“The Monster at the End of This Post”* by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee


“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.



Categories: animals, Ecofeminism

Tags: , , ,

26 replies

  1. 👹🙏🏼🧛‍♀️👻😱good one!!!

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  2. Oh, here are words that speak to me: “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?” And I would add that divinity lives through all wild creatures like bears!

    Very thought provoking essay – thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sara, I am glad this resonated with you. And I completely agree! It is so very important for us to be able to see the divinity in ourselves and all the Creation around us.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. All evil needs to succeed is for good people to do nothing. Many of us have become complacent, thinking that someone else will do the job. Be each of us are the someone, who needs to actively participate in saving the environment, the wildlife, and each other. trump, the Republicans, and individuals actively work to divide us so we can be more easily be conquered and controlled. It will only work if we focus on our difference instead of our common goals. A single candle doesn’t shed much light. Ten candles can light a room. A hundred can brighten a home. A million can chase the darkness from a community A billion can chase the shadows from the world. Our vote is our candle. 2020 will have to choose to bring our lights together to chase away the shadows of greed, ignorance, racism, misogyny, and bigotry or to let their fear-mongering go unchallenged and help the shadows win.

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    • Theresa, amen. I pray that we can choose the things we feel more passionate about and that do not exhaust us, and with one another, find the courage to work for justpeace. We absolutely incarnate the divine when we place boundaries around sin and harm. People in every political party, religion, ideology, culture are guilty of bigotry, closed-mindedness, violence, ignorance, greed, racism, misogyny – because we are all human. I am grateful for all you do to help heal the world. Peace to you.

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  4. “What if true power comes from the intimacy only possible in relationships of mutuality, trust, and accountability?” Love it! Also love your line that Sara noted, “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?”

    Just for the record, the word “obey” in Hebrew has an interesting root. It is (phonetically) samata and its root means “to listen with the breath.” (Strong’s concordance 8085)

    Liked by 4 people

    • I am so happy to know this root of the word obey, to listen with breath. Illuminates for me the creative process.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for this, Janet – so interesting! Many religions include a kind of submission or obedience in their teachings, and I believe it is because humanity needs humility along with our understanding of our deep and sacred worth. I absolutely love the phrase ‘to listen with the breath,’ which evokes a kind of mindfulness that lets hubris melt away and leaves us open to the divinity that flows through us – we are not the Source, but vessels of our breath. Breath is the Source of Life in the Hebrew tradition. This is a beautiful idea, and illuminates the likely intention behind obedience to a Divine will of Love.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. That picture you added at the end of your post here today, thanks Tallessyn, seems to me so priceless — YES! “sometimes – that supposed monster, at the end of lots of good stories, is just a lovable, furry friend.”

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    • Fran, I am so very glad. Did you ever read this children’s story, by the way? If not, I hope you get the chance! It is one of my all time favorites. I am sure they can get it at most libraries. This is one reason my children love Dr Seuss stories – the villains always learn something and become friends at the end. I believe it was his mission to spread this idea, and it is very powerful and important.

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  6. This post speaks to my condition and encourages me in continuing to seek my way into writing a new/old story. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Some human communities are more apt to be demonized as well – treated like monsters, simply through ignorance that can lead to fear and demonization. Recently, we have seen more coverage of how police respond to certain people differently; of how certain refugees and immigrants can be characterized; people from the Middle East; and, of course – feminists. Scary, scary feminists.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Couldn’t agree more with your conclusions!!!

    A few questions:

    Are snakes are apex predators or did they get a bad rap because they were considered sacred in earlier religions. Yes, they can kill human beings but we are not their primary prey and most of them are not poisonous. Also people used to want them around because they eat mice and rats.

    Do you think authoritarian religion/culture has a beginning point? I think it does: it arises along with warrior kings whose rule is neither natural nor inevitable. Tribal religions do “teach” a worldview and teach children how to behave, but not through fear of punishment.

    Finally I reject any commands to “obey” your husband, your God, your guru, God’s commandments, secret teachings, etc. We should always be encouraged as in the RC doctrine of conscience to think things through for ourselves and to come to our own understanding. Of course we some humility and to recognized the wisdom (where it was wisdom–that is the rub particularly in unjust religions influenced by the patriarchal warrior dominator ethos) of ancestral teachings.

