When “Congratulations” isn’t the best response to pregnancy

A few days ago, I was reading a post about “The One Thing to Tell Pregnant Moms: Congratulations.” All moms-to-be, the author says, should hear congratulations. Teen mothers, older mothers, those with many children: these women all deserve to hear “congratulations.” They do not need to hear our commentary on their size, their age, their family’s size, the age of the other children in the family, or any other random comment that emerges from our open mouths.

I understood her point. I agree with her point. But I chafed a little, too.

When I meet a pregnant woman, “congratulations” is not the first thing that comes to mind. “Happy” is not the adjective that comes to mind, either.

The reason is simple. Neither of my pregnancies were happy times in my life.

I wanted them to be. Believe me, I did. I love my children!

But I spent much of my first pregnancy wondering what was wrong with me that I wasn’t happy. Why I was swinging, endlessly, relentlessly swinging, from irritability to despair. Why I was so frightened. Why I couldn’t keep my moods under control. Why I couldn’t trust my own mind to tell me the truth. Why none of the pregnancy manuals mentioned this particular symptom of pregnancy. Why I wished–often thought–my life was over. Why my husband was afraid I wouldn’t be alive when he returned from work.

Why, when I hinted to outsiders about my inner turmoil, they dismissed my feelings.

“That’s just normal. Pregnant women are always moody,” I was told. “Dreary, cheery, and weary! Those are the three trimesters. You’ll hit cheery soon enough, so cheer up! Congratulations!”

Instead, I hit week 29.

In both pregnancies, week 29 was when my moods hit a sharp curve and careened headlong into the mountain of mental illness. With the first pregnancy, I got a diagnosis (bipolar II), proof that my moods weren’t “normal,” medication, a stack of literature on the subject, and a church that rejected me. With the second pregnancy, I got more medication and more sympathy. (Different church, different attitude.)

“Congratulations”? That was the last thing I wanted to hear.

Now that my pregnancy days are finished, I look at other pregnant women and wonder if “congratulations” is what they want to hear. For most of them, it is. But for a few, it isn’t.

I look in their faces and I wonder how many of them are frightened, just like I was; depressed and out of control, like I was; vaguely aware that something is wrong but not knowing what it is; trying to say the words but not being understood; wondering if anyone will understand or if they will suffer alone. Just like I was.

I wonder, too, what question I might ask that would enable that woman to answer honestly and freely. Yes, I’m depressed. Yes, my thoughts scare me. Yes, my moods are uncontrollable. Yes, I need help, and I don’t know where or who or what might help me. 

For those of you who haven’t experienced this, congratulations. Have happy (or at least) normal pregnancies and consult What to Expect When You’re Expecting all you want.

For others, though, my experiences feel uncomfortably familiar. It may be mental illness. It could be many other things leading to a tumultuous pregnancy.

I want you to know that you’re not alone. There is help available. There are people who understand, who will not dismiss your feelings and thoughts, who will love you and your baby.

Here’s some resources to get started:

Kitt O’Malley has gathered a list of great organizations that help those with mental illnesses. NAMI has some pages dedicated to information about mental illnesses and pregnancy: bipolar disorder; depression; other pregnancy considerations for women with psychiatric histories.

Please feel free to suggest other links in the comments and to share your story.   

 

Categories: mental illness | Tags: , | 8 Comments

Violence in fiction: what is the purpose of describing crime scenes?

(This is an update of a book review I wrote this past summer and posted on Goodreads.)

“‘They’ll want him to be mad, of course,’ Lazlo mused, not hearing me. ‘The doctors here, the newspapers, the judges; they’d like to think that only a madman would shoot a five-year-old girl in the head. It creates certain . . . difficulties, if we are forced to accept that our society can produce sane men who commit such acts.’” (Caleb Carr, The Alienist, page 33)

This passage resonates with me and seems relevant, not only for the book’s major themes, but for our time as well. How many times is a terrible crime committed and the immediate response is: oh, that person must be crazy, insane, mentally ill!

No one likes to think that someone who is sane could do something that heinous.

That implies that the criminal is one of us, like us.

That creates the possibility that we could become like him.

That means we’re capable of doing the heinous act we’ve just condemned.

