Beyond Nice

Beyond Nice

by Patricia H. Davis


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780800632564
Publisher: Augsburg Fortress, Publishers
Publication date: 12/01/2000
Pages: 148
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.32(d)

Read an Excerpt

From the Preface (pre-publication version):
"[N]ice girls" are always calm, controlled, quiet . . . they never cause a ruckus, are never noisy, bossy, or aggressive, are not anxious and do not cause trouble.

Niceness is the opposite of spirituality. Niceness is, in fact, the opposite of what is required to build any genuine relationship-with God or with others. While niceness can smooth superficial human interactions, it is devastating to true intimacy.

Niceness requires putting away genuine feelings, avoiding conflict, swallowing hurts, denying pain, and being untruthful. Niceness requires self-denial and often self-forgetting. The nice person eventually forgets to notice how she really feels, even in extreme circumstances. The truly nice person doesn't even know when she's angry, and wouldn't admit to being angry if questioned. The nice person would never fight on her own behalf. Most often, nice people are not able to feel strong positive emotions either. Nice people are "calm, controlled, and quiet."

Niceness is the opposite of what adults should be teaching adolescents. Yet, it is a prime virtue taught to adolescent girls by mothers, teachers, and other adults who have internalized dominant cultural messages about "good" women: that they are self-sacrificing, nurturing, and never angry-that they are ultimately responsible for maintaining and protecting relationships. Girls, in fact, are taught to understand themselves in terms of the relationships of which they are a part. They "learn" that conflict (not-niceness) is a threat to relationships and selves, rather than that anger and other so-called negative feelings are natural human emotionsthat can be symptoms of relational problems.

Just at the time in their lives when girls are coming to know themselves as adults, just at the time when their awareness of what it means to be women is formed, they are often taught to be "nice" instead of to understand and deal with the complexity of adult emotional life. This usually means putting away their most important and real feelings, in favor of the kind of smiles and congeniality that will more likely win adult (and peer) approval.

True spirituality is about intimacy with God and others. This book is based in the testimony of over one hundred girls about their developing spiritualities within the context of a culture of "niceness." Most of the girls in this study were very "nice" to me, the interviewer, but many also were courageous enough to break through niceness and to speak from their hearts about God, their families, their churches, their friends, and their relationships.

It is encouraging that most of these girls seem to see how expectations of "niceness" can be dangerous for them and for the development of real intimate relationships. But, they also talk about the struggle to act in ways that are congruent with their true feelings when those feelings are negative or even just intense. More importantly for the adults in their lives, they talk about their need for models-especially for women-who will embody a spirituality and style of relating to others that reveals integrity between true emotions and actions. They talk about wanting and needing families and church communities that will expect them to live honestly instead of nicely. They talk about needing to be able to ask questions that are hard and challenging, and to be heard and answered. They talk about the hard areas of their own lives, their experiences (first- or second-hand) of violence and their developing sexualities. They talk about their experiences of financial and material need, and their expectations for the future.

I began this study with the idea that working with girls in a spiritual context would mean, first of all, helping girls to see the value in spirituality. I was surprised to find that most of the girls to whom I listened are already vitally interested in having a real relationship with God. And, they are interested in worship, doctrine, and especially the ethical teaching of the church. But they wonder why adults do not address their issues of vital concern such as violence, financial problems, and sexuality. They wonder why, even when they risk asking the questions, they are ignored or given answers that are too easy. This book can be read as a plea from the girls to the adults in their lives and to the church to drop the "niceness" code-to listen to their sometimes difficult voices-and to move toward real relationships with them. It can also be read as a offering of gratitude for the times they have been heard and appreciated even when they weren't being nice. I am deeply indebted to these girls for their courage and willingness to talk with me. Their thoughtfulness and honesty is an inspiration to me, and I hope they will be so for others as well.

From the Introduction (pre-publication version):

It was the Sunday after Christmas, and I was substitute teaching the junior high's Sunday school class. Expectations were low. When I arrived two boys were sprawled out on the couches, eyes closed, catching a few more moments of sleep before class. As I pulled some chairs into the circle next to the couches, two girls wandered in. The regular group was diminished by about half. The girls lit the gathering candle, and I joined them in saying the opening prayer.

