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Bouquets, brickbats, and trusting the untrustworthy May 24, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Personal.
Tags: , , ,

[TW: Abuse]

There is a distinction between trusting a person and trusting their ideas. Even the worst people can be right, even if they use the truth as a weapon. If you seek true understanding, it is worth paying attention to the criticism we receive, even if that bouquet of criticism is delivered with brickbats.

I have always been a person who is interested in self-improvement and introspective knowledge. This set of self-challenging ideals has been a large source of motivation for myself over the years, and it is not something which is likely to change. This predilection had led me to gain some fairly significant insight into not only myself, but of the people around me. The more intimate I am with them, the more I understand them. And while I’m nowhere near always right, the value here comes in that we have the ability to see where others cannot. Being even partially right where another cannot see at all is better than the myopia that would result in ignoring that perspective completely.

The knowledge gained from these perspectives can be used in ways that are loving, and ways that are not. And depending on all sorts of factors, such as our own emotional maturity, levels of selfishness and security, etc, that knowledge can be used in a myriad of ways both good and bad. If a person severely hurt, depressed, or otherwise behaviorally compromised then that understanding can become a weapon. It’s a part of being human.

And sometimes shit gets hard, and when we’re afraid and hurt what we know can become clothed in the ability to hurt other people. When this happens to me, for example, my intellectual understanding does not simply go away, it just gets loaded into a (metaphorical) gun. I’ve been hurt (let’s say), some way or another, and I know something relevant to the situation or to the person involved. And now I’m going to use that knowledge to re-direct that pain. I’m going to take that truth, wrap it in a napkin of my pain, and I’m going to show the person who hurt me how I feel.

It’s an unhealthy reaction, but it is a human one. I do not believe that this ability, propensity, and even occasional desire is unique or even rare; I think it’s part of being human, especially during difficult times in our lives. And when times get difficult, people hurt each other. And when people hurt each other, the ability to see nuance, truth, and even to recognize the truth in what people say is lost in the mire of that pain.

This is very unfortunate, and I believe that it is a mistake to ignore or distrust an idea simply because of it’s source. Skepticism asks us to seek evidence, and sometimes data comes from places that we may wish we had never gone, but it is data nonetheless. Ignoring an idea simply because the way it reached us was painful is a reactionary and emotional response, not a skeptical one.

When we dismiss a person, even the truth that they might have had for us gets thrown away as well. In my darkest moments, when I’m least certain, I might think that a person who has criticized me cruelly is completely right about me. But this is merely one side of a spectrum. Because other times, when feeling more secure, I think that that person is completely wrong, and therefore I don’t need to keep in consideration their opinion. How are these two things not the same error?

While we all can mock the words of a person we have dismissed as deplorable (and often for good reason), might it be that those words might have something to teach us, and that we are only dismissing them because those words were wrapped in pain and weaponized?

Is it possible to learn from the content of painful words, even from painful people? Can even pacifists learn from the technology of war?


Blind Spots and Bad Drivers

No matter how self-aware I am or become, there are always aspects of myself that I cannot see, at least not well.  As I go through my life, I have built up habits which, as I “drive”through life I cannot see unless I specifically turn my attention to them. But I have to be willing to look at at them.  And sometimes it’s painful to look in that direction, because that section of my universe may have emotional associations which I prefer to avoid, ignore, or forget.

It’s quite easy to forget (or to avoid) to look in that direction, as a result. It’s much more pleasant, and easier, not to. As an actively defensive driver (and yes, this is somewhat of a metaphor as well), I will keep an eye, sometimes, on where cars are relative to me and anticipate when a car is moving into my blind spots. Thus, sometimes I know a car is there even if I am not looking. But my attention is not perfect, and so if I plan on changing lanes, I need to peek anyway.

Especially if I’m tired, hurt, or otherwise emotionally distracted. I need to build up the habit to check where I can only see when I intentionally move my attention. And sometimes I need other people, even ones I may not like, to help me see those blind spots. Because quite often the people we clash with see things within ourselves that we do not like to see, and whether or not we trust their intentions, their perspective can often see what we cannot.

But here we need to be careful, because there are people who want to manipulate, control, and influence us in a direction that is not necessarily in our favor. There are people in the world who, despite being able to see some of the problems with our behavior and may, potentially, have something to teach us, they are more focused on their own interests to actually help us. They might tell us there is something in that blind spot which is not there (they may be projecting or are directly trying to deceive us). They may not tell you there is something there because they may think it’s not a big deal or whatever. Or, they just may not see it either, and are just as blind to that spot as you are.

And such people may leave us hurt, traumatized, and possibly less trusting. In those cases, we are then subject to over-compensating and becoming too focused on our own perspectives, and then we start to change lanes without looking. Trusting our own judgment is good, but sometimes it is the judgment of others, especially those who have hurt us, which we need especially because it is painful. There is a reason certain things are painful, and sometimes it’s because some truth is painful. In order to grow, we need to look at difficult truths and be willing to make effort to understand. Growth does not come from personal avoidance and people willing to simply be content with your own parochial myopia. Love and friendship is not merely celebrating what’s important to you, what you want, and what you can see. That is much closer to submissiveness to a quasi-narcissism than to love.

Challenge v. Control

I’ve been through, in my life, many experiences where people attempted (and often succeeded) to control me. I am also guilty of, in moments of fear, insecurity, and uncertainty, attempting (and sometimes succeeding) to control other people. I don’t like doing it, at all. I don’t want to do it, either. However, it’s part of the human dynamic and the distinction between the desire to help and to control is sometimes a very fine line, one which sometimes even the person perpetrating the advice/control cannot see. Navigating such treacherous waters is difficult on all sides, and only a few people actually want to and enjoy the kind of intentional manipulation of that control.

