(What follows is a slight departure from my usual polemic - it was inspired by listening to the Mumford and Sons' album, Sigh No More, which is why I have posted the debut single above).
There’s an instance in Prince Caspian – my least favorite of the Narnia books, to be honest – where Aslan tells Lucy not to think about what could have happened, what could have been. I always thought this was because you couldn’t change what had happened, so why wonder?
Now, however, I realize that this sentiment is only a bandaid, a surface level idea bent on covering up pain. Recognizing that you cannot change what happened is all well and good – it’s important to realize that what’s in the past is in the past. I’ve always been very good at this – I don’t get rankled about things I can’t change all that easily. If there’s a flight delay, or I get lost trying to go somewhere, or I make a mistake, I’m very good at saying, “Well, that’s just how it is. Let’s move on from here.” So I thought I had that lesson down pat.
But then my boyfriend broke up with me, and I realized that I didn’t – I really, really didn’t. I was amazed at my own behavior, as I was thrown into a panic of “What can I do to fix this? What can I change (barring moving all the way back to South Dakota)?” As it sunk in that it wasn’t going to change, I caught myself thinking about the could-have-been’s – Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” became my theme song. Even now, two months after the fact, I catch myself thinking about how different Christmas is going to be from what I had previously planned. It feels like I’m living on an alternate timeline, and that there is a different Dianna who is living my life, the life I should have had.
However, my pain is understandable, explicable, even. Aslan’s words make sense, because, in focusing my energy on how things could have been different, I lose my grip on how things are, and I forget to live intentionally, in the community I have now. Even in the midst of pain, I could see that particular pain had a purpose, even as much as I didn’t want it to be there. Aslan’s lesson works for that sort of pain, and it is the type of pain many American Christians can understand. We, as a church, can be a good comfort sometimes in the midst of pain that we can explain.
But there is also pain that doesn’t serve a purpose, or that seems disproportionately meted out in comparison to the purpose it is supposed to serve. Pain that breaks people apart without ever offering the chance of wholeness again.
My pain is temporary: I’ll eventually stop identifying so much with Adele. I’ll eventually be able to pick up the Avett Brothers’ “I and Love and You” and listen to it all the way through without getting stabby. “Casimir Pulaski Day” will go back to being just a beautiful song, rather than a song tied to a moment in which “I love you” was first spoken (it’s profound how much of my emotions are tied to the music I choose).
But for many, especially those who participate in this great big tent we call “womanhood,” there is pain inflicted by others that doesn’t go away, that serves very little purpose, and that seems to exist for the mere purpose of existing, and it’s very hard to learn from it, if we can learn from it at all.*
I feel like I walk a fine line in feminist theology when I talk about how the church is hurting people, but also recognize that pain sometimes serves a purpose. But I also know that one of the worst things in the world that you can tell a hurting person is that this pain has a purpose, or that something that seems so aimless serves any purpose at all, even with time. In the Christian church, especially, we leap quite quickly to the idea that “God has a plan for this,” “You will learn from this” etc – pathetic, useless, sentiments to a hurting person. And if we become blinded to the real people we are speaking to, it can lead us to make some incredibly tone-deaf and hurtful statements.
Like the Congressman who explains that a woman’s rape has a purpose because she conceived a child, and obviously, God must have wanted that child in the universe. He ends up victimizing that poor girl all over again by telling her, basically, that God wanted her to be raped.
Like the politician who, when confronted with an eight year old who has two mothers, gets a look of terror on her face and just waves him away, rather than confront that her theology, her stance, might just be hurting people.
Like the pastor who, believing that premarital sex is terrifying sinful, fails to account for the fact that 1 in 6 women will be raped in her lifetime, and therefore that preaching his hardline stance about sex on a Sunday will probably hurt a portion of his congregation.
We’ve lost nuance in the discussion of hurt and pain when we have the gall to explain to people that we know what purpose their pain serves, when we ignore the person in favor of the theology. When we can’t deal with real hurting people in front of us, telling us that our theology is hurting them all over again, we write it off, we tell them they just don’t understand yet, and we go on with our day, comforted with the fact that we are better because we understand, we get it and isn’t it so sad that she doesn’t?
This, encapsulated, is the greatest mistake of American Christian theology. We’ve stopped meeting people where they’re at. We’ve done so much to try and understand that we’ve forgotten to stop and listen. We’re so concerned about being holy and righteous that we’ve never stopped to think about whether or not our insistence on righteousness is all that loving. We’ve lost our grip on empathy, when we, as Christians, should be known for it. We set a rule - like Aslan - and forget the narrative of loving one's neighbor.
So, let’s pause for a minute, back up, and begin to listen to those voices we have spent so much time “othering” and ignoring. And recognize that sometimes, sometimes, it’s okay to just be there.
*This is, of course, not to say that men do not experience pain – all people experience pain, but it much more likely that women will be victims of a very specific, targeted, painful experience, and that is what I am getting at with this statement.