Thursday, August 13, 2009

(Re-)cognizing the Source of the Problem

“Thus says the LORD, "What injustice did your fathers find in Me, That they went far from Me And walked after emptiness and became empty?” ~ Jeremiah 2.5

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” ~ Genesis 3.6

I have this friend… I’ll call her “Juliette.” Juliette’s talents are limitless: she writes, paints, sings, sews, plays music, and cooks extravagantly good (as well as aesthetically pleasing) food. Let me tell you, once you enter this woman’s aura you don’t ever want to leave.

She is one of those people who could have done any one of a multitude of things very well… Yet in the grace and sovereignty of God, she is applying her talents to the manifold ‘art’ of motherhood, marriage and homemaking.

So you can imagine my dismay when she called yesterday to tell me she was suffering from an acute case of ‘the mean reds.’ She felt weighed down, she said; her brain, a muddle of confusion. She loved her two boys, desperately… but she felt stifled. She wanted to be home with them and yet she felt a failure for not having secured a niche for herself (as a painter or seamstress) somewhere outside her home.

In short, her life was a set table where there seemed room for everyone but her.

That morning Juliette had woken up with a spontaneous urge to simplify her life. She decided to start by paring down the number of needless toys which her sons had accumulated over the course of the previous year. By nine o’clock in the morning, she was on the floor of her sons' room, bent over a small wooden birdhouse, into which several handcrafted dollhouse stools had been stuffed.

“I could have cared less about the birdhouse,” she said, “but I wanted to preserve the stools because they are part of an antique French collection of dollhouse furniture and figurines which we brought home from Paris last year.”

An ordinarily very capable woman, Juliette was resolved – in spite of her current state of fragility – not to ask her husband (who was working from home) for help. “For the next 20 minutes my sole purpose of existence was to get those blasted things out!”

She had succeeded in freeing all but one when her husband – who had been listening to her grunting and muttering to herself from the next room – offered to intervene.

She consented, resignedly, and watched as he ripped the roof off the birdhouse and jostled the last remaining object onto the rug. “It’s not a stool,” he said, surprised. “It’s just a little lady!” (In fact it was the only lady in the entire French collection of figurines.)

“No, it isn’t!” said Juliette, suddenly irate. “It’s a metaphor…for my life! Just one little lady – stuck in her little house! Who cannot get out unless she is pried!”

Apart from identifying with Juliette’s frustration, I love this story because it so perfectly illustrates what I see as ‘the problem’ for many women – that is, the war that is taking place in many of our souls.

We have been lied to – by “our fathers” and our culture – about what will truly satisfy us (as human beings, but particularly as women).

Worse still, we have believed these lies, choosing, as the prophet Jeremiah says, to “walk after emptiness and become empty…”

When you partake of a lie, even a "seemingly" small one – as Eve did in the garden – it becomes a part of you, infecting you with its poison and coloring your perception of the world.

When you try to live a lie, whether consciously or not, a perpetual state of conflict inevitably ensues, just as a cat would undoubtedly feel frustrated by attempting to live the life of a dog. The earnest feline may go through the outward motions of panting pathetically at the sight of her master; or running, gums-bared, to retrieve a ball; but inside she will feel an increasing sense of perturbation, as though something isn’t quite right.

People often say, “depression is anger turned inwards.” A cliché, certainly; but it harbors a substantive truth: for depressed people are angry people – even if their anger is only passively or tacitly expressed.

Say what you will, but I propose that when one is in a perpetual state of being thwarted, of harboring a deep sense of irreconcilable conflict – feelings, not only of anger, but powerlessness, despair, and inertia, inevitably arise… And it is the persistence of such feelings which the dictionary – as well as countless diagnosticians – term “clinical depression.”

But identifying – or even treating - a problem isn’t the same as solving it.

So how do we solve it?

I’m not entirely sure. (Of course, only God is truly capable of ‘fixing’ whatever is broken in the heart of any person.) But I believe we can begin by at least recognizing the source of the problem; that is, identifying what, in part, this preponderance of women coming down with 'the mean reds' is all about.

