A brief wallow in self-pity and a plea for understanding

I’m wallowing in shameless self-pity right now. These wallowing moments happen every so often, my mind pushed off the rocks into the swampy, sticky slough of almost-despair. Not quite despair, more ultra-introspective navel-gazing, the type that makes a protagonist of a literary novel look as action-oriented as the villain in a cheap thriller.

This slough really stinks, too. Boggy. Nasty. And there might be frogs and mosquitoes and who-knows-what beneath the surface. I’m going to reek.

I’m already reeking. Cynicism and self-pity stink, but here it is:

If you want respect in church, don’t bother being female.

And especially don’t bother with being female

-and-

majoring in something all the powers-that-be think is stupid.

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There. I said it. I’ve certainly felt it before, most acutely when I was twenty-one, the only college student in our church singles’ group. My husband and I weren’t dating yet—I barely knew him—and I had no friends. The ex who had harassed me several months before was in this group.

I was still recovering from mono.

And the eating disorders.

And my first breakdown.

And the second breakdown, with the depressive episode that had left me lying on the floor, face in the carpet, unable to move.

(Did I mention that self-pity stinks? Can you smell it on your side of the screen?)

This was the spring that I took contemporary art. As I’ve written before, that was a tough class for me. Certain ideas were so disturbing and confusing, that I wanted to talk to someone about them and discuss how to think about them as both an art-lover and a Christian. But I knew of no Christians who would’ve known anything about these artistic philosophies. None.

It was the same in my literature classes. Even the Christians I knew who were or had been English majors were less interested in the literature than in getting the degree. For them, the literature was a means to an end. For me, it was the end. The art and books were the point. As topics of study, they were worthwhile pursuits, even if it didn’t result in a paycheck.

The other singles didn’t agree. I can’t tell you how many times I was picked on for my English degree, usually by older males with degrees in engineering or physics or computer science.

It hurt.

What’s more, it left me feeling more isolated than ever. At other points in my life, I might’ve shrugged off the teasing. But at that particular point, I couldn’t. I felt vulnerable and sick, sad and lonely, with no end in sight. The heaviness had worn me down until I didn’t have the strength for a quick retort that might put the male in his place. The teasing seemed designed to belittle me as a person.

Perhaps it wasn’t intended the way I perceived it. But the perception felt real, and the feeling of being disrespected certainly was.

It was worse coming from males, all of whom were older than I. I was a young female in a male-dominated church. They had the power and clout and influence. I had nothing. They had the ability to crush me with their words, and I was crushed.

Even if they didn’t intend to reinforce my lower social position . . .

Even if they didn’t realize that I inhabited that position . . .

Even if they didn’t know that there was a social class structure at church . . .

they still did.

—————————————————-

Ironically, though I couldn’t garner respect at church, I won the respect of my professors. Not Christian professors, I’ll add. Unreligious, unchurched, but frequently familiar with Christian theology (from academic studies) and Christian subculture (from Bible Belters’ proselytizing efforts).

True story: I once overheard a student complaining how much he “hated” literature within hearing distance of the English professor. Then he tried to “witness” to her. She dismissed him with a short “I used to be a Christian but I’m not anymore” and walked off. Clue into reality, buddy: don’t insult someone’s academic specialty and then attempt to persuade her of the veracity of scripture. Not a smart move.

Yet that was essentially the same attitude these single men had. I heard the same tired joke about “What do English majors say to engineers?” (“Would you like fries with that order?”) and “Eww, I hate English” multiple times. If I mentioned authors or artists, I received blank stares.

Once, I was talking to another student, a Christian who was a well-read, respectful guy. I said that I was working on an essay about Andy Warhol.

He looked at me. “Who’s Andy Warhol?”

(This is life in a city with too many technologically-focused people. It’s imbalanced.)

Eventually, after trying to speak in many different groups at that church, I stopped trying to talk about literature. I went silent.