And that means we’re capable of doing anything.

Disturbing, indeed.

Even though I reject the idea that society alone produces evil within our hearts, it’s still a disturbing idea that I could commit an evil crime. When I examine my own heart, trying to see how I would behave if I didn’t have the restraining, regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, it’s alarming what I imagine myself capable of doing.

Lazlo is the alienist of the book’s title, a psychiatrist in a time when psychiatry was viewed with suspicion, a non-scientific, disreputable profession. (As if it’s ever been completely accepted by everyone!) He is called in to investigate a horrific murder of a young male prostitute. Along with a ragtag assortment of other people, he works to create a profile of the murderer from the details of the murder victim’s body and circumstances.

Back when I was starting to write fiction (in high school), I heard about this novel. It was praised and I was mildly interested, but I never got around to it until now.

I’m torn on how to rate this book. On the one hand, it held my attention for the two days I spent reading it.

I enjoyed the historical details, as well as the exploration of contemporary ideas about criminal behavior, mental illness, and the intersection of the two.

The young victims are male child prostitutes, and I found the contemporary attitudes toward sex trafficking interesting to read about. It’s tragic that the United States preferred to ignore both child prostitution and the poverty that drove many kids to sell themselves. (Is the past tense truly an accurate one?) What was once some flat, impersonal facts in a history book came alive for me in Carr’s novel.

However, I disliked the detailed description of the murder victims’ bodies. It was disturbing, as it was obviously intended and needed to be. It was also necessary, given that the entire premise revolved around Lazlo & company’s attempt to profile the murderer based on the details of the murders (including the mutilated bodies).

I’m not typically squeamish. I have a high tolerance for graphic content, provided that it is there for a significant reason—showing the evils of slavery, for example, or the horrors of a death camp—and not just to be obscene for the sake of biting the thumb at would-be censors. So when I say this was detailed, I’m not being prudish; it really was disturbingly detailed.

But that raises some questions for me about this book and other murder mysteries.

Does using something as horrible as a murder for entertainment an acceptable thing? (I could apply the question to any terrible thing, such as rape, suicide, war, etc.)

Does it desensitize the reader to the horrible nature of ending another person’s life, leading to a callous attitude when confronted with it in real life?

Is there a benefit to fictionalizing crimes? Can these graphic descriptions bring our attention to the human cost of crime? Does our new awareness prompt us to act on behalf of victims or not?

Does the effect depend upon the author’s attitude or motivation?

I believe in the sanctity of life. How does this worldview affect the reading graphic descriptions of lives abused and violated? Is there enough of a positive benefit to outweigh the negative?

What does this mean for my own fiction?

I’m not sure. These are questions I’ve been bothered by since junior high school.

Add to that the very detailed nature of the victims’ bodies in this book, and I’m disturbed even more. Many of the victims are first seen after their death. They exist only as victims, not as full-fledged characters (fictionalized humans). It’s standard practice in this genre, but it has the effect of dehumanizing the victims and making me almost indifferent to their (fictional) deaths. Is this acceptable? Good? Bad? What benefit can there be in this?

I really don’t know. Thoughts?

Categories: book reviews, writing | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

“I’ll do it myself!” (Thoughts on control freaks)

Yesterday, I was in the church nursery, reading to a pair of almost-two-year-old girls. I was on the floor, back against a wall, one child on my thigh, the other by my side. I read a page and turned the page. Or tried to, at least. One little girl took the page I had just turned, turned it to the former page and promptly turned it to the next one: the same thing I had done five seconds earlier. Though she remained silent, it sent a clear message: I’ll do it myself!

It reminded me of my late grandmother. One afternoon, many years ago, she and a few other family members sat at their dining room table, chatting. “Oh, I need more iced tea,” she said.

My grandfather tried to take it from her. “I’ll get it.”

My grandma clutched the empty glass, stood up, and declared, “I’m seventy-four years old, and I can get it myself!”

Mom and my aunt applauded. My grandfather looked bewildered. I laughed. My grandmother trotted to the kitchen and returned, triumphantly bearing the now-filled iced tea glass, like newly-crowned champions holding up their new trophy after the winning game.

