Fierce Friendship and the Holidays by Stephanie Arel

It is the weekend before Thanksgiving, in the ominous year of 2020. The CDC urges people not to gather with others outside of the household on Thursday. COVID infections rise exponentially. Schools are closing, and in the much of the country, winter is foreboding.

If you live in a cold climate, Thanksgiving dinner outdoors is hardly an option. For, Chanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s, we will likely endure the same conditions. I have tried to center myself, mediate, do things to calm my nervous system, using some of my personal tools for stimulating the vagus nerve so as to not feel toxic. I think that is what the cortisol in my body is telling me: slow down, gather, go inward. But I also sense a missingness – a loneliness – alongside a desire to reach out, call people, and connect. (See the effects and remedies for social isolation here.) Away from people, traditions, anticipation of my favorite time of year, I brace for a deeper sense of loss. Continue reading “Fierce Friendship and the Holidays by Stephanie Arel”

The Practice of Bearing Witness by Stephanie Arel

She looked away and stared out the window, trying to hold back the tears in her eyes. “The tents,” she said and shook her head looking down at the ground. The tears were coming, but softly. I asked her what the tents represent. She shrugged her shoulders and said into the camera phone: “The bodies I guess. They don’t have enough room for the bodies.”

In this time of the coronavirus, as in Italy and Spain, New York City has room neither in the hospitals nor the morgue for the bodies that are dying. Up from 25 a week, to 24 a day, bodies are being buried on Hart Island, or City Cemetery, where the unclaimed and unidentified have been interred for decades. Others are waiting in refrigerated trucks for friends and family members to collect them. This New Yorker along with thousands of others have seen the stark reality, one that left even Trump sick at heart.

We are witnessing a global pandemic. Evidence of the ravages of the coronavirus lies all around us. The response to the virus has made physiological, economic, and psychological impacts on our lives. We have changed our working styles, dealt with lowered income, or lost our jobs. Staying secluded at home, we have taken on new roles for which we were not prepared; many of us have become sick, and some have died. We are together witnessing a major world disaster.

What does it mean to be a witness? What will it mean to carry that witnessing forward to future generations to mark this historic event so that when something like it happens again, future generations will have the tools they need to respond more quickly, adapt more easily, recover more rapidly? For this generation, just as those who researched and learned from the Spanish Flu, we bear witness. Continue reading “The Practice of Bearing Witness by Stephanie Arel”

Exploring Muslimness in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001 by Stephanie Arel

In my last post, I addressed the deeply personal accounts of Haroon Moghul’s self- and religious exploration in his memoir How to be a Muslim: An American Story. This post will broaden that reading to consider an October 2017 interview with Moghul at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.

The interview echoes themes relevant to current global crises which implicate religion including how religious rhetoric circulates to support extremist violence and Islamophobia. Exploring how the events of 9/11 intertwine with such crises adds depth to understanding Moghul’s individual experience.

Continue reading “Exploring Muslimness in the Aftermath of September 11, 2001 by Stephanie Arel”

Psychology and Religion Collide in the Journey of an American Muslim by Stephanie Arel

After the horrific events of September 11, 2001, Haroon Moghul, the undergraduate leader at New York University’s Islamic Center, was called upon to be a representative voice for Muslims in America even as he negotiated his own relationship with Islam. He recounts his religious journey, alongside personal encounters with suicide and bipolar disorder, in his recently published memoir: How to be a Muslim: An American Story. Recognized by Ausuma Zehanat Khan in The Washington Post as “an extraordinary gift,” the memoir offers, what Khan calls, “an authentic portrait of a vastly misunderstood American community.”

The vulnerability and honesty exemplified in Moghul’s writing actualizes a pathway for understanding his experience of Muslim life in the United States post 9/11. His personal perspective and sensitivity foster an empathic response. Emma Green of The Atlantic recognizes his focus on a more intimate encounter with religion, pinpointing how Moghul’s narrative represents “writing about Islam that’s not about terrorism or war.” Continue reading “Psychology and Religion Collide in the Journey of an American Muslim by Stephanie Arel”

Shame and the Caregiving Relationship by Stephanie Arel

I was asked recently to present my work on shame and guilt for a documentary about the experience of being in a caregiving relationship. Initially, I felt concerned. My conceptualization of the idea of caregiving circulated around 1) aspects of parenthood and 2) the inevitable life situation of witnessing a parent’s death. I have no experience with either of these. I expressed my concern to the producer and one of the cameramen as we discussed the protocol for the shoot. They suggested I try to tell stories. This perplexed me a little further. Then, in order to offer me a context, they posed questions about times I might have cared for people in the past. Their inquiry uncovered a large range of possible, personal caregiving experiences upon which I could draw. For me, these include experiences involving my in-laws, my aunt’s dying of cancer when I was a child, and, most currently, my tending to a friend who had a massive stroke at the brain stem at the age of 40.

