A reflection by Sarah
The first job title I acquired after moving to my college town at age 18 was “telegiving associate.” I worked for my university’s annual giving program, soliciting funds from alumni and other current and past donors. I spent five evenings a week calling these people, attempting to have real conversations as much as I was allowed. There were perks for getting large donations and consequences for finishing a shift with little success, but the most serious reproaches came when the supervisor overheard one of my coworkers or me deviating from the script. About once per shift I would hear some variation of, “I don’t care if he told you that he just lost his job. You have to ask him for a $500 donation. If he says no, ask for $300 and work your way down to $100. Follow the script. It’s there for a reason.” According to my supervisor, I had too much empathy to excel at this job. Once, I was asked to leave my shift because he saw me tearing up during a call with an alumna who had lost both arms and legs in a horrific accident. I resigned as soon as I found a position at a local independent bookstore.
I don’t have much patience for scripted conversations. I never have, and that sentiment only increases as I get older. Scripts don’t do justice to the complexities of real people with real experiences, emotions, and stories. The telegiving position was an extreme example because in that case, there was a literal script to follow as a requirement of the job, but subtler scripted conversations exist in other places too—sometimes where we wouldn’t expect them, and sometimes in contexts where the stated intention is, ironically, to create space for authenticity. Here’s one such example from a conversation I had with a therapist seven years ago while eating lunch in her office:
Therapist: “Why are you tearing your peanut butter and jelly sandwich in half?”
Me: “Because I don’t have a knife to cut it.”
Therapist: “But why do you have to eat it in halves?”
Me: “I don’t have to. It’s the way I’ve always eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
Therapist: “Let’s talk about how that’s related to your eating disorder.”
Me: “It isn’t. It’s normal.”
Therapist: “But are you a normal eater?”
Me: “Well, no…”
Therapist: “So can you see why we need to talk about how this is related to your eating disorder?”
Me: “I’ve already told you—it isn’t related.”
Therapist: “How do you know that?”
Me: “Because it’s not the same as x, y, and z behaviors that are actually disordered. And normal eaters eat sandwiches in halves.”
Therapist: “Do you think someone in your position knows what it means to eat normally?”
Me: (Huge sigh) “This isn’t helping. This isn’t the conversation I need to be having. What I need to talk about has nothing to do with tearing a sandwich in half.”
Therapist: “Let’s do an experiment and see what happens when you eat it without tearing it in half.”
It’s clear that despite my suggesting the conversation’s direction ought to be changed, the therapist wasn’t able to move past her initial question or the right answer she already had in mind—that eating a sandwich in halves was based on some sort of illogical food rule, that it couldn’t possibly be normal. My experience didn’t make sense to her because it didn’t fit her expectations. As I’ve seen with some regularity, the sincerest, most authentic means of approaching a problem doesn’t always fit within the accepted script for conversation about a given topic. Often, the script short-circuits any attempt at real dialogue. I’m simultaneously amused and frustrated by how frequently such scripts–no matter the conversation topic–claim to “challenge black-and-white thinking” while unwittingly promoting the same old black-and-white tropes dressed up in a new wardrobe. I’ve grown accustomed to asking, “Is there a script?” when I’m concerned that I might be interacting with one. No one ever comes forth and says, “Yes, there is a script.” Most often if there is a script, the response to that question will be ambiguous. And that’s when I take my leave. I think in many cases, even those creating the script aren’t entirely aware of its existence.
All this has been on my mind because recently, I had to leave another recovery resource because of the thinly veiled script I had begun to observe there. It’s not the first time this has happened as I’ve sought resources aligned with my goals for becoming well, but every time it does occur I end up feeling very much like Donnie Darko…
…and in my most uncharitable and immature moments, I find myself falling to the temptation of Donnie’s “take the lifeline exercise card and shove it up your ass” response (revealed in the next scene, in case you aren’t familiar with the movie). Disclaimer: I wouldn’t recommend taking that approach, as it isn’t consistent with cultivating any sort of Christian vocation. In case you’re wondering about the scripted recovery conversation I recently abandoned, I made every effort to do so with grace and dignity…though I’m still fantasizing about calling up the powers that be to deliver the “I’ve got two words for you” message. Sounds like I’m in need of a good confession.