My grandfather, bless him, is a bit of a control freak. Okay, a huge control freak. (Or he was until his dementia reduced him to dependency on the nursing home staff.) All my life, I’ve seen him try to control situations and my grandmother.

“Here, Evelyn, let me get that.” “No, Evelyn, you can’t do that. I’ll do it.” “I’ll do this (fill in the blank with a thing that you can do perfectly well yourself) for you (whether or not you want me to).”

Open the car door for you. Correct your mistakes. Refill the iced tea glass.

Nice things or not-so-nice things: it didn’t really matter. What mattered was the dependency. Who was in charge, and who wasn’t.

So for my grandmother to stand on her two aged feet and assert independence was a thing to be applauded.

We all recognize controlling people. They exist everywhere. Churches. Schools. Workplaces. Literature is filled with manipulative, reduce-you-to-dependency people:

Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. He persuades his crew to join his quest for revenge on the whale that destroyed his leg. The lone voice of dissent, his first mate, is silenced. His pleas to Ahab aren’t as powerful as the captain’s obsessive, blood-thirsty rhetoric.

Dorothea’s husband in Middlemarch. He tries to bind her to a foolish promise, one that would give her wealth and security, but deny her the right to marry the man she loves.

Lady Macbeth, persuading her husband to kill Duncan. The competing magicians in The Night Circus, who orchestrate the training, events, and interactions of their proteges’ lives, until the proteges inconveniently fall in love with each other. The chancery court in Bleak House, whose generations-long delay of action in Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce leads to disaster for the unfortunate family.

Alec and Angel Clare in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Rebecca (and her overly loyal servant, Mrs. Danvers) in Rebecca. The murderers in whodunits, controlling other people in the most extreme way possible: ending the victims’ lives.

All those Greek gods of the myths. They loved to play god with mortals’ lives. Oh, wait, they were gods in those stories. (They remind me of overgrown teenagers with too few morals and too much power.)

The controllers use whatever they have. Bodies. Words. Wealth. All becomes weapons. The controller distorts them until their original purposes are lost. So few of us think of bodies or wealth as good things, and a good many of us are leery of the power of words. We’ve heard them wound as often as we’ve heard them encourage.

Sometimes I wonder if we think of God as a control freak.

When my grandmother asserted her independence against a controlling man, it was a healthy thing.

When we assert our independence against God, it’s an entirely different matter.

If he’s in charge, we think, why do bad things happen?

and

If he’s in charge, he must be bad to let bad things happen.

and

If he’s in charge, isn’t that just another way of saying he’s a control freak? And I don’t trust control freaks, I don’t trust anyone who tells me what to do, I don’t trust him.

So we snatch back the empty iced tea glass of our lives, saying defiantly, “I’ll do it myself!” Then we wonder why we can’t find the tea pitcher that will fill our lives with meaning and purpose.

We search for meaning in words: advertising, propaganda, philosophies, speeches designed to slander or divide or persuade others to violence, books filled with nonsensical advice or stories emptied of meaning.

(Yet Christ is the Word, the One who was God and was with God and was from the beginning.)

We search for meaning in bodily pleasures: sex, thrills, food, physical achievements for the sake of fame or fortune.

-or-

We conclude that bodies are bad: hurting our bodies, abusing other bodies, forcing others to unnecessarily cover their flesh, denying food to ourselves or others, killing.

(Yet that Word became flesh, humbling himself to become fully human while fully God.)

We search for meaning in wealth: make money to make more money, consume for ourselves and not care for others, climb a social ladder that shouldn’t exist.

(Yet that God-in-human body rejected the wealth and status that were rightfully his, coming to earth as a commoner, humble and poor, and taught us the path to real wealth—eternal riches—was through him.)

All the while, that tea glass remains empty. And the pitcher sits silently on the counter, waiting for us to realize that our glass is still empty. Waiting for us to be willing to allow it to fill us to overflowing.

“I’ll do it myself!”

Who is the control freak?

Those people around us?

Those we hate?

Those we love to hate?

Those characters in books or movies?

Me?

