You never know who is listening

Family was up visiting, and we had some church members over for coffee after church. During the conversation someone happened to mention the conservative parliament member that had just been elected in our area. They spoke of their hopes that this politician would be able to fight back against the gay marriage laws in the country of Canada, and then added that he doubted it would be able to happen, because “the press always accuses people of being homophobic” when they take unpopular religious stances on marriage.

This is a typical conversation in my social circles. It doesn’t really bother me, people have differing political opinions that they feel strongly about. So this person feels that gay marriage is not morally allowed by their religion, many religious people feel that way. It may frustrate me when people combine religion and politics, but I understand that they are not personally attacking the LGBTQ community, it just sincerely a part of their beliefs. And while those beliefs are discriminating, they usually aren’t advocating old testament law or anything. This person is well-respected in our church, middle-aged with a solid marriage, five grown children and a good business. Their have always gone out of their way to make us feel welcome here in this church, inviting us over to spend holidays with their family, and bringing us meals and gifts after babies were born. This person is generous, has a great sense of humor and I’ve liked them since we moved here. But that night at our house after church, my perspective of this person’s ability to accept people was changed, because after the political reference, the conversation got even worse.

“How do you handle the whole homosexual thing Pastor?” They laughed, “ I know you can’t just say ‘You’re a sick disgusting pervert’ even though that’s what I really think. How can you tell homosexuals they are wrong without getting flagged for hate speech.”

I couldn’t hear my Father-in-Law’s response over the heartbeat thudding in my ears. I was glad that no one was looking at me, because I could feel my ears burning, and I was fighting back nausea. How could they say something like that? If they knew that their pastor’s wife is sexually attracted to both sexes, would they think that I am a sick mentally twisted person who is “wrong”? Would they try to get my husband fired from church office? Or would they just never invite us to their home again? If they met my sister who dresses and acts in a non-gender conforming way would he treat her like a “disgusting pervert” in the assumption that she is a lesbian and therefore somehow deserves to be treated poorly? I left the room and poked around the kitchen for a moment to hide my tears. Oh how desperately I wanted to say something, to throw another opinion out there to make them think a little bit about how they were treating an entire group of people.

But I was not brave enough, it did not feel safe to vulnerable.

I grew up hearing how gay people chose to be gay, how they had a special type of demon that was particularly horrible. I asked my dad about same-sex attraction when I was 18 (never daring to mention that I was asking for myself) and he told me that the only true bisexuals were pagan witches. He had no idea that it was a real issue for me, and by inadvertently condemning me, he shut down the opportunity for connection and instruction. Obviously I never talked to him about that topic again.

I guess part of me had hoped that attitude was just my crazy separatist family. But here was a mainstream, church going, nice Christian, who was spouting the same hateful stuff my family always had, having no idea who was sitting right across the room from them.

This got me thinking about how often we shut down communication through judgement.
Harming and attacking people without even knowing what we are doing.

How many times have I been an uncomfortable witness to someone ranting about physical health. “How can anyone go to Mc Donalds when they look like that! If I was that fat I would just stay at home until I got a handle on my life.” or “It’s so sad to see people ruining their lives by being gluttonous. I hate when women act like being pregnant is an excuse to eat anything they want.” or “She’d be so pretty if she just got some self-control and lost a little weight.”

I guess they think it’s safe to talk about it because they don’t see anyone they consider fat in the room. Have they ever thought that there might be a person within earshot (perhaps even their own daughter?) who struggles with an eating disorder? All she ever sees when she looks in the mirror is a huge fat body. Do you think she will struggle to enjoy eating her hamburger at the church picnic that afternoon, sure that someone is watching her and judging. Do you think that she will vomit it all up later out of guilt? Do you think she’ll go home that night and stand in front of the mirror crying over her “gluttony”? Do you think she will ever feel safe to talk about her struggles with body image when she already knows what they think about “fat” people.

How many times have I heard people say outright that it is sinful to not have your finances in order. “How can people be so careless and get into debt? God tells us to be good stewards of our money!” or “Have you noticed the Johnson’s new car? There is no way they can afford that, they must be in debt up to their ears!” Never knowing the young couple they are commiserating with has been feeling overwhelmed with budgeting problems. Do you think that couple will feel brave enough to get help in managing their finances? What about the person behind them who is buried in debt from a gambling addiction. Do you think they are going to admit their problem any time soon? Or the kid that just got a gift of a car from his grandma, do you think he’ll be able to enjoy his grandma’s generosity now that he has to worry about people speculating on how he can afford it?

