Suspicion of Dualism

In the last post, The Liberal Pulpit was explaining that liberal religion has no creed but does have principles, and how this is indeed a significant difference.

Another feature of liberal religion is suspicion of dualism.

In some religions there is a sharp division between the sacred and the profane. God, and goodness, and holiness, and the divine are at one end: eternal, changeless, pure. At the other end is that which is earthy, mud, lowly, base, corrupt, changing, inconstant. It’s a dualism in which only the heavenly realms are really real. This world upon which we live is only "half there -- heaven’s second-rate hand-me-down" (as Peter Mayer sings).

But liberal religion asks: suppose there were no distinction between sacred and profane? Suppose there were a basic unity of all things. Suppose everything were holy, everything a miracle, every moment a sacrament shining with transcendent light.

(The attentive reader will have noticed that we have replaced a first-order and ontological dualism between sacred and profane with a second-order and epistemological dualism between believing in ontological dualisms vs. being suspicious of them and seeing that "everything is holy now." To this, The Liberal Pulpit replies: first, this move from first-order to second-order constitutes progress; second, the path does lead ultimately to transcending all dualisms.)

Any overview of liberal religion must include an important negative point about what liberal religion is not. Liberal religion does not say you can believe anything you want to. Believe what you have to? Yes. What you want to? That’s very different. Liberal Religion affirms that you are free to believe as your heart, mind, and conscience dictates, but that’s not saying anything goes.

I’m a Unitarian Universalist today because shortly before I was born my parents, driving through Richmond, Virginia where they lived, on the way home one day happened to drive by the Unitarian Church. The sign out front said, “Here we believe that all have the right to believe as their heart, mind, and conscience dictate.” That’s the sign that got them in the door. That sign was the proximate cause of this denomination being a part of the way I was raised.

(What sign was I born under? I was born under a sign that says, “Here we believe that all have the right to believe as their heart, mind, and conscience, dictates.”)

Believing as your heart mind and conscience dictate is very different from believing whatever you want. What you want to believe might be what is easy – a theology that is superficially attractive, doesn’t require much thought or creative work. You might want some belief that you can hold and gaze upon like a pretty crystal: beautiful and static. But hearing and heeding what your heart, mind, and conscience dictate requires effort, focus, and attentiveness. It is an ongoing labor to discover what your own self dictates you believe – and thereby discover who you are. It’s a journey on an open road with no final destination.

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This is part 4 of 5 of "What Is Liberal Religion?"
Next: Part 5: "Neecie"
Previous: Part 3: "Creeds vs. Principles"
Beginning: Part 1: "An Open Road Song"


Creeds vs. Principles

Because we don’t have doctrine, we Unitarian Universalists often have the hardest time saying what we’re about to people. It’s a bit more complicated than citing a doctrine, or some particular ritual. Liberal religion is the affirmation of the possibility of spiritual depth, spiritual maturity, spiritual growth – without binding that possibility to any particular doctrine. It’s an open road, with no closed doctrine. Don’t even let your own doctrines be closed: don’t believe everything you think.

It’s not always easy. Liberal religion prescribes a difficult path. Certainly, there is a lot of hope in our theology, a lot of comfort and support and sustenance. This faith we share has seen me through dark times. Though it is hopeful, and sustaining, and joyous, it is also difficult. Yet for those of us who walk that open road, no other path will do. We do it because we have to. Our conscience requires it.

We don’t have doctrine, but we do have teachings. We’ve got these seven principles of Unitarian Universalism:
  • Affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every being.
  • Affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
  • Affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.
  • Affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
  • Affirm and promote the right conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
  • Affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
  • Affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
That is what we teach. And when we’re at our best, that is what we practice.

The difference between creed and principle is this: Principles are general and meant to be inclusive. Creeds are meant to be exclusive.

Creeds are drafted in response to some belief that the drafters want to exclude. Take, for example, the Apostle’s Creed, which asserts that God is an almighty father who created heaven and earth; had exactly one Son, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again." This creed emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, including the material body. There was at that time a group of people saying Jesus was a pure spirit being -- a kind of holographic projection from God. The Apostle’s creed was written specifically to exclude that view. It was written to emphasize that Jesus was a material body that suffered, was crucified, and died. It was written to exclude the Gnostics, who thought of Jesus as immaterial spirit.