And when a person has found themselves in the position of being controlled, manipulated, and influenced too much, the reaction is often to become less accepting of opinion, of trying to trust their own instincts, and to sometimes close themselves off to what people who have hurt them have to say. And in many cases, this is for very good reason. But I am of the (probably controversial) opinion that it is especially the people who have hurt us that have the most to teach us.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that people who are abusive and controlling are right, especially about our character. What I am saying is that often pain comes from truth, even if that truth is twisted and deformed for the purposes of that control and abuse. The affect such people often have on us is so real because a true thing has been used as a weapon.  The fact that a hammer can be used to hurt or kill does not invalidate the usefulness of the hammer in building all sorts of things.

The Devil will often use the truth, whether for a greater lie or for the sake of power, as it is said. But we are not talking about the Devil (and even if we were, in Jewish/Christian mythology, the Devil is merely an interlocutor and questioner of God, not a psychopath or even evil), we are talking about people.  Of course, if a person is overwhelmingly using their hammer to attack rather than to build, then that person probably should not be trusted. But ignoring and invalidating everything such a person would say is akin to eliminating hammers in your life, rather than unwieldy carpenters.

Having been the receiver of a lot of criticism based upon some truth, it is hard to hear the parts that are true and to disregard the parts which are interpretation, attempts to hurt and control, and the parts which are not true. Being human, I have flaws and have made mistakes in my life. But I will not ignore or dismiss the words of critics and ideas whole-cloth, because to do so opens me up to the possibility of conflating the message with the messenger. Even an abusive person, in using abusive words and actions, may have some insight worth paying attention to (even if they don’t follow it themselves).

I don’t want anyone to be coerced, controlled, or abused, but I also don’t want people to shrink into their shells and accept only words from people who are willing to coddle them and not challenge their comfort zone. That is not love, that is how growth stagnates. There is a very difficult rope to walk on between self-absorbed obliviousness and accepting victimhood. One of the questiona I keep asking myself recently is whether one’s own obliviousness, self-absorption, and arrogance (sometimes framed as confidence or strength of will) is any better, in the long run, to being subject to the coercion and abuse from others. Either way, you are letting a limited perspective control you.

Trusting my own judgment and instincts is only in tension with, and not in contradiction to, hearing the criticisms of friends, acquaintance, or even foes. This is because even if I cannot trust a person’s intentions or motivations, sometimes I must trust their ability to see my blind spots when I can’t.

Therefore, I pay attention to criticisms, even from those I consider to be not trustworthy. I do not seek to internalize the ideas of abusive people, but to ignore their perspective seems equally problematic. The error in abusive control comes in the abuse, not necessarily the content. If abusive people could learn to find loving ways to show us what we cannot see, then nobody would need to shy away from their knowledge.

And this is as true of me as it is of anyone. My struggle is to find ways to share my perspective in ways that are not hurtful, and to understand the knowledge that even abusive people might have to teach me. I trust my judgment, but my judgment is limited. Those who can see some things that I can see, and some of those people are truly assholes, must complement what I can already see, or I risk the blindness and myopia that follows fear and mistrust.

Misanthropy no more! (part 2) August 22, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In Part 1 of this long essay I talked about how I have, previously, considered myself a misanthrope.  I used the mythology of Star Wars, specifically the Jedi/Sith division, to illustrate two types of approaches to making judgments about ourselves and others, based upon the differences in approaches which such divisions display. I called them the “good” and “bad,” with the scare quotes because neither is strictly good nor bad in themselves, because that is how we, culturally, tend to identify them, based upon our cultural traditions based in part upon Christian ideas. The distinction, between humility and confidence, is one of a healthy continuum but which has the capability to be expanded into self-deprecation and arrogance, which are not healthy.

From there, I want to deal with what I will call the ugly and the beautiful, which I will hope to illustrate below.


The ugly

The devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape.


The gravity of both humility and confidence, if tempered, are not dangerous nor unhealthy by themselves. But if not tempered either can be used by other attributes within us, and they can either cultivate a manipulating or a manipulated set of behaviors.  If intentionally cultivated towards the excesses of self-deprecation (especially if hidden within false empowerment) or arrogance (especially if hidden from any self-doubt), it can lead to disconnection from people, dislike (of others and/or ourselves), and possibly delusions of superiority or lack of self-worth.

The ugly does not seek to empower others, nor even ourselves, necessarily. At best, the ugly is merely a kind of blindness, both of others but more importantly of ourselves. But at its worst the ugly is intentional and uncaring; a targeted, intelligent, manipulation of not only facts, but a cold indifference to the actual nature of people and who they are, in the name of making them useful to one’s selfish desires. At worst, the ugly is nihilism incarnate, sucking on the apathy, fear, and hatred in the world like a predatory vampire.

At best the ugly is a mistake of perception and self-delusion, and at worst it derives from the uncaring sociopathic or psychopathic potential within many of us to not even care what people actually are, so long as they are means towards some selfish end. And, what’s worse, is that sometimes this ugliness can hide in plain sight; the devil often assumes a pleasing shape, so says Shakespeare, influenced by Christian mythology..

The ugly is not stupidity, ignorance, nor lack of power. The ugly is also not intelligence, understanding, nor power itself. The ugly is (in part, at least) apathy, nihilism, and isolation which has the capability of pulling us towards the ascetic self-deprecation of unworthiness or the greedy self-indulgence of feelings of superiority over others. Sometimes, it manages to do both in the same person, perhaps played out in the confused sense of unworthiness covered by delusions of superiority, as a sort of defense against the unpleasant uncertainty and nuance of one’s self-image.