    Blessed be.

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    • Carol, re snake question, as a feminist-philosopher-farmer, it has long seemed obvious that snakes were demonized because they were respected, valued, venerated, by women— in a quintessential conjunction of the sacred and profane. As you said, they guard the food (and the sleeping children) from rodents and their associated diseases. They also mysteriously come up out of the earth — direct messengers, uniquely liminal creatures, to any earth-based spirituality. And they are not readily “domesticated” as are this cultures valued animals.

      Re question 2, I think it logically must have had a beginning point because we need extensive language to communicate it. Otherwise we default to our common animal nature and focus on procreation, survival needs, and play. (Storytelling being an apparently uniquely human part of play as well.)

      Adding to that thought, is it still accepted science that male humans have a weaker and more tenuous brain path for language to travel — the connection between the hemispheres? If so, could authoritarian systems be the product of less nuanced thought-language, dovetailing into an urge for dominance common to all male animals? If we as a culture can better comprehend and express nuance, then is that when a simple pyramidal system become obviously inadequate? Is the widespread access to (and denial of) university level education intrinsic to a *nuance revolution* and so, species evolution, at least within and out of a pyramidal culture?

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      • Laurie, you might also find the anthropological research about overlapping vs. distinct communal gender roles interesting. In one of her books – I believe it’s “Sexism and God-Talk” – Rosemary Radford Ruether cites an anthropologist who noted a distinction between different approaches to gender roles in indigenous communities. In some communities, the men, young and old, were an integral part of early and later child rearing, nurturing, etc. This community was quite egalitarian – even if some tasks were generally separated by gender, it was not rigid (in my memory). In other communities, the men were basically excluded from early childhood care and nurturing. In these communities, the men were defined as fierce warriors and the communal structure was much more patriarchal. Now, one might look at a chicken and egg analysis and suggest that conflict and other pressures on the latter communities led to the separation of gender roles and then the patriarchy. One could also infer, as Ruether suggests, that excluding men from the very vital role as caregivers of the next generation created an identity vacuum they then filled with something equally powerful and important: the protection of the community.

        Which came first may not matter; either way, I find this kind of anthropological study fascinating and hopeful. It suggests that when we women invite men into that space of infant and child care and nurture, we heal and remove the need to prove their importance to the community in other ways. No more snide little gibes about how inept they are, etc. This is hard for women, I think – we have been through a lot and continue to experience so much oppression and pain. I do not mean to suggest it is easy. Just that it is hopeful. And it might be an interesting window into the psychological origins of authoritarianism and how to begin to address it – instead of simply laying the blame on men, or one particular moment, or one particular culture, we can all find avenues into a path forward.

        I am traveling at the moment and so I do not have my books with me, but if you want me to look up the citation of the anthropological research, please let me know and I will get it for you as soon as I get back. Many blessings to you!

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        • Thank Tallessyn, I will find time to really read this and respond in the next few days.
          Smooth travels.

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        • Thank you for your insights Tallessyn. I agree, it is hopeful and generally anything is possible in the long run. And, because it was done to me is never a justification to reciprocate. I do also think though, that humans are not that distinct from the rest of the mammals, and the common male urge to protect the young and the breeding females needs to be acknowledged and properly channeled. I read a lovely account by Martin Prechtel of the traditional Mayan way (pre-1980s) that teenage boys were given exactly this sort of opportunity and were able to channel all that energy and instinct into very positive work while feeling they had control and important responsibility. I can find which book it is in if you are interested. Not to be bouncing the book-finding thing back at you! It was just the most creative, elegant solution to the quandary that I’ve ever heard.

          Thanks also for offering to find the research books, but I won’t trouble you. I have such a pile of to-read books already, that it is almost certain I won’t get to anything new and slightly off-mission for years. Blessings and grace to you as well.

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          • Laurie, thank you for these interesting comments! Yes, this urge to protect has validity, and it is not only among the males. I am not surprised Prechtel observed that among the Mayans, although i do not know if that duty was rigidly restricted to the males (sometimes we assume that). Some females cannot or choose not to have children, and the teenage brain is highly energized and risk tolerant (The book Getting to Calm talks about the neurochemistry of the teenage brain, it’s fascinating).