————————————————————-

It feels silly to whine about this now. But sometimes I still feel like that twenty-one-year old, struggling to understand difficult, disturbing texts, and wishing there was someone knowledgeable in my real world who understood them. Or was willing to wrestle through the issues until we understood. Or was willing to wrangle with the ideas for a long time, even if we never found the truth.

If you’ve made it this far, bless you, and hear my final plea:

If someone thinks differently than you do, please don’t belittle his or her thoughts.

Please don’t ridicule someone else’s passion, field of study, or interests.

Please remember that strength can to do two things: push down or pull up.

Please be the one to pull others up.

(Photo credit: seriousfun, morgueFile.com)
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20 thoughts on “A brief wallow in self-pity and a plea for understanding

  1. Amen to that! The whole of Western culture values ‘male’ interests over ‘female’ interests. I am a homemaker and I am proud of it. I’m also studying mathematics and I love music and image and sculpture and poetry and literature. It’s glorious! Creativity and language are what set us apart as ‘human’ – made in His image.
    Also, before any more jump on the (inherently secular) bandwagon of gender-specific talents and interests, I’d remind them that when God chose to reveal Himself, He did so through language, through story, through poetry. God’s the biggest storyteller of them all. Coincidentally, this week’s memory verse here in the King household is John 1:1-4: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

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    1. I love those verses!

      Isn’t it interesting that Jesus is the Word, and yet the only time the gospels tell us that he is writing, we don’t know what he wrote? It’s the story of the woman caught in adultery, and how Jesus saves her from being stoned; he stoops and writes in the dust, and the crowd begins to go away. (There’s so many gender/power/language dynamics to unpack in that story!) We’re left to speculate what he was writing. In the dust, no less; the very material from which God made Adam.

      I’m glad you are proud of being a homemaker and studying mathematics. Good for you for pursuing your interests and seeing the value of the home and academia and the arts. Too often, various groups exalt one above the others, and completely miss how beautifully all kinds of interests point back to our creator.

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  2. Laura, you are a gifted writer. I often can’t finish reading longer posts, but yours keep me reading to the end. And I so resonate with your thoughts here. While the details for me are different, I’ve often through life experienced that my passions and interests are indirectly/directly ridiculed or I’ve received little or no encouragement. Thanks for sharing your heart and being honest.

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    1. Laura, I was thinking of you this morning while I was researching for my next novel. Your passion and knowledge of theology are like one of my female character’s interests. She’s also faced the discouragement that comes from having a passion that doesn’t “fit” with traditional Christian gender roles and conservative Christian teaching on spiritual gifts and ministry. I’m still researching, so I don’t know how all the dynamics will play out in the actual story.

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  3. I am truly sorry you’re feeling down. I haven’t read enough of your blog to know all of your background, but I’ve read enough to know that you’re grappling with some serious internal conflict particularly in regards to your church. I certainly don’t want to dismiss your beliefs and I don’t want to come across as someone who’s been there. Here’s what I will share:

    My mom grew up in a male-dominant religion. Women didn’t have a voice in the church. Her father was a minister. Her mother was a strong, opinionated, smart woman. Every church my grandfather pastored ended up having problems or personality conflicts with my grandmother. My mom saw this play out. My mom was a pleaser; her brothers were rebellious. They got into trouble at church and outside of church. Who did the church blame? My grandmother. My mom grew up, got a scholarship to a reputable women’s collage where she was able to further her studies of the bible and was schooled even more on women’s roles. She had a horrible eating disorder and occasionally still struggles with it today — she’s 67. At 22, my mom broke off her engagement to a seminary student. She met my dad, who was a Christian but had not been raised in the church like my mom had. He went to church, but his dad was a farmer, not a church employee. My mom went on to have a very successful career as an educator. She was a teacher, worked with various age groups and even though she’s now retired, she works part time as a field supervisor for students getting education degrees. She STILL struggles with her role in the church. She STILL talks about not feeling heard. It’s STILL a huge source of frustration for her. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had the same conversations over and over where I’ve said, “Mom, if it makes you that unhappy, WHY do you still go? There are plenty of other churches that are different.”

