Continuing last week’s topic, Exodus being our story as well as part of the history of the Hebrews, I am writing this week about three ways I’ve been held captive in “Egypt” by powerful early influences in my life. The first and probably deepest capture of my mind started before my 2nd birthday when my family moved from Wilmington, Delaware, to Louisville, Kentucky, where we joined a Presbyterian Church whose minister screamed and yelled and pounded on the pulpit every Sunday about hell-fire and damnation for the eleven years we lived there. Since most of this drama played out before I had any intellectual capacity to put the message in any kind of context, I absorbed this message straight. For most of my life I have felt that God was sitting on my shoulder ready to zap me with his capricious judgment every time I made a mistake.
I sometimes still find myself in “Egypt” captive to this picture of the “Old-Man-in-the-Sky” ready to shower mankind with his judgment. In a recent guided meditation I saw my little girl, Patty, run sobbing to a personification of my soul crying out, “Do you love me?” “Am I ok?” I was surprised to find this still operational in me, although its power over me is a lot less than it used to be.
For a long time I tried to replace this hell-fire-and-damnation-god with Jesus’ God of love, but it was just a patch. Deep down I was still terrified of the old god in the sky. [In computer language I was just trying some new software, not changing the imbedded operating system.] Finally, I was able to get so mad at that god(something that Patty would never have done) that I purged him out of my system. Occasional vestiges still remain, but mostly that old god is gone.
I realized not too long ago that the minister of my childhood had lied by not telling the whole truth; he just emphasized a few stories in the Old Testament and failed to give a complete picture. It has taken a long time to move beyond the wilderness into the “promised land” where I do reside with the God of love.
A second system of thinking that I was a captive of was the patriarchal system that I grew up in. Luckily my parents thought a woman’s education was as important as a man’s; however, I was a real product of the 1950’s: a homemaker, no career, beholden to my husband for everything. As the women’s movement birthed in the 1960’s and 70’s I was often unmoved by their protests. It took a long time for the feminist ideas to penetrate my thinking and begin to open up how I thought about myself. I was in my early 40’s before I realized that I might have an agenda for my life that transcended my roles as wife and mother. Mind you I loved being both, not a regret there at all.
Today at retirement age I do have a career, but I do not consider myself much of a feminist—I believe in seeing that all men and women realize their potential. I don’t think we women gain anything by keeping men down. We’ve just reversed the abuser and the abused. I am not sure what the “promised land” would look like as far as men and women’s roles today, but I am sure that we are not there yet.
The third system that has affected me deeply is our modern American culture. It plays an enormous role in our lives that goes mostly unrecognized, unconsciously influencing our thinking. I am sometimes shocked by how my ideas have evolved without my awareness. Marilyn Monroe was the epitome of what a woman should be when I was growing up: sexy, curvy, beautiful, and fun. About ten years ago I saw a rerun of one of the films she starred in, “Some Like it Hot!” As soon as she appeared on the screen I thought, “She’s fat!” It turns out that she was a size 14, not a size two or four like today’s stars. I had adopted unwittingly the culture’s preference for anorexic women.
Of course our culture’s influence on us is more than just the shape women should be. I am now pretty aware of its voice inside me—it’s the voice that always wants to go directly towards an objective, that looks at life rationally: A plus B equals C, that values the seen far more above anything unseen, especially religious ideas, and that values the freedom of the individual above all else. Leaving “Egypt,” this system of acculturation, has been an adult journey mostly consisting of gaining awareness of its influence and choosing the Spirit’s way instead. The “promised land” in this case is a sense of the rightness of my choices and of the timing of what I do.
These three examples of acculturation illustrate how we absorb as children the thinking of our family, culture, religion and our schools before we have the intellectual capacity to think through what we’re learning and assign it some sort of context and priority. Any group we are a part of, any institution we belong to, be it a small group of friends or an entire culture, has a group mind that tends to limit the action of its participants. In a smaller context we might be friends with two or three couples, so there are certain things we do that define us and things that we won’t do as well. These are mostly unspoken agreements.
Groups can be formal or informal, but the group mind rules. These are common, if unspoken agreements, but we always do give up some of our self to belong with others whether we’re talking about a culture or a family or social group. The challenge is to maintain who we are and still belong. This is a paradox in which the priorities of both the group and the individual must be held more or less equally so that neither’s principles are violated.
If the group does not allow individual variations on held values, the group can be toxic to the individual. If an individual does not value or respect another individual’s boundaries, the group may reject either one. At worst groups and cultures can become suspicious of the alien or the stranger. We see this play out so often in the immigration debate that crops up with large waves of emigration, be it the Irish in the 19th century, “the lace-curtain Irish,” a derisive label, or the Hispanics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: “They just come to take advantage or our healthcare and welfare systems.” “They take our jobs.” “They bring crime and people our jails.” Whether these statements are true or not is often ignored because of the perceived threat to our culture.
The Biblical story in Exodus suggests our own journey out of the enslaving thinking that keeps us docile and in our place in our culture and other groups. Certainly there are benefits to being part of any system, protection, being known, belonging and more. The challenge is to act within the positive boundaries and to stay true to oneself at the same time.