Brighter Than Today

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



Yesterday was the winter solstice. While the solstice has significance in many religions, it has always been a powerful secular symbol to me. The solstice is literally the darkest day of the year. While a powerful metaphor in itself, darkness and cold have real consequences. There is seasonal affective disorder, the cold prevents me from doing a lot of my favorite outdoor activities, and there are even links between emotional warmth and physical warmth.

Winter is also a dark time in other ways. December is prime breakup season. The winter holidays are a stressful time for many people. The new year is often a source of disappointment as we inventory our goals from the previous year and realize how short we’ve fallen. There is often family drama. For atheists, this time of year can be especially isolating as overt displays of religion reach an all-time high, especially among those who have religious families.

The solstice has meaning before me because it means that, though the world is wreathed in maximum darkness, every day for the next six months will be slightly, imperceptibly, but undeniably brighter. It means that every day is the brightest it’s been since December 21st. It means that we have 365 full days before the world is ever this dark again. To me, the solstice marks the turning point from things getting worse to things getting better.

Last weekend, I attended Brighter Than Today: A Secular Solstice in New York City. It was a celebration of secular values through music and storytelling. While I had some criticisms of the event, I truly enjoyed being able to spend the solstice with a group of like-minded people (including my partners and some of my favorite people from the community) celebrating secular values like togetherness, hope, and beauty. I recommend that anyone who can make it next year, do so.

I want to wish everyone a happy solstice, and to remind you that no matter what, tomorrow will be brighter than today.

Regression towards the mean (a rant)

All cultures have traditions, values, means of communication, etc.  All of these, and more, help define meaning and appropriate behavior for the group of people that interact with that culture.  It sets values for moral behavior, words for communication, and expectations to evaluate your decisions and circumstances against.  It gives you a set of standards to compare how well you’re doing in your process of personal growth.  Culture creates a filter through which we define what is good personal growth.  The problem is that sometimes cultures are bad standards for such things.

What do you do when the values, expectations, and even the very language your culture uses seem, well, wrong? Not all of them, necessarily.  Really, it just takes one value or tradition to create this problem, and I am not sure it is a problem which will ever go away.  We may perpetually, as a species, be evolving and progressing our cultures towards various ideals, assuming we don’t kill each other first.  I’m rarely optimistic.  So, given that, it seems rational to assume that those working for social justice, of all flavors, are the people we should be paying more attention to as members of culture.  But we don’t, because the path of least resistance is easier.  It’s totally understandable, right? Well, it’s certainly human. As if that’s sufficient reason to do something in itself.

(Just another reason I’m a misanthropist and not a fan of humanism; I don’t want humanity to be our example or our standard, I want the ubermensch to be the standard.  I want to transcend mere humanity towards something perpetually better, culturally.  No, not a trans-humanistic future of perfect cuber beings or even Cybermen, but a perpetually improving set of cultures.).

Well, in such cases where we find ourselves dissatisfied with our cultural environment, we have little choice but accept it or to (hopefully) find some other people who feel the same way and create your own sub-culture where we will often have to hide some behaviors so that the normals can go around feeling comfortable with their quaint little lives, unchallenged and sometimes even unaware that challenge is even an option.  And if we, rebels and other hooligans, happen to encroach on their territory (which is everywhere, seemingly), we have to apologize and slink back into our little holes, lest they get offended and have feelings they don’t want to deal with.  Examples? Christian privilege in the Christmas wars, for starters, but also the fear that many polyamorous people have in being discovered by employers, family, etc because of the effect of cultural norms on our legal and practical rights.