While creeds are written in order to exclude, principles, such as ours, aim to include. Nevertheless, to accept our seven principles and to take seriously the project of constructing a life based on them makes an enormous difference. A day spent with an orientation toward dignity, compassion, acceptance, and recognizing interdependence is a different sort of day from one spent oblivious to that call. It makes everything different. It starts with fewer intentional cruelties and leads, with continued devoted practice at truly living by our principles, to fewer accidental cruelties. It leads to becoming spiritually more whole, morally and emotionally more integrated and complete.

These principles are sufficient as a basis of what a religious community must hold in common. To develop your religion, you build your own theology fleshing out our seven-boned skeleton. It is as if, in affirming these seven principles, we implicitly were affirming also an eighth. And the implied eighth principle is that these seven are enough. We don’t have a monopoly on affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all beings, or promoting justice, equity, and compassion, acceptance of one another, truth and meaning, world community, or even respect for the interdependent web. Even conservative religions – most of them – also affirm and promote those things. What makes the difference is that conservative religions – doctrinal religions -- don’t think that’s enough. Conservative religions add extra stuff: you’ve got to believe the creed, or bow this way, or wear this, or not eat that, or chant this chant – adopt the tribal markers so we know you’re in our tribe. Our implicit eighth principle is that we don’t need anything more. We don’t need added-on exclusivist doctrine.

Institutionalized doctrine conflicts with a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Any failure to insist that each person is worthy of working it out for herself is also a failure to affirm each person’s inherent worth and dignity. It’s a failure to accept one another for all our differences, a failure to encourage spiritual growth beyond that creedal doctrine, whatever it may be; it’s a failure to affirm the right of conscience.

Illiberal religion cannot affirm that our seven principles suffice for faith community -- for as soon as they said that – as soon as they said that their distinguishing particularist doctrines were optional, were unnecessary for either religiousness or community – they would in that very moment have become religiously liberal. They would have forsworn their prescribed course and joined us, afoot and lighthearted, on the open road.

Liberal religion affirms the possibility of faith community – caring for each other and about social justice; challenging one another’s theologies, and challenging social institutions to be more fair – all without shared particular doctrine, only shared general principles.

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This is part 3 of 5 of "What Is Liberal Religion?"
Next: Part 4: "Suspicion of Dualism"
Previous: Part 2: "Love Is the Doctrine of This Church"
Beginning: Part 1: "An Open Road Song"


Love Is the Doctrine of This Church

We declare, as one of our most popular readings says:
“Love is the doctrine of this church.
The quest for truth is it sacrament
And service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace
To seek knowledge in freedom
To serve humankind in fellowship
Thus do we covenant.”
Liberal religion says love is its doctrine. What kind of statement is that? What does that mean? Love isn’t doctrine. Doctrine is a list of beliefs, the approved interpretation, the creed, the dogma. Unitarian Universalism is creedless. We don’t have doctrine.

You want to know what we believe? We believe that religion isn’t about what you believe. Religion is about how you live: the ethics and values that guide your life. Religion is about community: the people you come together with, and the rituals you share that affirm your connectedness. Number three, it’s about – this is the one that is hardest to choose words for, because it’s about what cannot be put in words. Call it the sense of transcendence. Or maybe don’t. Call it awareness of interconnection. Call it awe, wonder, beauty. And a deep sense of the abundance of life at a level beyond what the intellect alone can grasp. In other words, it’s about experience – those certain kinds of experiences we call “religious experience.”

Religion brings all those things together and integrates them. Those are three very different things: how you live, community, transcendent experience. Yet somehow a religion brings those three different things together – or tries to -- in such a way that each one supports and reinforces the other two.

Liberal religion says that’s what religion is about. Not beliefs, doctrine, creed, dogma. When we say love is our doctrine, we mean that love takes the place of doctrine. We mean that love fills the hole that people and their institutions have sometimes attempted to fill with dogma.

Religious doctrine wouldn’t have had the long-lasting career it has had if it didn’t meet some psychological need – and the need it meets is to generate a sense of human connectedness. People who all pledge their allegiance to some doctrine know they’re all on the same side, all together in upholding a way of life that puts that doctrine at its center. That can be a very powerful glue holding people together – perhaps even rigidly together. But it’s not the only glue available. The doctrinal approach to religion is only one option. For love to take the place of doctrine means that shared doctrine is not the way we know we’re on the same side. Instead, we know we’re on the same side through our affection and compassion for one another – simply as sentient beings. We’re on the same side with all who uphold a way of life that puts life at its center.

