Too Good For Grace

    The words in the second half of this sentence will likely induce a little laughter in those who know me well, but the truth is that I’ve never seen myself as a perfectionist.

   To me, perfectionism is not being okay with getting a 98% on a test, whereas I have always been fine with whatever gets me an A, even if that score is less than 100. To me, perfectionists keep a clean room, and a clean car, and a clean lap when they’re eating. I am messy in all of these areas, and pretty much clumsy in general. I do need to be seen as capable, as among the best at work or school, but I’ve never been conscious of needing to be seen as actually perfect. “Perfect”, to me, has never felt achievable.

    That said, as an Evangelical Christian, I was also never okay with actually needing grace. I’m not sure how many of us truly were, or are. Yes, the whole religion--or vague-ish sect, if we’re talking specifically about Evangelical theology--is based on our fundamental need for God’s saving grace. “Saving” in the literal sense, of course, for without it none of us is capable of being good enough to earn entry into Heaven. And yet I was also regularly bombarded with intense guilt trips about how my sins either angered God, broke God’s heart, or, my personal favorite, nailed Jesus to the cross one more time.

    It was a strange dichotomy: I knew I wasn’t capable of being perfect, but it seemed like I wasn’t allowed to mess up, either. No matter how many times I was reassured of God’s unconditional love, the message was belied by a very vocal focus on all we could possibly be doing wrong, and making sure we were constantly asking for forgiveness, which was apparently a necessary part of the “unconditional love” equation.

    Somewhere along the way, probably very early on, my goal became to need as little of God’s grace as possible. I was not conscious of this, either; I just didn’t want to feel bad. I didn’t want to carry the shame of needing grace at all, and it was shameful to be a messed up human in the Christian church. On the other hand, if you were a good disciple (no premarital sex, no law-breaking, no cussing, etc., etc.) you were commended and thoroughly accepted by the group. Over time, never having to apologize became my highest priority. Of course, being raised female I was apologizing right and left for every silly little thing, but that was more socialized manners than real repentance--and, in fact, being willing to say “I’m sorry” for things that didn’t actually require an apology was a pretty effective way of keeping myself in good standing with the world.

    I never wanted to owe anyone anything, because I had never learned that it was possible for people to still love me if I wasn’t getting things right. I was too scared to take the risk of finding out. I never learned that my imperfections actually weren’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, and that, in general, people are understanding of a lot. Basically, I never learned that it was okay for me to screw up. I had no idea that I had value beyond being dependable. To this day, I still struggle to believe that I do.

    I wasn’t until I left Evangelicalism, and Christianity on the whole--until I got out into the real world, that is--that I noticed that plenty of people were living lives that depended on others’ being okay with their flaws and annoying habits. People were saying mean things sometimes, and missing things at work sometimes, and making selfish decisions sometimes, and they weren’t pariahs; they just had to be okay with needing their friends and family and co-workers to forgive them, and they had to be assuming, on a certain level, for the sake of getting on with life, that they needn’t be perpetually ashamed of being less than good.

    One day it dawned on me: I, as a Christian, was so much less accepting of grace and so much less willing to rely on it than these heathens I'd been taught were living in perpetual terror of dying unredeemed. I was the one living in terror, despite having a worldview in which the joy of my salvation was supposed to be my greatest strength.

    How pathetically ironic, right? Even worse, how hypocritical. But it wasn’t my fault, I don’t think. Forget whatever loving acceptance your local congregation is pitching on its church sign. The dark truth is that those of us who grow up in conservative communities are taught not to be okay with being less than pure. We are shamed. The pain and sorrow and weight of Jesus’s crucifixion is handed over as our burden to bear, regardless of how antithetical that seems to the whole point of God’s sacrifice in the first place.

    The truth needs to be told: we weren’t offered unconditional grace. And we were bullied into being the enemies of ourselves. We were taught to self-scrutinize without mercy, to dig around for all the manifestations of our inherent evil. We were taught that we were not lovable unless we earned that love. And the only way to earn that love was to never screw up.