It may seem that my ramblings today have little to do with celibacy, vocation, LGBT issues, or Christianity…but the truth is, I see the same dynamic constantly playing out in conversations about all these topics. There’s a script that LGBT people, allies, and even non-allies are supposed to follow. It used to be that straight, anti-gay Christians wrote the script, which included several rounds of, “Being gay is a sin and a choice,” followed closely by the passive response, “I’ll ask God to change my sexual orientation or gender identity.” In some denominations, that’s the way the script works even today. In others, it is changing…but it’s still a script.
With gay and straight Christians in denominations accepting a modern, liberal sexual ethic, I’ve had many a conversation that looks frighteningly similar to the one with my former therapist. Take this one for example:
Liberal Christian: “Why are you celibate?”
Me: “Because I believe God has called me to celibacy.”
Liberal Christian: “But why do you have to be celibate?”
Me: “I don’t feel forced. I chose celibacy because I felt called.”
Liberal Christian: “There has to be some level at which you’re feeling forced. Let me talk with you, pray with you, and help you to understand that God will still love you if you have sex with a woman.”
Me: “I already know that God loves me, and even though celibacy isn’t easy, I see it as a joyous vocation.”
Liberal Christian: “But don’t you think it’s unnatural to deny your sexuality?”
Me: “Not having sex isn’t the same as denying one’s sexuality.”
Liberal Christian: “I don’t know how you do it. It must make you feel miserable not to let yourself have sex.”
Me: “I define my vocation in the positive, not the negative. And I’m far from miserable.”
Liberal Christian: “Have you ever experimented to see if you might be happier as a sexually active person?”
Celibacy is forced. Celibacy means lack of self-acceptance. Celibacy is misery. Celibacy is a problem to be solved. Never mind my authentic responses. Those are the right answers because the script says so.
And don’t think for a moment that denominations supporting a traditional sexual ethic while seeing a difference between orientation and action are any more adept at preventing scripted conversations. I could just as easily plug a different set of tropes and responses into the text above and replicate about 75% of conversations on sexuality I’ve had with people in my current and former Christian traditions:
Conservative Christian: “Why do you say you’re gay if you don’t have sex?”
Me: “Because I’m attracted to women. Being gay/lesbian isn’t just about sex.”
Conservative Christian: “But why do you have to talk about it the way you do? I’m okay with your blogging about sexual orientation, but you really should include a clear statement of ‘gay sex is a sin’ at least once in every post.”
Me: “I’m not interested in talking about what is or is not sinful. There are other places where you can have that conversation. I’m interested in exploring how to develop a meaningful way of life.”
Conservative Christian: “And you shouldn’t say you’re in a relationship. People might think you’re having gay sex while saying otherwise, condoning gay sex, or not accepting the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage.”
Me: “If people make assumptions about what I do or don’t think without asking me, that’s their own problem.”
Conservative Christian: “Have you thought of just trying to be single, or maybe joining a monastery?”
Different issues, different words, different ideologies, different agendas, but the message is all the same: “Follow the script. Don’t question it. Don’t deviate. The constructed narrative isn’t the problem—you are.” Rubbish. While I don’t see myself as some unique butterfly exempt from norms that other people must follow, I’ll not waste my time force-fitting myself into someone else’s scripted reality…because the truth is, no two people are exactly the same. That goes for people with eating disorders, LGBT Christians, and any other demographic you might be inclined to name. Dissimilarity matters. Complexity matters. The right answers aren’t always the real answers. And no matter how comfortable it may feel to do so, you can’t place every problem, issue, feeling, and person into a black-and-white category, denying all other aspects of lived experience.
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