“I would be just devastated.”

It’s a word I’m not allowed to use, I think. You hit a point where too many bad things have happened to you in too short a period of time, and you suddenly have no time to be devastated because you’re pretty busy working until 7pm for someone else’s startup and getting up at 5am for your minimum wage, “regular” job. When you’re that busy trying to stay alive, you lose your right to be devastated.

Devastation is a luxurious grief. I think it probably involves flopping on the floor and sobbing loudly without regard to time or place or obligations.

I did that once. It was 3am. I put down the phone, and I covered my face with a pillow and soaked it as much as I could because I didn’t have a punching bag or a basement where I could go play rock music loudly. I cried until I got a headache, and then I tried to sleep because I had to be at work early the next morning and I knew I was going to have to fight icy roads on the way to work, but I couldn’t sleep because my pillow was wet and my head was exploding and my eyes wouldn’t make tears anymore but I couldn’t stop crying. And I was aware of my adult self as she kept checking the clock.

When I hear the word devastated, I think of Meryl Streep on the screen, tossing her hair in the sunlight with a big old empty house behind her as she whisks herself away to nurse a wine bottle and purse her lips before sinking into a bubble bath.

When I hear the word devastated, I think of Roxane over Christian’s body, damning death’s approach because, fuck it, she was going to have her cry on the battle fied. I think of her mourning dress in the morning light, the black lace whispering over the grass.

Life, put on pause. That is devastation.

I used to get really flushed and tight in my chest when I’d come back to campus after fall break and walk to chapel and see packs of girls with gleaming skin and freshwater pearl studs and snappy headbands, wearing smooth, fitted North Face jackets. Aghast at my lack of conversationable ideas when I bumped into one in line, I’d compliment the jacket, and she’d flash me a white-toothed smile and tell me how her dad takes her out to get a new fall wardrobe every year during break, and isn’t this just the nicest jacket? I’d agree warmly, and then I’d poke my fingers through the lining of my pockets and finger the length of the frayed edge and wonder if my parents even knew what my coat was like.

Sometimes I feel guilty for taking time alone so intensely. It’s not productive, I can’t answer any of my own questions, and I should be applying for more jobs, since I’m broke as shit. So when I walk to my car after work, I call a friend so I don’t miss the beauty of those five blocks over worrying that I parked in the wrong zone in my hurry to make it to work on time. I talk about writing ideas and boys, telling her how I’m craving hot mozzarella cheese sticks and worried about my little sister, and I try not to count out the impact of a $73 parking ticket on my week’s budget. I watch the light while I listen to her tell me about the first time she felt her baby hiccup inside her. I impress on my memory the glint of the sea between the houses when her husband interrupts us to tell her how he thinks she’s so sexy. I try to imagine what I would feel if I were in their town again, fighting 16” of snow and cursing the ice on my car in the mornings.

Devastation is a mindset that is incompatible with perceived scarcity, I think. It’s loss, but it’s loss to those unaccustomed to the sensation. I wonder sometimes how much bigger, louder, freer, and more me I could be if I didn’t have starvation mentality strangling my brain every second of the day. I trace the sunbeams and feel small, but it’s not new to feel small. When the world steps a bit closer and the rain whispers on the pavement, I feel large and I contain multitudes.

Is my aversion to accepting grand gestures of nature or grief or familial affection and accidental plenty a form of emotional ADHD? Am I afraid of having enough, because then I might lose my excuses for why I’m not yet flexing my full strength?

I don’t want to be devastated. I need to build an addition in my brain for the positive descriptors–they’re all bunking together in the back room while fear and shame play bachelor penthouse in my kitchen. I think I want to invite whole over for coffee. I want to make abundance my godmother. I want to be baptised with tranquility.

But I’m just not sure how to go about it yet, and I have to be up at 5am for work. Maybe I’ll whisper curses at the sunrise. Or maybe I’ll play Beyoncé.


Indulge me, for a moment or two? I’m going to be the cantankerous language nerd here for a bit.

This post has been written many times before by people smarter than me.

