Growing up conservative Christian, emotions were bad. Well, maybe never said to be out and out bad, but they were lesser, they were of the flesh, they were not to be trusted. We were to find ways to control them, bring them in line, make them submit to our will that was submitted to God’s will.
I was good at this. This was perfect for both abuser and abuse victim alike. How easy to hit or fuck a kid who doesn’t feel. How easy to empty yourself of emotions and not have to deal with the complicated and scary understanding and feelings that someone who is supposed to love you is treating you like this. Because you’re in the wrong if you “let” the abuse hurt you. You can choose to love your abusers, to smile through the pain, to do the righteous thing and forgive. It’s all just a matter of choice, of making yourself. What you feel should never have any bearing on the right or wrong of that choice, on whether you should or shouldn’t.
Take the lessons on love. I was told that there was no such thing as falling out of love; that was a belief of people who only listened to their flesh. Love is a choice. Just wake up every day and choose to love, and there you go. No divorce, just marriage happily ever after because you understand that love is a choice. Because feelings are a choice.
This is where I think the “choice” of sexuality that conservative Christians often emphasize is misunderstood by people who don’t understand these ideas of emotions-as-choice. Because from what I was raised to believe, it didn’t matter that you couldn’t change how you felt, you could still bring you emotions under your will. When my mother had a concerned conversation with me at fourteen because I didn’t express proper levels of interest in boys, it wasn’t because she thought I felt wrong things. It was because she thought I wasn’t making the right emotional choices. “You do like boys though, really, right?” she said to me. “You want to marry one one day, right?” And I said yes, and gave some unemotional “mature” response of “focusing on other things” that I’ve given every time I’ve gotten that question all my life. According to my mother, I don’t have a sexuality, or sexual feelings at all, since I’m not in a relationship. Those things are choices of feeling that only exist in a relationship.
So from what I was taught, you can make yourself straight, because you can choose to love anyone. It doesn’t matter what you feel, or whether you can change that. Your love is a choice. It doesn’t matter what you feel, you can choose what you feel.
And that’s where this breaks down and stops making sense to me. Because what is love, if it’s separated from feeling? Hearing all the “forgiveness is a choice, it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel forgiving you can choose to let go of your anger and bitterness” except that that is an emotion. Or at least an emotional process. And I wonder if perhaps the power of the Christian rhetoric lies in the contradiction of “it doesn’t matter what you feel, you can choose what you feel.”
Because you know what this really did to me, and what I think it doesn’t to others? It doesn’t make you in control of your emotions, or change what you feel. It makes you incredibly good at self-deception. You become so hung up on making sure that you feel the right things, regardless of what you actually feel, that as long as you’re calling it by the right names, and it looks like you’re doing the right things, it doesn’t matter what you actually feel or whether your actions are manipulative or passive aggressively motivated by hate-called-love.
I was a good Christian, so I was the master at self-deception. I did what was asked of me. I’d forgiven my family, I smiled and hugged my brother and father. I could never bring myself to love my father, so when my mother sat me down and told me how wrong it was that I didn’t tell him I loved him, and I could just make the choice to love him, I told her, “fine, I will tell him I love him every time he calls if you take the guilt and responsibility for the lie.”
But even after that, I convinced myself that yes, I loved him, even though I choked out the words. I convinced myself I was healed, and perfectly fine, and happy, and content, and that all I wanted out of life was to grow up and be the wife to some Christian man and have lots of children. That the idea filled me with such sickening dread didn’t matter, I’d made the emotional choice. That all the crushes I had felt exactly the same as the terrifying feelings I felt toward my father and brother didn’t matter, that was totally attraction, not fear. (I shoved down the terrifying idea that I was sexually attracted to my father and brother as hard as I could.)
My best friend when I was a Christian once snuggled against me – a platonic gesture she does with all her friends – and I immediately stiffened and scooted away, citing my dislike of touch when she complained. But in truth, my first thought had been, “In all the times a boy I’d liked had brushed against me/touched me, it had never felt like that.” But then, my good Christian training kicked in, and the logical in-control-of-emotions said, “No, no, silly Toranse, you’re just always afraid. How often are you afraid you’re attracted to women? A lot, right? Not because there’s a chance you are, but because you’re just always afraid you’re every sinful thing. That was fear you felt just then.” And then I was okay. I had convinced myself fear was attraction, and attraction was fear, and that’s how I navigated my emotions.