Or as this vivid blog post describes, how many young girls have felt pressured into getting abortions, just to spare themselves the judgement from people whose opinion they are already well acquainted with? So much judgement, so many opinions, often with no real understanding that the people they are criticizing are among them, around them, often completely anonymous.

If you have a strong opinion on something, reconsider if and how you say anything.

Because you never know who may be listening.

Re-Post: Rights of a Child
Rather Dead Than Queer
Fundamentalist Approved Feminist Literature
What I Understand
  • Libby Anne

    Oh Young Mom, I feel for you, because I, too, have walked out of the room to get away from such talk. I've felt everything I want to say welling up inside of me, but held it in to preserve the peace. It's physically painful sometimes. Keep your chin up!

  • Kathleen Basi

    Wow. This is is a very moving post. I come from a long line of very opinionated, and very vocal, people. I am trying to learn to watch what and how I say, but I know I have a long way to go. Your examples are so apt…and really, like the "fat" thing…we are very big on eating well and staying in decent shape, and we get frustrated by the obesity epidemic. But our 6yo says things sometimes that make me wonder what he's hearing with his heart when we speak.

  • Michelle

    I think this is a good lesson for ANY kind of speaking. Gossip is always about someone else. Speculating where someone is in their life, the choices they may or may not make, their sins, their struggles…none of it is good to discuss really.

  • Michelle

    Oh I just saw Kate's comment and wanted to add that the "fat" comments hit close to home for me and I watch those like a hawk around my daughter that looks a bit like me (definitely weight-wise) as a child. It's amazing…we often think we are helping by identifying a "problem" (like obesity) and trying to say we want to be "healthy" but we can cause a child or adolescent to go the opposite way in an unhealthy manner.

  • Enigma

    Oh my gosh this is incredible and so so true. I cannot count how many conversation about gluttony i took to heart. This post is so incredibly moving. thank you!

  • Anne —

    ((((hugs)))) My dad would say things along those lines. It really closes communication doors!

  • Mrs.Spit

    I have a line – "deal kindly with the broken. There but for the grace of God go all of us".

    I am sorry you were wounded.

  • Brea

    I can so sympathize. Your line about leaving the room made me think about this post:

  • CM

    What beautiful honesty in sharing this, and something that I so need to hear. I need to be more careful about my words and how I say things; especially when it comes to things like health and obesity. You know why I tend to talk about that in such a bad way? Because it's one of the things that I struggle with the most myself. My weight may be in a healthy range now, but it certainly hasn't been always and it's a real struggle to keep it where it is. Why? Because I like to eat the way that I speak against.

    I never thought about why I spoke like that, nor how it might affect someone else.

  • cartographer

    I'm sorry. think a lot of christian missinterpret when Jesus said "be in the world but not of it" I think they think that means to exlude trhemselves from the rest of the world and make everybody other and look down on them. If i'ts any comfort it's not just christians who make people other, it's oftem away of defining a group,like "we are like this and they are like that"

    I dont know if you have come a cross this website Whoseoever

    you're okay, you're beutiful, God loves you

  • Personal Failure

    When I was five, I heard my grandmother say about me "Oh, she certainly has her father's nose!" My grandmother hated my father (for good reasons, she was a great woman and I'm not trying to make her look bad) and she said it with a good deal of disdain.

    I still hate my nose. Since that day, I have looked in the mirror and seen only the nose. There's nothing wrong with it, really, but BIG HUGE UGLY nose is all I can see.

    You never know whom you are hurting with your words, or how deep that wound will go.

  • Rebecca

    I think you make an excellent point. Perhaps we should always address our remarks regarding such things as if the person who was struggling with it were sitting right there.

    You know, I do believe some behaviors are wrong. But I also think that any time we brand a person disgusting, anytime we get all superior and look down our nose, we have gotten pretty far from the Gospel.

    Perhaps our gentleness and respect in the midst of our beliefs can be a witness to a watching world in which there is no civility anymore.

    It's hard though. I know I've failed sometimes.

  • Sheila

    I have often thought of this when I hear people criticize other drivers while they're behind the wheel. My dad always yelled at other drivers. "Move it along, sister! Get it together! The light was green five seconds ago!"

    I hear that voice in my ear whenever I drive. It took me forever to get the confidence to drive.

    Now my husband does it, thoughtlessly I'm sure, but I think I need to talk to him about it. Because these days when I drive, I wonder if the person behind me is mad at me for not going faster or for being unsure what I'm doing next. It sure doesn't help me drive better to constantly be wondering what others are thinking. My mom is a very hesitant driver herself, and I think this may be why.

  • houseofestrogen

    very nice post… well said.