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This is part 2 of 5 of "What Is Liberal Religion?"
Next: Part 3: "Creeds vs. Principles"
Previous: Part 1: "An Open Road Song"


An Open Road Song

Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass includes a long poem called, “Song of Myself,” which begins:
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume.
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
So let’s celebrate ourselves. The Liberal Pulpit devotes itself today to celebrate liberal religion. It’s great to be a Unitarian Universalist! Yeah! The Liberal Pulpit means no slight to any other world religion. We are not at war with other tribes. We’re just proud of our own. If, Gentle Reader, your heart and conscience lead you to follow a Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Rastafarian path, The Liberal Pulpit says, "more power to you" -- for power you will gain through attentive following of any path.

A number of Unitarian Universalists have noticed that sometimes people in other faiths think themselves right. But let’s be honest. Sometimes we Unitarian Universalists think we’re right. As the saying goes, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Actually, I’d like to go further. Don’t believe anything you think.

The reality is, pretty much all of us are suckers for our thoughts. We believe our thoughts. There's another saying, "The world is divided into those who think they're right." That's the whole saying, because everyone thinks she's right. The Liberal Pulpit will be striving to keep that in mind, even as we celebrate ourselves and liberal religion. After all, in many ways, we don’t choose our faith, it chooses us. Our consciences require what they require, even if we might wish they didn’t.

It’s up to us to be true to our religion, whatever it might be, to do the work of cultivating it to its fullest flower. "Stand by your faith," as Olympia Brown famously urged us (see SLT #569). Whichever seed got planted in you: do the work of nourishing it and developing it.

The flower of liberal religion is rooted in the understanding that revelation is continuous, there are always new things to learn, that our community is based on freely entered covenant, that we work for fairness in the whole world, that conflict is a good thing, and doesn’t mean any side is evil or wrong, and that a better world and a richer life is possible for all of us. That is the root, the grounding from which liberal religion grows.

Switching metaphors, our road is indeed an open road. So for us, the song of ourselves is a "Song of the Open Road," which returns us to Whitman. Herewith, the first, last, and two middle sections of Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road" -- a lovely expression of the spirit that infuses liberal religion:

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune.
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing.
Strong and content I travel the open road.

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I knew they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

(Still here I carry my old delicious burdens,
I carry them, men and women, I carry them with me wherever I go,
I swear it is impossible for me to get rid of them,
I am fill'd with them, and I will fill them in return.)...


From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.

I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women:
You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,

I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me....


Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:

You shall not heap up what is call'd riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin'd, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call'd by an irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,
What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach'd hands toward you....


Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe – I have tried it – my own feet have tried it well – be not detain'd!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen'd! Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn'd!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
fr Walt Whitman, "Song of the Open Road"
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This is part 1 of 5 of "What Is Liberal Religion?"
Next: Part 2: "Love Is the Doctrine of this Church"


Amazing Glorious Fluke

There' a lot to criticize about Barbie. I also want to give Barbie the credit she is due. Let us acknowledge that before Barbie, the dolls available to an American girl were baby dolls, and that girls were thereby encouraged to think of themselves as nothing but mothers-in-training. Barbie does give girls a nonmaternal alternative model. Barbie isn’t even married. She’s a model of self-sufficiency.

And with Ken, America was introduced to the concept that a man is just one more fashion accessory. That’s perhaps not conducive to the healthiest of relationships – but it is a sort of antidote to the idea that women’s complete dependence upon men for their well-being and identity was the natural and inevitable order of things.

We Unitarian Universalists want this model of self-determination, choice, and freedom, and some measure of success to be something all our children can grow up looking forward to, girls as well as boys, and all girls – not just the ones who starve themselves skinny and are happily compliant. Even though there has been African-American Barbie, and Hispanic Barbie, and Asian Barbie, there’s a sameness to them all: same body shape, same facial expression. We have not seen overweight Barbie, or lesbian Barbie, or angry-young-woman Barbie, or social activist Barbie, or Minister Barbie or any sort of Barbie suggesting spiritual seriousness -- Zen Master Barbie, or Shi’ite Barbie, Guru Barbie, or -- how could they resist? -- Baba Barbie. (Rev. Julie Blake Fisher has made a series of Episcopalian vestments for Barbie -- but Mattel has not endorsed Episcopal Priest Barbie -- nor, for that matter, the Barbie Dream Church.)