‘What it’s all about’ is this: who gets to define what is valuable.

On one side we have what our culture wants us to value… on the other, what God deems valuable.

The culture says you are only valuable for what you contribute to society, regardless of whether your contribution can be measured monetarily. For example, apart from esteeming status-oriented jobs such as "the doctor," "the lawyer," and "the CEO," or service-oriented vocations such as "the teacher," "the military professional," or "the civil servant," society also bows in reverence to volunteer positions such as "the United Nations Relief Worker" or the ‘Peace Corps Volunteer;" but “the mother” – the mother – is spoken of almost exclusively in diminutive terms:

“What does she do?” is a question commonly overheard.

“Oh, you mean Catherine? She doesn’t work;” “She only stays at home;” “She is just a housewife; or “just a mother” as though all that is required of a woman unfortunate enough to find herself in such a degrading position is that she registers a pulse! (It elevates my blood pressure just writing about it!)

It is no wonder, then, that women like Juliette – and like myself – struggle, at times, to value the tasks of being a wife and mother when our society ascribes them with such little value!

We forget – or perhaps we never knew – that Eve was created by God to be Adam’s human counterpart and creative helpmate, equal in value yet different in purpose. We bristle, and become indignant, at the use of the word “helpmate” because we have been conditioned to believe that such a designation renders us inferior. "To help" is, in our culture, synonymous with being the help - an indisputably substandard position compared with being "the person in charge," or, the one who completes a job and gets credit for it (rather than "merely" offering assistance)!

We feel, rather vaguely, that we will be more valuable (to society? to ourselves?) if we are in a position to give orders, forgetting that greatness in God’s kingdom is achieved by embracing the role of a servant.

And so we are conflicted… and we don’t know why…

One part of us longs to exercise our maternal instincts; the other feels we should be looking for ways to master the world. We relish (perhaps secretly) being cared for; and yet we feel we must also fight to retain and protect our sense of independence. We feel a simultaneous desire to offer support and assistance to those closest to us; as well as to create and contribute something that is our own, distinct and separate.

We wonder, why am I frustrated? and attribute our frustration to circumstances, rather than recognizing that the problem is inside us, having to do with how we think and perceive the world.

Our minds have become deluded and corrupted by our culture’s warped perception of what is valuable. We have sold ourselves to the idea that we will be of greater worth as human beings if we can contribute something which can be overtly measured.

If once we realize the err in our thinking, what then?

When something has been sold, exploited, or lost, the only solution is to redeem it, a word which literally means "to buy back." We must, in God’s strength, redeem or buy back the vocation of motherhood, wifehood – and womanhood in general – by re-instating it with the value which God originally gave it.

I do not mean to suggest that we make of womanhood an idol – something which we dress up and bow down to and into which we vest our security – but to recognize that our roles as women are valuable because God says so:

“In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind…” (Genesis 5.1-2). God created woman in His image; and blessed her to be His image-bearer in the world.

But whether our creative undertakings ever take us further than the four walls of our living rooms is irrelevant and beside the point. It is not what we do that is valuable (many great men and women spent the majority of their lives rotting in prisons, after all); it is who we are — and who we are in the process of becoming.


marissaknichols(morales) said...

Thanks for the reflection! You are absolutely right...we've been lied to, as women, but the truth is still the truth and it will set us free!:)

--------- said...

i forget the specifics, and i won't look them up now, but i read an article once which spent considerable effort explaining the Hebrew word translated in English most commonly, at least in the Genesis verse, as "helpmate." The same Hebrew word is used to describe God's relationship to Moses and to Israel. God is Moses' helpmate. Eve is Adam's helpmate. What should we say?

I was just talking to a happily heretical Christian who couldn't emphasize enough the salvational role women have played in his life. His other heresies aside, Mother's, sisters, wives, daughters wherever they may be, whatever they may do, or not do, surely even the most secular minded non-reflective dolt, pressed in a moment to reflect with even the smallest shreds of honesty, must admit, at least at times, these women have been and promise to be one form of salvation amongst others