It’s been a rough couple of years. Even though thousands of miles distanced us from the first-discovered Covid-19 outbreak (late 2019) in China, the virus soon traveled the world, doing what viruses do best—infect us, spread, morph, and then infect us, spread, morph all over again. More than five million people worldwide, including close to one million Americans, have died as a result. Shutdowns affected us economically and socially, making it difficult (sometimes impossible) to stay connected with family and friends.
An effective vaccine arrived on the scene in early 2021, yet many Americans (half?) eligible for vaccination have refused the life-saving injections, citing a variety of reasons: distrust of the vaccine—“It was developed too quickly;” invincibility—“I never get sick, never even had the flu;” and individualism—“Nobody gets to tell me what to do with my body.” (Many of those “hands off my body” people, though, have no problem telling those of us who have a uterus what we can and cannot do with its contents.)
A little over a year ago (November 2020) we elected a new president with a narrower margin than seems decent. The former president remains in public view, keeping his sycophants stoked with propaganda and half-truths. Many of our power-hungry, political leaders seem intent on replacing whatever democratic values we still retain with an authoritarian dictatorship. Our current president is finding it nigh impossible to get projects such as rebuilding our infrastructure on track. Inflation eats away at our paychecks. Covid-19 keeps morphing. New infections pop up daily. We are all weary.
Here at FAR, we have undergone, and are now attempting to navigate, major change as we continue to mourn Carol Christ’s death (July 2021). Fortunately, there’s a core of dedicated people working diligently, guiding us as we strive to remain a strong voice for peace and justice in a world filled with overwhelming challenges.
So many of us struggle. I’ve written over the past two years about some of the upheaval I’ve experienced. Loss of job. Loss of family. Loss of friends. Two major moves. I’ve responded to it all (unhelpfully) by shutting down—becoming anorexic—as a way to (ineffectively) manage change.
Life’s one constant is change. Embracing inevitable change seems essential as an antidote to rigor mortis with its subsequent rot and decay. Change can be catalytic, giving us opportunity to navigate (and land in) new territory as we partake in the art of living. Unfortunately, the particulars of how to go about such a formidable task often elude me.
These days, the word “transitioning” most likely brings to mind the change a person makes from their social identity as male to female or female to male. That’s one kind of transition. It can cause disruption—even chaos—for an individual, their family, and community. I think people who work to align their gender identity with their biological sex must reach a point where keeping things “the same as they’ve always been” (a stifling place) causes more distress than stepping outside expected norms.
How does one get to that transitional point—no matter what the particular transition? There’s no pat answer, but honesty seems essential, beginning with the question, “What do I want?” This is where I trip up. The grooves in my personality run deep, rutted by an upbringing that taught me it’s selfish (and just plain wrong) to want anything other than “God’s will for your life.” Funny how God’s will perfectly matched what my parents and church leaders (all men) wanted. Of course, I chafed and pushed back against the suffocation I felt from my family and community. I paid a price for going outside set boundaries. Loss of belonging. As the black sheep, I would periodically come back to the fold only to leave again.
Domination is at the center of patriarchy—a social system constructed to give men (white, heterosexual men in our society) power in ways that shape our national policies and religious doctrines before seeping down into our individual behavior. Consequently, women bear the brunt of constraint and containment. Especially destructive is the Christian doctrine of “original sin” that informs us we are irredeemably corrupt—unable to do anything “good” on our own. Yet, somehow, many male religious leaders occupy a space that gives them power to interpret (and tell others) what God expects them to do. (Yes, there’s pushback against this antiquated thinking, however, there’s mega-resistance from those who benefit from acting as God’s mouthpiece.)
Recently I’ve been re-reading Cliff Edwards’ book, VAN GOGH’S SECOND GIFT—A SPIRITUAL PATH TO DEEPER CREATIVITY. The author uses excerpts (Edwards calls them “illuminations”) from forty-one Van Gogh letters. He gives some context regarding when and why the letter was penned, writes a paragraph or two reflecting on Vincent’s passage, and suggests ways the excerpt might apply to us today. Finally, under the rubric of “Creative Engagement,” the author invites us to engage the world in specific ways, based on the letter’s text.
According to Edwards, Vincent Van Gogh was so much more than a “troubled artist who cut off his ear.” In illumination #20, Vincent advises a fellow painter, who tended to look for and emulate exotic, mystical art from Italy or the Near East while creating his own art, to focus instead on whatever was close to him. “…the spiritual path moves through the very field that is nearest to you, and so is never exhausted.”
Could it be that each of us with our unique abilities and particular experiences would do well to engage the world on our own terms (What do I want?) even when (or especially when) that engagement is at odds with those who would make us over in their own image? When life’s inevitable changes surface, can we choose to transition authentically?
We pay a price for making such choices, but the price tag is higher when for whatever reason(s), we don’t choose at all.
BIO Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently retired from teaching.