And, sometimes, you meet one of these friendly normals who seem to think your little hole in the culture is sort of fascinating and interesting.  They sort of like some of what you have to say, or they have a friend who also has a similar hole and they want to be liberal, open-minded, and accepting but they don’t really feel it deep down the way we do so it always feels like they are merely patronizing.  Because they are patronizing, even if it is also partially genuine (I’ll be clear; sometimes it is actually genuine).  They will occasionally visit your little hole, play around for a while in that hole, but they are not prepared to live their.  In some cases, a person might spend time with the weird people because a friend likes the weird thing or because their partner is weird as well, and they feel like they should be supportive even if they don’t really get it.  I mean, sometimes they do get it, but sometimes not.  Either way, they are not invested in your little cultural oddity, and most of their thinking and feeling is still tied to the mainstream culture in which they live most of their lives.

As we grow up, the things that are meaningful to us are tied to the culture in which we live.  And for most people, that is the mainstream culture.  Generations of people have common cultural items to use as stand-ins for more universal human commonalities, and we latch onto those things.  For many people it is the church they went to, but it could also be the love of popular TV shows, music, or hobbies.  And this is all fine.  The problem is when the things we value and have fond associations with are a part of the problem.  I’ll use a personal example.

When I was in graduate school, I made friends with a fellow graduate student who was the member of a fraternity.  He was very active and loved this fraternity, and he spoke well of it.  Through our friendship, I became fascinated with the ideals and the experience of this group of brothers, and because I valued him and the ideals proposed by the fraternity I decided to join.  I had hoped to meet other people who shared certain values with me and to become part of a group that seemed actually worth-while, rather than the ones I had seen elsewhere.  It was against my general nature of not being the type who joined things like this; I never went to church (willingly), I have never been enamored by any particular political party, and I had some prejudices about fraternities.

Upon joining, I slowly but inevitably saw the private, secret rituals of the fraternity as well as how my new ‘brothers’ really were, and things started to sour.  I learned, quickly, that the role of the fraternity was exactly like the role of church for most mainstream and normal people.  While in the ritual times and spaces, people tend to be solemn, respectful, and even reflective.  But as soon as they leave, the ideals (for most of them), go by the wayside.  Then I saw that people were sort of douchebags, just like everywhere else.  On top of that, the ideal that the fraternity upheld were available without the fraternity; just like with religion.  There was no need to join the fraternity, because I could have the ideals without that particular group of people.

One example always sticks with me.  I had some interaction with the prytanis (president) of the chapter at Drexel University a while ago, during my early days as a volunteer, and it was like talking to any self-serving, arrogant, and self-important douchebag I have ever had the displeasure of talking with. The values of the organization do not tend to filter down to the members.  So it is with such things.  This, and other things I learned during my brief activity (you are a brother for life, after all), showed me that no matter how good the ideals of a community, or culture, are, those ideals won’t translate.  You don’t have to be a member to share the ideals, and if you do become a member you won’t necessarily meet better people.  Unfortunately, this truth carries through to all of my experiences with groups of all kinds, including the atheist community.  I have many friends in the atheist community, but it is full of many douchebags as well.  The Polyamorous community is a little better.

So, it’s even worse when even the ideals of a community, group, or culture are not, well, ideal. Take the ideals of love and romance in our culture to start with.  Most people associate love with concepts of possessiveness and jealousy as a positive sign of love being ‘real’.  But those are the ideals of love and romance in our culture in general, whether we like it or not.  It might be changing slowly, but that’s where it seems to be for most people.  Those of us who are polyamorous tend to recognize that those values are broken, and see love as expansive and less limiting (it’s not actually infinite, because nothing is.).  But from the point of view of someone steeped in  mainstream culture, we poly people often look like we’re crazy, or at least playing with fire (which is also fun).  We are, after all, intentionally breaking the expectations of the culture they live in and value.  I mean, it’s one thing to cheat, but at least the normal monogamously-inclined cheater has the ideal of exclusivity, possessiveness, and jealousy…I mean, true love and romance…as a goal.  At least those cheaters are (generally) trying to do things right, but they keep messing it up because they are human.  But to throw away those ideals and love 2 or more people? That’s just nuts.

