Above all thingsPosted: November 4, 2011
Only day 4 of NaBloPoMo (or NaBloWriMo if you prefer), and I’m already having to write my first post that isn’t pre-scheduled or closely edited. Well, the idea was to get me to write more spontaneously and get my thoughts out quickly, so I guess it’s working! Anyone else doing Nano/nablowrimo or some other variant of it?
One of the things that does huge damage to individuals, families, and communities in evangelicalism is the idea that the most important thing is being completely “right” in what you believe and how you go about making decisions. Everything else is secondary to that, and follows from that. People and families who don’t do things the right way are all secretly falling apart and miserable and have “something missing from their lives,” no matter how much they might feel otherwise. People who live “biblically” always have “God-honoring” marriages and families and lives that are complete and blessed, no matter what kind of horror show plays out when there’s no one to perform holiness for. People who follow the rules have blessed lives.
It’s one of the things I’ve really struggled with in my adult life, as someone who mostly tried to follow the script for what I was supposed to do, and how. I didn’t follow it absolutely perfectly. And believe me, I felt plenty of guilt over the various ways I deviated from the rules. Constant guilt.
Which in retrospect seems like another unhealthy and oppressive aspect of this obsession with doing things right – the focus is always on what you’ve done wrong, what you could do better, no matter how much you might have done right the rest of the time. There’s no satisfaction in doing things well, in doing things the right way, because that’s what you were supposed to do in the first pace. You don’t get credit for good things. Only blame for the bad.
Funny enough, it turns out that being able to give oneself credit for the things one has accomplished is actually a sort of important part of maintaining emotional and mental health. Turns out that after a while of focusing on only the bad things about yourself, after years of being trained to talk and write and sing and think about how sinful you are and how even the worst things that happen to you are still better than you deserve…
It becomes really easy to only ever see the “bad” things about yourself (or to realize that the people you trust have a kind of warped sense of what’s “bad” and what’s “good”). And eventually it becomes easy to see yourself as bad. As evil. Not just someone who does bad things, but inherently and solely bad.
I think that keeping people in such a state of constant psychological self-flagellation – and in a state of constantly pointing out the faults of others in the name of “accountability – is a really powerful method of controlling people. When you get people to fundamentally distrust themselves, you make them vulnerable and pliable. Never sure of whether what they see, think, or feel is reflective in any way of reality, and as a result, reliant on others to tell them what they should see, think and feel.
This is what life was like growing up evangelical. It was made explicit that I could never trust myself or my perception of the world, not even my own feelings. Especiallynot my own feelings, actually, because feelings were fickle and rooted in the flesh, not in the spirit. Because, as we were frequently reminded, “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” [Jeremiah 17:9]
This didn’t give me a complex about myself, or anything.
I mean, it’s true, feelings are subjective and they can be fickle. On their own they’re not the most reliable indicator of what the world is really like or how we should behave. Sometimes our feelings lead us the wrong way. But what I was taught went in the opposite direction – the pastors and care group leaders and my parents not only taught me to ignore and suppress my feelings, but often implied if not outright advised that doing the exact opposite of what my feelings told me was the “godly” thing to do.
Turns out running away from one’s feelings isn’t the best way of dealing with them. Turns out growing up to be an adult whose reflex is to constantly question and distrust her feelings and instincts in every situation kind of sucks.