Marg Herder: On Fear and the Paradox of Surrender

In 1993 I participated in the LGBT March on Washington.  This was an event in which hundreds of thousands of American gay people gathered in Washington, D.C. to demonstrate for equal protection under the law.

I was 32 years old.  I had been an out lesbian for 14 years.   It wasn’t like today.  Many of my friends were not out, especially not in every aspect of their lives, and all of us had been abused in some way due to who we were.  Many of my friends suffered through angry and vicious times with their families.  I was about the only person I knew who wasn’t kicked out or somehow made to feel defective or worthless by my parents.  Instead, in my case, the church stepped in to do that.

All of us who gathered for the march knew pain.  We were all wounded.  And because of that we were all a little guarded, a little skittish, a little closed off.  It took a lot of effort just to be.

Now we talk about equal rights.  Back then I remember talking about equal protection, I think because we felt danger, like someone was stalking us all the time.

The first night in Washington, D.C. my partner and our two friends returned to our hotel after dinner and walked through the city.  There had been lots of gay people on the plane, in the airport, checking in to the hotel, on the Metro.  There seemed to be ONLY gay people at the restaurant, and we all talked across tables to each other.  There were gay people walking on the street, and we all smiled and spoke to each other.  Everyone’s eyes were wide open. Wide open.  With wonder.  Everyone was smiling.

When I walked into our hotel room that night I remember just standing in the middle of the room looking around, because somehow everything had become so clear that it felt like I could actually see the molecules in the air.  I was aware that something was gone, something had being stilled.

And then I realized what it was.  I had not been afraid all night. I had not been afraid that someone would ridicule my masculine appearance.  I had not been afraid to walk down the street and hold my partner’s hand, or that someone would make a rude comment if they saw me looking too deeply into her eyes.  I had not been afraid that anyone would call me a f-ing queer.  It hadn’t been necessary to look behind me as I was walking on the street that night, because there was no one around who would want to hurt me because I was a lesbian.

And only in fear’s absence did I become aware that it had owned me for my entire adult life.

This was a remarkable moment for me, this moment in which I became aware of the incredibly binding burden of fear I carried always.

This burden of fear is not unique to gay people.  Women know this fear.  From the time we are born we are taught, often in subtle ways, but also very clearly that it is our responsibility to be very careful with men.  Because men can be very dangerous.  Men can and do beat us, men can and do rape us.  Men can and do kill us.  Men can force us into situations not of our choosing, men can talk us into giving away every bit of our own power.  Sometimes men are even able to convince us that God wills us to submit to their dominance and abuse, and that resisting this “Divine Order” is sinful and will mean the loss of our eternal souls.

The fear that burdens gay people and women also burdens all people who are marginalized.   Fear is prevalent in all people who do not share in the privilege of being the societal norm, the cultural seat of affluence and power, and the linguistic standard.

Fear makes marginalized people act in ways that are not always pretty and often incomprehensible.  Fear clouds our spirits, spoils our achievements.  Fear can make us quick to anger, defensive, and reactive.  Fear can make us feel tired and cranky.  Fear can make us look sideways at other people’s actions, expecting aggression, hostility, or denigration.  Fear can make us internalize shame and doubt.

Fear yields up bitterness and resentments that can last for millennia.  But worst of all, unacknowledged fear makes it impossible to surrender fully to Love, All That Is, She Who Is, to Christ/Sophia. 

It’s a complicated thing, to understand a feeling you have no way to experience.  For those who have been born into and brought up in positions of privilege, the fear the rest of us struggle with is strangely inconceivable.  For marginalized people the fear we carry with us is so pervasive in our lives it takes a special set of circumstances to get a glimpse of it.  I had never known the burden of fear I carried until I experienced it in its absence that night in Washington, D.C.

So as I observe our recent history I see great efforts expended in hopes of convincing those of privilege to somehow become empathetic with those not of privilege, and participate in dismantling the structures that support continued injustice and inequality.  And while I do not feel these are wasted efforts, I do think the outcome has been less than satisfactory.  Privilege is going to be with us for a long time, and those who enjoy it are likely going to continue to be blind to it.

A much better endeavor, in my opinion, would be for those of us marginalized and subordinated to address the oppression of our own fear.  In doing so we might gain the insight necessary to mediate its influence and control over our lives, and open the door to a new way of being.

In short, we can’t change our oppressors, but we can change ourselves.

In my case I have found that the first step to overcoming the limitations imposed by my ingrained fearfulness is to turn my attention from the clanging cymbal of my ego and instead patiently cultivate the stillness that allows me to hear and act upon the sound of Her voice in my life and in the world. To surrender to God instead of to my ego first requires my willingness to pry fear’s fingers off of my heart, so that it can beat freely to the pulse of Her love.

