Perhaps one of the first changes I made when I reached the crisis was that I stopped wearing underwear. I do still wear t-shirts most of the time, but they aren't really underwear to me. They are shirts. But they used to be underwear in my thinking. Even t-shirts covered a part of my body that I was ashamed to let people see. That's the thing with underwear. It covers those parts of your body that you don't want people to see. The original intent of underwear is to serve as a buffer between our outer clothes and those areas of our body which we consider to be the dirtiest or the smelliest. If we start to smell we can always change our underwear. We don't have to change our clothes too. But even this view acknowledges that there are parts of our body which are dirtier and stink more than the rest of us.
Step one in my mid-life crisis was to eliminate this kind of thinking from my daily life. My body isn't a dirty thing. I drive old cars and have worked on my own cars since I was a teenager. Those are dirty. Working on cars is where a man meets dirt! The same can be said for gardening or carpentry or plumbing. One of the filthiest things I have ever done was when I worked on televisions. The high voltage of a television picture tube combined with the air circulation involved in keeping all the electronics cool turns the inside of a television set into an air filter drawing in and storing some of the worst imaginable kinds of dirt from the air inside our homes. That situation is compounded exponentially if the viewer smokes while watching television. Part of my job was to clean out the insides and even the outsides of the old television sets that came in for repair.
The point is, I know the meaning of dirty. I've learned it from decades of experience. But as to the other meaning of the word, I used to think there were parts of my body that were by nature "dirty." Mothers have a way of teaching us such things and my mother wasn't negligent in that respect. I learned to respect the need for underwear.
Back in the 60s and 70s when women decided to become liberated, one thing they did to demonstrate their new liberation was to burn bras. I didn't think much about the symbolism of this act of defiance at the time. My mind was more on hoping I might catch a glimpse of the outline of a woman's nipples through her blouse. Seeing women's nipples was a very rare experience for me in my youth but I was aware of the intoxication of men by the beauty of women. Liberated women might have a problem with that male notion, but to me, that's just the point. Women who burned their bras weren't so much saying they wanted liberation from the rules that govern women. They were saying their breasts and their nipples are by nature beautiful, not something dirty. Shedding that piece of underwear revealed a woman's natural beauty. It didn't expose something ugly that should be kept from sight.
Somewhere just before my 50th birthday I realized that the same holds true of my own private parts. I had never known this before, but I discovered that if I took off all my clothes, if I presented myself naturally, there are women in this world who wouldn't think I was ugly, who wouldn't see me as dirty. Those parts of me that are normally covered with underwear aren't as dirty as I'd been led since my childhood to believe. Taking off my underwear was liberating! So that's what I did. Oh sure, sometimes I wear underwear, but I don't like doing it and when I'm wearing underwear I just can't wait to take it back off.
You may have guessed that I might be going somewhere with this discussion. I am. I have been thinking about this week's situation with Ted Haggard, the conservative Christian leader disgraced by charges of drug use, infidelity to his wife, homosexuality, and illegal sex with a prostitute. As of yesterday, Haggard remains publicly in denial of anything other than being tempted by drugs.
It dawned on me this morning that some of us tend to live as though our souls wear underwear. Haggard had this public image of a respectable Christian leader pompously asserting his right to preach and model righteousness. We all understand that beneath that exterior veneer, beneath the suit, there is another layer, that of a family man. But Haggard has shown us that this second layer is just another layer of clothes. This is his underwear. This notion that he is a healthy heterosexual family man with a beautiful wife of the opposite sex with whom he shares intimacy is underwear. If we look at the man without his suit, this is what we are meant to see.
But it is beginning to look like Haggard has been caught without his underwear. Being ashamed, he quickly put his underwear back on and insisted that he is still clean, still a good family man faithfully married to a beautiful person of the opposite sex. He doesn't have anything filthy going on beneath this layer. Perhaps that's true. Perhaps he doesn't. But the point he is magnifying is this. What he is being accused of doing is filthy in the minds of right-minded conservatives and righteous Christians. Whenever we look beneath the underwear, and heaven forbid that we do, what we will find is filth.
Perhaps better than anything else, this situation models conservative thinking. Conservatives tend to be OK with the filth just as long as it remains out of sight. That layer of denial that says that we aren't in reality the filthy beings that we would appear to be if we stood naked is our underwear, our protection. In the conservative mind, denial is the key. Without it we would live in disgrace. We would be forced to face our own filth.
My own mid-life crisis was the turning point for me, the transition point from this conservative thinking to liberation. For a decade now I have been asking myself why it is that I should believe in my own filth and why it is that I should believe that the things other people choose to do are filthy. This notion that things are just dirty, that dirt can be covered by a fresh layer of clean clothes, no longer works for me. By my own choice I have decided to face the naked truth about myself and about the world in which I live. By my own choice I have been liberating my soul.
And maybe that is what we refer to these days when we talk about being a liberal... maybe not, but just maybe so.
It's not as though I walk around naked all the time. Far from it. Nobody I know lives that way. But I want to live my life in such a way that when I do choose to shed the outer layer, to take off the suit that makes me suitable to be in public, I am then the real me, not someone cloaked in denial ashamed of what lies beneath.