Our various abilities to empathize, sympathize, and to maintain compassion differs based upon physiological factors we did not choose. We are, in a sense, thrown into the world, stuck within the wetware of our brains and forced to make sense of it all, unable to escape the perspective which such physicality insists upon us. And it is through this physiological computer that we comprehend and structure our worldview.  Our lens to the world is this physiology which we did not choose, and so it is no surprise that when we have different wetware we develop different software–by that I mean our ideas, perceptions, and character.

Differences in perspective and worldview are not just about ideas. In many ways, it’s about how, and by what physical processes, those ideas formed. Understanding of others, especially empathy, is the only means we have to close this gap in difference and to create concepts of morality, interpersonal understanding, or even love. Without empathy, we can only maintain shadows of these feelings; rules/obligation, judgment, and requited, often co-dependent, desires.

When we meet others with a different kind of brain it can look confusing and overwhelming to us, and we may not understand the nature of the difference. If person A was born with a natural ability to empathize, such a person will be less likely to manipulate and more likely to be manipulated. If person B has little ability to empathize, they are more likely to not even notice, or care, that they manipulate, and are probably harder to manipulate. And, of course, their ability to manipulate is tied to how much attention they pay to understanding other people, and I wonder if it might be the case that when they learn how to manipulate, they think they are doing what naturally empathetic people do.

This is a disquieting thought, for me.

And, of course, most people are in the gray areas between the super-empathetic and those who struggle to even comprehend the concept of empathy. For most people there is a continuum. For most people, the ability to manipulate, understand, judge, and feel compassion for others depends more on mood, experience, and the specific people we associate with as much as physiology. For most of us, there is a real struggle for the ugly (or the beautiful) within ourselves and from external sources.

Therefore, for most people the ugly is one string tugging their behavior in one direction or another, including how they feel about other people. It is a temporary influence which, in more healthy times, may fade into the background and become largely impotent while it gives way to other attributes. But for others, I think, this ugly is the primary, and perhaps in some cases the only, string which pulls them.

Such people simply may not understand the concepts or experience of empathetic and compassionate concern for other people. And if they do, they might not care or see them as weaknesses or hooks to pull people around by.

And then such people become the source of the strings of others, pulling them towards this ugliness. They become one source of misanthropy, collecting people mired in anger, hatred, and judgment temporarily.  Often, they collect as many people as they can, so long as they are useful, especially if such people are willing to exist around this misanthropy due to cowardice, apathy, or through being led to believe that they might be an exception to such misanthropy–a nice thought, to be an exception! The longer such people remain in such quarters, the longer it feels natural, normal, and even superior.

Such un-empathetic people, largely functional because they grew up adjusting to the world in the way their brain works, may eventually become aware of the difference between them and others and intentionally use their practiced skill of emulating empathy, love, and understanding to get what they want. In some sense, they may even believe that are being empathetic, that they understand, and that they actually are superior.

Telling the difference between such a person and someone who is clueless, insecure, or narcissistic is often difficult. Being clueless, insecure, or narcissistic are forgivable, but being intentionally manipulative, dishonest (especially while claiming honesty as a value), and using people insofar as they are useful is not.

Such people are largely incapable of actually caring for anyone except for how those people add or take away from their own selfish desires. Such people will collect misanthropes, the insecure, and even social justice warriors. Such people know how to blend in, learn the ropes, and fall within the scope of acceptability for such people with misanthropic tendencies. They can blend in, like a chameleon, so long as they are getting what they want from the people around them, all the while stroking the parts of them which brings out the judgment, criticism, and anger.

Such things, useful tools they are, can be manipulated by our own minds or by others who reinforce them.

Such people perpetuate the judgmental, critical, and angry sources of distrust, dislike, and disregard of other people. Such people are the nexus of misanthropy. I am as susceptible as anyone to its pull, know the landscape well, and no longer wish to participate in this worldview. I will resist this ugliness within me and around me.

I prefer something else.


The Beautiful

The idyllic tools we focus on, whether the “good” or the “bad” are just that; tools. The ugly can use the tools to encourage and cultivate feelings which separate us from each other, or they could, perhaps choose another path. Beautiful (or as Brene Brown calls them, “Wholehearted”) people (and here I mean beauty in the sense of internal beauty) will not feel compelled to cultivate the separating sense of being superior or entitled. Beautiful people will choose to cultivate compassion, empathy, and will judge with the attempt to understand rather than create distance.

I wish to be a source of encouraging the beautiful in people. I wish to bring out the feelings of care, compassion, and the best within them. I want actual emotional and mental health, not the false-empowering sense of growing towards “superiority,” “power,” or even “righteousness.” We are not necessarily healthy because we feel superior and powerful. Those feelings are a false sense of maturity and growth which accompany a toxic and often abusive dynamic, one which I have seen up-close all too well.

I’d prefer to note but not focus on the flaws I notice in people and look for the strength, maturity, and potential growth behind it.  Rather than focus on feeling superior, perfect, or even more capable, I’d rather behave with patience, attention, and empathy so that I could be satisfied with being enough, at least for right now,and help others feel the same way. I wish to keep growing; to learn more, understand more, and to be a better friend, lover, and partner to people around me. But the desire to be, or at least to be seen as, superior is a distraction from simply being well, healthy, and open to the beauty in other people.

Actually being healthy now is never about being superior, more healthy than other people, and especially not about “winning” in some imagined competition. Being healthy, day-to-day, is more subtle. Being too focused on being better than other people will surely make it hard to see, let alone achieve.

Am I healthy now? I don’t know, and that may not even be the primary concern for actually being healthy. Have I done enough, today, to love myself and others? Am I honest with myself and others? Am I allowing my true feelings and self to emerge from the mire of fear, distrust, and dislike I may feel? Am I allowing myself to care about, more than feel superior to, other people? Is my focus on how we’re alike, or how I might be superior?

