Can conversation about choice be gentle and generous – or is it inherently harsh?

I’ve found that most people avoid dialogue-oriented writing for the same reason they avoid dialogue itself.  It’s not immediately affirming…and never as sexy as the reassuring texts that Prove Our Rightness (or that of our tribe). So I hold my expectations gently about how many will even care to listen in an online world of WWF mud-wrestling and endless click-bait. And I admittedly sometimes brace myself for attacks, easy misunderstandings and superficial readings that have become ‘part of the territory’ when it comes to online exchange.  

Every once in awhile, though, the opposite happens – and I have an online interaction every bit as powerful and thrilling as in-person dialogue. That happened last night – with a high-school classmate, Alice Fisher Roberts, who shares my faith, but comes from a different place politically.  It started with her relatively simple response to my latest piece on different narratives of choice, followed by my own response to her.  The hour that followed was so rich that I couldn’t help cutting and pasting excerpts into a permanent file (as I do with things I love).

With her permission I share it here, mostly because it felt so clarifying to me about so many parts of this conversation [Small edits have been made for clarity]. The whole thing that got me started on this road was documenting a similarly rich conversation with a scary Marxist Guy that continues today. Since then, I find moments like this magical and beautiful – and something I want to take a “snapshot” of when I can…like a sunset I don’t want to forget!

Below is my snapshot of dialogue with Alice – followed by some personal takeaways from this conversation, and a few others who responded.    

Alice: I’ve talked to a couple of people who felt like it was a choice for them, so [therefore] it must be a choice for others. Later in their life they realized they were bisexual.

Jacob: So their previous view of choice turned out to be mistaken, once they realized this was really just who they were…is that about right, Alice? If so, that would be a pretty good summation of a “conversion” to what I would call the (currently) dominant narrative of choice and sexuality.

Now imagine the reverse scenario playing out (as it has for others I know) – hearing from everyone for years that this was just who they were, before later realizing that there are options in how people can work with inner experience (for everyone). That would be a summation of a reverse “conversion” to an alternative narrative of choice and sexuality.

Does that seem like a fair enough summation of summations? Thanks for the comment. Feel free to push back.

Alice: For the two people I’ve talked to, yes, that seems accurate. I wouldn’t want to assume that’s a standard that applies to everyone, though. I think sexuality is a spectrum and generally if someone is capable of “changing” (or shifting where they identify) it would be individuals who are already in the center. Assuming that this means anyone can change would be a mistake.

Jacob: Making an absolute statement about “change” is not what this is about…However, from the place I stand, I do believe that all human beings can change how they work with their inner experience – thoughts, emotions, physical sensations. That’s pretty much a fundamental tenet of contemplative practice – and in that sense, a “standard that applies to (all) human experience.”

But that’s very different than efforts to directly change the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations themselves – something that we may not necessarily have any control over (and cannot always predict how or whether or when the experience will evolve…).

If that distinction is NOT clear – and we’re talking about BOTH senses like they’re the same thing (and like we mean the same thing by “choice”)…well, then we’re really in a pickle. And that would be one of my own diagnoses of our lamentable public conversation right now.

Alice: I’d like to hear more about what you mean by “change the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations themselves.” Also how that is different than talking about changing sexuality specifically?

Jacob: As in, “I can’t be having these thoughts…I NEED to feel something different…I SHOULDN’T be having these thoughts or feelings…I HAVE to be feeling something else….My body shouldn’t be feeling this way…I hate that my body (or mind) is doing this…AND THEREFORE, I need to do something to MAKE THIS CHANGE.

All of the above would capture the pattern of attempted change I’m referring to (in relation to any given experience – including sexual) – starting with harsh judgment about what is arising, then moving towards a grating pattern of forcing and fighting against the body/mind (sexual thoughts, feelings and sensations being just one example).

Alice: So more of an examination of the self and perhaps a reconciling the individual to their reality. And then choosing how to move forward, whatever that looks like? Is that what you mean?