Categories: Christianity | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Christmas Future: an unmourned death and a lesson learned

The Spirit of Christmas Future is showing Scrooge the reactions of those who hear of a certain man’s death–Scrooge’s death, though he doesn’t realize it.

No one is sorry, apparently. The gentlemen on the street corners find the news both amusing and boring. Those in the pawn shop gleefully ridicule his linens and underclothes, mocking the dead man’s stinginess. The man’s debtors are relieved to hear of the death; surely his successor will not be as unrelenting a creditor, surely there will be mercy for their debt now.

When the Spirit takes Scrooge into the bedchamber of the dead, Scrooge cannot bear to look at the abandoned, unmourned body of the unknown man. He cannot look at the man’s face to find out his identity, but he thinks,

“if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard dealing, griping cares? They have brought him to a rich end, truly!

“He lay, in the dark empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child, to say he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him. A cat was tearing at the door, and there was a sound of gnawing rats beneath the hearth-stone. What they wanted in the room of death, and why they were so restless and disturbed, Scrooge did not dare to think.”

–Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, chapter 4

His greed, his hoarding of money, his unmerciful, selfish treatment of others: he’ll die unmourned. It’s a sad ending of a life wasted on all the wrong pursuits.

That’s not how anyone wants to die. But many of us live our lives as if we care more for money (or other treasures) than others, and essentially waste our lives like Scrooge did.

But there’s always hope for change. There’s hope yet that Scrooge will learn his lesson and be a changed man.

Categories: quotations | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

“It is a thing that can be spoken of”

In the historical mystery Anatomy of Murder, Harriet Westerman’s husband has suffered a horrible blow to his head, leaving him in a volatile and sometimes violent state. Now residing in an asylum run by a compassionate and wise doctor, he is slowly stabilizing. (By 18th century standards, this asylum is remarkable in its compassionate and healthy attitude toward the mentally ill; it’s the best of its kind, the characters note.)

The doctor encourages her to take their children to visit their father. Harriet, though, is afraid. What if Stephen, age seven, always remembers his father in this sadly altered state?

Her friend Crowther recommends following the doctor’s suggestion. Stephen will have Harriet and other family members to correct any wrong perceptions about his father’s character, even if Westerman doesn’t recover. He adds,

“He must know it is a thing that can be spoken of.”

That last line struck me with considerably force. So often when I read other people’s stories of their dealings with mental illness (their own or a loved one’s), there’s this sense of secrecy.

I’ve overheard close acquaintances ask friends about a particular relative who has bipolar I. “We just don’t talk about him,” was the reply.

Another person said that her mother never let the family discuss her sister’s bipolar disorder at church or anywhere else. It was a secret, not fit for “polite society.”

Like many secrets, it bred shame. It also made it difficult—impossible!—for the family to receive the support they needed.

Unhelpful.

I say this with some caution, because I know that everyone’s stories are different. I don’t want my experience to blind me to the reality that some relationships are toxic, people can be judgmental and hurtful, and it wouldn’t necessarily be safe for some people to be as open about their mental issues as I am.

But everyone deals with something.

Everyone needs a safe place to talk about that issue. It can be spoken of. It does not have to remain a secret.

That’s not to say that everyone needs to see (and smell) my dirty laundry strung out on the clothesline, stains and all, and flapping around in the wind. That’s not wise.

There are definite limits to what I will share online. You’re not going to read my middle-of-the-episode, not-quite-logical writings while I’m in the middle of that episode. For me, I find that would make it too easy for me to hurt someone else or damage relationships.

Choose who you tell wisely; choose what you share wisely, too.

There are levels of how much information I share with the various circles of people in my life.

My blog readers: you know the basic facts and a few details of my past episodes.

My church and people at my daughters’ school: they know the basic facts. (Bipolar II—I usually have to define it—take meds—currently stable.)

Closer friends: how these basic facts affect my life. (Here’s what a depressive episode looks like for me—here’s what hypomania or a mixed episode look like for me—please intervene if I’m not acting like normal-Laura.)

Family members (my parents and husband) and my doctors: lots and lots of things.

God: Um, I think he already knows everything, but I still share it with him anyway!

It’s a little like getting a security clearance for the government. There’s levels of who can know what and when and where and how. People have to be approved to gain that clearance level. They have to be proven trustworthy.