At bottom, I don’t know what the beautiful is. It’s harder than the ugly, it seems to me. It takes more courage, vulnerability, and actual strength than simply dismissing other people are not worth my time. Because whether we actually are better than other people doesn’t matter. Arguments about degrees of intelligence, mistakes, blame, maturity levels, and such are missing the point. The point is if that’s the conversation or thoughts you are having, you are perpetuating whatever inequality there might be rather than creating a safe space to cultivate its change.

Because even if someone were superior (whatever that means), the feeling of superiority only widens the separation rather than encourage the closing of that gap. I’ve been on both ends of this perception, and I don’t like the feeling I have had on either side of it. The allure and addiction of the feeling of power which comes along with illusions of superiority are difficult to see past, but I am not superior to those who can’t see past it. The difference really is that I realize that neither of us is inherently superior, which is itself humbling.

I also don’t like the feeling of someone claiming superiority over me. Because even if it isn’t true, it creates a lack of motivation within me (that’s one kind of manipulation this perception causes). It does not make me want to try harder or to even believe in what strengths I have. And even if it were to motivate me, the tone of this motivation often becomes toxic.

At it’s worst, it can compel a desire to reply with my own feelings of superiority. The feelings of pride, power, and the false narrative of superiority then echoes within me, and I find myself becoming competitive, leading to me to want to prove that I’m the superior one. And thus the cycle can begin, unless I am able to activate my ability to be empathetic, patient, and understand what s happening in order to stop it from starting.

Then, the beautiful within me is able to not need to reply. I am enough, I know. I don’t need to be better than this person, nor does this person have any actual power over me just because they feel powerful and superior to me. When I can struggle past their ability to manipulate me, then I feel healthy, happier, and can go on with my day without feeling affected by other people’s misanthropy.

I won’t play that game. I don’t need to, because it’s not a fun game to play and I don’t grow or find health, playing it.


No more misanthropy, for me

Love-and-Hate-love-26960142-332-280Insofar as I don’t like someone, that person has earned it. That should be the standard, I believe. If I don’t like you it’s not that I’m superior, that the world is stupid, or that they have not proven their worthiness to me. If I don’t like someone, they have earned that dislike through their actions towards me or other people. And my like for them will evolve and grow based on how they may change themselves, and so dislike is not universal nor permanent.  I do not desire the toxicity of misanthropy in my life from here on out.

And if you think I’m stupid or clueless for this approach, I guess I’d be interested in why you think that but I would ask you why you insist upon thinking me stupid? Why must your idea be superior to mine? Why must you be right? What’s so wrong about being incorrect? We all do it, and while the truth matters being wrong is not a moral failing and should not be the standard by which we judge a person’s character.

Dislike of people has to be based on specific actions and attributes of those people.  No person knows enough about most people to be able to justifiably, fairly, or wisely judge the characters of so many people, so easily. To be a misanthrope is to judge from the gate, on first impressions, and to assume the worst in people with little to no knowledge or understanding. We should not universalize specific interactions to people in general, and we should err to the side of allowing people to surprise us, just in case our impressions of them are completely wrong.

So, I choose to not allow the feelings of being better, more knowledgeable, more mature, etc to dominate my character because such things are goals (at best) and not the road beneath me. I am not superior to you, but neither are you superior to me.  I do not hate you (the generic you), either.

To all you misanthropes out there, I urge you to try and find the connection you have with other people, rather than what separates you. I have found that even within people whom have hurt me and people I do not like, I find spaces of similarity, commonality, and potential connection. Because of those similarities, I cannot hate them any more than I can hate myself.

Sartre was wrong about at least one thing: Hell isn’t other people.

Other people are reflections of our own selves, and ultimately misanthropy amounts to simple self-hatred hidden behind an attempt to create separation where uncomfortable similarity persists.


A bit of optimism, if I can allow myself to see it July 31, 2014

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: , , , ,

I have a lot of people who love me. I know this, intellectually. Most of the time, I can feel it as well. But sometimes I can’t feel it. Sometimes, my own lies get in the way. My lie, an illusion which obscures reality all too often, is that I’m not worth being loved.

Therapy, over various points in my life, as well as many open conversations with loved ones, has shown me the deep feelings of lack of self-worth which are responsible for this set of experiences, so I have a fairly good grasp of the nature of this problem. But this problem is one that expresses itself in a different way, as a polyamorous person, than it did previous to that. In a strange way, a way which has become a focus for my continuing personal growth, therapy, and knowing myself, the more people in my life who love me, the more my own lack of self-worth becomes exposed.

It’s almost as if hearing, feeling, and seeing acts of love towards me keeps poking at the part of my mind which whispers, perpetually, you don’t deserve this. This voice is not merely the voice of all my past mistakes and transgressions. No, that’s too simple. it’s deeper than that.

The feelings of little self worth are not the result of mistakes I have made, the mistakes I have made ultimately come from this feeling that I do not deserve love. This is an old realization, and implementing the changes which would help heal this wound is not a quick and easy fix. Were I capable of merely snapping my fingers and fixing it, I’d be further lying to myself.

This feeling compels a strong desire to be loved, as a kind of cover or disguise for this feeling, and when I get it I feel guilty as if I had manipulated that love out of people. I have trouble believing, sometimes, that the love I receive is because of who I really am. I don’t really have an alternate explanation for why it exists, but my mind flutters away from this uncertainty and insists that it must be some illusion or lie.

In moments of sober reflection, it becomes repeatedly obvious that this feeling itself is the illusion. The distortion in reality, the lie I tell myself, is the persistent sense of something being wrong with me. Not that I am perfection incarnate (as if that idea had any meaning), but that my lack of self-worth does not spring from anything real. There is a difference between the recognition of responsibility and the illusion of worthlessness.

It’s a very specific kind of illusion, one which not many people share. And for those close to me, understanding that this illusion is persistent and deep is the key to understanding how I hurt. Not understanding this illusion is the first step in mis-attributing my insecurity for something else.

