IR: Agency

“The hardest part is realizing you’re in charge” – Helen Bishop, Mad Men

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.

9 thoughts on “IR: Agency

  1. Thank you for this, friend.
    I’m dealing with a lot of this myself, just now.
    I feel a little little Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride (trying to figure out what kind of eggs she likes, instead of just going along with whatever he’s having). It’s hard and good and challenging.
    Keep going.

  2. I think I wrote this in my sleep last night.

    “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.”

    And “I don’t think God meant us to half-live our lives.”

    Thank you for putting it so well.

  3. I am thankful to you for taking the emotional effort to write this. I found myself getting irritated today that someone made a choice for me without consulting me.

  4. Hey Hannah, I am constantly astonished every time I read your blog at your willingness to dig deeper and deeper. This made me think…hard. Thank you for refusing to dumb down your beliefs (or lack of) and struggles. Thank you for refusing to dumb down your language and blogging. Truly a breath of fresh air in so many many ways.

    “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.”

    This particularly struck me. I think you have a very unique perspective and I wonder if the homeschooling part might have given you some edge in seeing things from a different light, plus TONS of time to read (I am a Third Culture Kid and homeschooled, at points and I probably read 1.5 million books in my depression as a homeschooler). In some ways it is the tough stuff that forms us into someone who sees things from an altogether different perspective. I am not trying to make light of homeschooling (I’m not particularly a fan). Just trying to respond to these wonderful thoughts. I really appreciate your take on things so much.

    Sometimes, in my so-called “honesty”(esp. when I write) I find that I am STILL covering for things, STILL covering for “God” and trying to wrap things up in a neat bow. When He, frankly, doesn’t need me to cover for Him at all. He certainly doesn’t need me to thank him publicly for entrance into college or a new i-phone. Perhaps there is also an element of public vs. private here?

    But I do understand the privilege thing. From growing up overseas, this always bothered me– I have forever had a hard time reconciling praying for “things” and yet, strangely God says that He is taking care of us and asks for us to be thankful in all things. How to do this, then, for someone who has faith that He is providing (I know you come from a different faith (or non-faith) perspective without contributing to the idea of privilege and nonsensical thank-yous for materialistic things?

  5. This is an incredible post. Very thought provoking and interesting to read. My college roommate came from a very similar background to yours in this way: she came from a conservative Korean immigrant family where individuality was strongly repressed. There was a very deep belief that there was probably a right way and a wrong way to do everything and that you, as a junior woman, weren’t to be trusted with experimenting your way to figuring out what the right way was. You should take your cues from your elders and stating a preference or even having a preference that differed from what they wanted was a punishable offense. I’m sorry to say that she never really escaped from the terrible damage this did to her and never managed to achieve an authentic self–a person who could choose to do what she wanted to do. She has been in a position to do so for many years, but she is basically confused by the question: what do I want to do and how do I want to live?. She has always doubted her own instincts–even been unable to articulate her own instincts. She has turned to me many times, over the last thirty years, and begged me to tell her what to do and how to think about something. And she remains surprised that my principle motivation–hard though it is to follow through on it–remains to be happy with my choices and my actions.

    Its so simple, and yet it has to start so very young. Speaking as the mother of two teenagers it was always my goal for both of them, right from the start, that they should grow into self directed, self motivated, moral actors. And at every stage of their lives, from when they were on the diaper table to now that they are in their teens, its been our job (my husband’s and mine) to encourage them in as much autonomy and responsibility as they could manage. Contra the Christian viewpoint I don’t think there is one right answer, or one person int he family who gets to make the choices. I always likened the process to teaching a child to cross the street safely. You start before they can do it but your goal is to raise a child who can cross a busy street safely using their own judgement even when you aren’t there. Because the majority of their life is going to proceed when you aren’t there and they have to have all the tools necessary to make their own judgements in circumstances you can’t foresee.

    1. I just wrote a post about this, mentioning how much I felt like I had in common with a Korean-American friend when we compared our backgrounds. This was a great post, Hannah. I will be thinking about it.

  6. “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.” Lovely use of language and deeply spiritual/human.

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