Jacob: Yes – essentially. I would only add that in this practice, at least, it’s a moment-by-moment examination (and not some ‘final’ or ‘ultimate’ one)…and a moment-by-moment reconciliation (rather than some ‘final’ and ‘finished’ one) and again, a moment by moment moving forward, exploring, navigating, etc.

[While a final or ultimate reconciliation may still be important (I certainly think it is) – one thing mindful practice offers is a way to live this unfolding out moment by moment…a process that invariably involves a lighter touch, a willingness to sit with discomfort and be okay with not having everything finished or certain or complete (at least not yet…or not ever?)]

Alice: So being okay with who and what and where they are presently, and staying open to possibilities in the future, whatever they might be?

Jacob: Yes! Perfect. In our mindfulness class, we repeat within meditations, “allowing things to be exactly as you find them – without needing to force or control or fix anything.”

Outside of meditations, it’s clear to class participants that this is not some casual resignation towards anything that is going on (many participants have deeply painful things happening in relationships, in their minds, in their bodies with chronic pain). But invariably, their efforts to control, force, fix have made freaking-everything worse. And as soon as they stop that aggression…things lighten up – and possibilities start to emerge (without them trying to make them emerge)…

At some point, my friend Deanna, chimed in:  “I have had friends/family who have chosen homosexuality after years of rejection by the opposite sex. I have also known those whom I think were born with tendencies toward homosexuality, but I know that acting on those feelings is a choice. Otherwise, how could God declare it a sin in the Bible?”

I responded to Deanne, “How fascinating that others end up saying the opposite: ‘I know that the Bible cannot be a true book, because I know I didn’t choose to have these feelings.'”

“Moving beyond the rigid absolute of whether it’s a “choice” (or not) is partly why I’m writing this, Deanna – focusing more on what we mean by choice. In other words, what exactly you/we mean by “chosen homosexuality” is the conversation I’m hoping to see more of…I’m arguing that can’t really mean “choosing to feel attraction towards the same sex” – but instead, choosing a particular way of responding.”

Alice added:  Jacob, I think the word choice or choosing is just so loaded in these conversations. It makes it difficult to talk beyond it. Is there a way to structure a conversation without talking about choice?

Jacob: I think you might be right, Alice. I’ve been sitting here – and kind of like your suggestion.

When a word has taken on a certain amount of emotional/historical baggage, it becomes just so hard to work with. I’m intrigued…what do you think?

In our mindfulness classes, we talk in a language of “working with the body and mind”…”seeing what arises…and how you want to work with it.” The language of mindfulness feels more infused with a sense of “freedom,” “possibilities” and “options…” [not incidentally, we avoid using the word “spiritual” in our classes since it has also become too loaded for many people].

Alice: I have mixed feelings- on one hand, using language that doesn’t cause people to get stuck is a good thing. On the other hand, I’ve had this same conversation about the word “feminist,” and with that I just want people to stop getting hung up on what they think it means, or what it has meant in the past and get on board with what it means now. 😉 So, I don’t know.

Jacob: OR perhaps simply acknowledging the very different senses of the words that do exist (and always will?) – aka, “To some, feminism remains a dirty – and maybe evil word. While for others, the word represents so much of courage, devotion and insistence on a better future…”

That’s where I usually land, since you’re right – getting rid of words (or restricting usage – except in unique circumstances) seems to run into fatal problems (aka Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, et al.)

Our whole project is premised on that idea…namely, that there is no ‘one right definition’ of any of these words (including “Biblical” and “Constitutional” and “Patriotic” “American” “racism” etc. etc.) – and that it might be nice to at least make enough space to hear what these words have come to mean across the whole American conversation.

One takeaway I had in this exchange was more clarity around ways the discussion of “choice” can feel inherently harsh – and proactively acknowledging that as part of the conversation.  In other words, rather than just having a conversation about contrasting meanings of this particular word (or others), make space to share the different emotions the word evokes for us.  Good dialogue is always a Head and Heart thing.