It’s a problem which belongs to me, ultimately. And I’m becoming more and more aware of how used to an environment of cold, persistent, lack of validation I lived in most of my life. I’m coming to the realization that I grew up in a world where vulnerability was seen as weakness, encouragement was rare, and love felt like it was something to be earned, and taken away as punishment if I didn’t follow along the right way.

The polyamorous world is not immune to such things, being full of people. Having the intellectual, cultural, and often selfish insight into the possibility of “loving” more than one person does not imply the necessary creation of an actual healthy environment. A world of transactions, rights, and rules follows from this, all too often.

But, because the polyamorous world is full of people, sometimes it is actually wonderful. The problem for me, right now, is allowing myself to see the good. The other side of that problem is to trust my instincts when I sense something is off. In other words, I need to trust myself, trust other people, and allow what’s happening around me to inform me, rather than the fears in my mind.


Allowing people into my world

Ginny has been having a good summer. She has made, strengthened, and re-connected relationships (we both have) which have extended our immediate group of friends and acquaintances significantly. Our social life has grown, and Ginny has people close to her who are providing her with joy, pleasure, and love.

And this has been an emotional challenge for me, especially since the last few months have been hard, emotionally. All the while this has been happening, that deep and uncertain part of my mind reaches its tendrils up to my consciousness and says she’ll be happier with them, forget about you, and you’ll eventually be alone. But those voices are not reflecting reality. Those voices are dark reminders of the deep places I have been in my life, the fears of loneliness and of the impending solitude of dismissal, separation, and death.

These deep feelings are instincts I desire, very much, to be quiet. Because there is another option, one which will lead to greater happiness, fulfillment, and health. These people are not trying to take anything from me. These people just see what I see; a beautiful, intelligent, and loving woman and they are drawn to her. My feelings of fear, pain, or jealousy are from a place which has no real foundation.

But the fact that they are not real does not mean I can afford to simply ignore them. No, they must be dealt with. They must be communicated. They must be taken into the sunlight, to either whither away and die or to be exposed for what they really are. Only by examining the illusion can we hope to counter it.

So, rather than keep these people at bay, I should be inviting them in. In a non-polyamorous context, these people could be threats (although, not necessarily), but as a polyamorous person I have no immediate reason to fear them. This fear is my illusion insisting itself into quasi-existence, forcing me to move left, right, down, and inward like a puppeteer. And if these people are any possible source for harm, I will see it; not through the hazy fog of fear, but with the sober, intelligent perception of experience.

To allow my experienced perception to operate at full capacity, the haze must be cleared. The shining brightness of daylight, of trusting and open seeing, must not allow the lies to tug at my leg, begging for attention. I must learn to better trust myself. I have cognitive and physical powers which have been honed by time, places, people, and circumstances. The time for fearing has come to an end, and I must move forward believing not only that people love me, but knowing that I love myself.

Because I deserve that. Because we all deserve that. Because the surest way to act such that I wouldn’t deserve that is to believe the lie.

We all have our own lies. Mine is lack of self worth. Finding what our own lies are are the only way to avoid the traps which they set all around us. If you have not yet spotted your own lies, the conclusion is not necessarily that there are no lies to be found. A person who cannot admit to their own flaws, illusions, and insistent uncertainties either cannot see them yet, or the lie covers so much of them that they become lying incarnate. Such people are a danger, ultimately to themselves but in the mean time to people around them.

Luckily, for us, the people we surround ourselves with seem to be aware of their own imperfections. We may not all have solutions, at least not yet, but at least we’re trying to see past our own lies. I cannot say the same for others.

Screw them. There are other people worth my time. I’ll make more effort to not allow my fear become a distance between us.

Welcome, friends!

polymoons, set theory, and boundaries June 12, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
Tags: , , ,
1 comment so far

Ginny and I returned from Austin, Texas yesterday.  Gina, who had been with us for s few days, had returned a few days before that.  Ginny and I had decided to go to Austin for a few reasons.  One, she attended a conference which would be helpful for her academically and (potentially) professionally.  Two, Austin is pretty awesome, and three, there is a very active atheist community there.

Oh, right…we also just got married.  So, it was partially a honeymoon.

So, for those of you not paying full attention, what happened here is that my girlfriend came with us for part of our honeymoon.  In a sense, it became a polymoon.  That’s right folks, a polyamorous honeymoon.

There was some discussion while planning this trip, as to whether it was appropriate to have one’s other significant other (OSO) join them for their honeymoon.  Ginny and I agreed, months before the wedding, that this relationship is not all about us.  Neither of us feel very strongly about the idea of hierarchies in polyamorous relationships, and so there does not need to be a sacred space, time, or vacation that is just about us.  Yes, we wanted some of it to be just about us, but all of it did not need to be so.

At the wedding itself, Gina was not only there, but she was a central part of the party as well as the ceremony, as I chose her to be my signing witness on the license.  For most of my relationship with Gina, she has played a central, integrated, and important part of my life.  So why wouldn’t she come with us to Austin? And being that Austin is one of the best places to hear live music and be around the vagaries of hipster culture, Gina and I had a great time watching ridiculous and down-right awesome live music while enjoying some good local food and drinks.


A new paradigm of relationships

What I am not sure many people fully understand about polyamory, at least as I view it, is that it is not merely about adding relationships to our lives.  It isn’t merely having a girlfriend and a wife (in my case).  It’s about discarding the very foundation of traditional monogamous culture.  It’s about saying that there may, in fact, be something fundamentally broken about the way our culture looks at relationships.

