CTBHHM: Contentment Is All That Matters

Created To Be His Help Meet, pp. 35-38

This section is titled “A Thankful Spirit.” Debi begins by contrasting two examples. Here is the first one:

I know women who remain perpetually discontented because they must live with stained carpet and damaged furniture. Some women feel their family is in desperate straits if they cannot afford to serve fresh broccoli and salad. Tension rules their home. Their sad, withdrawn faces reflect their suffering. They cultivate expressions of grief, reflecting, they suppose, the heart of God sorrowing on their behalf.

And here is the second one:

Recently, I walked into a home that did not have running water, nor did it have an indoor bathroom. It had none of the things we consider necessities today, no washing machine or dryer and no kitchen cabinets, though they did have carpet – a remnant that covered about half the room, with its cut and frayed edges showing. Yet, this sweet new bride was smiling from ear to ear, telling me how thankful she was to have her won place. She told me over and over again how her husband made this shelf, and that place to store stuff, and how he is going to build a cabinet right here later.

After giving these examples Debi explains that

Discontentment is not a product of circumstances, it is the state of the soul.

She goes on to detail how you can cultivate a thankful heart – practice, she says, makes perfect.

When you catch yourself becoming irritated or disturbed at circumstances, stop and laugh at the little things that steal your peace. Count your blessings and learn to be appreciative.

It should be said that some of this is really good advice. It does make a difference whether you see a glass as half empty or half full, it absolutely does. The trouble is the other messages that Debi couples this message with. The trouble is telling women to be content without also telling them to work to better bad situations in concrete ways. In fact, Debi tells women that “discontentment is not a product of circumstances, it is the state of the soul.”

As I wrote in an earlier installment, “In Which Debi Almost Gets Something Right“:

I get that when you smile it’s contagious, and that everyone loves a happy person. This is an awesome message. But being cheerful and wearing a smile does not replace things like communication. Debi seems to think that women can solve their relationships by being cheerful alone. She indicates that the problems in any marriage stem from the wife being a “long-faced, sickly complainer” rather than a “sweet little thing.” …

Being cheerful does not automatically fix all of a marriage’s problems. There have to be other things. Things like communication, common interests, a meaningful connection.

In other words, contentment ceases to be a positive message when it gets in the way of actually working to make bad or mediocre situations better. This would like someone working at a fast food restaurant deciding that he or she needs to be “content,” and therefore turning down opportunities to agitate for better working conditions or get training for a job elsewhere that would pay higher wages. Sure, having a content and thankful spirit would make working at at a fast food restaurant more pleasant than it might otherwise be, but if it makes one decide to stop reaching up and looking for something better it’s outlived its usefulness. But this distinction never occurs to Debi because she thinks discontentment is the product not of circumstances, but of a state of the soul.

This problem can be seen in the letter Debi offers at the end of this section:

Dear Debi,

One day my husband came in while I was reading your literature about joy, and he asked me to do something for him. I cheerfully did what he asked with a smile on my face, and, boy, was he surprised. That was the beginning of our new life.

The sweeter I am to him, the more he likes me, and the more I like myself. I know most of my depression was because I hated myself over how I treated my man and how he reacted to me. How dumb we can be. We make life so complicated with our demands to be treated fairly. You know, the attitude of, “You do this, and if you do it right, then I’ll do that, and if you don’t, then you can just suck it up, because I will not do your part.” Boy am I glad to be finished with that stupidity. Now I seek to always delight my husband, no matter what. I do not know why I expected him to “like” me when I was so “unlikable and mean.” I want my face to reflect joy and thanksgiving to him.

Anyway, he has been treating me like a princess. His face lights up when he sees me. He holds my hand. puts his arm around me, smiles at me all the time, tries to help any chance he gets, and wants to just sit and talk. I am the Queen of his heart and the fire in his bed, at last!