So when those hangers-on, those people who are, intellectually and theoretically, accepting of us rebels and hooligans (you know, because they are open-minded, liberated people); those people who hang around because they have friends who are also weird; those who hang around because the person they are dating wants to be part of it, even if they are unsure about it.  When those people start to really face the hard parts of being an adult and dealing with the real complexities of attraction, jealousy, envy, time-management, trust, etc what do they do? Well, they tend to regress towards the cultural expectations. The average. The ‘mean’.

Monogamy as an expected ideal, as it is in our culture, is not a healthy value to defend and to default towards.  I recognize that some people will be truly happy and fulfilled in monogamous situations, but as a default this ideal is broken when held against the shape of human desires, capabilities, and actual behavior.  When you have millions of people nourished with in a set of values around love, relationships, and sex which imply the expectations of monogamy, their emotions and thus their opinions latch onto those ideals.  Subsequently, due to various cognitive biases and imperfections, they are offended by opposing values which may actually be superior (either generally or for them specifically).  So when some of those people are exposed to polyamory, even if they are willing to accept or even try it, their emotions are still tied to the ideals of love, relationships, and sexuality which make polyamory seem wrong, impractical, or “not for me.”

Let’s use another example, not from myself but based, in part, on someone I have known all of my life.

If someone grows up going to church, loving the music, the community, etc, they will attach emotional significance to much of the tradition and ritual.  They have emotional bonds to the sounds, smells, architecture, etc.  For someone like this, being in their religious space brings to mind good feelings, memories, etc which cannot be replaced, but which are valued by them whether they would choose to value them or not.  If they start to disbelieve in any or all of the doctrines of the church, those feelings don’t go away.  So even if they leave the church, they seek out some sort of substitute, or create atheist churches (*gag*).  And from time to time, they will think about and miss what they left.  Their emotions bond to such sounds, smells, images etc which they formed in those places while they developed as people.  And sometimes, especially if they experience trauma, hard time, etc, they go back.  They regress.

The same thing often  happens to people who are interested in, or try, polyamory.  It gets hard, their emotions–which were tied with ideas about love and security which are antithetical to being polyamorous–pull them towards the cultural norm.  It’s the path of least resistance, after all, to appear normal.  it’s even easier to actually just be normal.  Polyamory is not normal (and it may never be).  The normal alternatives, whether monogamy, serial monogamy, or even swinging (which is, let’s be honest, just couples who like to fuck other people sometimes, and not a real challenge to the fundamental norms of couple-based relationships) requires less personal struggle and work, it’s easier to explain to co-workers and family, and it does not force you to grow.  Growing is hard, fitting in is easier.

And we as sensitive, caring, and mature people, are supposed to sympathize with their struggle when they regress in such ways.  We are supposed to allow them to go the path they want with our blessings and support, because their life is theirs.  Well, sure it is, but that does not mean that the decision to regress towards the norm is not often based on some fear, unwillingness to be challenged, and even cowardice.  That does not mean we have to actually agree with them.  Also, it does not mean we have to respect their decision.  We are supposed to not challenge them when shit gets hard for them because shit is already hard for them, I understand.  We are supposed to be patient (and some patience is fair to ask for, but their must be a limit).  We are supposed to not rock the boat.  We are supposed to behave ourselves. we are supposed to know our place.  Our place is not to question the norm. Most people will defend their norms all day and all night because it is comfortable, and they will do it with a smile and get offended when you find them ridiculous, because they are so conditioned to see it as right even if it might not be.

They are so easily offended, those open-minded, liberated, progressive normal people.  Not to mention the conservatives; they are a whole different problem.  But the liberal-minded mainstream normal people who find us weird people so interesting to hear stories about on NPR or have representative friends to make them seem interesting…. They are very often, to this weird person anyway, quite amusing and interesting.  They are like the Unitarians from the point of view of radical new atheism; not the source of the problem, but not really helping either.  They are just sort of boring, trite, and uninspiring.  They just sort of blend into the background of the culture, which we already (hopefully) agree is not ideal.