It’s a strange paradox, surrender to the Source in order to no longer be subject to one’s oppressors.

As I become Love’s most humble servant, committed to erring on Her side, I become able to limit my participation in the perpetuation of the fear cycle. The societal privilege some enjoy has less and less bearing on my life.

This doesn’t preclude criticism and speaking out about injustice and oppression.  Truth can be spoken lovingly, just as it can be spoken violently.  But I think truth must be spoken modestly.  We must always retain an awareness of own human fallibility and the limitations of understanding, and know what emerges as truth comes only from the cultivation of a fearless heart open to a world constantly redefined by the experience of Her love.

I believe that the act of becoming familiar with our fear will loosen the hold it has over us, allowing us to become better able to create ourselves fully, and more clearly embody our own particular manifestation of Divinity.  There is nothing more earth-shattering, more historically pivotal than a person able to become a clear lens through which the love, peace and grace of Godde shines through.  If even just a few of us can do that, we might create a new paradigm, one in which privilege as currently experienced ceases to matter.

What is most desirable?  That we use our resources to compete for unfettered access to the hierarchical systems created by centuries of global patriarchy, or that we initiate the exploration into creating a system of equality in peaceful coexistence and unconditional love?

© 2013 by Marg Herder

 Marg Herder writes for Christian Feminism Today and serves as Office Manager and Web Developer for the Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.  In her creative work as a sound artist, musician, and photographer she often explores the beauty of being here, and asks how we who share this experience of incarnation might love and live more fully.

This post is part of Christian Feminism Week at Theoblogy.

  • Lisa Carson

    Beautiful.

  • Kimberly Roth

    Thank you for your reflection, Marg. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately in how we model the listening we wish to receive – or any of the fruits of a spirit-filled life. To me, it echoes the idea of prefigurative politics. Several of us who are part of Emergent Village have been reading “Towards Collective Liberation” recently, and the idea that we “create liberatory processes and practices in the here and now while we fight for the future” is prominent. In the book, it is the idea that we live out feminist and anti-racist practices even as we work to create a society that is feminist and anti-racist. I think it echoes living in the spirit – if our hope is in a world bearing fruit of peace, patience, kindness, etc., then we practice those things even as we work to bring them about. Your idea of patiently cultivating stillness is a powerful one to me – it’s the image, to me, of abiding – allowing ourselves to be loved & empowered so that we can love & empower others – sitting with the light of the world so we can be the light of the world.

  • melaniespringermock

    This is beautiful, Marg. I appreciate your honesty, your thoughtfulness, and especially your hopefulness: it makes me check my own cynicism. Thanks for writing!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

    I will say that I know fear — panicky, overt fear. But, Marg, what your post pointed out to me is that I am basically unfamiliar with the constant, latent fear that you write about. Thanks for this.

  • Christy

    Marg – This is SO insightful (and SO hard to do.) And I resonate with your experience of having been afraid so long, that you didn’t even know it, until – suddenly and for a bit – you weren’t. Thanks for this.

  • Andy Sherwin

    “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” -Margaret Atwood

    As a straight white man, I, like Tony, have literally zero idea what this could be like, and ti sounds absolutely crippling. I overheard a (male) friend complain once that he hated how he couldn’t feel comfortable smiling at a woman or approaching a woman in public because of what “other men” might do. But how on earth is a woman to know that he’s One Of The Good Ones?

    Anyway, it’s horrible that this is the culture that we (by which I mean straight white men) have created. So appreciative of and grateful for your thoughts and bravery, Marg.

  • Craig

    Some will silence the clanging ego only to hear in the voice of God the very rhythms that drive the oppression of women and LGBTs. Won’t they? Don’t they?

  • http://www.margherder.com/ Marg Herder

    Thank you all so much for your kind words.

    Christy, SO HARD TO DO! Hard to even talk about. But we’ve gotta do it.

    Kimberly, what a great line, “sitting with the light of the world so we can be the light of the world.” NICE! But even better for me is the single word your use, abiding. That’s going to be in my thinking for a while. Thank you for that and for offering some other avenues to explore.

    Tony, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to post here and your willingness to wrap your heart around the concept I’m talking about. Thank you.

    Andy, what a great Margaret Atwood quote! Thank you also for being willing to hear with an open heart.

    Craig, I’ve thought a long time about how to answer the question you pose. Those rhythms you speak of are absent from what I hear as Her voice. But to say they don’t exist in Her voice as heard by others would be to judge the authenticity of their experience. So all I can say is, for me, the heartbeat of pure love is the only rhythm I hear.

    • Craig

      Is it so bad to judge the authenticity of another’s purported experience of God? Why?