    She refuses. Something in her feels that leaving would be wrong. It’s been instilled in her since birth. I don’t get it.

    My parents fought constantly about church when my brother and I were kids. My mom felt it was important for us to be at church every time the doors were open. My dad had grown up in a community church and was accustomed to men and women leaders — it was a more inclusive Christian environment and he did not like the church that my mom insisted we attend. Mom was so strongly schooled in the ways of her church and felt that anything else was less-than and wrong. It was like she couldn’t bend. My father detested our church but went along to appease my mother. He also talked to my brother and me about religion and the bible constantly. My mother did not. She was content to send us to church and let the ministers and Sunday School teachers handle our theological education. I learned some twisted things because she (and my father) weren’t paying attention — they assumed that because I was at church, I was being cared for and taught well.

    I’m a pretty outspoken person, BUT I never felt that I could share my thoughts and opinions at church and I certainly couldn’t question authority figures, especially the ones who were male. Thankfully, my own father encouraged questions and taught my brother and me to question everything. We talked about religion a lot in our home. I developed a terrible eating disorder in college. At that point I had pretty much left the church and wasn’t at all interested in ever returning. Other things happened in my life. My father died; my brother had a serious drug problem; I did a decent job of hiding how serious my eating disorder was. My mom’s church was not helpful and supportive; some people were, but Mom never wanted the church to know about our problems because she didn’t want to be looked down on or for anyone to think that she might not be a good mother, or worse, that she was not a good follower of Christ.

    To this day, my mother’s church has so much power over her and I hate it. So much of the way she lives her life is out of guilt and fear, and I believe most of this comes from a religious environment that is male-dominated and rigid.

    A lot of my time in therapy has been spent recovering from messages I received from church. There’s a lot more to this story, so forgive me for being vague. I’m raising my children very differently. I quit church altogether once I went to college but spent a lot of time studying different religions and traveling. I very much still believe in God and faith is a big part of my life. I returned to church about four years ago but the one I now attend is very liberal, accepting and the basis is love rather than fear. If anyone had asked me in my early twenties if I felt the church I grew up in was fear-based, I would have said no. I didn’t think it was then. Now that I’ve been a part of something else, I see that the church of my childhood DID instill fear. It was male-dominated and the members (particularly the women) were controlled. They had no voice. I will never return to a church that doesn’t have a place for female leadership.

    I’ve also worked in community mental health and this has given me even more insight into the damage caused by certain religious institutions. I don’t have the statistics at my fingertips, but it certainly seems that where I live, damaged people often grew up with a strict religious background — granted this certainly doesn’t imply causation, but it’s an association that I believe can not be overlooked.

    My mother, who I love dearly, still suffers. I know her friends, many of whom attend her church. They don’t feel heard. They ask for permission from their peers who are men, and don’t question anything. Their ideas are dismissed and not validated. They often do what they’re told out of guilt. The few positions they’re allowed to hold are that of support — childcare, food prep, administrative. These are women who go to jobs every week and hold important positions. They are leaders, but not at church. They’re second class citizens. What a waste.

    I’ve given you WAY more info than I planned and reading back over this, it’s not as succinct as I had hoped.

    You are important. You’re smart and your ideas are not only good, they are necessary. I don’t know what your situation is with your church, but I can tell that church is a big part of your life. My hope for you is that you can find a place where you are valued. Perhaps I’m jaded, but I don’t have much confidence that churches who don’t give women a voice will ever change. My advice is start looking for a church that welcomes and values women’s input. You deserve that. I hope you feel better, and if I have overstepped, I’m sorry. I just felt that I couldn’t NOT say anything.

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    1. Earlier, I wrote a long reply to your comment and the computer ate it. (Kind of like a dog eating homework, only not as slobbery.)