And we are supposed to respect them and their lives.

That’s another part of the values of our mainstream culture.  That is the quiet, brilliant lore of mainstream inoffensiveness.  That is what feeds and keeps alive what is wrong with mainstream culture.  Where privilege of all kind lives, it is guarded by the desire to be polite, because being polite is nice and it won’t offend your grandmother or the neighbors.  Where injustice lives, so does the smiling, ubiquitous face of “it’s just how people are” and “live and let live.”  Where cowardice, fear, and conservative tendencies live, so do the values of tradition and “just fitting in”.  And so when shit gets hard, it’s easier to just fall back into the tendencies of the lazy and cowardly culture that we live among and within.  When shit happens, it’s easy to just blend into the background pattern of normal culture, and appear as just another person who feels more evolved and liberated because you had this time in college (or whenever) when you tried that weird thing, but it wasn’t for you.  Or perhaps you have some weird friends who are interesting to invite to parties and amaze the other normals with how many interesting people you know.  Don’t I look all open-minded now? Aren’t I a mature and responsible adult? Aren’t I interesting?

Not necessarily.

So this is where I regress to being (a little) mean.  I don’t respect the majority of our culture or its values.  I don’t want to be nice or to sympathize beyond a reasonable level of time to allow you to get used to the culture shock you have when you run into weird people or radical ideas.  I’m willing to allow you some time to calm from your privilege or parochialistic shock, but then I expect you to actually grow up a little or go away where I don’t have to tolerate the inoffensiveness you reek of.  And, unfortunately, most will go away and regress to their mean.  That’s fine, my world is better without you anyway, but I will be disappointed because this reaction is so common.  I’m not going to be nice to you just because you have some emotional attachments to being normal and unchallenged, and you would rather run away or hide behind wanting to fit in or not offend your co-workers or your family for the sake of something that scares you to think about doing.

I’m sympathetic to emotional difficulty when it’s warranted, but the common emotional attachments to a set of values affixed to a broken and stupid culture are not sufficient warrant after a while.  If you are exposed and given time to adjust to the weird alternative to the norm, and you don’t adjust, then I’m no longer sympathetic.  You have time, especially if you have the time to read blogs like this, to think about the nature of our culture and your relationship with it, so do it already and stop being boring.  If you don’t do that work now, then I hope that if you eventually figure out that the (for example) monogamous marriage which you willingly enter, but later find yourself stuck in, was the result of unrealistic expectations about relationships which you learned from our culture, then you will be willing to do the work.  I also hope that you will then be willing to start re-thinking your values and your attachment to the dominant cultural values.

I hope you figure that out before all of that, and I hope that our experiences and insights as (polyamorous, atheist, social justice activist, etc) people, while not perfect (I’m certainly far from it) might be more than mere interest from afar.  Because for many people out there, the weird stuff around them is just a way to play with ideas while not really questioning your very basic values and assumptions in any meaningful way.  Weird sub-cultures and counter-cultures are a sort of cultural clothing that makes our culture look interesting to those living in it, when it is not interesting in itself.  In short, I’m not impressed by your emotional freak out because you are more comfortable with what is normal than with doing the real work to challenge your cultural conventions and assumptions. I’ll be impressed when the freak out happens when you are genuinely trying to adjust to the fact that the dominant culture inculcated so much crap into you and you are trying to change those ideas for better ones, actively, painfully, and most of the time.

I am no longer impressed by the values, methods of solution, or rules of a culture–any culture–which is fundamentally broken as our mainstream Western culture is.  And if you don’t think this mainstream Western culture is broken in many ways, then you might be part part of the problem.

Learning and growing

Sometimes shit gets real.  We all make mistakes, we have people hurt us, and we become emotional and life gets hard.  Welcome to Earth.  Hopefully, we have people close to us who we trust and who trust us despite the fact that mistakes will be made.  Because mistakes will be made.  But what do we do about it?