In addition, it seems valuable to explore ways to draw on  (in some contexts or some moments) less charged language, such as “freedom,” “possibility” an “working with our experiences in creative ways.”

In addition to this, here are three other helpful insights that arose in this conversation yesterday – each a way to avoid additional pitfalls in this discussion

1. Acknowledge the uniqueness of individual experience.  Alex wrote in agreement that often “when one person says ‘I didn’t choose to be gay,’ someone else interprets it as ‘I don’t choose my behavior.’ And there is no mutual understand of how each person interprets the word ‘gay.'”  

He went on to point out: 

From my perspective, I could choose from a variety of options, including marriage to a woman…but that doesn’t make me “not gay.” If gay referred solely to acting out sexually, then yes, I could choose to “be gay,” but according to [one] definition, it does not refer solely to acting upon homosexual feelings.

I responded: I love your last paragraph especially…because it pushes me in a good way. Within the constraints of this particular (choice-focused) essay, I haven’t made much space for someone to say “Hey, I’m a gay man…and there are all sorts of ways to work with that.” That’s not often how I hear openly gay individuals talking – at last not in the public discourse. Perhaps that’s a function of political dynamics, where the possibilities of options is not helpful to the larger movement.

Would you say most openly gay-identifying men and women would agree with your last paragraph? I’m curious… If nothing else, your comment underscores that this conversation doesn’t solely hinge around the meaning of one word. Different understandings in what exactly it means to “be gay” is also inseparably involved.

2. Acknowledge ways that agency can be over-stated and over-emphasized as well. In an attempt to bring more attention to the complexity and reality of choice as a multi-faceted player in this conversation, I’m pushing back against a larger narrative that appears to, at times, to minimize choice.  One obvious danger in doing so is to fall into the opposite extreme – and maximize choice to an unreal degree.  I’ve written elsewhere about “Over-stating agency” as a tendency some in my own faith community can fall into at times – and think that needs to be an important part of this conversation here as well.

3. Emphasize fundamental wholeness – and push back against the tendency to make everything a disease or sickness or disorder.  More than one person used my note as occasion to remind people that sin was involved.

I responded in each case:
“One (BIG) complication is the large extent to which we [religious conservatives] have sometimes categorized (especially in the past) feeling and attractions themselves as sinful…creating a scenario where people feel inherently sinful, broken, disgusting, etc.

Imagine a man who has feelings of lust towards frequent sexualized images around us seeing himself as a disgusting sinner every time one of those feelings arose inside…shall we call that, Torture?

Although religious leaders have been more crisp and clear in our language about “the sin being the response” and “the act”…that whole discussion still feels like an open wound to many people: people feeling broken, attacked, even more attacked by the clarifications.  Religious conservatives surely bear some responsibility (not all) – and I want to be very conscious about how painful this whole conversation remains.

That’s why I posted this additional clarification to the original essay:

But hold on: why are we even interested in bringing more attention to the possibility of choice? Doesn’t this assume that same-sex attraction is something disordered or sick that people need to get away from at all costs!?

Not at all. I don’t believe that. Laying aside all the problems with fighting and forcing our mind and body, raising concerns with the pathologization of human experience has become a theme of almost all my work. It never helps, in my opinion….like, never.

The people in my life who experience same-sex attraction (including those who identify as gay and those who are living in gay relationships) are not sick or disordered. And they don’t need to be “fixed.” On the contrary, they are some of the most sensitive and wonderful people in my life.

And as a whole, they are making very different choices about how to work with and respond to this attraction, but how could it be otherwise? Acknowledging and making authentic space for this process of choice is the point of this all – space to explore and make decisions about what feels right to each person (including people who opt to not to follow their same-sex attraction into romantic relationships).

My friend Ty Mansfield has shared his experience along those lines (and his belief that full-souled, non-sexualized attraction between genders is and will be a central, beautiful part of heaven)…and he’s been lambasted – raked over the coals, for betraying the dominant narrative.  These are the kinds of experiences that make me want to advocate for people’s freedom to choose wherever the peace guides them – whatever that ends up being.

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