But I don’t feel that my bipolar disorder has to be a top secret, confidential, classified topic. I talk about it openly and casually, particularly with people I’m comfortable with. I’m fortunate that my family is understanding and supportive.

When I write about it, I want to send this message:

I have a mental illness, but I’m so much more than my illness.

You might not understand my particular difficulties.

That’s okay.

If you ask questions, I’ll answer as honestly as I can.

It’s okay to talk about this.

Some secrets should be shared.

That’s how healing begins.

It’s something that can be spoken of.


 

(Quote from Imogen Robertson, Anatomy of Murder, pg.149)

Categories: mental illness | Tags: , , , | 16 Comments

Thoughts for when we feel alone in fighting for justice

Sometimes we feel alone. It’s as if we’re the only person standing against an army of opposition, with no one leading us, no one standing with us, no one protecting our backs. It’s scary.

Recently, I’ve felt this way. Some of my views put me in awkward positions with other conservative Christians. While I feel strongly about gender equality in the church, it’s hard to be the only person saying, “That’s not right!” to a roomful of people with the opposite conviction. It’s hard to speak up. I never know if anyone will agree with me.

I feel alone.

It may be a spiritual conviction that puts us at odds with other people.

It may be speaking out for justice when silence would be easier, and when silence is encouraged by others.

It may be a secret feeling that no one else in the entire world deals with the same fear, the same anxiety, the same burden that we wrestle in the dark places of our soul.

It may be any number of things causing the feeling, but the feeling is the same.

We’re alone. We’re afraid.

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch faces crowds of unfriendly faces multiple times. At one point, the lawyer sits at the door of the jail housing his black client (a man wrongly accused of rape), staring down a group of white men who want access to this man, Tom Robinson. He stands in the doorway, refusing to let them in.

The newspaper editor, Mr. Underwood, is upstairs, watching from a window, his gun ready to fight. But Atticus doesn’t know this.

It’s a tense scene.

Oddly, what turns the mob away is the interference of Atticus’s young daughter Scout. She recognizes one of the men in the mob and begins babbling, all friendly-like and southern polite sweetness, about his legal entailment and the hickory nuts he once brought to their house and his son, a fellow classmate of her’s. “Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?”

A long awkward moment.

Then the man tells Scout, yes, he’ll say ‘hey’ for her. At that, he calls to the rest of the mob to clear out.

The tension is diffused by a child.

The mob is driven away by a child’s appeal to a man’s humanity.

The lawyer who believes he is alone has others with him: children at his side, a man with a shotgun backing him up, and a town full of African-Americans who are grateful for his futile effort to defend Tom Robinson from the false charges.

Later, after the jury returns the inevitable guilty verdict, Atticus leaves the courtroom in haste. Scout, watching in the “colored” balcony, sees her father walk quickly down the middle aisle. He doesn’t look up.

“Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.

‘Miss Jean Louise?’

I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:

‘Miss jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.”

–Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird, chapter 21

This scene never fails to move my heart. Yet another time, Atticus feels alone. He’s the only white man who has openly spoken for justice on behalf of a wrongly accused man. The guilty verdict is unjust, and everyone in the courtroom knows it, including those who have just sentenced a man to death.

But he’s not alone. Unseen by him, there are those who honor his attempt to fight for justice. There are others who agree with him; the sheriff, for example, the judge who appointed Atticus as Tom’s lawyer, and the handful of folks who believe all people should have fair trials. Some of them cannot speak out because of their roles in the judicial process or because they have not been given a voice. But they are still there.

Atticus may be the lone person speaking in Tom’s defense, but he is far from alone in his views.

Sometimes when we feel alone, trying to stand by ourselves against something bigger, we aren’t. There are others who stand with us, though we can’t see them. At this moment, we may be the only person speaking. But our attempts to speak up for justice are not futile. Others are encouraged to speak, too.

And when they do, we will find that we were never truly alone in the fight.

Categories: hope | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

Advent, Desiring Jesus, and the World Singing for Joy

Laura Droege:

This brought tears to my eyes. Music is so powerful, and Tim’s thoughts afterward are wonderful. Read, listen, and be blessed.