In short, I am trying to destroy so-called “traditional marriage” in our culture.  But more precisely, I’m trying to show that this “traditional” idea is not particularly good nor even very traditional.  It is a broken, largely unhealthy, and unskeptical approach to relationships which does not answer our needs and desires in this short life.  Some changes need to be made, if we are to live this life on our terms, not the terms of obsolete ideas about sex, love, and relationships.

Why do we make the logical leap from “I like this person and want to be with them” to “they are mine, and nobody else can have them”? Well, partially because this is not a logical leap at all, but it is a leap based upon emotions which are largely driven by uncertainty and fear.

Surely, at the beginning of relationships we are often genuinely distracted by the relationship, but why, upon having the relationship mature, do we continue along the path of exclusivity? Why do we seemingly forget that a relationship with another person does not have to be a contract of exclusivity, setting one person above all, forever, forsaking all other loves?

Why do we place other relationships second, third, etc hierarchies below that one special place?  I don’t mean the people we are not very close to or perhaps don’t like; why do friends, other potential love interests, etc all become somehow demoted below that relationship necessarily and automatically?

Don’t get me wrong, when people voluntarily enter into relationships of their choosing, they can do so in any hierarchical fashion they like.  But why (as I ask again and again) is their a default setting to put your significant other into a role of unique importance?  Why can’t anyone else be placed there, or at least near there, as well?

The problem isn’t that people are not more or less important to us and our life, it is that we artificially have a slot for that one special person, when in real life things are not so simple.  There is no reason to have to choose one person to inhabit that special part in our lives.


Poly set theory?

What I offer as an alternative is something like the following.  Let’s think of relationships as fitting into sets. Each set may or may not overlap, especially over time, but they have levels of intimacy, care, and importance attached to them.

  • Let’s start with what I will call strangers.  These are people with whom you interact at a very superficial level, and who you either don’t know or don’t know well. These people are not close to you, you probably don’t know their name, and they are less likely to become part of your life in any meaningful way.
  • Then there is a set of acquaintances.  These are people with whom you share familiarity, but not closeness.   You may like them or you may dislike them.  You may, in fact, like them or hate them a great deal.  They may be people from work, people in your network of social ties, neighbors, or distant relatives you see occasionally.  These people may become close to you under certain situations, but likely only for short periods of time before returning to their relative distance.
  • Also, there is  the set of what I will call platonic friends.  These are people with whom you share commonalities of interest, background, etc and with whom you have no romantic of sexual interest.  You like, possibly love, these people and you enjoy spending time with them and may do so often.  There is no rule that you cannot be lovers with them, but one or both of you is not interested in this arrangement, for whatever reasons, and so you do not.  A good example here is your best friend from high school, college, work, close family members, etc.
  • Then there are your friends, perhaps we could call them poly friends, with who you share romantic, sexual, etc relationships.  These people are not your partners, not in the sense of a “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” kind of way, but they are people with who you have more than a mere friendship.  Whether you do kink scenes with them, have occasional sex, or just like to spend time with them talking, sharing emotional intimacy, etc they are not mere friends, but also lovers and people with whom you share some level of intimacy.  But they don’t quite make the set of partners, significant others, or even spouses.
  • That last set, those with who you are closest and with whom you share highly integrated lives in addition to sexual and/or romantic intimacy are your partners or perhaps your family.  In mainstream relationship culture, this role is set aside of one person, usually your wife, husband, etc.  These are the people with whom you plan long-term lives with.  You consider these people in making life-choices, they know you very well and care for you, and you may hope to spend the rest of your life with them around as part of your life.

But why should this last set, your partners, be defined as being a set of one ideally? What is the rational explanation for this? The fact is that any of these sets can have many or few people in it.  And, I would argue, many forms of polyamory probably maintain the arrangement of that last set being set aside for one person.


Hierarchy in Polyamory

In my experience, many forms of polyamory still include this idea that one person is still relegated to this last set.  Some poly people see the primary relationship as sacred, unique, and other partners should not transgress the boundaries set by a primary partner.  Now, clearly boundaries agreed to are important, but I wonder to what extent those boundaries are necessary or ideal.

The idea that my girlfriend should not join my wife and I on our honeymoon assumes a boundary around such times and places.  It assumes a sacred space into which another person should not tread.  Now, if my wife and I decide to set that boundary, a girlfriend should not cross it, but the question is whether such a boundary should be created.

In polyspeak, are rules and boundaries necessarily a good thing to require, or do they perpetuate the very basis of mainstream monogamous culture?

Basic rules about safety, property, etc are good ideas, but it seems to me that any healthy relationship would not have to enumerate such rules.  Why, for example, would I want to be in a relationship with a person who would flaunt and disregard safety, property, etc?

If a new lover said to me something like “don’t bother with the condom.  I know we haven’t talked about it or cleared it with your partner, but I’m clean and I won’t tell anyone,” then not only am I most-certainly using a condom, but I might decide to discontinue the sexual relationship under some circumstances.

Why? Because it shows that this person cannot be trusted to respect safe sexuality.  How many other partners has this person said that to? How many of them are usually safe? There are too many uncertainties for me to follow this request and still consider myself a loving partner.  It shows that this is a person I should not want to be very close to me because I already know they are willing to lie and deceive.  Such a person could not enter my last set of partner, and may not last long as a poly friend, depending on other factors.

Boundaries are rules that grown organically out of actually loving and being considerate of the people we are with.  It seems to me that to enumerate such rules demonstrates some level of distrust.  And so the more a person moves from one set to another, the less rules should be necessary.  When we have people we wish to think of as partners, family, and spouses, we should not have to have rules so much as respect and good decisions.  We should want to keep them as safe, or safer, than we would be willing to keep ourselves.

Bottom line, Ginny and Gina are my partners.  I trust both of them, even in their times of human weakness and uncertainty.  My life is entangled with both of them, and as a  result their lives will be entangled with each other, and also with the people with who they are entangled.  Therefore, Gina does not need to be relegated to a second-class place in my life any more than I would want to be relegated to a second-class place in hers.

