So I’ve been thinking a lot about guilt and shame lately. I think they are important components used to control people’s actions, particularly in the kind of movement I grew up in. I’m sure lots of people have more experience parsing apart exactly how the guilt and shame mechanisms work, what it is that hooks you into feeling them, what psychological and physiological responses you have to them, and how societies, groups, or individuals can use these guilt and shame feelings as powerful tools to control people. I’m not going to get into all that though.
Instead, I’m pondering a strange phenomenon that I have been feeling a bit of lately. I expect most people have experienced it some, but I imagine those who grew up like me have perhaps had a little more of it than your average bear. For people who have left fundamentalist or very strict upbringings I think it happens quite a lot.
It’s that feeling where I was told something was the worst thing in the world (or at least the worst thing next to killing babies or something) and to be totally avoided, always, or life as I knew it would ruined. Then I found myself in a situation where I did that supposed worst thing (which I was more than a little surprised to even find myself doing) and realized I was surprisingly cool with it, maybe even glad I did it. Then later I sat there thinking it over in my mind and internally didn’t even feel bad about it. I was secretly perfectly fine with it and kind of like “whoa, this is weird. I shouldn’t be perfectly fine with this, but I am. Is there something wrong with me because I’m perfectly fine? Will I later feel absolutely horrible? Do I have no moral compass? Should I make myself feel bad so that I can feel how I’m supposed to feel?”
Thing is, I’m pretty sure I have a decent moral compass. I believe in human rights and respecting life and our planet and giving hugs, kisses, handshakes, and listening time; saying “I love you” and meaning it, and when I see any sort of cruelty to human beings or animals or our habitat, it is painful to me and I want it to stop (including if I, myself, have been the one to have done it). I want to help make it better. I also believe that I am included as one of those human beings deserving of respect under the golden rule and so should make sure to treat both myself and others like I’d want others to treat me – with love, appreciation, and a sense of humor.
So when I think of my value system and compare it to all the things I’ve done that I grew up being told I could or perhaps even should be “stoned to death according to the bible for,” it’s a weird feeling. If I was judged according to a Quiverfull value system I would have been killed or disowned so many times over, and yet I am both thankful and glad that I live in a society that is not governed by such harsh interpretations of “biblical law.” What’s more, I have no regrets that I did these things and figure that given the same situation I would do plenty of them again in a heartbeat. So what kinds of things am I talking about? Well, the usual sorts of “sins” that seem to trip up people like me:
Disobeying My Parents
– Cursing, yelling, insubordination, and verbal and physical displays of disrespect towards my parents and their ideas and expectations.
– Hitting back at my Mom and intentionally cutting my Dad with the sharp ring on my left hand while fighting back when they tried to give me “spankings” as a preteen.
– Publicly speaking out in ways that may make them “look bad.”
How I’m “supposed” to feel:
Like the worst person in the world, a trial on my parents, and someone who needs to apologize and atone for what I’ve done.
How I really feel:
I wish I hadn’t had to fight, but I’m glad that I did what I had to do to find a way out for me and my siblings at such a young age. I’m proud that ultimately I won the war and I sometimes play a highlight reel in my head when I need to psych myself up for dealing with other tough situations because nothing I’ve ever had to go through was tougher than that.
Giving Morally Relative or “Biblically Unsound” Advice
– Comforting a friend who’d had an abortion but felt conflicted about it and her faith, saying “given the circumstances, it was the best you could do. If women were treated better and generally ran churches rather than churches running them, I imagine there’d be special prayers for when this was needed.” Realizing as it came out of my mouth that I absolutely believed this to be true.
– Responding to a friend who’d just discovered he was gay and hoped I would “convince him out of it,” by saying “you know you love him and want to be with him and you can’t change that, so do what makes you happy. If you’re not ready to tell your grandmother, don’t. I will be your friend no matter what.”
– Telling a Muslim friend from Afghanistan “I understand why you’d want to take a second wife, considering you were forced into marriage to settle a family dispute at age 13, and that if you left your first wife she would be much worse off in your society. I only wish it was different so she could get a divorce, leave, and find love too. While you’re seeking a “love marriage,” help her get an education or business training so if it’s possible for her to be independent in the future, she can.”
What I was “supposed” to say:
Ask God for forgiveness, do not act on your sin, and try to build and maintain the marriage with your wife no matter what is in your heart.
What I really thought:
These people were in tough situations and needed to handle the situations in ways that both minimized the damage and treated themselves and other people with the most respect possible. There was no easy answer, which was why it was so hard. I think I gave the right advice.
Reevaluating the Role of the Human Body, Marriage, and Sex
– Refusing to “make sacrifices” or be a “living sacrifice” for anything. Deciding that what I want and need matters just as much as the wants and needs of the other people I love, and that this is not selfishness. Rather it is a sign of respect for myself and others.
– Learning how to let go, move to the beat, and dance all by myself, for no one else’s pleasure but mine in just enjoying the music.
– Walking through my house undressed and not caring one little bit that some neighbor might accidentally see me through my windows or think differently about me if they happened to, as I know being naked is simply not a sexual act or anything shameful in and of itself.