Originally posted on Tim's Blog - Just One Train Wreck After Another:

I watched and felt chills running through me, eyes starting to water, breathing coming shallow, all because of the beauty in music reminding me of our Savior’s coming.

When they played Jesu, Joy of Mans’ Desiring, I couldn’t stop thinking of this passage describing what the Savior will accomplish. No wonder he is a joy to desire.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
    until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
    to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of…

View original 261 more words

Categories: Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Why our appearance matters

Ugly is as ugly does

Life has been cruel to Tehanu, a character in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series. She was assaulted as a child, shoved into a fire, and left for dead. Half of her face is gone, destroyed. Under the care of Tenar (former priestess of darkness, now a widow) and Ged (former Archmage, now ordinary man), she has grown up to be a timid but wise young woman.

People are cruel. Their open horror at her appearance makes her hesitant to go out in public. They whisper that she is cursed. They shun, avoid, dread, hate.

Why? Her face is burned.

Her horrific scars aren’t her fault. But others treat her as if her appearance reveals something disparaging about her character. That’s horrible. It’s also easy to stay at the shallow and cliched conclusion that LeGuin is criticizing hating someone for their looks, or that real beauty and worth is found inside a person.

But what if . . .

Her appearance does reveal something significant about her character, and in that revelation, we see her true significance.

She’s a survivor.

She’s an unusual person.

In fact, she’s not a person at all. She’s a dragon born as a human.

And what do dragons do? Breathe fire and remain unharmed. It’s only because Tehanu has a human form now that she has those scars. If she returns to her dragon-state—her true identity—then she will be whole and unscarred. It’s in her dragon-form that she might help save the world of Earthsea. The wizards, who see her with their wizardly powers, recognize this and are awestruck.

The revelation of her real worth does lie in her appearance, just not the way the bullies think it does.

The Club of Cool

I saw a headline on the cover of GQ: Male anorexia on the rise! (or something along those lines). Intrigued, I searched for the article.

I flipped through page after page of ads with ripped, buff guys, all impossibly good looking, all sexually appealing, all advertising their membership in the exclusive (and elusive) club of coolness. All sending the corresponding message: you don’t look like us and you don’t belong with us and your pathetic attempts to try to join us will be met with disdain. Cool disdain, of course. All your money, connections, power, and brains won’t get you into THIS club.

No pressure, guys.

I felt insecure looking at the ads, and I’m female. I can’t imagine what the effect is on a young man.

Actually, I can imagine. It’s the same feeling I feel when I flip through a ladies’ magazine and wonder how the models manage such gorgeous skin (and why I’ve never met a real life woman with flawless skin. Hm.) Why are male eating disorders on the rise? I wonder.

But is there an element of truth to the message in those ads?

If membership in the Club of Cool depends on appearance, then nothing else, no matter how valuable, will grant membership status to a person who doesn’t meet that standard. On the flip side, appearance won’t get you into the higher ranks of the clubs revolving around money or power or brains.

Which reveals something else. The standard changes. It changes depending on which criteria must be met. It also changes depending on whether the person meets that criteria at that particular moment. Beauty is fleeting. So are riches and power. So are brains.

And the opposite is true, too. Someone who doesn’t meet the criteria now might meet it later. The line between “in” and “out” are flexible and ever-shifting.

And we rarely can predict where those boundary lines will fall, can we?

Too Thin, Too Pretty

Several years ago, I read an acquaintance’s newsfeed the day after the Academy Awards. She and a few friends were criticising Angelina Jolie’s appearance. She’s too thin. A skeleton. Fatten her up! Eat a hamburger. Too thin. Yuck!

Finally another person commented, “You know, some of us can’t help being thin.” This woman has suffered a serious illness that has left her very, very thin; apparently she often comes under harsh criticism from strangers. That silenced the Angelina bashers. (It elicited an apology from the original commenter as well.)

So even beautiful people can be criticized for their appearance. The promised land that so many of us yearn to enter—the land of beautiful, thin, cool people—is be anything but a utopia of freedom from judgement.

Why appearance matters

It’s all too easy to say, “It’s what’s inside that counts,” or “don’t worry about how you look,” or “appearances don’t matter.”