We, then, are gathered here, we religious liberals, to celebrate all the things that make us Anti-Barbies, to honor people of all body shapes, all sexual orientations, rebels of various stripes, to celebrate our diversity; to resist homogeneity and sameness and to proudly let each of our unique little lights shine. We gather to LOOK, that first word that some of you in my generation learned to read – and to think, to hearken to the call of reason, even though we know it sometimes leads us astray.

While Barbie makes herself perfect by exhibiting unreflectively a cultural ideal, we gather to question and challenge our culture’s assumptions. And we recognize that we can’t always do that by ourselves as well as we want to, so we come together to find strength from each other, to wake now our senses – as one of our hymns says.

Awake. That’s the crux of it. We mean to be awake, to be alive – which, of course, Barbie is not – to grow and to change and not be the same for 47 years; “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” – to decry vile submission, to suck the marrow from the bone of life. We mean to be forever committed to further growth, to accept no settled doctrine, to stand upon the shoulders of our liberal religious forebears and declare that religion is not “a body of specific teachings and practices, revealed or taught, accepted through a leap of faith” – oh, no – religion is a gradual process of awakening to the depths and possibilities of life itself.

And to be a community -- the Community Unitarian Church of White Plains – which built this building in 1959 as if to be a haven from the Barbie onslaught launched that year: a haven and a training ground for strengthening our antiBarbie work of being real, and becoming faith full.

Each of us arrived where we are today through some strange and winding series of accidents. An unlikely and elaborate chain of happenstances has brought us together. Yet here we are -- a unique and improbable agglomeration of personalities united by geographic proximity and mutual commitment to encourage one another to spiritual growth and the free and responsible search for truth. What a fluke that we should be here together. What an amazing, glorious fluke -- a fluke we weave into a story -- a story that means community: people coming together to care for each other, affirm and strengthen our common values, work out a way to engage the wider world – a community that is the home of what is of ultimate worth, where we tell our story that encompasses all that is holy. And where we come awake to everything included in this grand fluke. May it be so.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "AntiBarbies."
Previous: Part 3: "Kindergarten Wisdom and Barbie Busy-ness"
Beginning: Part 1: "Things Happen for a Reason?"


Kindergarten Wisdom and Barbie Busy-ness

My Mom and Dad were grad students when I was born. By the time I was in nursery school, I was hitting the books pretty hard myself.

Until a kindly teacher showed me how to open them.

In kindergarten, I learned those things that Robert Fulghum said he learned in kindergarten -- and was all he really needed to know. In first grade, I learned to read out of the same big book of which Fulghum spoke:
“Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that. Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.” (Fulghum)
Yes, the first word I learned to read in that poster-sized first book, was “Look.”

Look. See. What’s really there? See for yourself. And, as the illustration shows, sometimes be willing to try on some very different shoes, even if they don't seem to fit.

Of course, there’s more than one Barbie. There have been a couple billion of them. Placed head-to-toe, they would circle the earth 7 times – at the equator. There’s more than one anti-Barbie, too. We Unitarian Universalists tend to be a group of anti-Barbies. We don’t represent wider culture’s ideal. When we are joyous, our joy tends not to come from compliance. Indeed, it is more likely to come from resistance and subversion. She is an icon; we are iconoclasts.

She is fantastically popular: according to Mattel, every second, three Barbie dolls are sold somewhere in the world. It takes a little bit longer than that for any Unitarian Universalist congregation to gain three new members. And let’s face it, we aren’t nearly as well-dressed as Barbie.

All things considered, I’ll take us.

One thing you might notice: Barbie never makes embarrassingly stupid mistakes. It’s true she’s generally not terribly bright – you may recall the fuss some years back talking Barbie came out and one of the things she said when you pulled her string was “Math class is tough.” She isn’t a thinker. Yet somehow she just knows how to be perfect. The thing about being a thinker is that we so often reason wrongly or overlook something. As Zen master Koun Yamada put it, “How incompetent intellectual understanding can be!” But though the thinkers make embarrassingly stupid mistakes, they are also the ones who have that satisfaction that only working it out for yourself can provide. Barbie knows neither the joy nor the sorrow of either stupidity or achieving beliefs that are truly her own. She’s an extreme physically, but her thought is unwaveringly unoriginal. We Anti-Barbies embrace the ups and the downs, the intellect’s foibles as well as its assumption-questioning success, as all part of a life fully lived. That, at least, is what I tell myself when I again do something remarkably dumb.

