One of the things that has been a constant struggle for me, as a woman leaving the world of Christian patriarchy, has been reconciling reality to my learned “right” responses. I have to be gutsy and take charge of my life and heed my personality type and my needs and make sure I’m living in a way that works best for who I am. But it’s hard to learn to do this, because I grew up considering myself strongest when deferring to other’s needs and wants, most godly when negating my desires, and most strong and female when abandoning my preferences to respond and absorb the desires and choices of others.
The term I’ve heard used for this is “learned helplessness” and it’s frequently a gendered problem, but I think it’s not just an issue for women. It’s also an issue for everyone in the “new reformed” circles of young Calvinists.
This is, of course, at the root, a face of that age-old “predestination vs. free will” discussion, but I’m going to lift it from those over-simplified terms because I find that they are useless in the face of reality, where I see a good deal of both/and going on in terms of one’s ability to choose freely and one’s inability to change circumstances. I’d like to lay it aside with the understanding that I think the two concepts probably coexist, and I’m not sure exactly how. Paradox, yes. It’s beyond me just now.
So, first, as a woman dealing with The Most Unpredictable Year Of Her Life Ever!, I’m finding that I have to unlearn a lot of places in my personal character where I’d relaxed into patriarchal norms just because I could when I was married. Things like changing my oil, moving boxes on my own, driving across the country alone, booking a hotel room, getting a credit card, de-icing my car before work, etc. — these were things I had to take on and own for myself. Some of that is just general cultural gender role stuff. Other things are more Christian patriarchy-related, like realizing that the church search was up to me, if I was going to find one out here in LA, realizing that I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to live my life, or that I don’t need to call anyone to tell them when I’m coming home.
But as I’m talking to other girls trying to take on adult decisions outside of the meet-a-man-and-follow-him-forever Christian patriarchy narrative for women (say, as a woman ends up out of her parents’ house and not yet married, or 30 and living at home without “prospects”), I hear from them over and over again statements such as: “I don’t even know what I like!” Outside of the girl-to-woman-to-wife-to-mother narrative of patriarchy, they don’t know what who they are, why they want to do what they want to do, or how to make decisions without leaning overmuch on the advice of peers and elders, because they never learned to listen to themselves. Women in Christian patriarchy exist as negative space, conforming to the solid definitions of the men in their lives. And I’m still shaking off stray pieces of that mindset. It’s like sand and children: you’re always finding particles in weird places months after you’ve left the beach.
Similar to this is the “sovereignty of God” talk from the new Calvinists. I’ve been doing a linguistic experiment for the past year or so: every time I feel the impulse to thank God for something or claim his foreknowledge or sovereignty for something, I check myself to see if I’m just talking about an element of my life that’s because of social privilege. If I am, then I don’t do God-talk about it, because that’s just disrespectful to people who love God and live rightly, but still suffer because they’re lacking good things due to privilege. An example: a college graduate might thank God on Facebook for getting her through a private Christian school with good friends and a job offer ready for her in June. The impulse is nice, but it’s infuriating to someone who maybe didn’t have parents who could afford to pay for college, was marginalized socially and had trouble making friends, or got the short end of the stick with the economy and can’t find good work after graduation. It’s not wrong, but does it feels unfair to thank God for something you worked for and earned, or something that was handed down to you by genetics. It feels like it makes light of the hard work you did, or the hard work that less-privileged others put in to try to achieve the same ends.
On the other side of this mindset is the reaction to horrific live events with emotionally numbed reactions: cancer? God’s sovereign plan. divorce? it’s okay, God’s still good. grief? lack of faith in God’s sovereignty. I don’t think this sort of response is meant to be flippant or numbly blasé, but that’s how it comes across. It doesn’t allow for the full range of human emotions to be expressed in normal reactions to traumatic events, but instead cauterizes the emotions with shaming for lack of faith.
Agency is a funny thing. I don’t like that I feel more uncomfortable having agency than I do with feeling helpless. Between the God-is-sovereign catch-all explanation for anything hard or anything good and the patriarchy’s gender roles, the way I thought of myself I was not as an actor in my own life, but a pawn on a chessboard. Things happened to me instead of me making choices.
I don’t think God meant us to half-live our lives. I don’t think he meant for us to wait for life to happen. I don’t think a life of faith is lived in absence of risk or owning one’s full potential or full emotion or choice. I don’t think God wants us to constantly be yammering about how good he is when it’s not something that showcases his kindness in an honest way. It’s a waste of breath. There’s a difference between feeling genuine appreciation for quotidian graces and clanging a cymbal about how awesome God was to give you privilege.
The tension between brash American self-made bootstraps man mindset (which is also unhealthy) and the self-imposed helplessness of Christian patriarchy and new Calvinism is appropriate, I think, and should be embraced. There’s a glorious dignity to being human, and it should be embraced along with a peaceful awareness of one’s size in the face of the universe. These are not things to be taken lightly.