arithmetic should change for them and they expect me to reveal the magic spell that I spoke over my own finances to get out of debt, when I was in the same place.
Nobody wants to admit being materialistic. The idea that you might go without the internet at home, you might not get new clothes for 2-3 years, you may avoid restaurants for a while, or you may do without a car, is, unacceptable. People tell me things like, “Travis, I need these things!! I don’t have a choice!!” This insistence upon common behavior, while demanding an uncommon result of being debt free and financially stable, again, is mind boggling. It’s as if people want our financial structures and systems to change (which is fair) without changing themselves.
Now in reference to actual religion I want to be clear that I am not against a person’s faith. I’m trying to draw more of a parallel to rigid faith practices like the king you find in Fundamentalist Religious groups.
In my experience, there were many benefits to practicing the Christian Faith. However, there were certainly frustrations. I’ve been a committed member of Christian Churches in two distinct periods of my life. Something that I incorrectly assumed both times, is that there would be a greater proclivity to personal responsibility in a community of people so committed to the idea of a life given by a Holy/Loving God. A God who went so far as to sacrifice his only son as atonement for the sins of the whole world. God has payed this massive toll for us and wouldn’t the natural response then be, to be as good of a steward as possible with that which you have been given? Well, not exactly.
“Brother, that discipline you have is a gift from God!”
“Brother, your optimism is a gift from God!”
Maybe so, but these types of statements often came after I challenged someone in the Church to work on their self discipline or work on their gratitude and optimism. Self Development, certainly in the last church I was a part of, is met with a pernicious belief that it is somehow in opposition to God’s Will. Personal reliance was not consistent with reliance upon God. For instance, if a person didn’t have self discipline with their health or finances, it was because God had not gifted that discipline to them, in those areas.
I can recognize that my own relationship to both sugar and pornography is as a form of self medication. I have historically used these things to numb pain. It’s a pattern I began when I was a child. Probably in response to physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional/mental abuse, I experienced growing up. However, I have always believed that it was my responsibility to cultivate the will to overcome these behaviors. In the religious context’s I’ve experienced, one’s relationship to personal health habits is often an afterthought, while one’s relationship to sexual expression is utterly sinful outside of the confines of heterosexual marriage… to the point that even masturbation without the use of pornography is still seen as sinful and to be avoided. To be a little blunt and cheeky, “It’s not your penis, It’s God’s penis!” And yes, I’ve been told this before. Out of love, mind you. But, this admonition is sort of striking in retrospect.
The length of my next statement/question is a lot but please consider this –
An ideology that would have a happily married, overweight man, who neither exercises nor cares to change eating habits but expresses frustration with his body
married to a much younger, very attractive woman, who takes care of herself physically,
tells, a single-same-sex-oriented man, that he should remain single, celibate, and without the practice of masturbation or use of porn,
seems like a massive call for someone to exercise and develop self discipline at the highest of levels… Oh, and this married man might be using porn himself? The irony in this is shocking.
I’m not telling anyone that their faith is wrong or that you have to look a certain way, physically. I’m trying to draw similarities in the human condition and how that condition interacts with the world and with various belief systems that exist in the world. In The Bible, even Jesus critiques both the Individual and the Structure. He holds to account some of the most marginalized people of the day, as he both defends and critiques women who have committed adultery. Also, he critiques the Jewish Religious Leaders. Granted, this is an extremely patriarchal time in an ancient world dominated by men, but, I wonder if Jesus in some ways represents a social conscious that asks for criticism of self, that leads to the courage, humility, and authority, to criticize the system that the self exists in?
What About Black Excellence?
I worked for Tacoma Public Schools for a brief period of time. I was sitting in a staff training one day and we reached a point where we were going over statistics for incarceration rates of black males. I was in a room full of white people and I expressed frustration. Why? I’m so tired of being told how much of a statistical unlikelihood I am. I’m so tired feeling like my skin color has predestined me to a bleak hopeless future. Even if it’s not the narrative that’s meant and even if it’s done in efforts to foster empathy and compassion, it’s been a one sided story my whole life.
When I was growing up in the 90’s there was often a critique of media representation of blacks. On TV we were poor, or thugs, on drugs, on welfare etc. There was frustration with being depicted that way. But now, we as a society seem to be obsessed with the statistical likelihood of these outcomes as a reality for black folks. In a weird way it validates that media depiction that so many black folks were frustrated with back in the 90’s.
Why can’t we at least present the statistics along side the study, examination, and promotion of habits/mentalities related to examples of black excellence? Why can’t we study Black CEO’s, Black Civil Rights Leaders, Black Athlete’s/Entertainer’s and ask how we can scale their habits/behaviors for the good of black people and humanity as a whole? Why do I have to be constantly reminded that my skin color is correlated with destitution?
Furthermore, why is my attempt at scaling a mentality of resilience and ownership seen as ‘blaming the victim’? Again, it’s ironic, but I have a theory that heterosexual white males will actually continue to outpace other demographic groups simply because no one gives them an excuse for their situation. If I’m not allowed to critique my circumstances then the only thing that’s left to do is work to improve them. However, this ignores the suffering of some people, which is problematic. Being heterosexual, white, and male doesn’t absolve a person from suffering. It seems like some of us want empathy from white folks while not showing any empathy to white folks. Again, mind boggling.
The New Fundamentalism
I’m not where I want to be because of my age. I’m not where I want to be because of capitalism. I’m not where I want to be because of God. I’m not where I want to be because of the Devil. I’m not where I want to be because of systemic racism. I’m not where I want to be because of white people. I’m not where I want to be because of black people. I’m not where I want to be because immigrants are taking all the jobs. I’m not where I want to be because of our healthcare system. I’m not where I want to be because I was abused. I’m not where I want to be because I have PTSD from war. I’m not where I want to be because my family didn’t support me. I’m not where I want to be because my spouse isn’t supportive. I’m not where I want to be because I have kids…
Do you see the similarity? Systems should be critiqued in balance with and, perhaps, far after we critique ourselves. The new religion is an old human problem. Taking ownership is painful. Freedom requires something of those who have it. Life has ugliness, nothing is promised, and even with the best of intentions, we still manage to hurt one another.
What do we do? We take a moment to face inward and begin the ongoing work of putting our individual selves together. I suppose you can be in a stronger position to critique systems when you’re healthy and financially stable. It’s a lot easier to criticize your employer if you’re not scared to lose your job because you have prudently saved money. It’s a lot easier to walk away from an abusive relationship if you understand your self worth and have seen your ability to stand on your own two feet. It’s a lot easier to not be a victim to predatory lending practices when you have dealt with and disciplined your own greed and materialism. It is a lot easier to be committed to long term cultural and systemic change when you have freed yourself from the pitfalls related to short term gratification.
Take responsibility for yourself.
PS – This is the first of at least 2 posts that examines this issue. We’ll see how many I crank out.
Also, here’s the link to the Zoom Presentation I did for Bellarmine Prep for Veteran’s Day.