Barbie tries to be all things to as many little girls as possible: she’s been a fashion model, an elementary-school teacher, a ballerina, a nurse and a doctor (a pediatrician) – during our various Mid-East military adventures she has surfaced as an Army medic. She’s been a businesswoman, an actress, an Olympic athlete – both in gymnastics and figure skating – a country-western singer, an astronaut, a Presidential candidate, a paleontologist. As an entrepreneur, she’s produced her own comic-book series, innumerable coloring books, an aerobic work-out tape along with appropriate equipment, she has several lines of computer software, and Barbie movies have moved into the video market. I want to say to her:
“Now, Barbie, I grant you that you and I, we late baby-boomers no longer live in a world where one can expect to hold the same job throughout a 30-year career, but goodness, Sister, all those occupations, all that busy-ness, does make one wonder what internal emptiness you are working so hard, so desperately to fill. In that connection, it occurs to me that in all my years of casually keeping an eye on your careers, one thing I have never seen you dressed in is ministerial robes or collar.”
Yes, physically, she’s an exaggerated ideal – and materially, she’s very well off. She’s bringing in about $1.5 billion a year in Barbie sales. She’s got a pink Corvette with “Barbie” emblazoned on the side. She’s got Barbie’s Dream House. Yet spiritually, she’s an empty vessel.

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This is part 3 of 4 of "AntiBarbies."
Next: Part 4: "Amazing Glorious Fluke"
Previous: Part 2: "The AntiBarbie Work: Get Real"
Beginning: Part 1: "Things Happen for a Reason?"


The Anti-Barbie Work: Get Real

Something like Tarot or palm reading or astrology or the I Ching affords an opportunity to think a little more about who you are, to exercise your faculty of deciding what meaning to make of chance events. To illustrate this point, and also introduce myself and this relatively new blog a little more to you, gentle reader, let me tell you about myself, in a somewhat playful way.

Certainly, we are made who we are by the world we were born into. Yet the exact specific events that happened to happen in the year of your birth are just a coincidence – available for each of us to creatively play with and fabricate a stories of who we are. I happened to have been born in Richmond, Virginia in 1959 – a child of Yankee parents born in the capital of the confederacy, coming into the world on the very day that the last surviving civil war veteran left it. That mixture in some ways identifies me. I grew up in Dixie – in small towns in North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia – but with the more Northern sensibility of my parents: not a northerner, but never quite at home among the pick-up trucks, the rebel flags, and the segregation either.

In 1959, Castro came to power, and the Dalai Lama went into exile: Cuba gained a dictator that many Cubans didn’t want, and Tibet lost a spiritual leader tha many Tibetans dearly loved. That mixture also points to something about me: I’m suspicious of political revolution, while yearning for spiritual revolution.

An interplanetary future was dawning. 1959 saw the first moon landing, Russia’s Lunik II. The US sent up a couple of monkeys into outer space and brought them back alive. Also that year, jazz musician Ornette Coleman introduced free improvisation – a musical style of making it up as you go along. I remember these last two bits about the year of my birth on those occasions when I find myself feeling rather like a monkey in orbit, and making it up as I go along.

Now I'm the new minister at Community Unitarian Church in White Plains. This church began in 1909 and moved into its current building in . . . 1959.

One other thing that happened that year that I was born and that Community Unitarian Church moved into its building: Mattel introduced the Barbie doll. That's a coincidence that seems to me to open up possibilities for a story about me, about CUC, and about Unitarian Universalism in general.

My existence is coexistensive with Barbie’s! Her omnipresence makes her a constant counterpoint for me.

Barbie became a cultural icon by being an exaggeration – yet she represents and reinforces cultural messages about what young women should be. Using Mattel’s official 1/6 scale, Barbie represents a height of 5 foot, 9 inches. At that height, her measurements would be 36-18-33. She would weigh about 110 pounds. Indeed, one of the ensembles of accessories you can get comes with a little pink bathroom scale permanently set at 110. That would give her a Body-Mass Index of 16.24, which fits the criteria for anorexia.