            I suggest we need to allow everyone both to protect and to nurture – generalizations are useful, and yet always limited! We are individuals! Blessings to you and thank you again for the interesting dialog!

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          • I absolutely concur with your suggestion!
            The way MP told it, it was just the boys. A select group, as part of initiation, was charged with patrolling the village at night, to keep everything safe. It was deemed a high honour so they were fiercely proud to do an impeccable job.

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    • Carol, thank you as always for your engagement and the opportunity to explore these ideas together further!

      I agree that we cannot simply group apex predators together – there are multifaceted reasons for their demonization in each individual case. The teddy bear stuffed animal helped bears enormously. And “killer whales,” while cruelly hunted and treated by places such as sea world, also were much less demonized after Shamu appeared. In regards to snakes, the fear of creatures is not necessarily rational and usually also not informed; the fact that most of them are not poisonous does not help most people not to fear them. In addition to what Laurie has noted below, snakes move very differently from mammals, like spiders, and their movement alone I believe creates an alien reaction of fear. However, they are POWERFUL creatures; some of them can kill with a single bite of deadly poison, and the ones that are large and powerful and/or venomous overshadow the truth of their ability to coexist with humans in a balanced way. So I would say there are also similar dynamics – the poor New England timber rattlesnake is almost extinct because of fear and fear alone. Here is a lovely and hopeful article you might enjoy: https://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/2017/0817/How-one-town-learned-to-live-with-venomous-rattlesnakes

      As for your second question regarding authoritarianism and religion, there are multiple theories about this idea, and I, too, find it a fascinating question. Ellen F. Davis has eloquently argued that the shift from agrarianism to agriculturalism in the Middle East gave rise to surpluses that led to the greed and hoarding that then affected culture and religion in various ways, leading to local and imperial systems of oppression (title: Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible). Of course, there is resistance to this shift, throughout the Hebrew tradition and then with the egalitarianism of the early Jesus Movement; but again, when patriarchal leaders and then the Roman emperor choose to join this movement, it quickly again gets coopted. And again, there is resistance, particularly among Celtic Christians who practice a more Earth-centered form and reject Roman Christianity, among others. All this is to say that there are many “beginning points” from an historical perspective, but perhaps one could argue that the original shift to agriculturalism could be seen as an origin. In addition, another study showed that independent chimpanzee communities organize differently depending on whether they live in abundance or scarcity; in scarcity, much more patriarchal and oppressive social dynamics appear; so I could imagine that, with or without contact with patriarchal cultures, individual indigenous cultures might also revert to certain forms of authoritarianism as one way of trying to survive, and we see this played out today in lots of ways (the way wife beating increases in communities that are being bombed, for example). Margaret Mead’s research could be said to support this idea, which is not to say that it will definitely happen, just that it is one possible response to scarcity, attack, fear, etc.

      I appreciate your last comments about obedience. You tease out the importance of humility – even submission – to wisdom and grace, but this kind of humility/submission does NOT have to involve authoritarianism, hierarchy, or oppression. This is a tricky idea for many of us to wrap our minds around who have been raised in cultures that assume authoritarianism, and so we have unwittingly internalized many assumptions. The irony, for me, is that this alternative understanding of ideas of ‘obedience’ is actually liberating. I say this knowing full well that there are people whose definition of obedience and liberation looks a lot like patriarchy to me, so I am skeptical even of myself, and continue to play with these ideas and look at how they bear fruit. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

      Peace to you.

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  9. Tallessyn, thank you for your brilliance!

    (You’ve beautifully and perfectly articulated what I’ve been quietly apprehending for many years, with no grasp of how to express it without appearing to have a head in the sand.)

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    • Laurie, thank you for these very kind words. They’ve lifted my spirit. I am so glad my post was helpful! It is a tricky idea to tease out, and I, too, have been mulling it over for a long time. Many blessings to you.

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  10. As we have been working for years with the concept of fear as both our greatest gift and our greatest hindrance, here is a rich and powerful contribution to that wrestling. Beautiful theology, … full of glasneth.

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