Marie

“I know most of my depression was because I hated myself over how I treated my man and how he reacted to me.” “We make life so complicated with our demands to be treated fairly.” “Now I seek to always delight my husband, no matter what.” What kind of messages do these statements send when combined with Debi’s call to be content?

Marie was discontent because she expected her husband to pull his part and treat her fairly. When she stopped expecting this and started just seeking to do whatever her husband wanted the moment he wanted it, all of her troubles were over, her heart was filled with joy, and her husband began treating her “like a princess.” If you are suffering from depression or are discontented with your life, the solution is not to stop expecting others to treat you fairly. This does not get at any root underlying issues whatsoever. I don’t have much to go on here, but if I had been in Marie’s situation, I would have sat down with my husband and talked it through, and let him know what was bothering me, and we would have together come up with changes we could make so as to help our relationship become healthier and our lives happier.

I suppose it comes down to this: If I am ever discontent, my first response is to try to fix the circumstances that are making me discontent, and my second response, when I find I am in a situation where I can’t fix those circumstances, either immediately or ever, is to focus on being content. But Debi’s sole message to wives who are discontent with their lots is to practice having a thankful heart and being content. And that, according to Debi, will fix everything.

I’m not sure Debi can see the problem with her uncritical teaching of absolute contentment. Would she preach this message to the slaves of the antebellum South? Would she preach this message to the women who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory a century ago? Would she preach this message to sweatshop workers in the third world today? I actually rather get the feeling that she would. This is the problem with Debi’s vision. Contentment, even in terrible circumstances, trumps revolution. Always. And perhaps the most ironic thing about all of this is that the Jesus Debi claims to follow preaches the opposite message throughout the gospels.

On a totally different note, I have decided that Debi has got to be making up at least some of these letters. They all seem to follow a specific “type” and are becoming repetitive. They don’t ring true. There is a very contrived sound to them. I mean, would someone really write to an author about the healing of her marriage using phrases like “I am the fire in his bed at last”? I don’t have any way to actually know whether these letters are real or not, and I’m not claiming to know definitively or not. I am simply saying that my growing feeling is that at least some of them are made up out of Debi’s own head to illustrate her points.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.mymusingcorner.com Lana

    The contentment is hogwash I’ve seen from all churches not just homeschoolers. But it IS worth noting that only homeschoolers emphasize that it doesn’t matter if your so broke and live without electricity as long as mommy is at home. My whole childhood I believed public school was worse than poverty. Now I see how absurd that is. If you can’t pay the bills, and bodies are abled and not sick, and not on maternity league, then mom can start bringing in money too.

    This is lot not to say some people are poor and can’t change circumstances. Some people are hospitalized or on disability. Some people are in school. Some mothers are single and getting in their feet.

    • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

      But going to school or trying to get on your feet while being a single mother IS changing your circumstances. It’s just part of the process of that change.

  • http://Alisoncummins.com Alison Cummins

    Communication is of limited value if you have no ability to follow up if the other person doesn’t listen to you.

    Rather than risking frustration, might as well give up before you start.

    • Baal

      um no.
      Your ‘don’t even try’ only makes sense in a context where it’s not possible to change the game. You might have to leave your spouse, go get additional job skills or give up on dealing with a family member that takes your personal resources but you certainly have more choices than say a women in rural Ethiopia.
      Part of communicating your needs, wants and would like to haves can include routes to those things. Your partner can help or hinder but if you have routes in mind, communicate them. Even better, by owning your own life, you’ll be a happier person.

      • http://alisoncummins.com Alison Cummins

        Exactly!

        I can leave my spouse because I’m not tied to a cult that punishes divorce. Because my spouse and I can’t take one another for granted, we make a point of listening. We *need* to make one another happy; we *need* to be contributing members of the team. In an imbalanced, patriarchal couple only the woman needs to make her husband happy. Whether he makes her happy or not, she’s not leaving. So she’d better make her mind up to be happy anyway.