Yes, they do matter. But they don’t matter for the reasons we usually believe that they matter.

It’s not that beauty (or lack thereof) should determine who is cool. It’s to show how arbitrary and fickle the standards of coolness are.

It’s not that a beautiful appearance is to be desired because then we’ll be free from ridicule. It’s to show that even an attractive appearance cannot protect from others’ desire to hurt and slander.

It’s not that beauty or ugliness are where our worth lies. It’s that our appearance reveals that our worth does not lie there. Our worth lies within.

And every once in a while, that appearance hints at our true identity.

That we are so much more than ordinary.

That we are valuable, created in God’s image.

That we are bound by this flesh now, but later, all will see who we really are.

Categories: appearance | Tags: , , | 11 Comments

The Spirit of Christmas Present: “Beware Ignorance and Want”

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by three spirits. Towards the end of the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge observes a strange foot or claw protruding from the Spirit’s skirt. He asks what it is.

“‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’

From the folds of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. (. . .) They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. (. . .) No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

(. . .)

‘Spirit! are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end.’ 

‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.

‘Are there no prisons?’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses?’

The bell struck twelve.”

–Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Ignorance. Want. Two things our culture has in ample abundance today, though we’d prefer not to admit it. Or, if we do admit ignorance, we might do so out of wrong motives: creating division, deflecting personal responsibility, finding a scapegoat to blame for all that troubles society. Then, as the Spirit says, we make it worse.

It makes me wonder. If I admit to “knowing” ignorance and want, am I trying to alleviate the problems of ignorance and want? Or am I using these problems–exploiting those who suffer–as a way of slandering those whom I see as the reason for the problems?

Categories: quotations | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

“You are the cause of my backsliding!”

I finished reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles a few days ago. At one point, Tess and antagonist and rapist Alec D’Urberville are conversing; it’s his decision to renew their relationship, against her desire, and as persistent and devious as Alec is, his desire overrules hers. But during their series of conversations, his words begin to take on a familiar form: the vocabulary and structure of the discussion on modesty in the Christian subculture. It’s not just the formal church teachings, but it’s also in the applications and misapplications between the genders, where much of the emotional damage happens.


“Don’t look at me like that!” he said abruptly. (. . .)

And there was revived in her the wretched sentiment which had often come to her before, that in inhabiting the fleshly tabernacle with which nature had endowed her she was somehow doing wrong.”

Cover it up. If there was one thing I gained from all the lectures and books on modesty I absorbed as a teen, it was this: the female body is dangerous and shameful. Cover it up.


“No, no! Don’t beg my pardon. But since you wear a veil to hide your good looks, why don’t you keep it down?” (. . .) It may seem harsh of me to dictate like this,” he went on;

—I’ll interrupt and point out that it’s harsh and inappropriate—

“but it is better that I should not look too often on you. It might be dangerous.” ( . . .) “Well, women’s faces have had too much power over me already for me not to fear them!”

Interesting. The male, who has the physical power, legal rights, and socially dominant position, claims to have a lack of power. He uses the female’s body to rhetorically place power in her hands, so that he might take that nominal power away from her and use it for himself. In this case, he uses this power to keep her under his control.

At my Christian college, we had a fairly strict dress code. Even so, there were men who put anonymous notes in certain females’ mailboxes:

Please, the notes read, don’t wear that sweater that you wore yesterday. It caused me problems.

I never received a note like this, but I was told about these notes by a male friend. It struck me as creepy. Who were these men? Friends, classmates, married students, professors? What kind of problems did these dress-code-acceptable but lust-inducing pieces of attire cause? A fleeting sexual thought? Something else?

Now, it strikes me as both creepy and controlling. The men asserted anonymously—a power play—that they had undisclosed “problems” —indicating a lack of power, even when they have the power to control their own actions. Why? Because of a clothing item on a particular woman’s body.

Then they tried take that power—her choice to wear the item—back with the spiritual argument. Your clothing caused me problems. Translated: It’s dangerous and powerful, so I must stop you from wearing it, even if I must resort to stalker-ish methods.