First, don’t be defensive and don’t beat yourself more than is proportionate.

Start with the assumption that you did something wrong to cause the situation you are currently debugging.  Also, start with the assumption that your super powers for mayhem are not so vast that other people don’t have any responsibility for the circumstances before you, and that you are not completely to blame.  There are some people out there who blame themselves first, and some who blame others first.  In both cases, intelligent people can rationalize their tendency, and we all need to be aware of that.  Otherwise, some people take too much blame, while others will deny theirs (or, more likely, forget about it later).  The truth is important, and we sometimes need to force ourselves to adopt a more objective perspective in order to see around our own biases and faults.

Other people can help us do that, so listen to them.  That leads me to the next piece of advice.

Actively listen.  I don’t mean to merely stop talking, but actively listen rather than defensively react.  I mean shut off your defensive rationalization powers for a little while and accept that what people say might be worth trying to internalize.  The people that know you, love you, and are willing to talk to you when shit gets real are not trying to fuck with your head.  If they are saying that it’s not all your fault, it probably isn’t all your fault (or all your responsibility).  If they are saying you are at fault,  figure out why and what you are going to do about it (insofar as it is your responsibility).

When we are emotional, we are not ideally rational.  We sometimes think we are rational in such cases, especially if we are repressing some tough emotions, but that is a lie our brain tells us when it’s in defense mode.  Insecurity and fear create firewalls and other mechanisms to protect your operating system of a mind in order to (in effect) maintain the part of you that is fucking up.  Our intelligence can too easily be used to conserve the things about us we would ideally like to change.  Realize that, and then keep it in mind for when you plan on upgrading your software.

In other words, don’t let yourself slip back into your standard behavior, since that is likely part of the cause.  When the battle or war is over, we don’t necessarily go home and keep on keeping on, because that might have been part of what started the fighting.  You absolutely must realize that our normal, every-day behavior is probably the cause of some future tension, because it is bothering or hurting someone else.  And if you don’t think or care about this, then your fault compounds the longer you ignore this.  This leads me to another piece of advice.

Try and identify the cause of the mistake.  All too often, we address the symptoms of the problem, rather that honestly deal with the underlying cause.  All too often, the cause is fear, insecurity, and related daemons.  And when the smoke clears, and those feelings are not banging on the door, we forget that they still exist, quietly, under the surface.  If, like me, you spent years learning to meditate and to be always aware of the daemons running under most of your daily noise (as much as possible, anyway), you will know that those daemons are always nearby and are just waiting to be called into action by circumstances; triggers.  If you have not done that work, you may be completely oblivious to your own daemons.  But I guarantee you that other people close to you are aware of them, and probably know some of your triggers (to avoid them, mostly to keep you from freaking out and making shit get get).

Triggers can be just about anything.  They can be a tone of voice, a smell, a word, a type of social interaction, etc.  For me, it is things like lack of consideration of my time and space (especially by people close to me).  It is also being restrained for no reason.  What do you mean I can’t be critical of religion? Fuck you and your gods! What do you mean I can’t love more than one person and manage a relationship with them? Fuck you and your monogamy! What do you mean I can’t rob that bank? Fuck you and your laws!

OK, maybe not so much that last one.  Morality, after all, is superior to even my own personal desire for bank-robbing.  For me, the rank of considerations are: 1) Morality 2) interpersonal considerations (things like consent, preferences of people around me as well as my own) and 3) law.  And really, I only care about the law insofar as it is a legislation of morality.  The reason I don’t go through red lights has much more to do with concerns for efficiency and considerations for safety than it has to do with the fact that it’s a moving violation.  If there were no fine, I would still not do it in the vast majority of cases.


Our emotions, whether marinated in fear or whatever else, are responsible for more of our behavior than even the most intelligent and rational of us realize.  We are never fully (or perhaps even mostly) free from emotional influence.  In my case (having Borderline Personality Disorder), the effects are more severe and worrisome, but that only means that I deal with it all the time rather than only occasionally.  Most of us have the capability of losing our shit and making (and often rationalizing) bad decisions.

