Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Women of faith and the martyr complex

Some time ago a Mormon friend shared something interesting on Facebook, a story that women of her faith were supposed to be contemplating that particular month. Without getting too much into the details of the story, I will say that one very plausible interpretation of this story was that a woman was being praised, at least in part, for suffering in silence and hiding her pain.

This led to a fascinating discussion: why are women of faith so often given the kind of message that implies that it is a virtue, and a particularly feminine one, to suffer silently without asking for help? Better yet, why is it considered brave and noble to push ourselves to the limits of our endurance instead of admitting that we are sick or exhausted or overwhelmed (or whatever the case might be) and that we actually could use a bit of help?

I haven't been able to stop thinking about this, so naturally I'm blogging about it.

Within the Catholic faith tradition we sometimes hear stories of female saints that seem to imply the same sort of thing, the idea that the holy woman who suffers must efface her suffering and present at all times a cheerful, calm demeanor and display a trusting disposition. Granted, many of these stories are merely pious legends, while others are sometimes told with the emphasis in the wrong place--that is, that while it is virtuous for both men and women to practice Christian resignation in the face of trials, there's nothing that says you can't admit you are hurting, ask for help, or request prayers. In fact, the saints did all of those things on a frequent basis.

Yet still the idea persists that a woman is being particularly holy if her sweet smile and cheerful attitude conceal anything from a slight headache to a major illness to an abusive spouse to a disintegrating marriage or even to the kinds of loss and pain we can barely imagine. She is supposed to have a mental drawer full of pious platitudes with which to respond to anyone who expresses concern, ranging from "The Lord will provide," to "So many people in the world are hurting far more than I am, and I am so blessed. Who am I to complain?" She's not supposed to ask for or accept help except in the most dire circumstances, and even then she's supposed to feel guilty because that other woman she's heard of whose house also burned down while she was dealing with a broken leg and nursing twins did just fine without any help at all, even though in addition to these woes the other woman reportedly had a wringer washer and a slowly deteriorating clothesline instead of a nice functional laundry room...

Of course, the reality is that women are people and people sometimes need help. It's not a moral fault or failure of faith to admit that and even to ask for it. Tales that reinforce the idea that a holy woman never admits that she can't just keep on going tend to strengthen the unfortunate tendency women sometimes have to play the martyr on purpose.

Playing the martyr is asking for help without actually asking--at least, not until one has tried everything else. If sighing, eye-rolling, caustic comments about self-folding laundry, lavish and well-decorated pity parties and similar tactics don't do the trick, then the woman can rest assured that her nearest and dearest have totally failed this test of loyalty and actually ask for assistance. This, too, has rules: she can't simply say, "Can someone help me empty the dishwasher?" There has to be a snide comment or two about interrupting someone's busy life, about wishing she, too, had time to plop in front of the TV, or about how sorry she is that she doesn't actually have a second set of hands.

I think many of us women, if we're really being honest with ourselves, will admit to having used these tactics on occasion. But our reasons for doing so are sort of complicated, and what complicates them is this whole "martyr complex" scenario. If a woman gets told again and again that she isn't really holy if she's not willing to do all her chores and tasks and suffer anything and everything in silence, alone, enduring all and complaining about nothing, then she's probably going to feel a bit conflicted when she realizes that she can't simultaneously cook dinner, walk the dog, rock the baby and tend to her own bout with a raging flu virus. Something is going to have to give, and apart from the shreds of her temper the most likely "something" is this illusion she has built up for herself of the holy and gracious woman who hides all her struggles from her husband and children, cheerfully attending to all of their needs, even if she has to fight to remain conscious and vertical.

As tempting as it may be, though, to blame a certain type of man for this problem, the truth is that both men and women share responsibility for the myth of the holy female living martyr. Some men of faith certainly like to tell the story of this or that female relative who never allowed her own mental or physical health to stand in the way of her daily and exhausting routine of worship, chores, and community service because without realizing it they have made an idol of strength, and wish to see this idol's image reflected in any woman who is part of their lives. But some women also make a competition out of endurance and stamina, and will insist until the moment they are forcibly restrained and placed in an ICU (or a padded cell) that they are fine, no, really, and would someone please get that IV out of their arms so they can get on with peeling the potatoes; such women have, sadly, a tendency to judge lesser mortals quite openly if sometimes with the appearance of politeness. (In the American South the phrase "bless her heart" was practically invented as a way of signaling that the woman being spoken about just doesn't have what it takes, for instance.)

Frankly, we who are women of faith need to stop both of these things: we need to stop playing the martyr by never being honest about our struggles or asking openly and directly for help, and we need to stop judging the women who are honest and open enough to admit that they can't do it all. Taking up our crosses, dying to ourselves, and following Christ is the only martyrdom we need, and it doesn't center around some sort of heroic level of physical stamina; it centers around Christ, who gives us the only kind of strength that is really worth having.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

On civility and temperance in speech

I am still working on moving this blog to a new site, but in the meantime, I wanted to comment on a current matter. Recently two Catholic writers were let go from a Catholic publication, with the reason given that some of their writing online in social media and other forums was not acceptable. I don't plan to discuss the specifics of the situation since I don't actually know the specifics of the situation, and engaging in speculation about those specifics wouldn't be right. The people involved can, and have, commented, and I sort of think they're the only ones who ought to.