      • Craig

        Marg, let me expand on this last question. My impression is that the feminist authors this week tend to emphasize personal experience; they emphasize how things look from their point of view. On the one hand, this is a perfectly sensible approach given the aim of exposing the present, largely male audience to what is in fact a marginalized, under-represented point of view. On the other hand, I suspect that appeals to personal experience have a tendency to become through over-use a kind of crutch. First-hand, eye-witness testimony is characteristically difficult to refute. I can therefore imagine the temptation to come to rely on such appeals, even to the point of making them one’s dialectical bread and butter.

        Here’s the problem. Although such appeals are so effective at silencing opposition, they’re effectively counteracted by the conflicting experiences of others. The problem of judging the authenticity of the other’s purported experiences is that it suddenly shows the vulnerability of one’s own. And that’s a hard path to take if appeals to personal experience have become one’s bread and butter (or even if they just are one’s bread and butter for the particular issue at hand).

        This probably comes off as more accusatory than I intend. I’m really just trying to express a worry–to bring to light a dark suspicion so that it might be properly addressed, and, quite possibly, properly condemned.

        • http://www.margherder.com/ Marg Herder

          Hi Craig,

          I don’t hear your words as accusatory at all. I hear them as an interesting look into the way you are thinking about this. So no worries there. But I wonder if you won’t possibly be dissatisfied with my response!

          “The problem of judging the authenticity of the other’s purported experiences is that it suddenly shows the vulnerability of one’s own.”

          And my response is, “Exactly.”

          My experiences are my own. My path to Spirit may cut through the same forest as someone else’s, but it is my path alone. And my experiences along that path my be interesting to other people, may help them, may provide important information, but there is no way anyone else can walk my path, there is no way anyone else can really understand the experience.

          And consequently there is no “opposition” to “silence” in my paradigm, though I understand this is not the case for others! There is only a difference in experience and understanding we can share and take in as lovingly as possible, always open to the possibility of revelation, from anyone.

          So vulnerability is exactly the right word here. Because in exposing my understanding of my own experience in the limited venue of language I leave myself vulnerable to judgment, misunderstanding, and labeling. There are many who certainly will see me as an opponent, and find vulnerabilities/weaknesses in my viewpoint. But to me, allowing myself to attempt this expression, I also make it possible for people who are not inclined to oppose to learn a little about themselves by reading about the way someone else is attempting to feel her way toward a more spiritual expression.

          I think you may have articulated an interesting difference in the way some people who identify as Christian feminists tend to approach spiritual experiences, reflection, and community. While my previous experience of spiritual community (in a regular church) was all about everyone coming together in a commonly articulated understanding of spiritual reality, my experience with my new spiritual community (EEWC – a Christian feminist community) is all about everyone sharing the uniqueness of their experience and understandings. Differences are expected and discussed as possible opportunities for personal growth. There is never a sense that one should or should not subscribe to a certain ideology or way of pursuing Spirit. And never any attempt to tell someone they are incorrect. Incorrect is not possible. However, hurtful is possible, and how to handle that is a topic for another essay.

          But I’m not saying that’s a universal Christian feminist experience, just my personal experience. :>)

          • Craig

            Thank you for the thoughtful response Marg. I stand to learn from your approach to dialogue, from your openness to the experiences of others, and from your awareness of the hurtful. There are virtues I can recognize here, but I think that it should be possible in principle to duly respect them without denying the possibility of incorrectness. More specifically, I don’t think we have to deny the possibility that statements, beliefs, and interpretations of experiences may be incorrect in the sense of being false, unreasonable, or unwarranted. Certain kinds of attitudes (e.g., fear, despair, hope), if not “incorrect,” can still at times be accurately criticized as irrational or otherwise inappropriate. Would you agree?

            • http://www.margherder.com/ Marg Herder

              Ah, Craig. I had a fun time thinking about this.

              So if my neighbor’s kid, Chelsea, says, “The sky is green,” at first glance that looks like an incorrect statement. Aren’t we all in linguistic agreement that the
              color of the sky is to be described as blue? But what if some quirk of this child’s ability to perceive color makes
              the color of the sky look just like the color of the crayon in the box that reads, “Green” on the paper wrapper? I think, in that case the statement, “The sky is green,” made by
              Chelsea would have to be regarded as correct, even though almost everyone hearing it would claim it was false. We might convince Chelsea to stop saying this,
              because it caused confusion, but we could never say her statement was “false, unreasonable, or unwarranted.”

              And in believing her statement initially, and looking to
              reconcile that with our own understanding, we might discover something very interesting and helpful about the nature of perception in general. To blow off her statement as false, without thoughtful consideration, we’d miss out on potential knowledge AND possibly hurt her in the process, by dismissing her reality.