      Directly before reading your comment, I was sitting at my favorite bagel shop and researching my next novel. I started reading about my denomination’s stance on ordination of women. I ended up so angry that if I hadn’t been in public, I might’ve screamed at the computer. (As it was, I muttered a hostile response to one blog post!) Then I read your comment, and almost cried. I hate that so many churches treat women as if they were to be seen and not heard, and essentially rip their voices from them. Like what your grandmother and mother and you and I have experienced. And the toll it takes on us; I developed an eating disorder in college, too. (I’m recovered, but there are moments where I’m still vulnerable to those thought patterns.)

      The problem for us as a family is that my husband and I are still conservative in our theology, though we don’t agree with this denomination’s stance on female ordination. And we’ve spent so long searching for a church that fits all our needs that it seems awful to think of visiting. Plus, I’m not certain that our area even has any conservative-theology churches that allow female ordination. I think the best response might be to start speaking up and challenging the status quo. I don’t know.

      Thank you for the encouraging words and for understanding my feelings!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do understand. It’s a hard thing. I think that’s my mom’s dilemma as well — no churches in her area with conservative theology that are willing to bend on anything. Plus, as you also said, it’s daunting to search for a new church and likely, no church will fit all of your needs. My husband and I have argued so much about church since having children. I grew up Baptist and he grew up Methodist. I’ve completely disassociated with the church of my childhood except for a visit here or there for a wedding or funeral. I have some happy memories, but every time I tried to go back to a Baptist church, I felt unheard and silenced, and as strange as this sounds, feeling silenced and unheard seems to be a big trigger for my eating problems. But really, the break from my religion began in middle school, and truthfully I always felt like a fish out of water there.

        I was open to visiting and raising our children in the Methodist church, and Gil convinced me that most of the issues I was having would be resolved if we went to a Methodist church — not the case, though I did like some things about it better. In our area at least, not much was that different. Neither of us were comfortable raising our two boys there, though occasionally we attend holiday services at a Methodist church in a nearby city, for the tradition more than anything.

        The church that we’ve been attending for the past three years is different — very liberal. Most of the people who attend have been hurt by the churches of their childhoods and don’t have any interest in going back. I love it, and my kids love it. My husband tolerates it. He’s put out with organized religion in general and would prefer to not go at all. As I read back over this, I realize that I might be repeating the patterns of my own parents.

        It’s a tough thing. I truly wish you all the best as you work through this and decide what will work best for you and your family. I definitely agree that speaking up and challenging the status quo is the ideal approach. Hope you’re feeling better with all of this.

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  4. I am sorry that you have been wounded by insensitive remarks probably made without the intention of hurting you, but with emotional blindness. We have a responsibility to speak up for ourselves with passion and strength. Challenge those men, those engineers, those church elders. I married one – an engineer, that is, not a bully. I have never considered myself bullied, and have always enjoyed the opportunity to spar intellectually. Engineers think differently than writers, the literary-minded, and liberal arts intellectuals. Theologians, though, are very intellectual and enjoy finding meaning in texts such as the Bible. I’m sure you’d find yourself in good company with pastors. Engineers’ brains, though, are hard-wired differently. Some people’s brains are versatile, and they can both solve concrete problems and ponder meaning. Some people cannot.

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    1. I’m married to an aerospace engineer, so I know how differently engineers’ brains are wired! (There’s a gazillion of engineers in my area, and a curious lack of artistically-inclined people.) You’re right; those men probably didn’t realize how insensitive they were being.

      I wish I had spoken up during these incidents in college. I was so exhausted from everything that had happened for the past two-three years that I didn’t have the emotional energy to tell them that I was hurt; I also didn’t trust that they’d care if they hurt me. (Several relationships with men gone sour made me distrust all men and assume the worst. Not fair, of course.) I probably would’ve been better off if I’d gone to a different type of church. The church I was attending during college harboured a lot of suspicion of academia and intellectual knowledge that didn’t have “practical application” (like art and literature).

      Thanks for the encouragement, Kitt.