No, my reason for writing has to do with general principles involving civility in written speech, and in particular as a response to some people who, with a sincere and, I think, charitable impulse to defend the two writers, are saying some awfully silly things. Without pointing fingers at any particular commenters, these are the sorts of things I've been seeing:

—The insistence that any "salty" language, vulgarity, coarseness, swearing, name-calling/belittling or other similar uses of words are perfectly fine because Jesus called the Pharisees whitened sepulchers, and St. Paul could get pretty earthy, and there's tons of stuff in the Old Testament too, so clearly writers who use any of these tactics are just following Christ.

—The comparison between cussing someone out on the Internet and the fabled crankiness of St. Jerome or other saints, with the obvious message that crabbiness is sort of a virtue, really, if we just understood it properly.

—The claim that nobody before the Victorians ever thought that immoderate or intemperate language was in any way a moral fault, and that because of the Victorians (or the Puritans or the Jansenists or all three) we have lost that manly, forthright language and become a tribe of "Dash it all, Aunt Agatha!" wimps incapable of expressing the full range of human emotions in our writings.

—The cry that "Keeping it real!" absolutely requires the flinging of F-bombs in Facebook comment threads, and that people who complain about such things are either hopeless fainting-couch addicts or else lying hypocrites who don't really mind the swearing so much as they oppose the steely-eyed soul-reading and calls to repentance which the F-bomb tosser is issuing forth like a prophet of old.

—The somewhat head-scratching notion that employers (even contract employers) don't actually have the right to hold someone accountable for their social media behavior or to end their relationship with an employee who is, however inadvertently, tarnishing their image.

Now, I have a feeling that the two people who were let go from their writing jobs would probably find all of this rather embarrassing, because they're not the ones saying any of this (at least, not as far as I know). Most of us know that just our Lord speaking rather directly to the Pharisees was because He is God, and saw their hearts; we, even the best of us, are just guessing and making assumptions and drawing conclusions, and we're not always right. The same thing is true with comparisons to the saints: sure, we might be a modern-day St. Jerome, but it's always at least equally possible that we're just being a jerk. Many Christian pastors throughout the ages have warned their flocks about the duty to be temperate in speech and modest in expression, and they were not Victorians by any means; it is no more "real" to throw F-bombs than to refrain from doing so (and, when you think about what the F-word actually means, it is often quite nonsensical to employ it in a conversational context where violent carnal knowledge of the item or idea in question is at the very least a physical impossibility and at the most an offense against God and man). As for employers, most of us remember the man who was fired for bullying a fast-food employee and posting a rather pathetic, boasting video of the event on the Internet; one could argue that he was fired as much for extreme cluelessness as anything, but he was fired, and for something that took place far from the context of his job.

The fact of the matter is that civility in speech, temperance in conversation, modesty in one's use of language, all are and all have been areas of concern to Christians throughout the ages. And while most reasonable pastors and confessors would agree that the occasional slip of the tongue is not likely to be a huge fault, especially under extreme provocation, they would also point out that one's written communications ought, quite properly, to be held to a higher standard. We are capable of thinking before we write; we are capable of editing after we write; and we are capable of reconsidering long before we hit the "publish" or "post" buttons. In the heat of an online discussion we may be inclined to forget these things (myself as well as anybody), but that doesn't change the reality that written communication is not intended to be immediate and thoughtless.

I myself have been called to account before for written expressions that failed to see the person on the other side of the screen as a precious child of God made in His image and likeness, and I have been, on the whole, grateful for those reminders. One blogger I know set up the precedent long ago of the "beer and pizza" rule for his comment boxes: you should conduct yourself as if you are sitting at a table with the other commenters sharing some pizza and beer and having a real conversation. His blog continues to be known as a place of unusual civility, where people who disagree about nearly everything can talk to each other with real kindness and compassion, and I have learned a lot from my interactions with commenters there.

Whatever the specifics of this present situation are, I think any Catholic writer would hate to see himself or herself used as the excuse made for a decrease in civility and charity online. Temperance in speech is as much of a virtue as temperance in eating or drinking, and we shouldn't get in the habit of claiming otherwise.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A new website, and some pondering

I have a new website for my books! Please visit it here, and let me know what you think.

I'm also pondering the idea of changing this blog's home. In the past, when I've gotten frustrated with Blogger, I've contemplated moving to a different platform, but I haven't found a platform I've liked as well. So far, I'm pretty impressed with Wix, and have wondered whether it wouldn't be easier all around to move my writing there.

Frankly, blogging isn't what it used to be. I remember how much fun it used to be to visit people's blogs and read a little bit about their lives, their hobbies or projects, and their thoughts on various issues of the day. For a long time now, though, blogs have been getting quieter, and all the discussion that happens seems to take place on Facebook or other social media platforms. (The more visual people have moved to Instagram and I never see them anymore. I'm thinking about setting up an account just so I can see people I sort of miss from the blog world.)

If I do move this blog, I'll let you know, those of you who are still checking in from time to time.