On a recent Friday, I learned that the 43 year old husband of someone I went to graduate school with, parent of four young children, died suddenly. Though I had been out of touch with my grad school friend for some years, I felt deeply for her loss, her unexpected plunge into single parenting, the way her life and the lives of her children would forever be shaped by this grievous tragedy.
I carried this family in my heart as I drove to my weekly Sunday visit with one of my adult sons, who lives about 75 miles from me. At this time, disabled by mental illness, he lives in an AA recovery house, surviving on Supplemental Security Income of $740.00/month and SNAP food allotments. Now 27, he dropped out of college after one semester, has never held a job for more than a month, and has been hospitalized three times for psychiatric care.
I usually enjoy our weekly visits, during which we sit at a coffee shop or do an errand. But I never know how he will be doing. When he is doing poorly, my own tendency to depression means that being present as best I can, even for just a few hours, to his deep suffering may utterly deplete me for the rest of the day or several days following.
On this particular Sunday, I happened to drive past a non-denominational church in the small college town where I live. It rents space on the main street, in an old movie theater. On this day, a group of enthusiastic church goers gathered on the sidewalk, advertising the service about to begin with handmade posters. They appeared to be mostly young, and I imagined they were probably students at the university where I teach. I glanced their way, wondering if I would recognize a student from one of my classes.
A young man I did not recognize leaned toward the curb as I passed, aiming his poster at me. It read, “SMILE! It’s Sunday!”
I felt slapped in the face, stunned, and then . . . enraged.
Though I drove on in steely silence, I wanted to slam on the brakes, storm into that cluster of shiny happy young people and throw down a Molotov cocktail of sudden death, mental illness, tragedy, and suffering of all kinds into their church street party: “NO! I will NOT smile because it’s Sunday. And who are you to tell me I should? Who are you to imply that if I do not smile, I somehow don’t measure up to your understanding of what faith or salvation is?”
Rage boiled within me for miles and miles, churning over the shame these young people tossed around in an insular, and therefore, arrogant obliviousness.
I imagine that they understood their signs to be godly evangelization, friendly invitations to their church service, or, at the least, innocuous advertisement. I imagine that they meant no harm and were probably encouraged into and praised by older members of their group for this enthusiastic “witness”.
I could have been one of them in my evangelical twenties. Thankfully, I was too shy and socially awkward to “witness” or “evangelize,” but I was trained to believe I was neglecting my duty, since, of course, our religious group had the answers that all others needed.
How I wish I had had the courage to pull to the curb, leave my fury in the car, and explain how the command to smile affected me.
Could any of them have heard me?
Unless I muster the courage to confront those who shame others by dogmatic commands and proclamations of certainty, masked as religious virtue, I’ll never know.
In a classroom, in my professional life, I’m perhaps hyper-vigilant in preventing potentially shaming exchanges. Student feedback tells me my Religious Studies classes are safe spaces. Yet I keep myself safe by operating only out of my intellect, employing analysis and critique in the third person.
In the classroom or while writing an article, I know how to keep myself safe. I patrol very clear boundaries. And over several decades, I have developed effective strategies for replenishing myself when shame overtakes me in situations beyond my power to orchestrate.
In that Sunday smile poster, all the smug, self-righteous, condemning religiosity which formed me in shame as I learned to talk, walk, and never break a rule, assaulted me once again, as Alison, not Dr. Downie. I wish I could imagine talking to that group without my professor-shield. Volunteering to walk right into shame, to walk right into a crowd pronouncing that I am religiously inadequate, has, so far, exceeded my abilities.
I hope that one day, perhaps even in the coming New Year, I will have the courage and strength to walk squarely into a poisonous cloud of shame, to risk being vulnerable, perhaps to teach more by how I live as Alison than how I structure classes as Dr. Downie.
Alison Downie, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Her academic interests include ecofeminist theologies, disability theology, and religious life writing.