One of the most fascinating and frustrating things about being a person is that you don’t get to compartmentalize your problems. If it were up to me, I’d order my personal and psychological issues into a bulleted list, rank them by severity and resources needed, and proceed to mend them in a structured and logical fashion. Also, if it were possible, I’d have on hand an infallible reference point; something I could check regularly and know without doubt if I was Doing It Right. Needles to say, I don’t get to do that. My problems often hover below my awareness, bleed into each other, and resurface long after I’m sure they were dead and done. This gets especially complex when questions of identity and change surface.
I’ve been very open lately about my issues with depression; but for a long time, the identity of Mental Health Patient was one I tried not to have. My long journey towards acceptance of my illness has occurred almost in perfect tandem with my explorations of faith, and what both of those factors in my life mean for me and the world around me. The process is often awkward and imperfect. One example is that until very recently, I was leery about identifying as a Feminist, as you can see in an older post. Apart from the embarrassment I feel about this now, what bothers me most is why. Why did it take me so long to openly identify with feminism? What part of my perceived identity felt threatened by the term?
It would be easy to blame my evangelical background for this, and point to the suspicion of “the feminist agenda” that is often found there. I’m certainly not the only post-evangelical woman that’s gone through this. But I don’t think the problem is that straightforward. Apart from the fact that I take full responsibility for myself, the religious influence on this and other civil rights issues is more nuanced. Christianity in general, and evangelicalism especially, values conversion experiences. The prodigal son, the lost sheep, the Damascus road. These are are pivotal, beloved stories in the evangelical community. In all of them, the prevailing message is some variant of: “You’re here/changed your mind? Let’s throw a party!”. Growing up, celebrating a shift in identity or acknowledgment of imperfection was a given. Not that it was ever that simple in practice, but the expectation was that the intention to change or to do good was all that mattered. I do think there is a kind of beauty in this. Forgiveness and acceptance can be wonderfully liberating, as is the idea of making a fresh start. But it does contribute to problems people have if they leave the identity of evangelical behind.
When I began hesitantly questioning my own faith and what form it had, it opened up a whole bunch f questions about civil rights and what I thought about them. I expected to be celebrated for wanting to do better. I thought the fact that I meant well and was trying was enough. My experience with Center For Inquiry was also liberating, and there were people there that welcomed me with open arms and without reservation. I’ve always been grateful for that. But there were others who quite reasonably hung back and waited for me to earn their respect and trust. Initially, I was hurt and confused by this. I may or may not have demanded ‘cookies’ from people (you’d have to ask them), but I certainly awarded a bunch to myself. In retrospect, I can appreciate how much the way I’ve grown has depended on the kindness and patience of those around me. They gave me room to be stupid and let me figure out that I was without pressure or judgment. If I am hesitant to use titles like Feminist, Humanist, or Egalitarian now, it’s because I can see that those are titles you have to earn.
If I could give any advice to people making a similar transition, I wouldn’t stop with the popular “don’t expect a cookie”. I’d say expect everything to be different than you thought it would. The world’s a lot bigger, scarier, and lovelier than any one of us ever knows, and you miss out on that if you’re preoccupied with your own moral goodness.