Don’t stay together for the kids

Couples don’t have to remain married to enjoy the golden years

The Rev. Bob Oshita of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento.

The Rev. Bob Oshita of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento.

Photo by Andrew Nilsen

I found out by snooping that my 60-year-old father is having an affair. I feel shocked and devastated, and now I don’t know what to do. I haven’t told anyone except my husband, but I’d like to confront my dad and get him to clean up his act so that he and my mom are still together in their golden years. What do I do?

“Her parents may not be together to enjoy their golden years,” said the Rev. Bob Oshita, of the Buddhist Church of Sacramento. He pointed out that the questioner was only being self-centered. “She should think about asking her dad, ‘How are you and Mom doing? Are you happy?’ Maybe there are some serious issues and they shouldn’t be together. You only dance this dance once; why do you want someone who’s stepping on your toes all the time?”

The Rev. Doretha Williams-Flournoy, minister at downtown’s A Church For All, took another perspective, noting that “at the age of 60, people who have been together a long period of time develop rules and ways of being with one another that violate the relationship stereotypes. … We think of relationships as being these very boxy caricatures, like the Cleavers. But people do relationships in a number of different ways. Rules can be broken. It’s not that you’re violating the commitment of safety and love, but in adapting strategies that will help feed and keep that thing alive, you come away from the rule book.”

Flournoy has ample experience with breaking social rules. As “a child of segregation and desegregation” in South Central Los Angeles in the ’60s, Flournoy was the promise of her parents, themselves children of sharecroppers. In her low-income community, “the perception of God was of something unattainable—the father who was unavailable, who you had to go and meet on Sunday morning at the church, who you had to do certain things to engage, afraid you would lose the relationship if you’re not right.”

The Rev. Doretha Williams-Flournoy of A Church For All.

Photo by Andrew Nilsen

Her spiritual crisis occurred after she returned from doing academic research in Nigeria, married and with two children. She and her husband decided to separate, and “he came out as gay man, and I came out as a lesbian.”

Flournoy found spiritual community within Metropolitan Community Churches, and eventually accepted her destiny as a pastor. A year-and-a-half ago, she followed the call to plant a multicultural church downtown, creating “a safe space for GLBT people of color.”

Oshita (or “Rev. Bob,” as his parishioners call him) also grew up during a period of racial adversity. Raised Buddhist in the mass hysteria of post-World War II San Francisco (“not a great time to be Japanese”), he attended UC Berkeley in the ’60s, where a psychology class posed the question, “What’s Buddhism all about?” That’s when he realized, “I had no clue.”

“Religion doesn’t become meaningful until we have real life questions,” said Oshita. He decided to pursue Buddhism as a study, and found that “it’s essentially agnostic. It’s not a theology, not a god, not a creator, not a destroyer, not about control. Buddha is a title, like professor. It literally means ‘one who is awake.’

“If Buddhism is anything, it’s quite sensible,” Oshita went on. “It’s not a belief system, so it’s not really religion. It’s not subjective, so it’s not philosophy. … When people, especially students, come to me to understand Buddhism, one of their first questions is, ‘What do Buddhists believe?’ There’s a need to want to come to conclusions. My response is, ‘Buddhism believes that we should believe absolutely nothing.’ Everything that I teach is not for anyone to believe. It’s for you to test. Is it true? Does it make sense? And if it does, then use it. If it doesn’t, then don’t use it. But please don’t believe anything I say.”

One of the first tests Oshita received as a young minister 24 years ago was a question of fidelity. A 60-year-old man asked him, “Sensei, what would you say if I told you I was having an affair?” To the man’s surprise, Oshita replied, “Are you enjoying it? … Because if you’re not enjoying it, then I have to ask you, ‘Why are you doing it?’ And if you are enjoying it, well, this is your life. But you must be able to accept the consequences of your actions. We have to be accountable for our karmic activity. If you do this, there will be consequences and you have to accept them. And if you can do that, it’s not for me to judge. It’s not about right and wrong. It’s about ‘What is your path?’”