And through this tangled web of sets, a family forms.  Not that we are all extremely close, that we are all necessarily intimate, but that the decisions I make affect them and vice-versa.  Rules and boundaries for such arrangements only betray lack of trust, and I want trust as part of my life.

Poly lessons I learned from cheating while monogamous. May 27, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
Tags: , , ,

This post will be hard for me to write.  It will be difficult because it involves mistakes I have made juxtaposed with ideas about love and polyamory that may come across as crass, cold, and possibly uncaring.  There will undoubtedly be people who read this that think of me as an asshole for the thoughts I will express below, but I think it’s worth exploring these ideas anyway.

After all, it is such experiences which helped give me perspective on polyamory, and perhaps some people will sympathize or have experienced similar things.

So, I have not always been polyamorous.  Well, I suppose somewhere deep down, I have always been predisposed to polyamory, but I have not always practiced polyamory in my relationships.  I discovered it early, being around 20 or so, and while I had a quasi polyamorous relationship back then, I was immature, uninformed, and was not really ready to have very healthy relationships then.

So, after college I was monogamous, serially so anyway.  And during the most serious relationship I was in during my 20’s, I acted badly on at least one occasion.  All of the details of the act are not necessary, but it should be sufficient for me to say that I cheated, hid that act from my girlfriend (with whom I was living at the time), and it was eventually found out.

But I want to focus in on a small part of all of this in order to draw out a lesson I learned about myself, love, and non-monogamy from that time.  This part occurred a long while (I think 6 months or so) before she found out about the act.  It was pretty immediately after the act happened, in fact.  It was the first real opportunity I had to reflect on it in the presence of my girlfriend, and I regret not coming clean at that time, but it’s the past….

I loved her.  In many ways, I still do.  But I truly loved her then and appreciated our relationship and all the wonderful times we had.  Sure, we argued about things like cleaning (she was terribly messy), being on time (She was perpetually late), and so forth, but I loved her genuinely.  The sex was great, she got along with my friends, and I loved being with her.  I found her very attractive, passionate, and there was never a lack of desire from my part.

The cheating act, therefore, was not about lack of attention or satisfaction.  It was just about me being into someone else I had met and with whom I had spent some time in social gatherings  One weekend, the circumstances allowed the possibility to act on it, which I did.  Yes, alcohol was involved, but the responsibility was ours.  We both knew what we were doing was wrong.  We did it anyway.

A couple of days later I was faced with my girlfriend, and I had a choice.  I knew that it would have been easy to get away with what happened, and so while I felt like I should say something, I hesitated.  And so with the intention of sitting her down and telling her, despite knowing it could end the relationship, I found her and could only express a strained but genuine smile.  She was happy.  She was in a great mood, had plans for the day she was excitedly telling me about, and I was genuinely glad to see her.  Yes, the sex had been good with the other girl.  Yes I also liked the other girl.  Yes, I had violated a trust.  Yes, I should have stopped her and said something.

But we were happy. A rationalization for sure, but a true one.

It was at this moment that it fully clicked home for me that there is no contradiction between loving two people.  Or at least loving one person while enjoying sex and intimacy with another person, as I cannot say honestly I was in love with the other girl; that would be a severe stretch of the truth.  We were recent acquaintances, really.  I didn’t know her very well.  But we liked each other, shared attraction, and decided to act on it spontaneously.

I felt the tension of knowing I had acted badly and feeling genuine love for the person whose trust I had violated.  It was guilt mixed with happiness.  I knew, at that moment, that I would be capable of caring for a person deeply and genuinely while also being with someone else.  I knew that polyamory was something I wanted and would be capable of.  The irony of discovering this in the context of doing it all very wrong is not lost on me at all.

We were together for some time after this, even after she found out about the act.  We actually had a polyamorous relationship with another woman later on, which was a fairly successful even if relatively short triad.  The cheating act did create problems, but we worked through them and moved on.  I don’t know if the trust ever fully returned, and the relationship eventually faded until we were friends with benefits, friends, and now there is distance between us.

Now I’m married, and she engaged.  We don’t talk much anymore, but are on friendly terms.  I still love her and care about her, even knowing we cannot work as partners nor, do I think, would either of us want to.  Such is life.


So, here is the thing.  I violated an important trust.  I had sex with another woman while in a monogamous relationship, and after having done so all I could think about was how happy I was with my girlfriend, how much I loved her, and how much I still wanted to be with her. I also thought about how in an ideal world I would continue to see that other girl.  That never happened.  We only saw each other a couple times after that, and eventually job opportunities led her away.

There was no immediate, visceral contradiction there for me.  Yes, there was a tension, but it was mostly fear of losing a person I loved with some guilt for having done it.  But there was no deep feeling of having done something inherently wrong; no feeling that sex with another person while in a relationship was always wrong, just wrong when done in this way.

I was aware of the fact that according to common wisdom there should have been a contradiction there, but it didn’t exist for me.  The tension was all in knowing that I could do it again, at least not in the wrong way.  I wanted to do it in the right way.  And eventually (after she found out) we would start talking about opening up our relationship, and we eventually did decide to become polyamorous.

I was as if, in my mind at that time, I was already polyamorous.  I completely got how one could share and be shared without it being an issue.  The fact that we were not polyamorous at the time, that we had not agreed to share, was a problem that did erode at me, but we continued to be happy.  In fact, later on she did something rather similar with a male friend of hers while visiting home and did disclose it to me immediately.  And it was fine.

It was fine because in my mind I was already willing to share.  I was already geared to have that conversation.  I had already stopped thinking about her as being exclusively mine.  I would love her whether she was with other men (or women) or not.  I loved her because I loved her, not because she loved only me.

