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Finding Balance in a World of Extremes
Reflections from The Christ-Centered Woman
By Kimberly Dunnam Reisman
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Breaking Stereotypes and Embracing "Good Enough"
As we seek to find balance in life, we face many challenges—some external and some internal. I'd like to begin by exploring some of the outer means that hinder us from living a Christ-centered life. Let us consider two myths that secular and religious culture offer us that, if believed, hinder us from experiencing Christ "at home in our hearts" as Paul describes in Ephesians 3.
What do you think of when you hear the term Susie Homemaker? Perhaps you think of a woman who has an immaculate and efficiently-run home, cooks dinner every evening, bakes homemade goodies for her family and others, decorates for every holiday, and generally seems to have it all together. Some might suggest that her origins go back to the Bible—specifically, to Proverbs 31, which describes the "virtuous woman." But the truth is that Proverbs 31 is an ode of praise to all women—not a description of the perfect woman or a to do list for us to follow. Susie Homemaker did not arrive on the scene in biblical times at all but was born in the Victorian era.
Actually, Susie's myth arose from the Victorian belief that God had authored an unequal dependency between the sexes that resulted in division—as opposed to the biblical idea of an interrelatedness that results in unity. As a result, men and women came to be seen as polar opposites, with men being relegated to the aggressive world of work and women to the peaceful domain of the home.
Both men and women suffered from Susie's stature as a middle-class ideal. Men became pressured to work longer hours to solely provide for their families. A woman's status as a "lady" depended upon her not working. Unmarried women couldn't even take up meaningful work without sacrificing their image as "good women." In reality, few women beyond the upper classes could achieve the Susie Homemaker epitome of womanhood.
Though she originated in Britain, Susie was not limited by geography. She quickly departed for America, where she took hold of our collective consciousness and remained the standard for women for decades, especially in the mid-twentieth century. Trying to live up to her myth has often cost women personal growth and robbed them of the opportunity to explore their interior selves—their minds and spirits.
Susie's mythical power placed limits everywhere for women, including the area of Christian service. She was so ingrained in our religious consciousness that even today many Christians believe that to be like her is the God-given calling of all women. What has actually happened is that these Christians have accepted her image as gospel truth when in fact secular culture created this image, not biblical teaching.
Scripture clearly shows that Jesus called both women and men to follow and become disciples. Women were an integral part of Jesus' ministry, and the Bible paints a picture of the early church as one where gifts and callings took precedence over gender. Yet Susie's myth was pervasive enough to infiltrate church teaching and create a tradition where women regularly confront gender prejudice regarding their abilities.
As a woman who came of age in the eighties, I haven't experienced the extent of limits Susie Homemaker created during earlier years. My daughters are a generation removed from the hardest edges of this myth, taking for granted that their abilities will be treated seriously. Yet Susie's image lingers in the background of our collective psyche.
When, as a young mother, I felt solely responsible for my children's problems, I sensed her out there. When I feel guilty for not having a spotless house or for "letting" my husband cook dinner (he likes to do it more than I do anyway), I know she's lurking in the corner of my mind. Fortunately, because of a lot of history and a decent amount of social upheaval, I understand that Susie is not as remarkably balanced and happy as her image would have me believe and is, in fact, a myth that blocks my way toward a life that is centered in Christ. On the heels of that understanding is the recognition that, contrary to the messages of society and sometimes the church, there is no one "right" way to be a woman. What we need is not a myth of an ideal woman but a strong, biblical foundation out of which each of us can determine what kind of woman we will be.
On the heels of Susie's myth came a new, untouchable role model: Superwoman. She's the woman who has it all together all the time, juggling home, career, family, hobbies, and volunteering. You name it; she does it, and does it well. All of us have encountered the Superwoman myth in one way or another, feeling we have to be all and do all.
While I am not a social scientist, the myth of Superwoman appears to me to be a backlash against a backlash. First came the rejection of the constraints of Susie Homemaker. As the fifties faded into the sixties and women heard the distant rumblings of the Women's Movement, a great sigh of relief went up all over the country, which might be generalized like this: I am a person—with hopes and disappointments and passions and abilities. And I am ready to express them all. As exciting as this new concept appeared, and as true as it felt to women everywhere, it quickly ran head-on into the reality of motherhood.
For the most part, women in my generation absorbed the message that we were capable and independent and able to pursue any career we chose. But most of us still wanted to marry and to have children. We didn't want to give up everything to pursue a career—we wanted it all. Superwoman arrived to save us all from the burden of choice. We could be Susie Homemaker and a Liberated Woman at the same time!