– Realizing I no longer believe in the myth of the “one true love,” “soulmates” based on a romantic sexual relationship, or that marriage is (or even should be) the goal of all crushes, budding relationships, or sexual experiences.
– Enjoying sex without a wedding ring on my finger or the expectation of one.
– Believing that two people who love each other don’t need to get married or have kids or even stay together to honor their love or “prove” it as being something real. Romantic love is about having equal respect for what both you and your partner needs and crafting shared dreams. It is not about capturing them in a role and making them serve you.
What I was “supposed” to do:
Cover up, ignore attraction until I had a ring on my finger, support marriage and childrearing as the bedrock institution of life, and fulfill my role as a wife and mother.
What I did:
Wore tank tops and short shorts on hot days, enjoyed and actively learned about sex by doing it, put being a decent human being as the bedrock institution, felt no obligation to some idealized wife role, prevented pregnancy in order to delay motherhood and concentrate on other things I felt considerably more interest in.
A number of these things still feel so taboo to write down, to even say, but the fact is that I’ve done them and thought them and felt that not only was there nothing wrong with them, but sometimes there was something very much right with them. In some instances I have done things that I was told were seriously forbidden and then discovered it was absolutely the correct thing for me to do. In others it was at least a learning experience. Still, I don’t speak of this stuff, this type of quandary, all that much. Why? Well I guess there’s the idea that others might not understand or that I will be judged harshly, intentionally punished for not feeling the guilt I should feel.
So although I may have no personal guilt regarding a situation, there is a very strong socially constructed sense of guilt in the world I come from, a feeling that others will pile on and try to make me feel an internal sense of shame or experience negative outcomes that I am seen to “deserve” if I open my mouth and even hint at my feelings or actions on these issues. In fact, there are people I know and love who use some of these things against me already and others who I am sure would (will?) jump at the chance. So why say it? Well, these are concrete examples of how I may sometimes still feel residual social guilt from my upbringing but have decided I am simply not interested in heaping loads of it on myself or having others heap it on for decisions and conclusions that I made and that honestly felt right in my heart. I am also not going to let the threat of this social guilt keep me from being true to myself or from living my life. It will not have power over me.
For those who hear this and worry I might be in danger of losing everything, I say you are in danger too. Every day you are at risk of having your heart broken or losing a loved one or facing a bleak period or a tragedy. Every day you also have the possibility of finding love, a new passion, meeting a kind person, or gaining something that is deeply meaningful. I know the mistakes and heartaches I’ve had in my life aren’t from rejecting some formula, just as my happiness and successes aren’t from following it. I simply can’t attribute either as happening directly due to how I’ve lived my life, although of course I’d like to think that my decisions and determination played a role. Some may call this “trial” and “grace,” and others “good luck” and “bad luck,” but either way, I’ve seen plenty people who’ve ostensibly “followed the rules” end up hurt or facing difficult situations, and I’ve seen plenty people who broke all the rules end up with something wonderful in their lives. It isn’t because one secretly sinned or because another repented. It’s that phases of heartbreak and happiness happen because this is life and life is messy.
Still, when I’m dealing with difficulties and am faced with the social guilt of others saying I can or could have prevented X, Y, or Z common calamity by doing A, B, or C, I might feel hurt knowing this person is thinking this way about me, but I let it pass. Whether those lines in the sand make them feel more comfortable with the vagaries of life or not, I simply just don’t believe that stuff anymore. Following some set of “rules” to try and get rid of this messiness simply doesn’t work and instead it opens you up to outside manipulation, control by others.
I’ve seen so many times how these rigid beliefs neither protect you from a bad life nor bring you a good life, but generally just get in the way, taking all of the credit and none of the blame as you try to muddle through and figure stuff out. That is why I don’t permit this kind of black and white thinking to have a hold in my life anymore and I mainly trust my “gut feeling” to lead me through the complexities and in the right direction. There is simply no philosophy that ties up all the loose ends, that is a rubric for life as we know it, even if we really, really want one. Life just doesn’t come with an instruction booklet and if it did, I am quite sure the Quiverfull way would not be it.
I’ve walked a lot of these same roads- I’ve done some things that I honestly don’t think of as “sin” even though nearly everyone I know would. I wish I could be honest about them.
And the problem is when you intellectually know one thing is true but emotionally do not get it and still feel down in the dumps.
I applaud you for speaking so eloquently and passionately about this… Thanks for putting into words what it difficult for many people to even challenge themselves to think about. I’ve been there, and done what you have, but there is no way I could have said it as well as you have. Thank you.
I guilt all the time over my thoughts, not what I say or do but the mere thoughts.
I guilt that I wrote a scene in my book in which people being killed were seen crossing a suspension bridge over an abyss and being met halfway past the part of the path upon which people go in one direction. The problem? I have all of them going and we are told that a relatively select will go.
If your belief system includes guilting and manipulating people, your beliefs are weak and deserve no following.
We are not anti christian but rather we are not impressed with their little inbred paradigm.