What struck me most during the conversation was the way that I eschewed being called a “caregiver.” The cameraman noted that this was not an unusual phenomenon. Apparently, people consider the word “caregiver” somehow stigmatizing and resist its use. AARP has tried to come up with an alternative term but has not been successful. (As an aside, AARP’s website has useful resources for the caregiver.) The stigma undulating beneath the undertaking of caregiving aligns it with the experience of shame. Continue reading “Shame and the Caregiving Relationship by Stephanie Arel”

On the Removal of the Confederate Statues by Stephanie Arel

In the wake of Charlottesville, and following Xochitl Alvizo’s recent post on the topic, I review the May 2017 speech from New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu who made a compelling case for the removal of confederate statues from public view in his southern city. In his argument, he poses a simple question related to how an African American mother or father explains to their 5th grade daughter the reason why a statue of Robert E. Lee holds a prominent visual position on the New Orleans landscape. He asks, pointing to the audience, “Can you do it? Can you do it? Can you look into her eyes and tell her why Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her?” The implication of course is, “No,” because Robert E. Lee is not placed upon high in this stronghold of southern history to inspire her.

Landrieu asserts in the speech that the wounds of slavery remain raw because they are wounds that have not only gone unrecognized but they are wounds that have never been allowed to heal. Instead, he says, American cities have committed “lies by omission” failing to honor memory through the confederate emblems, instead erecting statues to pay reverence to men and only parts of their legacies. If this were not the case, if the whole story were told, then memorials at lynching sites and monuments of slave ships would be present in the United States, but they are not.

The statues celebrate, he asserts a “fictional sanitized confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for” erected to send a message about who was still “in charge.”    Continue reading “On the Removal of the Confederate Statues by Stephanie Arel”

Identity and Marriage: Which Christian Conception? by Stephanie Arel

This post explores issues I present in an essay which will be published in the Journal of Theology and Sexuality. In that piece, I consider the term “identity.” I claim that identity and the categories it delineates often present dilemmas when it comes to gender, sex, and sexuality. This is especially the case when considering biological and social data related to sexual fluidity in women. While in the paper I argue that “identity” serves in many ways to stultify, I recognize that we can also interpret the eschewing of identity as something reserved for the privileged – who can afford to discard identity. Marginalized groups, on the other hand, are often at the mercy of identity – it is hoisted as a marker, one that cannot be displaced or removed.

Where I complicate identity relates to its ability to typecast and congeal a self into a definitive configuration. Categorization follows, serving specific ends and bolstering very specific institutions.

Let’s consider marriage. Continue reading “Identity and Marriage: Which Christian Conception? by Stephanie Arel”

Beginning Conversations about the Body at Ease by Stephanie Arel

A topic that continually perplexes me, both personally and professionally, concerns the connection, or harmonization if you will, between our cognitive capacities and our physical expression and comfort, between thinking and feeling. Yoga, dance, working out, meditating, and other modalities which explicitly bring body and mind together often achieve their goal at the point of practice, and while these disciplines have residual effects, how do they have staying power?

For instance, how do we maintain rootedness in the body when we are caught off guard – for instance, by traumatic affect? When we are faced with information about reality that disturbs us – the truth about a relationship or a physical illness – how do we stay physically present? Or when we (I) spend an inordinate amount of time immersed in activities that are essentially not embodied despite the efforts at theorizing such embodiment – reading, researching and writing – what happens to the body?

Sustaining a mind/body (and spirit) connection is a little tricky. Some psychologists would call this connection a kind of attunement (between a dyad) that fosters a form of affective regulation. This means that subjective experiences, correlating thoughts, physiological responses, and the bodily expressions these provoke come into alignment but not in the manner of repression or suppression, rather as a form of accord or modulation that brings us to our best adult selves and enables decision making that supports our most core self. Capable of achieving this? I think it’s an art. Continue reading “Beginning Conversations about the Body at Ease by Stephanie Arel”

Trump’s Misogyny – A Case for the Contempt-Oriented Personality by Stephanie Arel


In the quotes below, you will briefly encounter the words of Donald Trump throughout the years as he has commented on women. You might have read or heard many of these, as I have. Reading them still brings a chill to the spine (please be warned of the misogynist language that follows).