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  5. Laura, you don’t sound at all like you’re whining. Truly. This post is an expression of honest feelings stemming straight from your experiences. Please don’t feel the need to justify how you’ve expressed yourself because it’s a great post.

    I’ve gotten those same comments from math and engineer and mechanical friends. “You read novels? I never read. It’s so boring, why would you do that?” When I’ve pointed out that some people like some things and other people like other things, I have been met with, “Yeah, I know, but I’ll never understand how anyone can like reading. It’s so boring.”

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    1. Tim, I’m relieved that this post has gotten a good response. Honestly, I was whining in my head, rehearsing my grievances for the gazillionth time, and decided to write it down for the first time. It ended up as this post.

      Your comment about the friends who don’t like reading reminded me of a conversation I had in junior high school with a former friend. I was sitting at my desk, reading rather than participating in the chit-chat of the other 7th graders, and the other girl commented, “You must have a boring life. You’re always reading.”

      I didn’t have a snappy comeback–I was too absorbed in the fictional world of the novel–but I wonder what a decent response would’ve been. I mean, here I was, reading about detectives solving murders on the Orient Express, or the magical world of Prince Edward Island, or the melancholy and spiritually deep world of George MacDonald’s heroes, or any number of other places; did she honestly think that my 7th grade peers would’ve provided more mental stimulation?

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  6. Amen. I feel this at times. The difficulty for me is not belittling others in the midst of my feeling-belittled pain. I have to remember that just because I feel like the bottom doesn’t mean there aren’t people who feel below me.
    Thank you for these good and thoughtful words.

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    1. I have difficulty with not putting others down in the middle of feeling put down, too. My version involves putting down the people putting down me. My husband, a rocket scientist, pointed out to me that I was snobby about the liberal arts while we were dating. “If it wasn’t a liberal arts degree,” he told me, “you act like the person didn’t get an education at all.” Ouch.

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  7. I had a chance this morning to read over others’ comments and I re-read your post. Obviously it sparked a lot of thought since I’m commenting again. It is fascinating how different the brains of engineers and liberal arts people are. I’m fortunate that I live in an area with lots of liberal arts people — and my church is filled with them. My husband’s undergrad degree is in construction management and his program had strong emphases in civil engineering and architecture. He definitely has the brain of an engineer, but he works with lots of artists and designers. He’s an environmental builder and a lot of his expertise is historical renovation. He’s also a musician and actually went to college on a music/theater scholarship. Neither of us do well with know-it-all types who think their way is the only way. I must be sheltered because I can’t fathom anyone dismissing a liberal arts degree — I come from a long line of artists, professors, lawyers and teachers. Obviously, I’ve heard that you won’t make money with a liberal arts degree, but thankfully, most of my friends hold liberal arts in high regard. I did begin college at a large university with a reputable school of engineering, and I was unhappy — perhaps the mentality of many of my fellow students had something to do with this. Who knows. I was happier when I transferred to a university known for it’s strong school of liberal arts. I guess as another commenter said — not all engineers are alike, nor are all churches. This comment has no point — it’s rather stream-of-consiousness. I have a strange fascination with the different ways people’s brains work. Anyway, no wonder you’re having a hard time. It can’t be easy feeling like you’re in the minority, surrounded by linear-thinking engineers (at least that’s how they sound based on your descriptions.)

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    1. You’re fortunate to have so many people affirm the liberal arts! I have lived in my engineer-oriented town for over two decades, but I was really blindsided when I transferred from a small liberal arts college (eating disorder, depression) to that local university. I’d mostly been respected at my high school as one of the “smart people” and even if the Christian college was sexist and disrespecting of females, everyone there was getting a degree in the liberal arts, so that was never an issue. My parents both graduated from there, so literature, etc., was valued in our home. I walked into a tech-oriented university and wham! Suddenly I found out how few people value liberal arts.

      It’s strange, when I think about it. The liberal arts are versatile; I know people who have become lawyers, doctors, and sex therapists, and all of them had an English degree. Really! Obviously, they did graduate work in other fields, but their English degree was valuable to them.

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