And see, by conservative Christian standards, that was good. That was me being in charge of my emotions. That was making a choice, regardless of feelings, in action. I was above my feelings, my will was greater, and I was entirely and completely disconnected from letting them influence any decision I made, anything about myself.
That everyone saw me as happy and content was the proof of this. That I saw myself as happy and content proved it to. I was terrified, death-wishing, in pain, lonely, hurt, and so disconnected from myself and body that I saw those things as how you feel when you are happy and content. But that’s what self-deception does, that’s what making the choice of emotions did – it twisted my understanding of what emotions are and made me able to assert lies as truth because I believed them.
People who knew me back then knew me as “the logical one.” The biting one, the sarcastic one, the one who didn’t give a damn about whatever pathetic feelings you had that clouded your decisions. I had no sympathy for myself and no sympathy for anyone, and the more I was like that, the more approval I got for being a “strong Christian.” You know those dudebro white guys who play “devil’s advocate” and think that they’re so brilliant because their privilege gives them no personal stake in anything so they think they’re just above all your emotions? That was me. I was self-righteous and above the world and their petty emotions. You fuck something up in your life? Well that’s your problem, you person who let their emotions – and therefore sin – run their life. And then I would get all the praise for what a wise, strong Christian I was as a teenager.
So when I was told to forgive, I forgave. When I was told to love and honor my family, I did. When I was told to express proper interest in boys, I did. When my mother told me I was being rude for being upset and that I was required to be happy for others, I spent all my time with a smile on my face and a cheerful voice. When I was told my girlness was “debatable” by friend’s boyfriend, I molded myself into proper feminine girl. That I eventually was starving myself just to numb my feelings so I could be these things didn’t matter. I wanted to be a good Christian, and a good Christian was someone who didn’t let things like their flesh and emotion dictate their belief, actions, and faith.
Conservative Christianity needs it to be this way. Its dependence on capital T Truth says “don’t let your feelings dictate the Bible, let the Bible dictate how you feel.” Conservative Christianity needs their beliefs broken off from emotion, because if they aren’t, then you get into the murky waters of morality. Then life stops being simple absolutes. Then people start questioning. Once you’ve repressed and ignored your emotions, and have been taught that they are unimportant, it becomes very easy to accept whatever people in authority tell you. Because they’re right, and if your feelings tell you otherwise, you’re wrong.
In writing this, I thought of a time I was relating some memory to my platonic soulmate – something my father did, that in any other family probably would be meaningless. “But it didn’t feel right,” I told her. And my platonic soulmate said, “Then it probably wasn’t.”
And it’s something so simple – something that outside of conservative Christian contexts children are taught to pay attention to about themselves, (if something doesn’t feel right, tell someone) that I wonder if this plays into the numerous ways that conservative Christianity enables abuse. Like I said at the beginning, how perfect for abuser and abuse victim alike. No complicated emotions. And without the emotions, when you teach a child that what they feel doesn’t matter, well then, whatever happens to them is okay. “Honor your father and mother” is the Truth that comes before “this hurts” the sinful emotion.
But what is “Truth” when it makes you lie to yourself? I can see the end result of this in my mother. She is almost always perfectly in control of her emotions. She has forgiven my father, she is healed from her childhood, she is everything conservative Christianity says a person should be in their emotions. And she is manipulative, passive aggressive, capable of slanted insults and cruelty. But as long as she’s not bitter, as long as she keeps the scariness of abuse under a wide smile, everyone believes in her healing. But she is the master at looking the other way, and lying to herself about who she is, and about who her children are. She believes she has “Truth” but she could lie through her teeth and the scariness of that lie is in her not even knowing it. How can self-deception ever make anyone honest? And if you’re capable of lying to yourself, how do you know that anything you believe is really true? How do you know if it’s just not more self-deception?
And this is why I can’t get behind “emotions are a choice you can choose what you feel” lines of reasoning anymore. Not as a way of healthily managing your emotions, not as any kind of honest way of living your life. When I hear the words “love is a choice” or most especially, since it seems most frequent, “forgiveness is a choice, choose to forgive” what I hear is “dishonest your feelings away.” Lie to yourself. What I hear is that who I am, and what I feel, is of so little importance and value that the only thing that matters is that I express proper behavior and feelings for everyone else, regardless what it does to me. I refuse to live like that anymore.