              And so this is a metaphor for why I am not sure we should define other people’s statements, beliefs, and interpretations, with any kind of implied certainty, given how little we know about the nature of personal experience and perceptual mechanisms.

              Yet I can also see a great deal of utility in making those kinds of distinctions in some other cases.

              For example… There are some people who deny that men ever walked on the moon. But I believe that it was a real occurrence. Though I feel there is overwhelming evidence clearly supporting my view, both of us express
              certainty, and I’m not sure it’s ultimately possible for me to say the other is wrong. Really? Yes, because though the probability of it is very, very low, and since I do not have any direct experience, it remains remotely possible the whole thing could be an elaborate deception and not an historical occurrence.

              But here’s where the utility comes in. There is so little evidence to support the view of one who denies it, and it would be so difficult to create a deception on such a scale, that I think it is useful for me to say the “statements, beliefs and interpretations” of that person denying that men walked on the moon is “false, unreasonable, [and]
              unwarranted.”

              I think about the climate change debate in these terms. In that case a more utilitarian approach, less media hesitancy to label the opposition’s highly improbable but not impossible case as “false, unreasonable,” would have been helpful and might have led to more timely action that could possibly have prevented some future suffering.

              So interesting!

              Another piece… It strikes me that the mechanized view of the universe which has so influenced our intellectual framework for a while compels us to believe that there is
              certainty which can be obtained. But that the emerging quantum view of the universe suggests instead that the fundamental nature of everything is much more reliant on interpretation.

              So I’ll enjoy thinking about this for some time to come. Thanks for leading me down this path.

              • Craig

                Marg, you’re perfectly right to draw attention to inevitable uncertainty, to the value of seeking to understand shockingly deviant claims, and of the various pragmatic considerations relevant to how we choose what to say and when to say it.

                For any given claim, we can distinguish all these different issues: whether the claim is true; whether we know with certainty that the claim is true; whether it is reasonable/unreasonable to think the claim is true; whether it is useful to criticize the claim.

                Happily we both accept that some claims can be rightly criticized, and that sometimes it is important to make such criticisms. I would agree, for example, that it is sometimes important to criticize certain of the false claims promulgated by climate-change skeptics – for example, the claim that unusually heavy midwinter snowfall provides evidence against climate change. Such a claim is demonstrably unwarranted.

                But I would also say that I could rightly criticize a neighbor who makes false or unwarranted claims about my spouse–the sorts of claims which I am in a particularly good position to evaluate, given my knowledge of my spouse. I know that my spouse is a committed vegan; my neighbor claims she’s a blood-drinking carnivore. I criticize his claim to familiarity with my spouse’s eating habits as inauthentic, as erroneous.

                So why isn’t it the same in your relationship with God? You, being intimately familiar with God, know Her to be loving and just–the kind of God who wouldn’t insist on rules under which women remain subjugated or oppressed, or under which LGBTs are treated as sexually sinful deviants. Others, however, claim to experience a God who insists upon these very things. Why aren’t you prepared to criticize their purported experience, or their interpretation of their experience, as inauthentic or mistaken?

                • http://www.margherder.com/ Marg Herder

                  Craig, I enjoyed thinking about this. I sat with the question you asked for a few days to make sure I am clear enough about my position to answer.

                  Since I know what it is to have the authenticity of my spiritual experience criticized (and as a LGBT person this happens indirectly, if not personally, every day), I am familiar with how useless it is as a method of enacting change. The criticism handed me does nothing to cause me to rethink my understanding of Spirit, or change my behavior. It simply hurts me.

                  So I choose not to do it to anyone else because it’s both hurtful and ineffective.

                  Instead I prefer to find ways to draw attention to the violence of certain people’s actions and words. Hopefully this provides a way for people to privately recognize how their presentation could be more loving, more Christ/Sophia-inspired I guess, maybe even leading them to make a decision to temper or change their behavior. I believe that as people begin to behave in less hurtful ways their entire earthly experience changes for the better, allowing their connection to Spirit to be less distorted.

                  I could say it like this… She whispers in everyone’s ear. Some people’s fear and anger is so loud it drowns Her voice out. But she is still whispering to them. So it’s not their experience of Her that is inauthentic, it’s more like there’s an impairment in their ability to open their hearts to Her and allow Her expression to flow through them.

                  I think we must be lovingly critical of people’s hurtful words and actions, but I try not to judge or engage in criticism of another’s root experience of Spirit.

                  Thanks again.

  • John McCauslin

    While I thought I was so empathetic and aware of so of the disadvantages women work through, I was never aware of the fear. But now it seems so obvious. Thank you for this incredible insight.

  • Adriene Buffington

    Marg – I’m a little late to comment, but thank you for sharing your story and what you realized. I love the final question, and am pondering what that might look like for me personally, and on a much broader scale.


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