The lesson was Jesus' great commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. The challenge: Jesus seems to be taking for granted that we love ourselves. How do we know that we love ourselves?

One of the boys offered: "I know I love myself when our football team wins a game, and I feel really good." The second boy: "I know I love myself when my grades go up instead of down." The girls shifted uneasily in their chairs. The first, an honor student and soccer player, looked at the floor. "I know I love myself, because after I had a fight with my mother, and she left me alone, I didn't kill myself." The second girl, her best friend, agreed: "Yeah, I had a fight with my parents last week, and I didn't even hurt myself."

This incident captures broader truths about girls' religious lives-truths about relationships, self-image, and their spiritualities. These girls understand the connections between self-love and survival, between disrupted relationships and the threat of self-destruction and annihilation. For them, self-love is not about achievement or public recognition; it is essentially bound up in the ways they are able to stay in relationship with those they love. They recognize their own self-love in Jesus' command to love by their own willingness to stay alive even when important relationships are threatened. These girls' seemingly offhand comments, spoken quietly during a drowsy Sunday school hour, illustrate the necessity of listening carefully to girls, learning about their lives and their visions of themselves and the ways in which their spiritualities function as they mature into young adults. In truth, their spiritualities have been developing since early infancy.

A baby, who knows nothing of God cognitively, nevertheless has experiences of the divine. The way she is cared for by her parents; the ways she is received into her larger family of siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins; the ways the family's faith community introduces her to the traditions and culture of the group-all of these contribute to her developing relationship with God. The years of infancy are, in fact, the foundation of religious experience. This is the time when a child will come to know whether the universe is a good and trustworthy place, whether she is welcome in the world, and whether she will be cared for and protected by "her" people.

As a girl grows into childhood, she experiences God in her family's continuing care, in her beginning prayers and religious lessons, in her connections with nature, in her relationships with friends and community members, and in the wonder and excitement of religious celebrations. Stories of God's love and goodness become important and are both comforting and challenging.

A girl realizes she is becoming a woman-ready or not-when her body and her relationships begin to change. She may begin to see (with horror or relief) that her breasts are noticeable when she wears certain shirts or blouses. She begins her monthly "periods." Adults admire her in new ways, and she starts to be called a "young lady." Boys begin to treat her differently and to expect her to act differently in response to them. Her father may stop hugging her so tightly, and may even look away when she wears her bathing suit.

The main psychological developmental task of an adolescent girl is to solidify a sense of who she is, now that she is no longer a child. In adolescence many girls begin to test themselves as individuals and as emerging adults-in relationships, in social activities, and in new ways of thinking. Relationships above all tell a girl who she is and what her life is about.

If a girl has been fortunate, most of her important relationships remained healthy and stable throughout childhood. Her parents loved each other and remain together. Grandparents stayed healthy and emotionally close and supportive. Cherished pets survived. Friendships matured as she did. Her community of faith welcomed her and felt to her like another kind of safe larger family. In addition, she and her family lived a satisfying life in their larger society, with enough economic resources and possibilities to live comfortably and safely. In the best circumstances, her family and friends are excited about the woman she is becoming. Religion has been a stable, loving, and protective force in her life, and she has established a warm relationship with God.

Healthy spirituality, for an adolescent girl, involves relationships that affirm who she is becoming. A girl's spirituality emanates from her relationship with God-the one she hopes will listen to her, value her, guide her, encourage her, and protect her. In addition, her spirituality reflects all the other important relationships in her life. Each girl's spirituality is complex and unique. It can draw her to truth and freedom, and it can help her to resist evil and oppression.

However, in North American culture girls are often at risk. Very few girls grow up in ideal emotional situations. Much very good research has been conducted on the social location of girls in this culture, showing the oppression inherent in girls' lives in terms of opportunities withheld, harassment condoned, voices silenced, and self-esteem undermined. Girls are at risk for sexual and physical abuse. They are at risk for developing eating disorders; they are at risk for depression and suicide; they are at risk for deadly sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy; they are at risk for alcohol and drug abuse; and, perhaps most importantly, they are at risk for losing a sense of their own power, value, and importance in the universe.4

First Chapter

From Chapter One (pre-publication version):
Listening to Ourselves / Listening to Girls

"Remember only this one thing," said Badger. "The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put those stories in each other's memory. This is how people care for themselves."
-from Crow and Weasel, Barry Lopez

A girl's spirituality is never separate from the environment in which she grows. It develops out of relationships with important people and communities as well as with God. Girls' spiritualities are also always shaped and influenced by the cultures in which they develop. The ways in which a culture views girls, their families, their ethnicities, their intellectual abilities, their sexual orientations, their social expectations, and their religious traditions directly affect the ways in which girls' selves and spiritualities take shape.

