Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Look

Recently I was spending time with a younger Christian mother.  Her children are still small, three years old and five years old.  I asked how they were enjoying the holidays, and she mentioned the joy of sharing all of her childhood favorite movies with her children- Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, etc.  I smiled with her, remembering the fun of having little ones around at Christmas.  Our shared good will was warm and mutual.

Then she asked if I had watched any holiday movies with my family this year.  Without thinking, I blurted out that the only movie I had seen this season was Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas.  I was still smiling, as I was intending to follow up with how much I had learned about myself and my family by watching it, when I saw it: the look.  The smile froze on my face as I watched the expression on hers change.

Fear and disgust danced across her expression in an instant, but only for a moment.  She realized that this was a superficial social situation, unsuited for sharing her true opinion of my choice in holiday movies, and the smile returned to her face almost immediately.  Too late.  I had recognized the look at once, and understood all too well the thoughts behind them.  I was once a young evangelical Christian mother, up to my eyebrows in Focus on the Family movie reviews.  I once had the same revulsion to all things goth and/or related to that devil's holiday, Halloween.

Inwardly I thanked her for how quick she was to stifle the look.  She can't help it, I reassured myself.  She's been indoctrinated to think this way and the cult control of modern Christian culture is very effective.  It's sad that she has started down that road to isolation in the golden Christian ghetto, but hopefully she won't stay long.  I woke up and escaped.  Jesus can lead her out to, if she ever wants to leave.  At least she still has enough kindness in her heart to spare me the lecture I know she could easily deliver if she wanted to do so.

But though we went on as if nothing had changed, something had changed.  I had been about to open my heart and share my learning experience.  I wanted to talk about how my heart had been softened and my eyes opened by watching the forbidden film.  But now I knew: it would not be understood, it would not be welcome.  Her mind had been set in a certain direction, and there was no way to reach her with an understanding outside of her paradigm.  I had lived that paradigm.  I knew it all too well. Halloween is demonic.  No good can possibly come from associating oneself with Halloween.

Watching The Nightmare Before Christmas, I thought I had come to a better understanding of my daughter. Turns out that was only the beginning.  The look on my companion's face, the one that stopped me in my tracks and cancelled all hope of understanding and intimacy between us, that look brought me from understanding to empathy.

I had given that look to my daughter.

How many occasions had I given that look to my daughter?  How many times had she been trying to share her heart with me, and gotten instead that look?

Even worse, how many times had she been trying her hardest, putting much more intention and effort into living every day life than I ever have, and gotten that look from me for not performing at a level 9 or 10 instead of a mere 6 or 7?  How many times had I given her that look for not moving quickly enough, not being friendly enough, not trying hard enough to "get along"?  How many times had I given her that look for having an expressionless face, because I truly believed that all good Christians should be smiling and welcoming in expression?  How many times had she shut down from overload at the intense effort it was taking for her to get by, and I screamed at her to get moving?  Or yelled at her for not caring?

A chill crept into my heart.  I managed to enjoy the rest of the evening on the outside, but inside all these thoughts were tumbling together in my subconscious.  While I smiled my welcoming expression and made pleasant small talk, the thoughts inside me were making new connections and growing bigger.  I said my goodbyes at the end of the visit, got in my car, and drove home quietly, distracting myself with pleasant smooth R and B on the radio. The thoughts had not yet broken to the surface of my consciousness.  Soon enough they would.

The middle of the night came.  I woke up thirsty, and as I reached for my bottle of water on the nightstand, it hit me.  No more did I consider how many times *I* had reacted with disgust and fear at my daughter.  That was bad enough, for your mother to treat you that way.  But how many times has she unexpectedly and undeservedly seen that look cast her way by others?  Aunts, uncles, cousins, peers?

How many times?

When did it start?  Looking back, I know it started earlier than I want to recognize, earlier than I want to admit.  I think back to her early years, in preschool.  I think back to her years in soccer.  I thank back to her years in Girl Scouts.  I think back to all those times in church, in so many churches, and the times I heard the adjectives "weird" "unfriendly" "passive" "mean" "strange" and the question "why is she that way"?  That way?!

The enormity of the amount of rejection my child has faced in her short life overwhelmed me.

I have been crying off and on ever since.


  1. One of the hardest things for me to deal with since "coming clean" about changing so many of my beliefs the last few years has been the way my BFF of 10 years and I have grown apart. She has been steadily getting more and more extreme in her fundieness while I have been questioning everything. She no longer talks with me about anything beyond surface stuff because now that I'm not all churchy I'm no longer worth discussing anything deeper with. I don't spend much time with her anymore because there is always the awareness that when she is *not* preaching at me, she is consciously *thinking* about not preaching. It also sucks because I can no longer confide in her about any hurts since even when she keeps quiet, I know she is thinking "How sad, that's what happens when you run away from God." And I've had to face just how often I've driven people away by being judgmental myself. It hurts. I was *taught* to be that way by everyone around me, but I still feel bad for learning it so well.

    Your daughter is really really lucky to have had the freedom she did have, though. It sounds like she is much happier nowadays.


  2. Me too, L. As much as it stings to have it happen to me, it stings even more to realize how often I have given the look myself.

    I'm really sorry about your best friend. I didn't realize how cult-like mainstream evangelical culture is until I started coloring outside the lines myself. As another young friend put it recently:

    "I didn't realize how many people I had been taught to hate until I quit going to church. Now I am free to love EVERYONE! It's wonderful."

    Ironic, isn't it, that while we were steeped in church culture, we thought that we had a corner on the market of love? I remember being offended when people called Christians "homophobes" and haters. We weren't afraid of anything, I maintained, and loved gay people, just not their "sin".

    Now that I'm out, I see how we were taught to be afraid of all kinds of things: drinking, worldy music, Halloween, evolution, "New Age" ideas (meaning anything not evangelical in nature), atheists, feminists, and Democrats, to name a few. And it is hateful on the face of it, to call another person's natural desires "sin".

    It's not a sin to be attracted to another person. It's a sin to selfishly use another person for your own benefit without regard to their well-being. Loving relationships can't be wrong, if love is the greatest command.

    So much to keep unlearning, no?