“Tess—I couldn’t help it!” (. . .) I assure you I had not been thinking of you at all till I saw you that Sunday; now I cannot get rid of your image, try how I may! It is hard that a good woman should do harm to a bad man; yet so it is.”

And later—

“O Alec d’Urberville! What does this mean? What have I done!”

“Done?” he said, with a soulless sneer in the word. “Nothing intentionally. But you have been the means—the innocent means—of my backsliding ( …) Tess, my girl, I was on the way to, at least, social salvation till I saw you again!” he said freakishly shaking her, as if she were a child. “And why then have you tempted me? I was firm as a man could be till I saw those eyes and that mouth again—surely there never was such a maddening mouth since Eve’s!” His voice sank, and a hot archness shot from his own black eyes. “You temptress, Tess; you dear damned witch of Babylon—I could not resist you as soon as I met you again!”

Notice his lack of self-control and lack of taking responsibility for his own actions. I can’t help it, he repeats, you’re so attractive that I can’t help lusting after you! And following you. And talking to you, even after you’ve made it clear that you don’t want anything to do with me! I can’t help it! (Why am I thinking of a certain ex-boyfriend of mine? Oh, yeah. He just couldn’t help pursuing me. I was that pretty. All his previous flirtations with my friends? Oh, they were a way to get closer to me.)


“Of course you have done nothing except retain your pretty face and shapely figure. I saw it on the rick before you saw me—that tight pinafore-thing sets it off, and that wing-bonnet—you field-girls should never wear those bonnets if you wish to keep out of danger.”

These lines in particular were familiar. Dress modestly. Men are visual, so if you wear (fill in the blank with a clothing item), you’re causing them to stumble. And a good Christian girl never wants to make a man stumble! And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a tight pinafore-thing or a tight t-shirt, the effect is the same. You are to blame for being in danger. If he’s lusting, you have played a part of his slide into sin.

Then there’s the attribution of motives. What’s your motivation? If you dress that way (whatever way is offensive to the looker), are you trying to get attention from men? It’s a heart issue!

Well . . . maybe. Some people—men and women—do dress to receive attention from others.

But the Tess passage shows that it’s not always self-aggrandizing motivations. She’s working as a field laborer, doing demanding physical labor, when Alec makes this declaration. Her attire is not only appropriate for the setting, but necessary and practical. Plus, Tess is actively trying not to call attention to her appearance; she’s taken to wearing a veil to cover her beautiful face.

I ran across a blog post today that told a story of a mom on a beach field trip with a group of thirteen-year-olds and other mothers. The woman chose to wear a bikini.

The blogger, in discussing her attire, focused on her motivation: she was trying to get attention from the other women. Not sexual attention, but affirmation about her attractiveness. Then the blogger went further. Now, obviously she doesn’t love the Lord, so . . . and went on.

Wait.

He just went from attributing motives to judging her spiritual condition based on her choice of a bathing suit. The motivation aspect, I understand; been there, done that myself. But a statement about whether or not she loves God? The bikini was inappropriate in that social setting—a school field trip—but I don’t see how that reveals the state of her heart.

(Incidentally, I’ve been guilty of both these.)


“You have been the cause of my backsliding.”

Alec blames Tess for his reversal of his previous reversal: reprobate turned lay preacher turned reprobate. On the basis of what? Her looks. Her clothing.

I’ve heard the “stumbling block” idea used in this discussion in church circles. You shouldn’t cause others to stumble into sin, so therefore you shouldn’t do thus-and-such.

I understand. There are areas where people are weak, and we shouldn’t use our freedom to further weaken them. But those who are weak shouldn’t use their weakness as an excuse to sin, nor should they exploit their weakness to gain power and control over others. And unfortunately, that happens far too often.

I realize that there are good reasons for dressing modestly: showing that you respect yourself, and that others should respect you as well. But even good motives can go awry, and even well-intentioned words can cause harm.

It’s interesting that Alec resorts to well-worn arguments about appearance and clothing in order to control Tess. It’s even more interesting and disturbing to hear variations on those lines used by Christians. Their motives may not be the same, but the effect of the words may be uncomfortably similar.

Categories: appearance | Tags: , , | 20 Comments

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