But I still hear [straight, white] people telling me that they like the stuff I write and talk about, but they’re not feminists because they don’t like that the word suggests a women-centered focus. What about the men, if it’s about equal rights?

This is a really frustrating conversation for me, because it’s based on an assumption which is an exception to their normal approach to words.

We don’t pick the way words originate, usually. They come into use. And they mean things and have certain connotations, and we develop a cultural awareness of what those words mean to us, to our parents, to our peers, to church people, to “secular” people, to our kids and younger siblings.

And they change, shifting, slipping, taking on new meanings of less or greater potency as time passes.

I wish everyone would bother to read Derrida and not be afraid of him. Words mean things! Yes. But words also shift and undermine themselves as new meanings unravel the old ones as time passes.

Most people hate the word moist, but it is a Useful Word That Means Something Specific, even if we don’t like how it sounds.

My mom used to get twitchy and a little upset because I’d say things like I’m screwed, or I screwed that up in a lighthearted, oops! sort of way. She didn’t like that because when she was growing up, it had the same connotations as fuck does for my generation. My generation knows that screwed had that meaning, but it’s not used in THAT way anymore, unless you’re a little out of date and happy with that.

This is elementary cultural language awareness, folks. We adapt to new meanings of words. We adopt language as it morphs. We can be a little cantankerous about “LOL” getting into the OED, but we also know that it serves a purpose and it’s relevant, and accept it on its own terms. Oh well, lowbrow language. But it works, so, in it goes.

So why are all these people (mostly, but not all, men) afraid of using the word “feminist”?

I’d argue that pretty much everyone I know, aside from some true, die-hard reconstructionist patriarchs, is a feminist.

I have to admit, the weird insecurity I see about a word that appears, root-wise, to be focused on women is fascinating. Do these men have any idea how we women felt growing up with regard to words like “mankind” and “men” being the gender neutral dominant terms for people? If I can accept the use of these “male” words as being gender neutral terms for all people, why can’t they deal with “feminist” as a way to identify themselves as someone who

Advocates for the social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men. [Dictionary.com]

or

 Believes in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes. [Merriam-Webster]

Do you think that men and women should be treated equally to men in society, by the law, in the workplace? [Notice how religion and the church isn’t mentioned! Complementarians, you’re not off the hook!]

Then you’re a feminist.

And please stop fussing about how the word seems gendered or how it suggests men-hating second-wave feminists. We don’t like the privilege and insensitivity of that phase of feminist rhetoric, either. But the word is still relevant and the meaning has changed. It’s not all about women, and your complaint that it is sounds just as ridiculous as a woman complaining that the word history is male-centric. Please. It means more than that now.

Words shift. Deal with it.


I have this theory, influenced by my senior seminar spent immersed in Derrida and my personal observations of trends in the conservative Christian bubble, that I think I’d like to pursue for graduate work.

The problem is that I haven’t the first clue about what field this would fall into or where I could go to find a department supportive of me pursuing this idea academically. Care to help?

Earlier this week I mentioned that I think having the vocabulary to name your problem is the first step to being able to confront it. The reason I think this is closely connected to what I’ve observed…

In “cult”-like churches (here loosely defined as churches with isolated/insulated and somewhat controlling internal social culture, using fear and shame to manipulate members into continued acquiescence and support of the leader, group, or “movement.there’s usually a distinct vocabulary that is used within the “cult” (I’m going to use that from here on out, but don’t get upset. That’s just me using the term broadly because it’s handy.) which the members understand instinctually, but the loaded connotations of these terms don’t make sense to outsiders OR don’t register with outsiders as loaded terms.

Let me give an example. In Sovereign Grace Ministries, longtime members are humorously self-aware that their lingo doesn’t make a ton of sense to outsiders (CLC’s 25th anniversary celebration pageant included a sketch where two members were talking with a non-member and hilarious confusion ensued due to the terminology). The unchurched have a certain confused reaction to phrases like “I just want to purpose to” and “don’t want to cause anyone to stumble” and “I just want to be a blessing here,” etc.