      • acoustic_alchemy

        Got to agree with Alison on this point here, Baal. In addition to what Alison said, many of the suggested exit strategies are interdependent on each other, even more if a relationship spirals down from mild dysfunction to full-blown abuse. If a woman never had any disposable income or time because she’s too busy trying to take care of the kids by herself, or if her husband is actively withholding money from her, (0r some combination of b0th), and her only support network actively discourages her from seeking alternatives, it will not be for a lack of wanting to that she doesn’t have the resources to escape by divorcing her husband, getting employed, or going to school. This is especially the case with abusive relationships, even in mainstream USAin culture, when the answer to “Why don’t you just leave the POS?” is often “Because he will find and kill me and/or my children if I do.”

  • Karen

    When I read this stuff, I am reminded of this quote: “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” It is from Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and the speaker is Satan

  • http://kindminusgoodleft.blogspot.com// Janice

    So true. I unofficially counseled a woman who was living with her in-laws where her husband and his family treated her poorly, verbally abused her etc. She was also having some post-partum depression symptoms. She has recently started taking some medicine for depression and she STILL wasn’t happy. I reminded her that medicine (and a fresh attitude) should not magically make you happy to be miserable but make it easier for you to cope and change your circumstances. I don’t talk to her often and don’t know what she is doing currently but hopefully she has done something!

  • Jason Dick

    The only explanation I could think of for the letters using her wording would be if the letter-writers were already devotees of Debi Pearl, and had actually copied her.

  • thalwen

    I remember some TV show episode, where, if anyone had some medical problem, the guy’s solution was to “walk it off.” That sounds about as ridiculous as her advice. Yes, sometimes not wallowing over things is a good thing. Ignoring fixable problems, sticking your head in the sand and pretending like nothing is wrong when something is, and can be remedied, is just terrible advice.
    Of course, her advice ONLY applies to women. If a man finds fault with something his wife does, he’s not supposed to make the best of it or gloss over it. He’s supposed to correct her, like a naughty child and make sure she complies and makes things better for him.

  • http://thechurchproject.me Tracey

    One of the churches I visited had a pamphlet about sex and marriage which had a very made-up vibe to it. Something about how the relationship went sour once the couple moved in together. But they talked to their pastor and discovered they needed to move back apart until marriage. “Now they respect each other!” and everything can be all happy again…I thought, who does this? I’ve never heard of this. The fake-world stuff certain Christians advocate is confusing and really annoying to Christians trying to address real stuff in the real world.

    • http://AztecQueen2000.blogspot.com AztecQueen2000

      But, if their problem was caused by living together, isn’t that a sign that they SHOULDN’T get married?

      • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

        No, because the clerical blessing changes everything…..somehow. It’s magical thinking; don’t try to understand it.

      • ButchKitties

        I’ve long suspected that a major reason why couples who’d cohabited before marriage had higher divorce rates than those who didn’t was due to those couples getting married as an attempt to fix a failing relationship, whereas a non-cohabiting couple with the same problems would simply break up.

      • Christine

        I also suspect a bit of it comes from people not seeing moving in together as a huge step. Very few people bother to get counselling just to move in together, or do any of the other common sense checks that you do before you get married. And once you’re living together, the temptation to skip some of those steps is higher. I’ve even heard people who explicitly express that they don’t see the need for counselling after you’ve lived together, you know it’ll work by then.

  • wanderer

    I’m alarmed that she speaks about feeding your kids nutritious food (fresh broccoli) as if it’s some kind of luxury. She’s literally saying that malnutrition is better than taking steps (ie getting a part-time job for the wife?) to be able to feed your children? Just put a smile on your face & cook up some more ramen?

    • Abbie

      She wrote an article once about spending a winter feeding her children off of animal-grade seed corn and cabbage because Michael had quit his job and moved them all out to the back of beyond in order to be more holy. So yes, cheery malnutrition is better than sinful money-earning.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        Oh, I remember that one!

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        What the fuck? That sounds like “Angela’s Ashes” except with the father’s addiction being religion instead of alcohol.

      • Karen

        If I knew that anyone actually fed their kids animal food, I would call CPS in a heartbeat, even knowing all the bad stuff about the foster care system. Anyone who does that to their own children is either evil or so seriously disturbed that they need outside intervention.

      • Baal

        That’s horrific!

      • thalwen

        I’ll second the terrible comments. The food that is considered animal grade is devoid of nutrients which is why dog and cat foods are always “fortified” with vitamin and mineral additives. It’s not good for animals, and it is certainly not good for growing children. But this is what happens when children are things to prop up your owner/husband’s masculinity instead of human beings in their own right.

      • Rae

        Plus, animal foods aren’t as stringently regulated as human food – there’s almost no food safety standards (remember the tainted dog food from China?), there’s all kinds of animal byproducts in animal feed that may not have been cooked properly, food for herbivorous animals might have a large amount of cellulose which animals can digest and get calories from but humans can’t… there’s just a ton of health hazards aside from malnutrition.

      • Twist

        “Anyone who does that to their own children is either evil or so seriously disturbed that they need outside intervention.”

        This sentence describes lots of other things these two did to their kids as well. I’m still baffled that they could publish what is essentially a child abuse manual and not have someone involved in child protection look into their situation.

        Regarding the animal feed, I’m not that surprised. In fact, I’d be surprised if more families such as this didn’t end up doing something similar. If I were to give up my income, rely solely on my partner’s wages to pay the rent, bills and feed both me and him we’d struggle, and we don’t have 6+ kids to take care of. Unless a lot of these men have incredibly high paying jobs a lot of these families must really struggle to make ends meet.

    • http://belljaimie@ymail.com Jaimie

      I couldn’t get past this one either. Fresh broccoli? Salad? WTF? If the husband is supposed to do all the supporting shouldn’t he at least be able to provide the necessities?
      And about the new bride letter. It’s a whole lot different to start off at the bottom. Many people do but they are happy because they know it will get better. If that is the way an established household looks like, well, something it wrong.

      • Carys Birch

        Yes This! I thought that exactly. Well a new bride… they’re just starting out and probably really euphoric still, maybe they’re sorta broke but it should get better as they get more established… while the “discontent wife” seems like an established marriage where the blush has worn off and things aren’t getting any better! That lady has something to be discontent ABOUT!

        Although did she find some extreme examples or what? No indoor bathroom?!

  • http://beautifuldisarray.wordpress.com Chryssie

    I keep coming back to the issue that she’s completely missing how important and critical good communication is. There have been times when I’ve sat down with my husband and told him this just isn’t working. We’ve been able to work though “my discontentment” and things have gotten much better. If I had just simply “laughed at the things that are stealing my peace” I would explode sooner or later. you have to have good communication in marriage, in any relationship for that matter.

    • wanderer

      Yes. Laughing at things that are stealing your peace is a recipe for exploding or depression (depending on whether you channel it externally or internally). God, what a miserable life she recommends. Why can’t it be that having emotions is normal and healthy? When I’m discontent & frustrated it’s usually my intuition telling me there’s something not right.

  • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

    So it’s OK to live in married squalor as long as you’re “contented”, but (according to a previous installment) divorce is to be avoided (by being a wifely doormat) because you’ll wind up living in a crappy duplex.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Haha, excellent point! If I’m going to live in a crappy duplex, I’d rather live there without an asshole roommate that expects me to wait on him hand and foot, have sex with him on demand while faking enjoyment if necessary, and walk around giggling with a Barbie-smile plastered on my face all day.

    • http://belljaimie@ymail.com Jaimie

      Right now we live in a crappy duplex. Actually it’s pretty nice. We decided to live there for the time being because I am going to nursing school, which my husband is completely supportive of. Gasp! It’s in a nice neighborhood and is close to both our works and school. Guess what? We are just fine.

    • ButchKitties

      The SO and I are thinking about buying the duplex we live in now. The running joke has been that if we ever get divorced, all we’ll need to do is have one of us move into the other half. We could literally split the house down the middle.

      • Anat

        Just for clarification – is ‘duplex’ a building that has 2 housing units with one wall in common and each has its own entrance from its own yard? Because in that case my parents are living in half of a duplex. It has 5 bedrooms and is probably worth more than my single family home. What is it about duplexes that give them a bad name in the US?

  • BabyRaptor

    “We make life so complicated with our demands to be treated fairly.”

    I cannot believe I just read someone seriously saying that. My brain just won’t process it. I’m choosing to believe she faked these letters to prove a point, because if someone *honestly* believes that…Just wow.

    • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

      Same here. I read that and I was like “…????”

    • JennyE

      But this is totally a Thing in Christianity. It’s part of why so many otherwise fairly reasonable, modern women- many of whom do have their own careers- refuse to call themselves feminists. Because agitating for rights or fair treatment is selfish. My own dad, though he taught us that racism is despicable, is hesitant to celebrate Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, because going against civil authority, except in cases where the civil authority directly contradicts the Bible, is inappropriate. Somehow, the American Revolution gets a pass, though…

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    LOL! Wow, we definitely must have had some kind of Vulcan mind-meld because I had the EXACT SAME THOUGHT when I got to the “fire in his bed” line. My first reaction was to giggle because, seriously, “the fire in his bed?” I don’ think I want fire in my bed, that sounds dangerous. (Remember, don’t smoke cigarettes in bed, folks!) My second reaction was “Okay, if that line doesn’t belong in the Debi Pearl Hall of Awkward Metaphors, nothing does. This letter is totally fake.” And that was before I even got to your last paragraph.

    I would say, yeah, some of these letters are definitely fabricated. If she doesn’t want people to figure that out she really needs to make her writing style less…bizarre.

    • Karen

      When I read the “fire in his bed” bit I immediately thought of the Farrah Fawcett TV movie “The Burning Bed.”

    • Pauline

      I was thinking th same thing! She’s got to be making some of these up.

      There’s a rather weird letter later in the book where someone writes to her about the notion of having younger single women help you raise your kids, and how that’s more natural, etc, obviously thinking Debi will approve, and then she says she’s realized she needs this because she needs some time to herself, which she refers to as “meditation time, self-actualization time.” Debi then lambasts her for wanting any such thing and says that a Christian woman shouldn’t sit alone and pray but should serve her husband and kids all the time and that’s her act of worship. (In direct contradiction of some stuff Jesus said *specifically* to a couple of women, but hey, that’s just Jesus.)

      I couldn’t believe that someone would write to Debi about needing “self-actualization time” and not realize it would push her buttons. And it just sounded *weird*. I almost wonder if Debi put that in there so she wouldn’t have to be seen lambasting someone who just wanted “Time With The Lord”.

  • smrnda

    If people weren’t discontent with how things were, we wouldn’t have any progress at all; in fact, we wouldn’t even have civilization.

    Circumstances do affect whether you are happy or not, and the first step in figuring out why you’re not happy is if there’s something about life that should be different. Only if it’s impossible to change do you start resigning yourself to circumstances.

    The whole idea that ‘it’s all your attitude’ just teaches people to fake being happy without examining why they aren’t happy to begin with. It’s built on the idea of faking it, or lowering your expectations.

    When you asked whether or not Debi would be teaching this to slaves etc., I know she would, and it’s people like her that prevent progress from happening. It’s her brand of Christianity that ignores social problems and thinks the way to deal with oppression is to tell the oppressed to get better attitudes. This is why I think Jesus isn’t such a great moral teacher – he basically preaches the same thing, which gets re-iterated by Peter and Paul.

    Also, preaching contentment is like saying “I don’t care how you feel.” If your answer to people is to just be content, then you’re just telling them to shut up, and you won’t listen.

    Just wanted to add that I acknowledge my standards for ‘the good life’ are pretty high, but if people didn’t set high standards for that, we’d all be foraging for berries and living in mud huts.

  • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

    The concept of “fairness” expressed in the letter is really petty and erroneous. “If you don’t do this thing the way I want I’m going to pout!” That’s not expecting to be treated fairly, that’s being manipulative and passive aggressive. No wonder they don’t consider fair treatment important; they don’t understand the concept.

  • Steve

    Mormons are also big about the fake happiness crap. Wives are supposed to always smile and show off the perfect family. In reality, many of them chug down antidepressants.

    • aletha

      I think any church has that mentality. Because, it seems, in all church cultures (Christian, at least) that if you’re happy and smiling, it’s because you are doing what you’re supposed to and G-d is raining down his blessings…
      For some reason most people would rather fake a lie than deal with other people knowing the truth.

  • Rae

    “Recently, I walked into a home that did not have running water, nor did it have an indoor bathroom.”

    Since this is a recently married fundamentalist couple, I’m guessing that they don’t have children. But in many parts of the US, lack of running water in the home and/or lack of an indoor bathroom is considered “unfit living conditions” or “uninhabitable”.

  • wren7

    Debi’s advice to women is a recipe for antidepressants down the road. So far in the pages that Libby Anne has summarized, and as Libby Anne has pointed out, there is no mention of *ever* having a discussion with your husband if you’re unhappy or upset. Which makes it seem that no matter what a woman’s husband does — no matter how selfish he is, no matter how shabbily he treats his wife, she is just supposed to slap a fake smile on her face and be cheerful. How would a bad situation in a marriage ever improve in these patriarchal marriages? And from reading some posts by Quiverfull women who left the faith and their husbands, this type of religious thinking attracts men who already want to dominate women, with some of them ending up being abusive. It’s a recipe for a man who already has those tendencies to become even more controlling, domineering, selfish and even abusive.

    And I can’t stop thinking that Michael Pearl approves of all of this — since he said in the foreword to the book that he approves of every word Debi wrote. So he thinks an ideal marriage is one where the wife is manipulative, where she has sex even when she doesn’t want to or is too exhausted (let’s not forget that many of these women don’t use birth control and so are pregnant or have small children much of the time — but according to Debi, she is NEVER allowed to say no to her husband), and where she never ever tells him what she’s really thinking and feeling. God, how utterly awful and depressing it all sounds.

  • http://beholdconfusion.wordpress.com/ Sara

    All of these marriages just sound so lonely. I imagine what my marriage would be like if I followed these rules. I would just become some sort of cognating dishwasher. Why would my husband want to talk to a dishwasher? He would have no real partner. I would have no real partner.

    I did a thesis paper on Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” In it, Milton describes how Adam struggles to find an equal for himself in Eden. The animals are like him in some ways: they have similar bodies, are affectionate, and can perform work in the Garden, but they are also unintelligent and mute. God is like Adam in some ways: he is spiritual, intelligent, and speaks to Adam, but is also all-powerful, all-knowing, and the Creator. Adam needed someone like Adam. Adam needed Eve. It wouldn’t have been useful to Adam to simply have a human-shaped animal. He needed someone intelligent and emotional so he could converse and be understood. If Debi had designed Eve she would have fallen short of Adam’s actual needs.

  • Leigha7

    Have you ever read Ella Enchanted? If not, the premise is simply that when she was a baby, a fairy “blessed” her with the gift of obedience, so she has to follow any direct instructions anyone gives her.

    There’s a part in the book where she’s told to be glad that she’s obedient, so she cheerfully revels in every command she follows. The family cook is horrified and tells her to go back to feeling however she likes, because having to do everything she’s told is bad enough, but having to be HAPPY about it is downright disgusting.

    That’s what this makes me think of.


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