The media quickly latched on to this myth and continue to emphasize it today. Women's magazines began to include guidelines for choosing the right day care, tips for chaotic mornings when the family was trying to get off to school and work, fashion sections emphasizing wardrobes that could take you from home to work to evening, and articles on "quality" time—as opposed to quantity of time—spent with children.
While a danger of Susie's myth is that it limits us to only one outlet for self-expression, a danger of the Superwoman myth is that it assumes we have unlimited energy and resources. The reality is that no one can do it all, at least not at the same time, and not always successfully or long term.
I learned this firsthand during seminary when I became pregnant with my second child. As a surgical resident, my husband, John, was gone most of the time. Thoroughly swayed by the Superwoman myth, I believed that I could do it all. The reality was that my body wouldn't allow me to do it all. I ultimately contracted pneumonia and withdrew from seminary. Yet when I buckled under the strain of trying to be a bona fide Superwoman, I questioned myself rather than questioning the validity of the myth.
I believe many women do that. Rather than recognizing the mistake of trying to do it all, we doubt our own abilities. Other women don't seem to be having any trouble. Why can't we handle it? Superwoman entices us with the belief that everything is possible if we just work hard enough. But living with the Superwoman myth is living in a dream world—a nightmare, actually. We cannot experience the balance God intends for us if we falsely believe we can do it all.
Moving Beyond the Myths
The problem with these two myths is that they are impractical ideals wrapped up too neatly to exist in the real world. Blindly accepting them without regard for what is valuable and what needs to be jettisoned derails us from our journey toward a life centered in Christ.
Of course, each myth contains a grain of truth for our journey toward balance. Saying no to Susie Homemaker does not mean we abandon our homes or our families. Rejecting Superwoman does not mean we relinquish our desire to pursue more than one avenue with our talents. Rather, we must find a better way to live our lives than these stereotypes allow. We must find a way to move beyond the myths to the balance and wholeness that Christ offers us. For me, the story of Ruth has been a very helpful tool.
Naomi and her husband, Elimeleck, had two sons. After a severe famine in their homeland, they left Bethlehem for the foreign land of Moab. Their sons married Moabite women—Ruth and Orpah—and all was well. But then tragedy struck, leaving the three women widows. Naomi decided to return to her homeland, and Ruth and Orpah set off with her. Along the way Naomi begged them to return to their families. Both had such love for their mother-in-law that they wanted to stay with her. It was a heart-wrenching scene: they were sobbing and clinging to each other. The decision was not made easily.
After many tears, Orpah decided to return home, and Ruth chose to go with Naomi. Once in Bethlehem, Ruth helped to provide for them and ultimately married a close relative of the family, ensuring their security and well-being.
Ruth is rightly the hero. We have lifted her up as a model of courage and loyalty, and her decision to follow Naomi was crucial to the line of David, which eventually led to Jesus. Yet I believe we can learn from Orpah as well. From the perspective of life choices, I believe Orpah made a good and right decision to return to her family. As admirable as Ruth's choice was, Orpah's decision was based on solid reasoning. In light of the lack of status and security widows experienced in those times, it made sense for Orpah to return to the security of the only family she had. It was a tremendous risk to go to Bethlehem as a foreigner with no guarantee that Naomi's family would care for her.
Orpah made a wise decision, but Orpah did not follow. Ruth followed. There is obvious tension between these two choices. There was no middle option. Our lives often feel the same way. We often feel that between two opposing choices, only one of them is right. Society and the church often encourage us to think that way, having us believe that sometimes there is only one "right" decision among many. All too often the church, either directly or indirectly, supports this position, leading us to believe that Ruth made the "right" choice and Orpah made the "wrong" one. If you don't choose to be Ruth, the message from all the Ruths out there is that you are completely misguided. If you don't choose to be Orpah, the message from all the Orpahs out there is exactly the same.
I do not believe God intended our lives to be made up of such extremes. Both women made choices that were "good enough" for them individually.
The Spoke of "Good Enough"
"Good Enough" is the first spoke in our wheel of balance. "Good enough" is not about measuring up to the world's standards. It is about discerning what God desires us to do as God's Holy Spirit speaks to our spirit, guiding us to an understanding of what choice is the right choice for us to make.
Let's unpack this idea a bit further. One of the valuable cultural messages we receive is the importance of pursuing excellence. Whether it is in the world of sports, education, or the workplace, society rewards excellence. Scripture strengthens this message as well. Philippians 4:8 says "If there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (NRSV).
