“The Monster at the End of This Post”[i]
I admit it. I was terrified of monsters as a kid. And vampires. I was also scared of bears and spiders. And probably hell, if anyone had asked… even though my family did not focus on fear-based theology, it was a part of our lives and culture. (I was pretty scared of spankings, too.)
I have thought quite a lot about fear, and about monsters – especially when I had to figure out how to talk about these things with my own kids. The more I have explored these ideas, the more I have come to believe that if monsters are real – and they may very well be real – they are only as real as we let them be. Allow me to explain.
To my great relief, once I matured past a certain age, I lost my terror of magical evil. I could go upstairs alone without fear of a vampire attack. I also developed a more nuanced sense of supernaturalism – that which we cannot otherwise explain. Without knowing the word ‘mystic,’ I practiced an open-minded skepticism of folklore, from angels to demons. I found I had no need either to believe or not to believe in seemingly supernatural ideas and experiences. They are part of life, however explained, like the telepathy I share with my twin. For me, particular beliefs seemed less important than the choice not to dwell in fear.
So as I worked to release fear, I also toyed with a question: why do we crave that which confounds scientific explanation? It’s almost as if once we understand how something happens, it loses some legitimacy. Only the mysterious sends chills down our spine. Why do we seem to need to claim supernaturalism – magic – for something to feel truly powerful?
As I was mulling all this over, I also learned a bit more firsthand about monsters. There was the abusive monster who isolated and tortured my twin for four years. Then came my own experiences with PTSD. After long months of feeling as though some kind of Leviathan was lying in wait to rip me apart from the inside out, the diagnosis came as a profound relief.
I perceive biblical stories about demons differently now – and the stories about healing, too. What I realized, eventually, was that the ‘monster’ inside me was terror, and it was absolutely real, and absolutely not, at the same time. My terror was not only ripping me apart; it was actually, desperately, trying to protect me from something – from guilt, from abandonment – from death. Once I learned to take it by the hand, it stopped trying to kill me in order to save me.
Monsters. We Earth-lovers have long lamented the demonization of apex predators such as wolves, coyotes, bears, sharks, snakes, even whales. How many famous stories feature them as the villain? What is it about these beautiful, powerful creatures that causes so many cultures to demonize them to extinction?
Fear of the wild may have coincided with the appearance of cities in human history, which included rapid increases in human populations around the cities as well. As wild habitats disappeared, these precious animals grew increasingly desperate, seeking food and shelter closer and closer to human dwellings. Meanwhile, these human populations forgot not only how to coexist with predators but also their vital role in nature’s balance – we need them to survive, too. Although cities have fostered powerful culture, art, diversity, tolerance, and even ecological sustainability, they also artificially separated humanity from our rhythm and balance as citizens of an ecosystem. We forgot who we are. Of course the apex predators, the wilderness, became not just competitors but scary monsters – humanity innately fears the unknown.
Many also equate divine power with fear, even annihilation: in order to respect the omnipotence of the Divine, we must also passively, trustingly accept a Divine Will that may choose to harm us, torture us, even destroy us, for some supposedly greater Plan to which we have no access. This “Monster God/dess” giveth and taketh away, like an ultimately loving but temporarily tyrannical Puppeteer, or the Gamemaker of a Cosmic Arena. Trust and obey, says this theology – no matter what.
Much parenting and teaching assumes this authoritarianism as well. I am sure we can all immediately think of many, many examples of monster parents and monster teachers. As my brother says, the model of the benevolent dictator is tried and true, with obvious drawbacks. But what if we don’t need dictators, benevolent or otherwise? What if true power comes from the intimacy only possible in relationships of mutuality, trust, and accountability?
Wildness – that which we cannot control – need not devour us. If we release an individualistic perspective, and try to embrace our identity as persons-in-community – the whole ecosystemic community – we can start to understand death as part of life, rather than a specter that devours our courage to choose paths of justpeace. Sure Trump, and abusers, and Herod, and Pilate terrorize and destroy. But what if the Divine is not like that? What if divinity swirls through the coming together to resist injustice? The Comforting Presence in our time of grief? What if divinity dwells in the soils that accept our bodies and turn them into flowers? The intricate balance of Creation, the beauty of the stars?
Maybe we can trust – in the Goodness and Wisdom of a Creation whose balance may not even include humanity someday. In a Holy Presence, of rock and tree and sky and sea, ancestors, always with us to comfort and guide. Maybe we can obey – thoughtfully follow the teachings of our sacred traditions that build justpeace. Maybe some monsters need communities to hold them accountable and put boundaries around their abuse. And maybe – sometimes – the monster, at the end, is just a lovable, furry friend.
[i] With great gratitude and many fond memories of Jon Stone’s wonderful Sesame Street book about Grover, “the Monster at the end of this Book.” Thank you for helping so many kids learn to embrace monsters.
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.