But, within the evangelical world, these terms tend to translate all right. Where it gets weird is that the “reformed big dogs” (a term used to loosely refer to the celebrity pastors/leaders of the new reformed movement in America, such as John Piper, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, etc., and those at the Gospel Coalition and Together For The Gospel.) hear someone like CJ Mahaney saying something like “I’m going to purpose to humble myself and make myself transparent and accountable to xyz men in my church/church leaders elsewhere” and they think “Oh! He’s going to listen and ask for advice and is willing to change and receive feedback and fix the problems in SGM. We should assume the best.” But what CJ [functionally, maybe not deliberately] means by saying that is more like: “I’m going to meet with likeminded people who will tell me I’m okay and we’ll talk these issues through and when we come out on the same page we can continue business as usual because I’ve been open to talking about it [humble] and gotten outside input [accountable].”

The language is loaded and the mistranslation perpetuates unconscionable defenses of bad behavior on the part of leaders like CJ because it’s easy to assume the best when he’s saying things that in your interpretation mean he’s genuinely repenting and willing to change.

That’s how this works on the leader-on-the-inside talking to leaders-on-the-outside level. But where it’s most troubling is how it works internally, how this affects the cult members who are fish unaware of the linguistic water in which they swim.

On the internal level, once you’ve been in one of these churches for a while, you start to adapt to the vocabulary, and the loaded meanings of the cult’s use of certain common churchy words start replacing the original meanings. The words slip and slide from loaded Christianese to be weighted with new meanings, usually marked by elements of shame and guilt as the impetus for the new meanings.

Example: “unteachability” in the normal world means: “someone who is obnoxiously full of themselves and can’t take criticism or follow rules.” In the mainstream evangelical church, it means that plus “someone who will hurt others with this attitude and probably should work on humility and learn how to listen better because that’s Christ-like.” In Sovereign Grace Ministries, it means “someone who has concerns about how things operate and asked uncomfortable questions/has uncomfortable observations about leadership and their habits and won’t accept the standard answers to their questions at face value and is looking for more honesty than we’re comfortable with.” Whether or not this person has an edge to their attitude or has a vendetta motivating their questions, once you’re labelled as “unteachable,” you’re perpetually on a short leash in SGM and asking why they won’t answer or why they don’t trust you anymore will prove your unteachability further and perpetuate your status as out of favor with the leadership.

The thing is, this is not just SGM that does this. It happens in little Presbyterian churches turning into cults by not reporting honestly to their session. It happens to home churches, to Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches. It happens in Bill Gothard’s program members, it happens in home school groups, it happens in Vision Forum, it happens in Calvary Chapels, it happens in essentially any church or church-like group that isn’t mixing with those different from themselves or are deliberately engaging in self-protective isolation.

This is why the Westboro Baptist Church is so impenetrable with their positions — they don’t need to protect themselves from people trying to persuade them they’re wrong. Their internal cult dialect does that for them. Without a translation, they’re safe from being convinced that they’re wrong.

I call the psychological effect of this loaded language on members a “stop-think trigger” (I need a better term — is there a real term in academic use for this?), where a cult member’s normal reasoning function shortcuts itself when one of these loaded terms is used, and they don’t follow through the process of thinking an idea through from A to Z, and end up in an irrational and emotionally harmful place because they accepted a phrase on the terms set for it by the cult’s use of it, and the phrase surrenders its original meaning or vitality to the new meaning.

And that, this ability of church leaders to use psychological manipulation by defining the dialectic of a church or group to control the social and emotional habits and atmosphere of a church, is what I want to study for grad school. [I think.] Why does it work? How does it work? How is it connected to “brainwashing” or “Stockholm Syndrome”? What does it mean for someone to get out of a cult and how does the language affect that process and what is the psychological fallout and why is it so similar to PTSD?

So, questions.

1) Talk to me about my theory. What do you think?

2) What discipline would best support pursuing this academically? Sociology? Linguistics? Psychology? Philosophy? 

3) Has this been done before? What schools have programs/professors that would support this best? Should I look for a Christian institution or a “secular” one?