Paul encouraged the church at Philippi to focus their minds on things that are excellent and praiseworthy—things that are honoring to God. Excellence is a noble aspiration. I believe it pleases God when we strive to be the best we can be, using the gifts God has placed within us to their fullest potential. However, just as the idea of excellence can be motivating, it also can be damaging when taken to the extreme. Many families have suffered the pain of being ignored by a workaholic striving to be the best employee. Many women have damaged their bodies and their spirits attempting to attain an ideal, "excellent" body shape. Both men and women have approached the point of sheer exhaustion trying to be all things to all people. As valuable as the notion of excellence is, there is also a desperate need for a notion of "good enough" to provide a healthy balance.
Embracing an understanding of "good enough" doesn't mean we reject excellence. On the contrary, it can often lead to excellence. However, from the outset it involves not a blind commitment to "excellence" but discernment through prayer and an openness to the Holy Spirit's guidance to determine what is acceptable and right in a given situation or season of our lives. It is about establishing what actions and behaviors will bring the balance and wholeness God desires for us.
I confronted my own need to understand and accept the concept of "good enough" during seminary. As I struggled to juggle the demands of home and school, I quickly realized that I couldn't give all my time and energy to both school and my son. That also meant I couldn't be the "ideal" mother or student of my dreams. The challenge I faced was to find balance, a way to be a "good enough" seminary student (acceptable grades, adequate mastery of the subject matter) and a "good enough" mother (providing a healthy and loving environment for my son). For me, finding that balance meant compromise. To protect my family life I determined that I could only be gone three days each week, which meant that I had to forego classes that met on the other two days. On the other hand, my house was never as tidy as it might have been and Nathan learned that there were times when he had to entertain himself. As I implemented this compromise, I realized that excellence was not necessary at this point; simply being "good enough" at both of those aspects of my life was. I still strive for excellence in most pursuits, but I'm thankful that my family continually reinforces the importance of "good enough."
We all need to make choices that help us become "good enough" mothers, children, siblings, workers, volunteers, and friends—choices about how we spend our time and what commitments we are willing to make. The "Good Enough" spoke moves us one step away from the Susie Homemaker and Superwoman myths that threaten to confine and confuse us, and one step closer to our center in Christ. It enables us to look at the choices that lay before us not from the world's perspective of what is appropriate, but from our own prayerful discernment about what is right for us in light of what God desires for our lives.CHAPTER 2
Fighting Fragmentation with Temperance
Just as there are external blocks to balanced living, there are internal blocks as well. Fragmentation is an internal block to wholeness.
The word fragmentation suggests its definition: the splitting of a whole into many pieces or fragments. Fragmentation occurs when we allow one part of ourselves to dominate the others, or when we become separated into many different parts, feeling pulled apart by all the things that compete for our attention. Both of these types of fragmentation hinder us from being the whole, integrated selves God desires us to be.
A Divided Self
The easiest way to understand the fragmentation that occurs when a part of ourselves dominates our entire being is to look at addiction. When we become addicted to something, our craving for the substance takes over and our lives begin to revolve around it. Alcoholism and drug abuse are two obvious examples of a part dominating the whole. But drug addicts and alcoholics aren't the only ones who suffer from this kind of fragmentation; anyone can.
Any time an element of our lives becomes forceful enough to push out other concerns and divert our attention, we run the risk of becoming fragmented. If we are so focused on our job that we fail to recognize the needs of those around us, or even the wider variety of our own needs, we are traveling the road to a divided self. If we become so engrossed in the everyday goings-on of our children or other family members that we miss opportunities for personal growth and challenge, our path to balance is blocked.
Certainly there are times when a part of us must dominate the whole, such as in times of serious illness or grief. At those times it is normal to devote our energies to that situation. Less calamitous but equally diverting are the times when we must tackle important projects that are beneficial to our overall personal growth or simply required by our jobs or volunteer commitments. In these cases, fragmentation actually works in our favor, allowing us to temporarily focus on pressing needs. What we must guard against are not the isolated incidents that motivate domination by a single part of ourselves but the patterns that can develop. Then the temporary fragmentation that is bound to occur now and again becomes an unhealthy aspect of our everyday experience.
A second type of fragmentation is being pulled apart by many competing demands. What woman has not experienced the exhaustion of having said yes too many times? We are masters of overextending ourselves. We overcommit and then dash about frantically trying to squeeze productivity out of every available minute.
Excerpted from Finding Balance in a World of Extremes by Kimberly Dunnam Reisman. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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