She’s not a realistic or healthy model for our girls or women to try to match. Barbie boldly proclaims the unreal, the impossibly exaggerated, the fantastically distorted. Ours is the work of becoming real, of striving to be authentic. That’s the anti-Barbie work.

Barbie’s success is, in large measure, owed to the expression into which her face is molded: her “eternal look of compliant joy” (Washington Post, 1991 August 1). This legally defines who she is. In 1991, Barbie was in a lawsuit. There was a rival doll, made by Kenner, the “Miss America Doll.” The Mattel people said that the doll was too similar to Barbie and therefore infringed on their copyright. You immediately see the irony: the Miss America doll was made to look like a typical Miss America, but the typical Miss America had spent her whole life trying to look like Barbie. What struck me about the lawsuit was the Mattel claim that one of the key distinguishing features of what made Barbie Barbie and no other doll could imitate was: her facial expression of compliant joy. And the court ruled in Mattel’s favor, declaring that Barbie did indeed, as it were, own the copyright on “eternal look of compliant joy.”

Compliant joy has never been my cup of tea.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "AntiBarbies."
Next: Part 3: "Kindergarten Wisdom and Barbie Busy-ness"
Previous: Part 1: "Things Happen for a Reason?"


Things Happen for a Reason?

You’ve probably heard – and maybe you yourself have said – things happen for a reason.

Do you believe that? I mean, obviously SOME things happen for a reason, but is there a reason – not just a cause, but a reason – for every important thing that happens to you? Or are some things just coincidence?

Maybe some of us have brains that are inclined to interpret events as the unfolding of a grand purpose. Others of us have brains that are more comfortable with the idea coincidence: sometimes life-changing events happen for no reason at all; flukes happen. Maybe this is a genetic thing: a predisposition toward placing events in the context of some kind of intentionality or prior narrative may be normally distributed through the population based on DNA. I don’t know.

I am, myself, by nature or by nurture, more on the ‘a coincidence is just a coincidence’ end of the spectrum. But what I’ve learned is that we can choose to make meaning out of the coincidences of our lives. Whether or not there’s a prior narrative, we can connect events with a post facto narrative. Doing so is kinda fun. It has a playful quality.

The concept of meaningful coincidences was first introduced to me about thirty-five years ago – in a bar. I was eighteen-years old, an undergraduate at Atlanta’s Emory University. I was in that bar with a woman a couple years older, Madeleine, a fellow student whom I’d met in British Lit class. She had a deck of Tarot cards, and she looked like she knew how to use it. I eyed the cards skeptically.

“It’s not,” she explained, “that I believe that your psyche, or the world, or anything exerts some force upon the cards as they are shuffled, causing them to turn up the way they do in an order which your personality uniquely determines. I don’t believe that. I believe some things are random, that quite a lot happens that has no reason for happening. By random chance it just happens to happen. Some things do have a reason for happening – a lot of things don’t. The shuffling of the cards creates randomness. The cards I’m about to turn up for you will have the same probability of being turned up for anybody else. The fact that your Tarot reading produces, say, the Page of Cups here and the Seven of Pentacles there is simple coincidence.”

She was apparently conceding everything to the skeptical debunkers – except that the debunkers infer from the randomness of the way the cards come up to a conclusion that Tarot readings are useless. Madeleine didn't draw that inference. She set about to present me with a layout of thirteen cards – thirteen little mere coincidences, and she suggested ways that the cards in the different positions interrelated into an overall story. It was then up to me to choose whether to make this coincidence meaningful to me. I could decide to make it part of my identity that I’m the guy that the Tarot cards just happened on that particular day to produce that particular story and lift up that particular set of interwoven reminders.

I know that after that build-up, you would like to know what those cards said on that day, but I am so sorry, I don't remember that. The point that I’ve carried with me is the idea that the way we make sense of our lives is largely a matter of deciding to give or see meaning in certain of the coincidences of life. Something like Tarot or palm reading or astrology or the I Ching affords an opportunity to think a little more about who you are, to exercise your faculty of deciding what meaning to make of chance events.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "AntiBarbies"
Next: Part 2: "The AntiBarbie Work: Get Real"