What is important is not merely sliding by and going back to normal after things calm down.  We need to remember that the daemon is still running under everything, and it’s only a matter of time before it launches an attack on our executive functions again.  So, after you have dealt with the symptoms, go back and dig deep into yourself and figure out the nature of the cause.  Be willing to give up your habits of behavior, even your deepest preferences, because they might be the causes.  You might have to change drastically, especially if you don’t want to.

I am not the same man I was 10 years ago.  I have made mistakes which have alienated me from people I loved in the past, and I spent the time to make huge changes in my ability to communicate, deal with difficult feelings, etc.  And there is still much more for me to do.  I will never stop evolving and changing based on what I learn, especially from my mistakes.  But I had to first learn that it was possible that everything I believed was wrong.  I had to start, like a skeptic, to question even my own deepest values.  I had to be willing to, as Nietzsche called it, be an archaeologist of my own soul, and dig out artifacts that were not mine so much as they were influencing the culture of my own mind in ways I didn’t like or fully understand.

It would have been much easier to remain the selfish, manipulative, and rationalizing person I sometimes was while younger (not always, mind you).  I could have kept moving down another path of growth (or lack of growth) and subsequently turned into a man I would not have been happy being, but who also would have been more acceptable to our culture (because I would have been ‘monogamous’ and otherwise mainstream).  In our culture, it is easier to be a manipulative cheater than responsibly polyamorous.  It is more acceptable to be defensive and “respectful” of religion, rationalizing the cognitive dissonances so many people carry, than to be an honest critic.

It is easier to not grow, than to do the real work of growth.  Because not doing real personal work towards growing is so common in our culture that it often looks like it is a value of our culture, rather than a plague.    Because we are so good at pretending to grow and change while only doing enough to pass, that we end up stagnating.  For real growth, we need to sometimes dig deeper than we are comfortable doing, and challenge every aspect of our behavior and beliefs.  We can’t hide behind excuses.  We have to do it openly, and make ourselves vulnerable.

All too often we don’t do this–myself included!–all because of fear and insecurity.  We call it protecting ourselves or something like that, but it’s just an excuse, a rationalization, because it’s scary.  No shit it’s scary.

So, let’s be scared together, rather than be scared separately.


Why knot – Breaking the Silence of Monogamy (upcoming documentary)

I was contacted by Dhruv Dhawan from Film-Real about a documentary entitled Why knot, which has a page at indiegogo, where they are trying to raise funds to complete the project.

As the indiegogo page says,

This film’s objective is not to advocate for or against monogamy, but to break the silence and provoke thoughts on an issue which affects so many relationships and families today.

Our vision is to empower relationships and to encourage communication within, hoping that one day, infidelity and the containment of our desires may only be a remnant of human history.

which I think is a good conversation for humans to be having.  Much like religion, monogamy often gets a free pass in our culture, and it seems that pass is also present in other cultures (being that this is a project originates in India).

From the email:

The director is an acclaimed filmmaker ( who has been researching this film for 5 years and shooting for the past 2. Dhruv completed his BA in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Film Production at the University of British Columbia. Through his latest film, WHYKNOT, Dhruv aims to break the silence on monogamy and question whether we as humans can resolve conflicts between our instincts and our morals.

Why Knot is a journey through the intellectual and emotional landscape of monogamy which features prominent scientists in the field and members from Dhruv’s personal sphere. During the production of the film we had the privilege to interview and research several polyamorous individuals and communities and take into account their insights and opinions. We would love to hear what you think/feel about the film trailer, so do spare us 4 minutes and give it a watch! Go on, Why Knot 🙂

Here is the trailer:

It looks interesting and promising, and I hope it gets fully funded. If you want to and are able to contribute to the project, head on over and do so now.