Listening to Ourselves
Every year I teach a class for seminary students on counseling adolescents. Subjects covered in the class are fairly standard for a course of this type and range from developmental psychology, to biology, to sexuality, to spirituality. What is striking about students in the class, however, is the nervousness with which they approach the subject matter, because it is related to adolescents. Most, even those who are currently working with high school students in their churches, confess to having an uneasiness around or even fear of adolescents. Many, when they see the syllabus, and realize that they will be required tohave extended conversations with a teenager as part of a longer assignment, express dread.

Many cultural factors account for this reaction to adolescents, I suspect-fears of violence from them, fears of coming into contact with aspects of the cultural "underworld" connected with uncontrolled hormones, bad judgment, and "peer pressure" (as if those forces don't have impact in adult culture!), fears of being misunderstood, fears of being laughed at, even perhaps fears of being forced to see their own more-or-less carefully constructed worlds in new ways. More than all this, however, I suspect that for many students fear of adolescents comes from anxieties about confronting aspects of their own teenage years that have been comfortably forgotten or forcibly buried, and that they, as adults, have no strong desire to remember or uncover. Being with teenagers often forces adults to relive aspects of their own pasts that they have spent enormous energy ejecting from everyday awareness. It is probably no accident that while many families hold their "baby books" of memories among their most cherished possessions, very few keep "teenage books" at all.

The first assignment I give students in this class is to write brief accounts of some important aspect of their own teenage years. Many write of traumas, although that is not specifically the assignment, and a good portion tell me that they cry all the way through the writing. As the class progresses, most begin to remember the good aspects of their lives at that time, aspects that have invariably been buried alongside or underneath the more negative ones. By the end of the class, most feel more comfortable with the teenagers they come into contact with in their work, and most indicate they feel they have integrated an important missing piece into their personal narratives and self-understanding.

A great many of the students also recover aspects of their understandings of religion and God from their adolescent years and are able to see their current theologies and spiritualities in light of this very formative time in their religious development. Often they are surprised to see that their religious experiences have many layers and are not entirely either good or evil. While positive aspects often were predominant, their spiritual histories from adolescence also held shadowy surprises for them: views of God that were oppressive, aspects of their church communities that were dangerous and negative, relationships with people who misunderstood them and sometimes took advantage of their enthusiasm and gratitude.

Part of the impetus for this study came from my reflections on my own late childhood and adolescent spirituality. I did not call it "spirituality" then. I thought of it as "my beliefs."

I can remember struggling with these beliefs-trying to make them fit my life meaningfully and trying to alter my life (mostly unsuccessfully) to fit them. When I look back, I see that what felt at the time like merely cognitive decisions involved much more. My experience of refining my beliefs involved my whole being-my relationships to family, friends, and church, my sexuality, my body, and my psyche, along with my thinking about and relationship to God. It involved remarkable personal affirmations and encouragement from others; it also involved devastating betrayals and even challenges to my emotional health.

The narratives of my spiritual journey through adolescence are-like most other people's-unremarkable in most ways, and exceptional in other ways. Like most people's lives, especially during adolescence, the different narratives don't fit together easily. Most people, especially at the early stages of reflection about their lives, tend to separate the positive from the negative aspects. Many prefer to tell one story or the other. But even in their efforts to separate the stories, elements of the negative "infect" the positive, and vice versa-it is impossible to separate them fully. To tell the story truly all of the elements of all of the strands need to be included.

Table of Contents

1. Listening to Ourselves / Listening to Girls
2. Girls Talk about God
3. Girls Talk about Their Churches
4. Girls Talk about Sexuality and Their Bodies
5. Girls Talk about Violence

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