“You know who’s one of the great beauties of the world, according to everybody? And I helped create her. Ivanka. My daughter, Ivanka. She’s 6 feet tall; she’s got the best body. She made a lot money as a model—a tremendous amount.” 2003 Howard Stern Interview

“My favorite part [of ‘Pulp Fiction’] is when Sam has his gun out in the diner, and he tells the guy to tell his girlfriend to shut up. Tell that bitch to be cool. Say: ‘Bitch be cool.’ I love those lines.” 2005 TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald

“If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” March 6, 2006 The View

“While ‪@BetteMidler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that because I always insist on being politically correct.” Oct 28, 2012 Twitter

Rosie O’Donnel is “crude, rude, obnoxious and dumb.” July 11, 2014 Twitter

“Why is it necessary to comment on [Ariana Huffington’s] looks? Because she is a dog who wrongfully comments on me.” April 6, 2015 Twitter

I hesitated to start this post with such deprecatory quotes related to women and women’s bodies. Yet, forgetting or camouflaging the misogyny that this administration represents is egregious. These quotes indicate a truth about Trump’s opinion of women: women are to be controlled, possessed, and disparaged. These snippets into Trump’s posture toward women exhibit his misogyny, his disgust of women, and ultimately, his own self-contempt.

Continue reading “Trump’s Misogyny – A Case for the Contempt-Oriented Personality by Stephanie Arel”

The Death Penalty and Human Dignity: Where Do We Stand? by Stephanie N. Arel


On Wednesday, March 22, I had the pleasure to speak at a conference on law, economics, and religion hosted jointly by Georgetown University Law Center and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Entitled “The Moral Economy,” the conference provided rich learning from an accomplished cast of rabbis, attorneys, and judges, including Pardes faculty members and alumni.

I presented with Dr. Jenny Labendz of the Solomon Schechter Day School and Dr. Deborah Barer of Towson University in a panel entitled, “Death penalty, human dignity and ethics: Retribution and an eye for an eye?” We engaged in a fascinating discussion that covered Rabbinic and Talmudic Law alongside the Gospel of Matthew, the Beatitudes, and Catholic Social Thought. I felt privileged and honored to learn from them in an interreligious exchange.

The topic of our session though proved pressing. Amidst news reports that Arkansas is “turning its death penalty into an assembly line” – the state currently prepares to execute eight men in over 10 days in April – we queried together, “What is at stake for the prisoner and those implicated or involved in the death penalty process both on moral and economic grounds?” Continue reading “The Death Penalty and Human Dignity: Where Do We Stand? by Stephanie N. Arel”

Reflections on Trauma, Part II: YOLOCAUST by Stephanie N. Arel

stephanie-arelIn light of the recent attacks on Jewish cemeteries —the desecration of Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia and the toppling of more than 150 gravestones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in Missouri — along with my reminiscing that a year ago today (March 1 as I am writing) I was en route to Jerusalem to work with a group of scholars for the Intercontinental Academia on Human Dignity, I wanted to once again confront trauma (building on Part I of this topic). In this case, I consider trauma as an affront to the dignity of ALL bodies and their memories, while simultaneously questioning how those who have not experienced trauma develop respect for its proximity – in individual lives, in sacred spaces, and in memorials.

The desecration of memory alive in the space of the cemetery presses me to repeat what I have said before: that the violation of bodies lies at the heart of traumas caused by human design — even if those bodies are inhumed. Continue reading “Reflections on Trauma, Part II: YOLOCAUST by Stephanie N. Arel”

Reflections on Trauma, Part I: Pink Pussyhats by Stephanie N. Arel

stephanie-arelI have been thinking frequently about trauma, about what perpetuates suffering and what supports the arduous journey of transforming traumatic experiences, especially in the aftermath of traumas of human design. The violation of bodies lies at the heart of such traumas. Thus, how we practice behaviors that refuse to denigrate bodies are critical and necessary to alleviating suffering and promoting the body’s dignity.

This idea of restoring the body’s dignity after trauma is magnified by the reality that trauma remains, stored in our bodies as a residual reminder of the traumatic event (s). Bessel van der Kolk reminds us, “The body keeps the score.” Continue reading “Reflections on Trauma, Part I: Pink Pussyhats by Stephanie N. Arel”

Trump: Shock, Awe, and Response by Stephanie Arel

stephanie-arelIn the frenzied wave of responses to Trump’s most recent, and horrifying, decisions – reinstating the Mexico City Policy and the newly instated Immigration Ban –  I have experienced surges of anger, frustration, despair, concern, and hopelessness. My adrenaline has rushed – both as a result of notifications from the New York Times buzzing on my Apple watch and as a consequence of stepping off a train to find myself in the heart of a protest I failed to know was happening, but for which I also felt pride.