  • Peter and Nancy

    Funny how we usually choose "other" kinds of sins to criticize so harshly . . . the ones *we* don't happen to struggle with. (Or sometimes it's the opposite, and we demonize people who do the things we secretly struggle with.) I wonder if that man realizes that God doesn't see gay sex as any bigger sin than the ones he himself commits? We are the ones who put sins in categories of "not so bad" or "really terrible," not God.

    You were in a precarious position — your comments will undoubtedly reflect on your husband, plus they struck a personal chord with you — so I hope you're giving yourself a little grace as you remember the conversation. I think it's sometimes helpful to talk to someone after the moment or privately about things like that to help them save face. I wonder how he would respond to the very insightful question you posed here — what if a person secretly struggling had been in that room?


  • Hypatia

    This is such an insightful post, and it made me reevaluate all judgmental things I say that I tell myself aren't really that big of a deal. Thanks for the good words.

  • Scott Morizot

    I couldn't think of anything to say in a comment. I still can't, really. But I wrote a post that's sorta related.

  • Scott Morizot

    And BTW, sending me to Ashleigh's post tore open things I don't often think about these days as you can tell in the comment I left there. Not entirely sure whether to thank or curse you. ;-)

  • Lina

    You can disagree with certain behaviours without feeling free to call those who commit those acts "disgusting" etc. The command to be charitable always applies. I believe homosexual acts are very wrong (as are a lot of heterosexual ones, and a lot of sins I've committed myself), but that doesn't mean everyone who has same-sex attraction is "disgusting". You might enjoy the blog of Steve Gershom, a faithful Catholic gay man in the States: He's brilliant, funny, and an excellent writer. Regardless of sexual orientation, his insights (spiritual and otherwise) are very helpful and interesting.

  • Jo

    Sadly Christians are often quick to be critical of others who are "different". I doubt Jesus walked around and said "you're gay or a prostitute, so I wont be talking with you or be seen with you". The fact is, He stopped and did talk to these people – whereas modern conservative Christians tend to point their noise in the air and say horrible things – to me this is sinful behaviour. It is not our place to judge others.

  • Anonymous

    This is a very moving post. It brought back still-fresh memories of when I told my family and best friend about my loss of faith. I had spent about a year researching it in great detail and it was the hardest thing ever to let go of, though now a few months later I am so glad I kept going and searching. Anyway, my sister was the first to know and she was extremely supportive which was a lifesaver. As I was preparing to tell people, trying to plan the best time and way to tell each person, knowing it would break their hearts, I kept joking bitterly with my sister that it would be so, so much easier to come out as gay or say I was pregnant.
    One of the FIRST things my mom said was, well, at least you're not pregnant. I was like, all rightie then…
    Then I told my best friend of eight years. She took it better than I thought, though not calmly. Then, a few hours later she came over and asked how long I had been struggling with the demon of homosexuality and tried to do an exorcism on me! I was and still am so, so flabbergasted. I'm a lot more serious and introspective than a lot of girls and my upbringing crippled me in a lot of ways relating to guys, but she has seen me go through so many crushes on guys. More than that, though, for her to accuse me of something she obviously thought was the worst thing ever stabbed me to the heart. Part of my journey of questions involved becoming a supporter of gay rights, something I had never thought much about before, and I could not believe the level of fear/hatred I saw. I am quite straight but ever since that time I have felt a LOT of sympathy for people who don't have it so "easy" because they are different.
    And yeah people, Christians especially, be careful of your words and attitudes. Oh, and in the area of gay issues, it is a truism that frequently those who viciously talk about it frequently are trying to hide something. So be nice, if only to keep people from seeing something you are not ready to face yourself.

    Sorry for the book!

  • Amber

    There is so much I want to say–wanted to say when I first read this. A big push for me to leave my Church was the un-Christlike feelings/opinions/actions of others. I couldn't understand how something so simple as Christ's love could be turned into vindictive/snide remarks over other's faults.

    Do I believe in Christ? Yes and no. Regardless, the teachings attributed to him are beautiful and things I wish to apply to my life all the time.

    You are a beautiful person. Through your writing I can tell how deeply thoughtful and compassionate you are. If anybody embodies Christ's message, it is you.

  • berenike

    Given what you say about the man whom you say you now see completely differently, do you think he had in mind someone who happened to have SSA, or someone promoting the joys of gay sex? I wouldn't consider a friend who had sometimes masturbated to pornography a foul pervert, though what he or she did was a foul perversion. But if someone came up to me and said "So what about the porn question?", the reasonable answer is "it is a foul perversion". Unless the circumstances suggested the person needed a different approach.

    And while you were hurt, you ought also to consider that you were at a dinner party. People use humour to vent frustration, to talk about difficult matters. There's a difference between the objective wrongness of an act, and the person committing it. And you can think that something is an abomination, and yet be genuinely interested in and care about someone who perpetrates the abomination with sorrow or with satisfaction.

    [I hope I've made some kind of sense, I am trying to stop procrastinating so will stop here.]

    That said, gentleness and kindness are undervalued and undercultivated.

  • BethBird

    Here's the thing, though. For many, coming to an understanding of how words can have an effect is a process.

    I have made many anti-gay comments in my life. I've made lots of anti-all-kinds-of-things comments in my life. It has been a process to come to the point where I learned to evaluate how my comments might be coming across, especially as a Christian.

    I think we need to cut some slack to people who are just as much in process of figuring life out as the next person.

    Amber, above, said she left her Christian church because the poeple around her were pissing her off with all the stuff they were saying that sounded uncharitable and unloving, etc. That's fine, sometimes people can only take so much. However, I think there's also something to be said for sticking around as the example of how to do it right. I would never had seen the error of my ways (the error being not necessarily my thoughts/opinions on a particular subject, but rather the nasty, judegmental way in which I was expressing them) if it hadn't been for those whose peace and humility and love inherently challenged me to look inward.

  • berenike

    [When I said "something", I meant "something", not anything in particular. This sort of discussion is much easier in real life!]

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I wasn't going to initially, but since most of the comments here seem to be running towards the "we have to charitable to people because it's not their fault that important parts of who they are are an abomination", I'm chiming in for balance.

    For what it's worth, Young Mom, to me and many other people, you are fine, more than fine, just the way you are, bi-curiosity and all. If, at some point, you decide you want to be religious again, there are plenty of religious communities, including Christian ones, that will not see your sexual attractions as something to be ashamed of or something that needs to be fought against for you to be a good person. I'm sure you know this by now but it can't be said enough.

    Personally, I've never gotten the "hate the sin, love the sinner" attitude. It's certainly better than "God hate fags" but I think it's more comforting to the people who hold it than it is to the people that it's directed towards. I've never met any gay or bisexual people who were comforted by the idea that people did not think their WHOLE being was sick and twisted and abominable–just this incredibly important part of it that's supposed to bring them joy and love and connection, like it does for straight people.

    And to people that are making excuses for this guy–using humor to "vent frustration" over the fact that certain people exist is not okay, it's just plain intolerant. A reason is not a justification. And Bethbird, I really don't think people should feel obligated to "stick around" and subject themselves to shaming and emotional pain to teach other people tolerance. That's not their responsibility, especially when they are already feeling vulnerable.

    Young Mom, you are justified in protecting yourself in any way you can (and I know your options are limited at this point) from attitudes like this guy's. You have had enough of feeling inadequate and like there's something about you that doesn't measure up. It is his problem, not yours. You are a wonderful person, and you are the person you are supposed to be. There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with you. Have peace and be kind to yourself.

  • Tara S

    Thank God for you! This needs to be said more often – it is 100% true, every minute of every day. There is NO "safe zone" for callousness, because you can never really tell who is listening…you might be cutting somebody to the heart and basically saying "Don't ever come to me for help. I won't understand."

  • Caravelle

    On "hate the sinner, love the sin":

    Note that as far as I've been able to see, gay people take this as only marginally better than "hate the sinner"… at best. So if you're trying to watch your words and avoid hurting gay people (or other kinds of "sinners") that might be listening, keep that in mind.

    I've always been a bit confused as to why it's taken so badly, since the sentiment makes some sense to me. One part is obviously that in the experience of many, "hate the sin love the sinner" is simple code for "hate the sinner".

    However, even in cases where it's sincerely meant I can see it's problematic. What does it mean to love the sinner but hate the sin ? It is always important to remember our common humanity and avoid demonizing others, whatever their actions. Sure. But our what is our virtue defined by, if not our personal morals and our actions ? It's all well and good to say that one person masturbating to pornography isn't a foul pervert, even though pornography is a foul perversion, but that invokes the picture of someone who agrees that pornography is wrong and their masturbating to pornography was a one-time thing, or something they want to stop but can't.

    But how about someone who routinely masturbates to pornography, has no shame or regrets about it, and thinks that masturbating to pornography is ethically neutral ? Or ethically good ?

    Is *that* person a foul pervert ? If so, then the distinction we're making isn't between a person and their actions – it's between moral values. If not, then what does it even mean to say that pornography is a "foul perversion" ?

    Note also the over-the-top phrasing. Why those words – "foul perversion", "abomination" ? Those are extremely emphatic terms, ordinary as they might sound in certain religious cultures. While you can tell yourself that you can love people who routinely commit or approve of "abominations" or "foul perversions", you can't use those words around them and expect them to believe you, or not to feel personally rejected.

  • Anonymous

    Melissa — I just started reading your blog today. I loved this post, especially the last few paragraphs on judgments and opinions. I couldn't agree more. I am often frustrated with others lack of understanding at the power of the words they say — and with my own stupidity in the things that I carelessly say and judgement I make. I'm almost in tears thinking of the pain that it has caused myself and so many others to feel so alone because of judgments and opinions. Where is the love and support in that? I relate to your story of going into the kitchen in tears, I've walked out of the room misty eyed as well… to timid to share what's in my heart. Thanks for giving me the courage to be more brave.

  • Chelsea Rose Wendt

    Our judgments not only pain those around us, in various ways, they also are pain in ourselves. They both express that pain and keep it in place. It was this realization that really gave me the strength to start to unravel my own judging self. I use the phrase "judgment is pain" to help keep me aware. No matter how "right" we might be (usually a lot less than we think, I suspect) – what good does it do to be "right" if that posture is painful, and keeps us from being happy? Another family saying is, "don't be 'right' in my face," meaning no amount of being "right" justifies causing ourselves or others pain; besides, since they'll be defending against the pain, how will they hear what your saying? The more I work on my own spiritual development, the more compassion I have for others, and the less interest in spending my energy supposedly working on their spiritual development. I guess another way to look at all this is: "hate the sin, not the sinner" is still hate. The highest form of god that I recognize is pure love, for everything in existence; simple, unalloyed, utterly compassionate, co-being. Love and Gratitude to all you beautiful people working with this.

  • Anonymous

    "I think you make an excellent point. Perhaps we should always address our remarks regarding such things as if the person who was struggling with it were sitting right there."

    I agree. Thank you!

  • MelissaRM

    As a T lady I can identify with the inadvertent condemnation by family, in my case I was eight years old and my mother came home in a rage about a TG customer at her bridal shop. Thus it went for twenty five years before I broached the subject with my mother. In that time she’d outgrown her transphobia, but the damage had been done decades ago.

  • Rachel Dryden Rowlan

    I have never heard hate speech as much as I did last summer when I went took 15 teen mothers and their babies to a special camp for them. They get to eons a week being kids again and being surrounded by other teen moms. We had to fly to get to there. I heard ugliness and filth at every turn. The girls were used to it because they didn’t even flinch. But by the end of the trip the adult sponsors were ready to roll heads. Or cutout tongues. “Oh, in your day we called ‘that’ a whore? Well, in my day I’ll call you a _____.” If only I were so quick to respond. I was actually in such shock I just gaped with my mouth open. This summer I’d like to go prepared with some snark in my pocket.

  • Japooh

    I realize that this is an old thread (8/14/13 as I write this), but I can’t let this pass without comment.

    @Chelsea Rose Wendt, should you happen to find this: Truly, thank you. I’m very moved by this comment, and want to be honest about why. (Melissa, I’ve spent the last few days reading your blog from beginning to this point so far, almost entirely in order as written, and am amazed by your story. Your honesty is apparently prompting me to do the same.)

    I’m a non-believer with a vague “yes, yes, deism makes just as much sense if someone is going to insist on an explanation for the instant of creation and sure, I could easily accept that position” non-commitment to any particular ideology. I don’t much like labels in general ;) . I find the basic philosophy of Buddhism to be highly appealing, and Confusianism (if one’s definition of religion would include one without a central deity of any sort beliefs required) actually fascinates me – I’ve only recent learned anything about it.

    The reason the above matters is that I tend to be somewhat dismissive of the phrase “spiritual development” among several others. I’m aware that I do it, and often feel justified in doing so, for reasons that Melissa has done a fabulous job writing about, and because frankly, sometimes I’m not very nice (that last clause should just be part of my online signature). I’m well aware of my flaws and am working hard to be the person I want to be more often than the person I can slip into when I don’t pay attention.

    All of those thoughts were drifting through my mind, prompted by this particular post, when I read your comment. I think you just pointed out the next step that I’ve been looking around for on my personal “learn to be a good person” journey.

    I’m printing it, word for word, and posting it in a few strategic locations around my daily routines. Thank you for saying what I apparently needed to hear. It put a specific problem in a different perspective immediately, and it’s well stated excellent advice in general.

    I might have to get “judgement is pain” tattoo-ed on the back of both wrists so I see it repeatedly throughout my day.