How are sex and raw chicken similar? As Rachel Blackston says, both are “messy, sometimes bloody, and the rules of consumption seem unclear.”
Check out this beautiful article written by a respected colleague of mine over on Red Tent Living!:
PART 4 (edit Christian-ese)
The Glory of Sexuality
Lastly, Sharon said something else on that first day of class that has been transforming my worldview ever since. She said,
“By the time all of you graduate and become counselors, you will be experts at spotting brokenness in people. And that is not what good counseling is! Good counseling is about seeing, naming, and inviting forth the glory in people.”
Glory is a word that is usually only heard in religious contexts, but you don’t have to be religious to use it. It just means magnificence or beauty or goodness. The “glory” of a thing is the absolute best that that thing is capable of. To call forth someone’s glory is to invite them to be their best possible self.
Sharon helped me to realize that, in fact, love is about seeing, naming, and inviting forth glory—in everything. This can include naming—sometimes even boldly —what has gone wrong. But it is always with a view towards the manifestation of the best possible outcome if everything were to be put right.
This is not easy to do. In the real world where things really do sometimes go terribly wrong, evil shouts and goodness whispers. Curse words written in graffiti grab our attention; professions of love fade into the background. When we are insulted or shamed, it can sting for decades; compliments and praise can roll of our back and be easily forgotten. And so, it’s not surprising that many people—especially religious groups—have often specialized in naming what can go wrong with sexuality. It takes effort to remain focused on what is beautiful rather than what is ugly. Reality doesn’t “ask permission” to be itself, and quite often it accosts us with ugliness, harm, and cruelty.
And yet… And yet there are other possibilities as well: other possibilities besides evil and violation. There is such a thing as love. There are good encounters with otherness that can jolt you awake and make you realize you’ve been half asleep, barely living, disconnected from your truest self. There is a possibility of experiencing pleasure, delight, and transcendent meaning.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent years of his life in a slave labor camp in Soviet Russia. The environment was soul-killing. He writes of a moment that would sometimes come after many days of being lost in the darkness of the “raging evil spirit” that seemed to possess life in the camp: He would overhear someone softly singing a song,
“And something would stir within you; Life . . . exists! It exists!”
This. It is possible that a sudden encounter with glory could wake you up and bring you alive. I think this is precisely what sexuality is for.
I am hoping that just that possibility will inspire you to hope as you take a deeper look at sexuality and ask, “What is it, really? What story is this meant to tell me about reality?”
I’ve been writing about the invitation I received from one of my grad school professors to pay attention to my sensitivity and discomfort with regard to sexuality rather than just trying to overcome it. (Scroll down to the previous posts to see what I’m talking about.) I want to say a little more about what I discovered in myself as a result of those words.
Sharon’s words gently exposed me—but they didn’t mock me for feeling uncomfortable about sexuality. Her words invited me to be kind and curious with myself. And what did I find? I found that, more deeply than I had realized, sexuality was still “profane” in my mind and heart. The sensitivity and arousal that come with being seen and known were realities that I had not grappled with and celebrated as deeply as I had thought.
I had presumed that being able to say, “Sex is awesome! God made sex!” meant that I had moved beyond shame about sexuality. (The kind of shame that is exemplified by the Bible story of Adam and Eve realizing they were naked in the Garden of Eden—and then covering their genitals.) I hadn’t known that the goal wasn’t to “get past” my sensitivity, but to welcome it and become familiar with it. After all, as the story goes, when God found Adam and Eve in the garden, he didn’t rip off their fig leaf coverings and demand that they be comfortable in their nakedness; he tenderly provided them with better, fuller coverings made from the skin of animals. This indicates that, yes, it would be good for us to be “naked and unashamed”: but the path to overcoming shame is patient and gentle, not abrupt and violent.
Life and sexuality are all about what happens in a world that consists of Self (“me”) and Other (“not me”): all the mystery, exhilaration, delight, vulnerability, and— as long as we live in a broken world—terror and discomfort that you experience when you encounter something other than yourself. In any encounter with otherness, all of these feelings are present in some recipe. Maturity isn’t about getting rid of all the discomfort; it’s about becoming acquainted with it, and tending to it with kindness.
The culmination of reality is relationship: knowing and being known at that frontier where I end and everything else begins. This intimacy can only occur when the eyes that see me are seeing me with kindness, and when, instead of closing my eyes and turning my face away in shame, I can stand in my “nakedness” and receive that loving gaze.
Growing in sexuality is about becoming more and more able to receive that gaze.
In my previous post I shared the challenge that I received from Sharon Hersh, the brilliant teacher of my Sexuality and Sex Therapy class when I was in counseling school. I want to repeat these words now as something for you to consider:
“If you’re uncomfortable, be curious about your discomfort. What does it tell you about yourself? If you’re not uncomfortable, be curious about that, too. What does that say about you? About what you believe about sex?”
