My head is a little bit too full lately. My classes begin in two weeks and I am determined to create an “Intro to Christian Ethics” class that offers my students at least an idea about hope that resonates with them, if not with me. Trauma is both a daily reality for far too many of us, and the headline or undercurrent of nearly every news report. Images from popular media play against my desires, my training in feminist analysis and ideas about power and empowerment in endless abundance. And I am mothering a joyful three-and-a-half-year-old whose need for liveliness both challenges and taxes me, pushing me and putting me face to face with my own hopes and doubts.
I feel pulled in so many directions, so I get confused about where to start, what to write, or what to do. I am awash in input, goals, and distractions.
Yet, I have also been challenged lately to see my confusion as a retreat from responsibility.
I have been encouraged to find ways to “turn the volume down,” medically or otherwise, so that I can navigate my anxiety and depression towards greater satisfaction in my life.
“Breathe in, Sara.
Submit to your own feelings so that you can start fighting what you really need to fight.”
My bouts with depression and anxiety have ebbed and flowed through most of my life, but after the birth of my daughter I sunk pretty deep. Faced with panic, desperation, and despair while trying to care for an infant, I said “no” to my feelings, which only compounded the crash a year later. Cutting off a part of myself at that time was a somewhat conscious, somewhat unconscious effort I thought would help me to survive. I convinced myself that I didn’t need outside help, though I’d sought it before, saying that I was doing okay. But I wasn’t. And when I started therapy about two years later, I felt like I was starting to drown.
I want to say that I could barely talk when I met this new healer, but this isn’t exactly true. I talked and talked and talked. “You never stop talking,” he’s said to me. The problem was, I could barely get a word in edgewise around my own criticism of what I had just said. I would actually stop mid sentence to offer a counterpoint to or contradict what I’d just said. I obscured through vagueries and over complicated self-analysis. I self-policed and self-censored, spinning a web of confusion for myself and my therapist. This process was/ is very frustrating, and the feminist educator in me finds it ironic too. I am always telling my students to be more particular. Feminist pedagogy and theology demands particular context, situatedness, and actual lived experience. I didn’t realize how much I’d obscured my own story in the abstract. My narrative of self-control is like the passive voice I’ve so often noted in my student’s papers: it keeps me from standing behind anything I’ve said.
Gaining clarity, I have had to learn the difference between the kind of confusion I weave defensively and the productive confusion I experience in therapy.
My anxiety makes things loud; and sometimes, to deal with this noise, I make it even louder. In a “prayer,” assigned for one of my grad classes, I remember writing: “I turn the volume up on my radio so that I don’t have to hear you [god].” The increased decibel creates a sense of relief. But the problem is that defensive loudness is also very stagnant for me. I can’t hear myself, so I can’t write, don’t choose, and don’t feel things I don’t want to feel.
My experience of productive confusion, alternatively, shuffles categories. It breaks apart. It is life giving chaos; but god/dess does it FEEL loud (even though it often requires quiet). If I’m not surfing the internet, while watching a show, while having a glass of wine, I might have to hear my own thoughts. I might notice that my internal loudness is in part a symptom of the institutionalized trauma, violence and oppression that works to keep me externally quiet as well.
Thinking through my therapeutic experience of productive vs. obscuring confusion, I find myself considering how confusion is used to perpetuate such violence and control today.
In 2018, I remember reading several editorials which warned us that the current administration was testing the resolve of public resistance. The strategy: bombard the opposition so that they become so fatigued, disillusioned, disheartened, or over whelmed that they stop resisting. Recalling Sharon Welch’s discussion of Bonhoffer’s work in her book Sweet Dreams in America, this strategy also encourages the inaction inspired by “moral ambiguity” (1999, 122-123). When presented with so many fronts, so many possibilities, we may not act because we do not think we can do anything. It’s just too loud—it obscures responsibility.
The Trump regime’s deliberate use of trauma also breaks down resistance and hope. Children stolen from their families, ICE arrests in Mississippi, and gaslighting from a leader who encourages white supremacist terrorism and then blames video games for gun violence all sow confusion, fear, and shock. Victims of this violence are then blamed, dismissed, patronized, criminalized or ignored, and the resultant trauma leaves its mark on whole generations.
If you are too afraid to pick up a phone, will you call your representatives?
If you parents are stolen from you because they were identified as undocumented when filing criminal complaints, reporting abuse or harassment, or seeking shelter, what did you learn about seeking help?
If you are made to believe the violence you feel is your fault, what might you do to obscure yourself? What might you choose not to do?
Systematic oppression relies on trauma for its internalization. And confusion is a powerful tool indeed, particularly when survival is on the line.
In my experience, survival is a loud master. It screams at me to conform and alternatively, fight the hurt or violence I am feeling. I sometimes then, mistake this hurt or violence for the feelings this reality evokes. Which is to say: I see the feelings, not the abuse, as bad, so I attack them instead. It gets really confusing, particularly when my trauma informed responses take over in spaces where I actually do have power, voice and support.
And I sometimes stand still in the storm of this noise, sometimes I need to.
But productive confusion, resultant of asking for help in community, leads me to responsibility, action and myself. Which makes me think that making sense of the noise, which often looks like making chaos, can be an act of resistance too. Personally, and socially, I remain on the lookout for these chaos-making models.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.