Sunday, February 24, 2013

Disruptive Sex

There's an article in Psychology Today this month "12 Rude Revelations About Sex," that has
probably been read by more people than all the articles in the magazine the past year, because of the cover.  I must say, it worked for me. Isn't this what psychology is about? Going deeper, finding hidden meaning? And discovering what batman masks do for you when you kiss?

The article is based on a book put out by London's School of Life, a center devoted to practical ideas for enhancing or changing your life in small, important ways. The book is by Alain De Botton, called How to Think More About Sex, and what I think most interesting is the ways he calls sex a demanding beast disconnected from the person you are most of the time, and often the person you might want to be: a fundamentally disruptive and overwhelming force, at odds with the majority of our ambitions and all but incapable of being discreetly integrated within civilized society. Sex is not fundamentally democratic or kind. It refuses to sit neatly on top of love. Tame it though we might try, it tends to wreak havoc across our lives; it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity, and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don't like but whose exposed midriffs we wish to touch...Our best hope should be for a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power.--pp. 5-6
So, that's interesting. I'm thinking little quakes on the Richter scale, rumbling away all the time, growing in tension to major, tsunami-causing trouble every so often and nothing you can really do to stop it.

Not meant to be a comforting thought, because the point of the article (and the book) is the trouble sex causes, and why.

Some major points:

1. What turns you on is autonomic. You can't usually change it. You can of course not do it, but you can't stop wanting to figure out what it is, which might take some time and experiences, good and bad. This is different from what "type" of person you're typically attracted to. These are the acts, the fetishes, the deep desires, the clothes. If you don't know what yours are, you can read a beginner's guide called 150 Shades of Play. This point from De Botton 's book comes with a caveat:

2. The same act that you find very arousing with the right partner is disgusting with the wrong one. Even as much as kissing. Think of that Super Bowl commercial. Very, very wrong kissing partners.

3. In a marriage or long-term relationship, it is very hard to ask your partner to do something debasing to you or themselves and then leave the room and have corn flakes and talk of shopping lists. Not only is it awkward, but we worry what they'll think of us. So, we typically don't ask. Even when we really want to.

From "6 reasons why you should have more sex"
4. The emotional cost of negotiating sex with your partner can be high. If you really cared for them you wouldn't want/need such a thing, or ask it of them. This can be over something as simple as  BITE MY LIP, HARD, WHEN WE KISS SOMETIMES. So you might have to play this out nonverbally.

5. Most people prefer nonverbal communication during sex. Too many words distract from the sensual experience, and the need to "turn your brain off" when you make love. Some sex words work. Something like "can you move your hip a little to the right and up?" typically doesn't. That would best be "shown not told."

6. The relationship cost of "not tonight honey" is also high. I thought this was interesting. He says that most people expect to be rejected by people they don't know well, but when that rejection comes from the person they love more than any other, the sting is immediate and intense. No matter how often it happens. Dr. Laura Schlessinger calls frequent "turn-downs" emotional infidelity, because you promised to be faithful to your vows to love and cherish. And you're not.

There's a book called Is That All He Thinks About? : How to Enjoy Great Sex with Your Husband by Marla Taviano which takes reluctant aim at the stereotypical "too tired" wife she used to be. When pushed to ask what would help, she gave a laundry list of things that would help her be in the mood--help with the housework, time off from child care, a nice relaxing bath, perhaps a nap--all very nice but when they are used as conditions for sex, the relationship turns coercive, conditional, and selfish.

Men and Women think of sex...differently
Her point, nicely made, in any good marriage, one partner asking for sex from the other should be enough, typically, for them to have sex. She takes a Christian perspective, but a common sense one too. Men and women are different. She says "You love scrapbooking? What if you could only do it when your husband was willing to go there with you?" Funny. As one going scrapbooking for 8 hours next Saturday, I appreciate having no conditions.

7. While De Botton talks of infidelity as a response to the intense pressure within a marriage to have the chosen partner be all things (friend, lover, dinner conversation, co-parent, financial partner and clairvoyant emotional support chairperson). This pressure rockets our divorce rate, in his eyes, because it fuels the belief that dissatisfaction in one or another of the above areas is enough reason to ditch the marriage or vows contained within, even though they will get in the same jam with another spouse with the same reasoning. You cannot, in his eyes, expect to have everything you want in life, certainly not from one person. And when you stray, eventually blowing up your marriage, you'll spoil the marriage for yourself even before you're found out. His suggestion? Check into a hotel with your spouse for a nooner. It's half-price from overnight hotel prices and no sitters are needed. Feel bad and guilty about all the responsibilities you're blowing off--together.

Miss Poppins on parenting 
There's more in the article, and in the book. About why arguments about "pet peeves" aren't minor matters, why marriage ruins sex for some, what religions know about sex that we don't, why impotence is an achievement and why pornography may be (or may become) one of the greatest time-wasters on the planet because it, like alcohol and drugs, reduces our ability to tolerate stretches of boredom, anxiety, worry, and need for self-improvement. When we use "down time" to immediately hop online for a quick fix of stimulation to our amygdala, h-o-u-r-s g-o b-y.