    But here’s the thing, and here’s my reason for writing about it at all--it’s a lie. I want to tell you, fellow raised-Evangelicals, that I jumped the fence and found a place where folks know that nobody’s perfect, and they think it’s ridiculous to expect anybody to be. Where as long as everybody’s allowed to make a mistake now and then, and as long as you’re willing to learn from it and apologize, it’s all good. It’s called ‘not Church’. It’ll take a while to unlearn all the bad habits, maybe even the rest of your life. That’s okay, though. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “We’re all mad here.”

Love and Luck: A Nihilist Prayer

Yesterday, as my partner and I were returning from lunch, driving wordlessly along the winding forest road that takes us to our house on the southwestern outskirts of Portland, it occurred to me: I got what I wanted.

I got the thing I had been praying and pining and sweating for since I instantaneously fell in love with the too-cool floppy-haired (it was the 90s) boy who showed up at my school in seventh grade, shrouded in the mystery of being from out of town. I got my man.

Only it doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, because it’s not like it suddenly happened when I became okay with being alone and learned all the magical single girl lessons that we long-time single girls are told we’re supposed to be learning (and enjoying, don't forget). And it wasn’t an answer to prayer; I stopped praying a long time ago. So maybe “got” is not the right word.

But it did happen. It didn’t and didn’t and didn’t for so many years, and then it did. And I was so burned out on wanting it that I barely had the energy to celebrate when it did. For what exactly would the celebration be, though? And to whom should I offer my thanks for this great gift?

Not God--it wasn’t He who came through for me.

Not even myself, because, though I’ve worked hard on being well-adjusted enough to be a good fit for a similarly well-adjusted mate, I know plenty of people who’ve been doing that work for a longer span of time than I and it hasn’t earned them a companion yet. Also, let’s not forget my overwhelming privilege. Every demographic I belong to sets me up for success in the field of heterosexual coupling in this society.

So what does it come down to? I think, luck.

I got lucky.

A temptation bubbles up in my heart to wrap itself in gratitude around some Grand Scheme that, though perhaps technically atheistic, is driven by benevolence that (of course) benefits me. Still I can’t shake the feeling, after all the prosperity gospel bullshit I’ve managed to disabuse myself of, that it simply...just happened.

What does that mean?

Nothing, I suppose.

But it feels like it needs to mean something.

I know. But maybe it doesn’t.

Maybe I spent too long studying literature. So engrossed in narrative and understanding and significance--I loved it; it filled a gap. So did Christianity. Give me a story to interpret, give me a lesson to learn, give me anything that gets me out of my now-body and into my anytime, anyplace-head where I don’t have to figure out how to be comfortable being present and alive.

Give me a reason this person I love is driving this car I’m in to the house we own in a town we chose together, far away from the places that did their best to raise us right.

Amateur Attempts at Feminism From A Former Complementarian Christian

    I’m pretty sure I’ve always been a feminist, just like I was always a critical thinker, and was always secretly okay with people being gay despite what I was told I should think by the tradition in which I was raised. Unfortunately, I’ve also always been a rule-follower. Not out of any sense of righteousness, really; just because I was (and am) deathly afraid of being in trouble with the law. Now, the law could be a cop, or it could be my dad, but it was definitely, always, God.

    According to “God”--at least the “God” under whose gaze I grew up--being gay was unnatural and wrong. According to “God”, my human mind was flawed and in need of saving. And according to “God”, women, while ‘spiritually equal’ to men, were meant to be led by and deferential to them in this earthly life.

    Figuring that the church knew better than I did, I decided at a fairly young age to acquiesce to the notion. It wasn’t that difficult, actually. One of the thing that makes Evangelicalism--or perhaps any kind of fundamentalism--attractive is the way in which it removes the responsibility of growing up from a person. Complementarianism (the belief that men and women have gender-specific, rigidly defined, and implicitly hierarchical roles in life and relationships) does this for women, in a way. A way that is totally patronizing and oppressive, but still--there isn’t a whole lot to worry about when someone else is making all the decisions and you agree to agree.

    I chose to have faith that bowing to the plans and decisions of whomever it was that wanted to marry me was the righteous and beneficial tack to take. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out so well. In a stunningly awkward and remarkably quick implosion, the courtship that I bought into at the age of twenty-five--the one I was absolutely sure God would wrap up in marriage--fell to pieces, partly because of (I think, in retrospect) our buying into the complementarian strategy. The whole thing was an unnatural pantomime. Yes, I was into him, but I was no housewife in the making. I am no conformer. I became a nothing in the relationship, really, always waiting for him to make a move, start a conversation, explain what was going to happen next…. I could not figure out how to be in that way.