Now that I am polyamorous, I experience a similar feeling all the time.  Whether I spend some intimate time with Gina, Ginny, or someone else, if I am to then spend time with my wife or my girlfriend afterwards, I am then focused on them.  The fact that I just had sex with another person cannot touch what I have with them.  What I have with them is special, powerful, and transcends such silly things as where my penis was just a little while ago or whose penis was with them.

Why does that matter? Why should that matter?

And I understood that in that moment I should have disclosed the act, but didn’t.  I rationalized all sorts of reasons why it was better to keep it secret.  I get that even if it didn’t change how I felt or that it really should not matter, I should have disclosed.  And now I do disclose.  If I am with someone else, Ginny and Gina usually know that it is a fair possibility before it happens.  And if it does happen, they know.

And I still love them both, am happy with them both, and all is transparent.

What I learned was that sex and other people cannot damage relationships in themselves.  Relationships fall or stand on their own merits.  If your relationship is strong, it can withstand external intimacy.  If your relationships have weaknesses, those external intimacies will become a lightning rod for those weaknesses, but are not necessarily the cause of them.

So yes, cheating is a violation of trust.  But it is not the act, the sex, that does the damage.  The damage is the violation of trust.  That was a distinction I learned that day, and have ever forgotten.

Of anniversary and double entrendre January 16, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , ,

It may be arbitrary to some degree, but a year is a year (is a year? How much repetition distinguishes an idiom from redundancy?), and it has been a year.

And digressing thoughts aside (as well as regressive digressions about digressions), perhaps this post could use some context. After all, I do not think it that it is common for people to celebrate arbitrary dates and celebrate (or mourn) random days. Not that I have never been known to do uncommon things, mind you, but not even I am that abnormal…I think.

So, back on October of 2009, I moved to Atlanta with a girl names Seana. We met in Philadelphia, began dating, and when she was offered a job in Atlanta she took it and asked me to join her. I, not having a job at the time and wanting to experience life in another part of the country (and eventually the world), decided to take the risk and go. Risk being the word which has emotional import to this blogger.

So, a few months later things were not going so well, we had a minor argument, and she left. She did not give me an explanation, she refused to speak to me again, and was just gone from my life. That was January 16th 2010, one year ago today.  Happy anniversary to me!  But one does not usually commemorate dates of break-ups, at least if one is to be considered emotionally healthy, and likewise that is not the intention here.

While the circumstances of this painful break-up were non-typical in themselves, what happened next was what more appropriately makes this an anniversary…perhaps…that’s an issue for debate.

That very same day, being emotionally distraught and in need of distraction, I called two friends I had made while in Atlanta. I met them at The Brick Store (if you ever visit Atlanta and you love beer, you must visit this place!) and had a few drinks, distracted myself, and had a few laughs.  One of those friends was a girl I had met a week before, Ginny, and in my anguish and confusion I found myself attracted to her, and things went their natural way as they do with people in such circumstances.  Thus, another kind of anniversary, on the same day.

But that is not quite right.  Despite this start, it took time to heal, and in that time Ginny was the best of friends, most trusted confidant, and eventually we began to see ourselves as partners (polyamorous partners, of course), and I fell in love with her.  But the ability to trust, to love, and to move on after such a wound takes time.  She was patient, and in time I, even with the scars that still exist, have found that I have been able to trust, to love, and to look forward to a better future.

But the question still remains as to when, precisely, our relationship started.  The question Ginny and I have asked ourselves is ‘so, when is our anniversary?’  It’s a legitimate question, one which we  do not have a definitive answer to.  Ultimately, it is of little practical difference, as it does not change how we feel about each other, but it becomes a matter of deciding how long we have been together as partners.

In any case, we are, and I hope will continue to be, partners.  She is a wonderful person, ideal in my opinion, and I am glad beyond my ability to articulate to know her.  In fact, I think I have found myself in a better place now than I was before.  I mean no disrespect to any particular exes, but I think I have upgraded in every way, and there is a lesson in this.  I think the lesson is that sometimes when we are in pain, we don’t see that things can indeed get better.  I urge anyone in pain, suffering a loss of any kind, to keep this in mind.  You may find that you will learn things about yourself in times of loss that while unfortunate, may give you perspective.  I can almost thank Seana for giving me that perspective…but she’d never hear it nor would she likely understand.

And while I would like to have some explanation, some understanding, and possibly some closure (that will not happen, almost certainly), I am almost….glad (that seems odd to say, but it feels true) that previous relationship did not work.  I realize, only in retrospect, that while I did love her, she was not the right fit for me because the truth that is necessary in any relationship was not present in treating a loved one in such a way.  It was not warranted, and if it had not happened then, and in that way, it would have happened some other way, at some later time, most-likely

That’s the thing about trust.  I thought I could trust Seana, but it turned out I should not have.  But I won’t stop trusting.  it took me some time, but I came to trust Ginny.  And there is no guarantee that this trust will maintained in the end, but I will not resign to the cynicism of keeping people at a distance out of fear that they may break any trust I give them.  I will not allow the actions of a fearful and ultimately selfish person to ruin my future with other people I care about.  I hope, for the sake of her current and/or future partners, that she will grow beyond who she was to me.

But, I take one thing back;  it is not a double entendre at all.   No double anniversary here.  I do not need to remember such a day, such an act, or such a person as Seana with any further thought (which is not to say the scars will disappear, of course) or comment (that I can control).  I therefore, commit such things to the past, where they belong.

Ginny does not always wear a bag on her head...

But, more importantly, I hope that the people in my life will end up being more like Ginnys than Seanas.  I thank Ginny for being the amazing person she is, and I wish her a happy anniversary (of sorts).

And, as we plan on moving to Philadelphia, I hope that those I know there will grow to love her as I do.