But to be honest, and many of my women friends have echoed a similar sentiment, Trump’s outrageous choices likely mark the beginning of four long years, and my body cannot handle the seesaw of emotions. What compounds this reflection is the raw truth that we are only at the beginning. We are just over the threshold. What will come next?

This question has validity. Serious validity. Continue reading “Trump: Shock, Awe, and Response by Stephanie Arel”

In Memoriam: Katelyn Nicole Davis by Stephanie Arel

On December 30, 2016, Katelyn Nicole Davis, a 12-year-old girl from Cedartown, Georgia filmed her suicide by hanging from a tree in her front yard. Recorded live, the video has gone viral. Alarmingly, a young girl’s succumbing to death logged on the Internet clamors recognition of an existence she felt helpless to bear alone. Reported in her blog, abuse and sexual assault tainted her young existence. As a result, her perception of her own isolation, her articulated sense of worthlessness, and her shame motivated a trajectory toward death, demonstrating what is at stake when these crimes go unrecognized.

Much effort has been made to remove Katelyn’s suicide video from on-line circulation, but the electronic footprint she left on cyber-world proves nearly impossible to erase. The recording corroborates experiences detailed in her hauntingly designated blog “Diary of a Broken Doll.” Suggesting the core of how she understood her place in the world, the chilling description of her self as a broken body employed as a toy echoes a life framed by abuse and sexual assault.

Hoping for connection and healing, Katelyn reached out for and found witnesses, but they failed to attend to her wounds. The platform on which she chose to make human bonds established an inviolable boundary where Katelyn became an identifiable sufferer who could not be saved. The result was a plunge into shame that left a child unable to find value in her life or in herself. The shame, initiated by abuse, perpetuated itself and led to her death. Continue reading “In Memoriam: Katelyn Nicole Davis by Stephanie Arel”

Facing the Shame that Lingers: A. Denise Starkey and Michelle Obama Lead the Way by Stephanie Arel

stephanie-arelIn March of 2011, at a symposium on trauma, healing, and spirituality in Belfast, Ireland, I spoke about shame in the context of war, addressing the experiences of women survivors of rape during the Rwandan genocide, US soldiers returning from war with PTSD symptoms, and cultures, such as those in Belfast and Bosnia, steeped in war and violence. While discussing how theology has a responsibility to examine how the church talks about shame, guilt, and sin to help survivors of war trauma heal, I recognized A. Denise Starkey in the audience, a woman whose work was instrumental in the crafting of my own. Her book, The Shame that Lingers: A Survivor-Centered Critique of Catholic Sin Talk, published two years prior, provided a critical backdrop for my presentation, and would be foundational to my dissertation and subsequent book: Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation.

Five years later, Starkey and I had a chance to meet and exchange stories about what inspired our writing about shame. I acknowledged her influence on my own work, and we discussed our current personal and professional commitments to continuing critical conversations we raise in our texts.  Continue reading “Facing the Shame that Lingers: A. Denise Starkey and Michelle Obama Lead the Way by Stephanie Arel”

Traumatic Narrative on the Screen: Is there a Grey Area? by Stephanie Arel

Arel - AAUW HeadshotOn May 8, Fifty Shades of Grey became available in DVD format. Marking its release, this post reflects on the mass consumer consumption of this provocative film and the abuse inherent in its script previously discussed here by Michele Stopera Freyhauf. Grossing $500 million dollars at the box office, Fifty Shades will most certainly sell as an unedited DVD. While some self-proclaimed feminists like Emilie Spiegel commend the story, feminists and conservatives slam it, often pressing viewers to reject the film and deny it financial support. Nonetheless, The Fifty Shade of Grey franchise will most probably have a sequel in 2016, continuing to amass hundreds of millions of dollars.

Concerns about the book and film include how the storyline presents a romantic ideal for women wrapped surreptitiously in abuse. Peering deeper at the narrative reveals the potential for conflicted emotional responses including feelings of guilt and shame, revulsion and interest, disgust and seduction. Confronted with the writing of this post, I responded in turn, torn between whether to watch the film or not. While wanting to deny the franchise any monetary gain, I also wanted to both know what I was rejecting and what, if any, value existed in viewing. Continue reading “Traumatic Narrative on the Screen: Is there a Grey Area? by Stephanie Arel”

%d bloggers like this: