Archive for September, 2009

The perils of walking in church

September 14, 2009

Today’s Christian Charm School lesson brings us to the crucial spiritual principle of posture. Evidently, saints know not to swing their arms and hips too wildly while walking.


Don't walk like an Egyptian.

Maybe the Pope and the Dalai Lama will be covering this soon as well, but for now, the Charm Marm is the only guide we have who points out the scriptural importance of walking properly.

On page 18 of the Christian Charm Manual, the sweet girlies in class are shown the above illustration with instructions to “glide smoothly” and “keep stride moderate” and to not “swish knees noisily,” “drop heels with a thud” or “sway hips unnecessarily” when walking.

One the opposite page, the metaphor of “walking after the flesh” is presented with scriptures such as, “Let me not forget I am not my own” (I Corinthians) and “May I not grieve Thy Holy Spirit in the slightest way today—not once!” (The Charm Marm actually combined two verses from Ephesians and Ecclesiastes for that last one.)

So here we are again, chickadees, learning that the slightest thing we do incorrectly may grieve the Holy Spirit. Even the gods of ancient Greece weren’t this easily offended. It’s hard to imagine taking this line of thinking seriously:

  • Walk gracefully. Jesus likes it that way! (Hmm, was he gliding smoothly under the weight of that cross?)
  • Don’t swish your knees when you walk. Jesus doesn’t like it that way! (Did he walk quietly into the temple before throwing out the money changers?)

This level of detail seems silly, as always. But it gets at the fundamentalist need for control. Those of us immersed in that way of thinking as youngsters absorb all kinds of subconscious patterns that make us feel a very strange thing indeed: the need to control and be controlled simultaneously.

We learn that we aren’t masters of our own fate, but rather should be content with whatever rolls our way. We call this “God’s will” and use it as a reason for not making our own decisions or taking responsibility for what we really want.

Yet we also want to control others. We want everyone else to believe exactly as we do, and we plan to wave goodbye as they’re tossed into a literal, fiery hell if they think they’ve found God another way. We want to control the way others perceive truth, and we want to control the way others perceive us (since we’re taught that we’re only worthy when we’re pleasing others).

Undo the Charm Marm:

These patterns run deep. Even if you didn’t grow up thinking Jesus might actually care whether you “drop your heels with a thud” when you walk, the desire for control is transmitted implicitly through more traditional church teachings. It’s easy enough to realize you want to relinquish control of others and take control for yourself, but actually doing it can be tough.

Find some specific point of control you feel and undo it. T.S. Eliot famously asked in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Let your answer to that be “yes,” even if it means swishing your knees noisily when you walk. Notice that the universe does not unravel when you do so.

Notice, too, that the universe does not implode when you let go of the desire to control others’ perceptions. Nor do you smell brimstone when you state clearly what you want instead standing by passively. And while you’re thinking that over, be sure to swing your hips a little.


There’s no torture in charm school

September 9, 2009
Back to Dante, via Blake

Back to Dante's hell

Comparing life in Christian Charm School to such high levels of torment may seem histrionic, but recent articles about our government’s role in torture warrant some attention for the Charm Marm.

A recent story in the New York Times discusses the involvement of two psychologists in developing our military’s interrogation tactics. One of the doctors in particular was an admirer of Dr. Martin Seligman’s groundbreaking work on “learned helplessness.” As the Times explains:

“Dr. Seligman had discovered in the 1960s that dogs that learned they could do nothing to avoid small electric shocks would become listless and simply whine and endure the shocks even after being given a chance to escape.”

The article goes on to explain that this idea of learned helplessness later became “an influential concept in the treatment of human depression…”

It’s worth noting that Dr. Seligman was horrified that his work had been used in torture. Nonetheless, the psychologist working for the military “believed that producing learned helplessness in a Qaeda interrogation subject might ensure that he would comply with his captor’s demands.”

My point with all of this unpleasantness is that I read about learned helplessness years ago in a book about the effects of growing up in a fundamentalist culture. The way it’s instilled through church teachings is subtle and rarely involves torture-device-wielding fiends.

Still, it’s what happens. If as a child you deeply internalize certain teachings about your place in the world, you cede all of your power to something outside yourself. You seek only to move toward this amorphous thing known as “God’s will.” You believe you’re only doing something good when you’re focusing on others.

After all, what have we learned so far in Christian Charm School if not that our value rests in looking pretty and pleasing others? (Both goals are rather out of our control, yes?)

Undoing that background noise of passivity can be a long process. Recognizing the tendency for what it is helps, as does taking back your power in all kinds of small ways, even through the kinds of happy delights I write about on the Charm-o-Matic.

Also helpful:

  • Deciding that your own energy and feelings matter. (Sounds obvious, right? Only if you never quite imagined it could be true.)
  • Becoming aware that you can make all kinds of choices that affect your life in quantifiable ways every minute of the day and finding ways to increase your own happiness level. (You know, instead of merely working toward some reward – or avoiding some punishment – after death.)

I realize that I’m simplifying a complicated psychological concept here and that there are plenty of causes for passivity. I’m just saying: Religion and torture – who knew? (Oh, I guess everyone alive in Europe during the Inquisition knew.)