When I think about what it would be like to face my discomfort, I expect a very rough and unpleasant process: I expect it to mean that I’m supposed to power through my discomfort. But powering through discomfort is actually ignoring discomfort, not facing it. Facing your discomfort means slowing down enough to actually sit with it and get to know it.
I hope that you, dear reader, will take those words to heart. When you encounter something about sexuality—either in the world or in yourself— that makes you feel sensitive or uncomfortable, honor those feelings. Pay attention.
Going deeper in your relationship with sexuality, then, requires a delicate balance: It’s not helpful to charge ahead and “get it over with” while hoping that your sensitivity and discomfort will soon callous over. The goal isn’t to be able to talk and think about sex like it’s no different from the morning weather report. But it’s also not helpful to altogether avoid things that make you uncomfortable. If you do that, you miss out on what your sensitivity is trying to teach you about sexuality and about yourself, and you lose the possibility of experiencing new forms of goodness.
So, there must be a willingness to say both “no” and yes” when the moment calls for one or the other. There must be enough self-attunement to know when to say “a little more” and when to say “a little less.” There must be room for both boldness and tenderness.
Honoring your discomfort means an awareness that nothing good will be gained either from a self-violating determination to bear everything all at once, or from prudishly burying your head in the sand. With sexuality, it is essential that there be permission for intimacy —even self-intimacy—to grow as slowly as the opening of a flower.
When I went to grad school to get my Masters in Counseling, the very first class I was required to take was a week-long intensive called “Sexuality and Sex Therapy”. (The first class! What a way to begin getting to know my classmates!)
Before the class started, I assumed I had a pretty healthy view of sex. But my inner discomfort with sex and sexuality was exposed very quickly. The professor, Sharon Hersh, was not crass or obscene; she was honoring, vibrant, and tactful in her use of the full vocabulary of sexuality and sexual brokenness. She talked freely and beautifully about orgasm, genital sex, oral sex, and arousal, not to mention impotence, inorgasmia, sexual pain, and other forms of sexual dysfunction.
As she did so, I could feel myself involuntarily smiling like a teenager in a sex ed class. (I was twenty-six.) I tried to suppress my smile, because I knew it reflected something unhealthy in me. I didn’t want my classmates to see my immaturity. But even if nobody else saw it, I was exposed to myself.
Thankfully, Sharon was a gracious and wise teacher. She named the beautiful truth that sexuality is about our longing to be seen and known, as well as our fear of it. In other words, she said, it is about our sensitivity to encounters with otherness. Arousal—of both the body and the soul—requires sensitivity. Becoming aware of our sexuality includes an invitation to become aware of and curious about the particularities of our sensitivity.
As for me, my smile didn’t just reveal my immaturity; it also revealed my sensitivity! And the goal of maturity isn’t to become “desensitized,” as if I should be able to sit in a room and hear explicit descriptions of sexual behavior like it’s no different than the morning weather report. In fact, it is desensitization that kills the ability to be aroused—to orgasm or to any other form of delight, awe, or gratitude. Desensitization strips sex of all ceremony and lowers it to something commonplace.
So, on that day in Sharon’s class, I was both exposed and blessed by Sharon. I was exposed by the way she unashamedly named glorious and mysterious realities about sex, arousing in me an undifferentiated mass of feelings that I had not yet explored—resulting in my uncomfortable smile. And I was blessed by the way she normalized my arousal: I was meant to be sensitive to reality. More specifically, just as the whole body is sensitive to being touched but the genitals are particularly and uniquely sensitive to touch, I am meant to be particularly and uniquely sensitive to truth about sexuality.
Sharon’s blessing to me came in the form of these words: “If you’re uncomfortable, be curious about your discomfort. What does it tell you about yourself? If you’re not uncomfortable, be curious about that, too. What does that say about you? About what you believe about sex?”
People often expect that my job is to tell them what to do or give them good advice. Certainly there is wisdom that comes out of counseling sessions. But the goal is not for clients to rely on the wisdom and expertise that I can offer.
It is much better to work to remove the blocks that get in the way of you developing and using the inner resources that are already available to you. Counseling is at its best when people are discovering—with surprise and delight—the ways that they have been unknowingly blocking themselves from awareness of their own intuitions.
If therapy were about following my “advice”, then you would just be learning to live your life the same way I live mine. That’s a terrible goal: One, because I’m not perfect, and two, because you’re not me! But if you get in touch with your own intuitions, you can start living your life as you would live it if you were really in touch with your best self. Now that is a fantastic goal.
[The above image was originally posted by The Mindful Dietitian, and was shared by a good friend of mine, Rebecca Schmitke, who is a fantastic dietitian. Obviously I slightly edited it and co-opted it for my own purposes because it’s awesome.]