    Because I had invested so wholeheartedly in the traditional gender roles despite my inherent inclination to the contrary, I was extra bitter when that relationship broke up. I was starting to be done with God, and I was most definitely done with assimilating to the patriarchal way of life. As such, you can imagine my disorientation when the next relationship in which I saw a long future--the one I came to as a non-believer and an adamant egalitarian eight years later--required that I quit my job in order to be with the man.

    Okay, that’s an incomplete and unfair description of the turn of events. Let me give you some context. I met this guy when I was living in the LA area and he was living in San Diego. In other words, it was a long-distance relationship. Not a terribly long “long distance”, but enough of a trek that we could only see each other on the weekends. We knew that if the relationship developed into something serious, this matter of geography would require some sort of compromise eventually. And it did, which was both exciting and confusing.

    Exciting for obvious reasons; confusing because, despite how happy and comfortable I was with this man, I feared I was slipping into that secondary role again. I was doing everything in my power to remember to see myself as an independent and equally valued member of the relationship, and yet here I was considering letting go of this chapter of my career in order to be with a guy, which felt like the most un-feminist thing ever. I was determined not to relive my past; at the same time, I was wary of sacrificing a beautiful future on the altar of that backward-facing commitment.

    For various reasons, it actually did make the most practical sense in our particular situation for me to be the one to move. Practicality, however, has never been my strong suit. I was not a woman who was happy to prioritize a man--not anymore. I was still uncomfortable and torn despite most signs pointing to “move”. I asked myself over and over again if it was worth it--if he was worth it--the giving up of a job I loved. On the other hand, I also had to ask myself: was clinging to what I was defining as my feminist independence worth losing this man if it turned out he wasn’t able to move to me (which he did offer to do, by the way)?

    The answers I came to were “yes” and “no”, respectively. Not that I wouldn’t have found another person to partner with eventually if I had decided that my highest priority was to stay at my job. It’s just, my highest priority wasn’t to stay at my job. My highest priority was my personal desire, and my personal desire was to continue to be with this person. “This person” happens to be male, so unfortunately the context surrounding the decision changes (thanks a lot, patriarchy) and one's independence and self-sufficiency as a woman must be considered with extra weight; but what I myself wanted was to do life with him, and so that is what I chose.

    There is no such thing as full independence in working relationships, I don’t think. People remain--or should remain--separate as persons, but there is give and take; there are risks, and yes moments of submission and sacrifice, that each person must bear at different points over the course of the partnership. Some choose full independence over committed relationships because they would prefer not to do those things, which I totally understand. However, I prefer being in a relationship to not, so I suppose I just have to live with the complicated nature of the combination of my complementarian upbringing, my attempts at feminism, and the undeniable fact that men happen to be the people to whom I’m attracted sexually and romantically.*

    Maybe the problem is not that I might be a bad feminist, but rather that I’m so worried about being a bad anything. I mean, if feminism is about equity across genders, in every context, for every woman, then isn’t the point, in the particular situation I described above, that I should be able to make whatever choice I want? And if the choice I ultimately wanted to make (despite the fact that it was heavily bittersweet) was to blaze a new trail in my life with the partner I love, then shouldn’t I maybe be celebrating the freedom I have (personally, politically, socially, and economically) to make that choice, instead of feeling worried and insecure because it looks like I moved “for a man”?

    If I chose not to move simply because I’m a woman and my partner is a man--for that reason and that reason alone--I would not be living in freedom. I would be living for other people, in fear of what other people would think. In desperation that I walk and talk and live like the feminist I say I am. And I’m pretty sure I decided I was done with that kind of life when I left the church. So what if I’m an imperfect feminist? Who, ultimately, is going to judge me for it in a way that will affect my life? Not God, certainly. What is the consequence if I screwed up? I learn a lesson, and move on. I do better. What more can we ask from ourselves than that?

*To be clear, being heterosexual is an ENTIRELY privileged & centered identity in this society; I hope my statement does not imply otherwise.