Monday, June 28, 2021

Can't Handle This

I had a conversation this week with someone who couldn't, wouldn't, refused to understand the experiences of people who grew up in purity culture, that uniquely evangelical brand of what sex, relationships, and modesty is supposed to be about (the short version is abstinence is best, anything short of that is sinful, and you need to be frightened all the time by your own bodily urges).

More and more people are opening up with their stories related to this. Books upon books have been written with these stories and experiences as their inspiration.

This person didn't even want to comprehend the stories of those who'd been so damaged and traumatized by that culture, that anyone who tried was met from her with a callous, "Everybody has trauma." 

It's the in thing right now to be anti-empathetic. People have been given permission to be so since around 2015. Who wants to hear the struggles of another when it's far easier to dismiss people's experiences of racial, heterosexist, and other forms of discrimination and injury with something like "everybody has trauma?"

One person's opinion and another person's experience are not equal. The former is something you cling to in order to try to make sense of the world, the latter is an actual lived-in result that now can be processed and shared so that the former has a little less permission to be based on artifice and theory. 

I've really been into Bo Burnham's work lately. He's a comedian, performer, and actor whose most recent Netflix special could arguably be called a transcendent work of art. I've written recently about how much I've been thinking about that special; how much it has resonated with me and so many others. His combining of social commentary and his own struggles into this musical tour de force is gut-wrenching and demands a slow and careful digestion of what he really wants to communicate. 

The special before that, Make Happy, ends with a song called "Can't Handle This." After an extended exploration of his frustration of Pringle cans being too small and Chipotle burritos being too stuffed to hold together, he works in what's really on his mind:

To give you what he cannot give himself" 

One could easily see this as the precursor for his five-year break from live performances, as well as draw a direct line from this final song to everything he sings about on Inside

Here he shares his struggles with trying to please and entertain people--to give them what they want even if it's at the expense of his own health. He loves and needs his audience, but he also hates and fears them because he both relies upon them and is also sacrificing something of himself based upon that reliance. And he finally admits that he can't handle it any more. And that's probably why he stays home for five years, because the toll is too great. 

It might be easy to look at this famous performer and dismiss his expressions and experiences of mental health with the same dismissive wave of the hand as those who hear about the pain that purity culture has caused. One may ask how hard they really have it, because others have it just as bad, if not worse. Maybe you can't handle it, but hey, "everybody has trauma." 

The other day I began opening up to someone about the burnout that led to my entering a different kind of ministry. I was scared by how honest I was finally ready to be. I held back most of the specifics, but it was one of the first times in over a year when I really started to share my own version, my own song, where I too was singing "I don't think that I can handle this right now."

Sometimes the combination of reliance and self-sacrifice becomes too great and the emotional and spiritual toll too comprehensive, and you need to walk off stage for the good of your own health. Too much giving others what one cannot give oneself eventually leads to a fork in the road, and there's only one path that heals.

"Everybody has trauma," some will say. But the experience is still more real than the opinion. 

I wish more could understand that.