Interesting stuff. Funny how both books use the word "think" and "sex" in their titles. Seems the opposite of their theme.

There is one more book in the series available in the U.S., How to Stay Sane. In case you need this as much as I, and sex alone doesn't do it for you this week, I'll check it out for next Sunday.

Love, Lisa

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Love After Death

As far back as I can remember, I've had a preoccupation with death. I thought everyone did. Only over the last couple of months have I begun asking people how often they think about death or dying. For the most part it is far less than I do. This was a revelation.

It also explains, I suppose, why I'm a bit more serious than most. Though I'm not a physician and do not work in a medical hospital, I do think about life and death everyday. Not only the meaning of life, when I write, but the agonies of life, when I work. Struggles with mental health are struggles to maintain hope, balance and motivation in life.

For people who are dying, the mental health struggles are to maintain belief that they have lived a good and worthy life that will leave a lasting legacy, avoid guilt over people and problems they will leave behind, and faith that the death they face will be humane, and the possible afterlife they enter blessed.

Often, a reckoning with death will leave you with lessons for the living. There are found in books like Tuesdays with Morrie, written by Mitch Albom about his conversations with Morrie Schwartz, who was a great teacher. Or The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, also a great teacher.

I am not, personally, a huge fan of books like this because I like getting my lessons sideways rather than head-on. In other words, I don't like being told what to do. But these books do have great quotes and lessons and if you can apply them, more power to you. Here's some from Morrie:

On Getting Meaning into Life:
"So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they're busy doing things they think are important. This is because they're chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning." (p.43).
On Needing Others:
"In the beginning of life, when we were infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right? But here's the secret: in between, we need others as well." (p.157) 
On Death :
"Death ends a life, not a relationship." (p.174) 

And from from Randy:
“When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore that means they’ve given up on you…you may not want to hear it but your critics are often the ones telling you they still love you and care about you and want to make you better.” ― Randy PauschThe Last Lecture
“Kids need to know their parents love them. Their parents don’t need to be alive for that to happen.” 
― Randy PauschThe Last Lecture
“I love all three of my kids completely and differently. And I want them to know that I will love them for as long as they live. I will.” 
― Randy PauschThe Last Lecture 
 So both of these men were trying to reassure their loved ones the love they had for them would never end. And that nothing else really mattered. They didn't seem to struggle to believe this themselves. They already knew, so they were able to share to try to help us remember what's important.

Those who've had near-death experiences try to do the same. It's almost selfish, if you have knowledge of what comes after death, not to share that with others so they're not afraid or worried, if it can be helped. I have been reading about near-death experiences since I was a teen, and read another book this month, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander.  He went to heaven, and came back to tell us about it, and disprove all the ways it could have been a hallucination. It's pretty fascinating. It's more up my aisle--here's my mind-blowing experience, and how I tried to disprove it but couldn't. Make of it what you will.

But all you really need to know unless you want more :) is that we are loved by a higher being, and we are here on this earth to love others. When we leave, we retreat into a world of all love and no suffering. God is Love, and love is unbearably powerful.

This is why the truly spiritual among us are not angry. They are not arrogant. They are humble and peaceful because they are emanating love. That's all they are meant to be doing, and they do it better than any of us. But we can all do better at loving one another. It's not hard. Just focus on that. You'll be fine. If you've loved well, you've lived well, and you will be at peace for all eternity.

There's nothing else.

Love, Lisa

"Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in its spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.” 
― Viktor E. Frankl

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Losing Our Religion

This week there was a USA Today opinion piece ("Losing The Will To Live" 01/29/13) on the accelerating increase in suicide over the last fifty years. While the author doesn't frame it as a mental health issue, she does note how each of the recent mass murders since Columbine (including 9/11) has died or planned to die as part of the attack, having lost a sense of value for their own life and generalizing that death wish to include others whose lives they similarly devalue. She believes this to be evidence of social alienation, the disconnect we feel from each other and our communities. It's a weird thought, but mass murderers used to want to get away.

Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor at the Kennedy School of Government, has done a good job of documenting America's increase in social alienation, starting with his book (Bowling Alone) inspired by his curiosity as to why Americans were still bowling but weren't joining bowling leagues anymore. He tried to put a positive spin on the problem, writing another book and creating a whole social engagement initiative (, which defines the need for people to invest more in social capital:
The term social capital emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and - at least sometimes - for bystanders as well.
The website even has a list of 150 ways to build social capital  which includes things like helping someone change a flat tire and cooking a meal for a sick neighbor.

Time was, we did not need to be reminded of such things.

Last week I wrote of the disconnect between sex and love that seems prevalent in young adults but it's society-wide of course. You cannot go to a bookstore these days without being inundated with sexual messages, not only the age-old sexy magazine covers but the hundreds of books that have been published in the last year that start with sex by chapter 3 and keep it up, almost non-stop, in lieu of plot or writing skill, until the end of the book. Often this sex is with strangers, or near strangers. To me, that is not just social alienation in one of its most extreme forms, but also self-alienation, a full disconnect between our emotional and physical needs and desires.

The obvious question, at least to me, is when did we lose our religion?

Religious organizations are by far the biggest "hub" for social interaction outside of school or work, and the only one of the three dedicated to their members' emotional, social, physical and spiritual welfare, as well as charitable works for others. It helps us be moral, and altruism become instinct (NYT, The Moral Animal, 12/24/12). Without religion, it's much easier to be disconnected from other people, and without a faith that says God is with you at all times, it is easier to feel hopeless and alone.

Polls and census figures over the past decade show an increase in Americans who identify themselves as non-religious, currently about 20%, but this seems an underestimate, since only about 20% of Americans attend religious services regularly (though twice that number report they do).  So 80% of us are not at church on a Sunday. Possibly higher today, when all regularly scheduled activities seem to have been cancelled in celebration of our national holiday, Super Bowl Sunday.

Robert Putnam published his research on religion in 2011, as an outgrowth of his research into social alienation (American Grace). He found that one-third of Americans change religions during their lifetime, and as a group we are highly tolerant, to the point that one-third of Americans marry someone of another faith, convinced that the differences between them can be worked through. Two-faith marriage ceremonies are apparently on the rise.

All very progressive of us as a nation, but believing that all religions have legitimate beliefs and practices also weakens the faith you have that your own religion has tenets you need to survive. I know this is true for me. As a Catholic who attends mass, teaches Sunday School and has shepherded (or strong-armed) my oldest seven children through Confirmation into the faith in 10th grade, I can say first-hand that every Catholic I know enough to discuss these matters with disagrees with one or (typically) more tenets of our faith. Here are some recent statistics by abcnews and the National Catholic Reporter:

  • 88% of American Catholics disagree with the Church's opposition to birth control and condoms
  • 78% disagree with the Church's insistence on weekly mass attendance
  • 70% disagree with the Church's ban on divorce (and subsequent use of excommunication for even the "wronged" spouse)
  • 67% disagree with the Church's ban on married priests
  • 64% disagree with the Church's prohibition on women priests
  • 60% disagree with the Church's stance that premarital sex is morally wrong
  • 60% disagree with the Church's stance that the death penalty is morally wrong
  • 60% disagree with the Church on its opposition to homosexuality 
  • 60% disagree with the Church's position on abortion as wrong even when the mother's life is not at risk (90% or more disagree with it when the mother's life is at risk).
Whether our religion's conservative practices have alienated my kids, or whether they simply don't see the need for religion, they have one-by-one fallen away from attending Church as they become adults. While they may return when they marry and have families, for now they are among the large mass of non-faithful and (perhaps this is a coincidence) largely non-altruistic.

But they're young. They have plenty of time. The above statistics are not just about young people, though. They are people of all ages. I think it's because most questions are phrased as "Do you think you can be a good Catholic and still ________."

I happen to disagree with most of those Church stances too, but I imagine you could put in "have an affair" or "commit fraud" or "beat your kids" and still get a good number of people to endorse those statements. Because we are coming to believe that you can be a good person and still do lots of bad things. And organized religion has lost the authority to tell us "No. You can't." We're not afraid of hell and we're not concerned about heaven so those who attempt moral guidance have lost their heavy-hitters.

We're just doing our own thing, without regard for how it affects other people, or what they think.

Which is, at its core the autonomy/social alienation border.

It's also freedom, the age-old double-edged Roman sword. When our freedom is truly threatened, we unite like there's no tomorrow. That was true after 9/11. And when it's true for years on end, and the threat feels ongoing and imminent, we're incredible. This is what Tom Brokaw wrote in The Greatest Generation:
This generation was united not only by a common purpose, but also by common values--duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country, and, above all, responsibility. 
At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible across the bloodied landscape of France, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and the coral islands of the Pacific. 
They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled, instruments of conquest in the hands of fascist maniacs. They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest. They succeeded on every front. They won the war; they saved the world. 
They came home to joyous and short-lived celebrations and immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted. They married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers...They gave the world new science, literature, art, industry, and economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history. As they now reach the twilight of their adventurous and productive lives, they remain, for the most part, exceptionally modest.

In these times 75 years later, when we are beset by such social alienation that millions of Americans are suicidal, millions more need reminding that it's a good thing to know someone's full name before you have sex with them and needs to remind us it's important to:

3. Register to vote and vote
6. Donate blood (with a friend!)
101. Greet people
115. Share your snow blower

I wonder: which generation was more at risk?

Love, Lisa