Friday, October 5, 2012

Inescapable. Inescapably Painful.

some further thoughts on John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress

            I'm pretty sure I shouldn't assume people have read The Pilgrim's Progress, so here's a crash course.
            First of all, it's an allegory, so everyone has names like "Hopeful," "Ignorant," "Great-Heart," and my favorite, "the Giant Despair."
            Secondly, Bunyan was what would then have been called a non-conformist and what we would probably oversimplify a little as a Puritan.  I could take issue with that label, but I won't here.  It is significant that he was what we would definitely consider a conservative, both morally and theologically.  In other words, he not only adhered to a strict moral code (he is reported to have repented of a life which was, ahem, morally reprehensible as a result of his sins of profanity, dancing, and, of course, bell-ringing), but he also adhered to what I might call doctrinalism.  That is, the idea that what you believe — the specifics of what you believe, the specific list of things you believe to be true — was in fact what determined your spiritual fate.
            Thirdly, it's written in two parts, and this is where it started to get interesting to me.
            In the first half, we meet a man who takes the name Christian when he begins his journey.  Christian has become convinced that he needs to leave the world of sin, repent, be forgiven, and make it to the Celestial City.  He sets out.  Along the way, he encounters all sorts of obstacles and helpers, temptations and raptures.  After many tears, much soul-searching, and many debates with pilgrims along the way, he does in fact make it to the Celestial City.
           But then there's a whole second half I knew nothing about.  In the second half of the book, his wife (whom he left behind in the first part) repents of her hard-heartedness and sets out to follow in his footsteps.  She takes with her their four sons and a young woman joins her named Mercy.  Christiana (Christian's wife) and Mercy and the boys also meet many obstacles, helpers, temptations, and raptures, and they also make it to the Celestial City.
            What I discovered in going over my notes on The Pilgrim's Progress intrigued me.  At first I thought it was just an impression I got, and that looking at the details of the book would prove me wrong.  (How often do I form theories about books only to discover that the actual book doesn't support my theories at all?)  But then I went over it in much greater detail and discovered something interesting.
            Both Christian and Christiana are evangelizers.  That is, as they go on their respective pilgrimages, they draw other people into their pilgrimage.  But there are also people they meet along the way who either try to mislead them - try to send them off the correct path - and still others who think that they're pretty much doing okay, but are shown to be so off base that they really have no hope of ever seeing the Celestial City.  These latter folks are those I would say are turned off by a person remaining entirely, uncompromisingly true to their calling.
            So we'll say we have two groups of people:  those who join up, and those who don't, with those who don't falling into that category for a couple of different reasons.
            What I found so interesting in comparing the pilgrimages of Christian and Christiana is that the numbers are wildly different.
            Even taking into account people who fall into gray areas, I count thirteen people who turn away from Christian as a result of his steadfast and uncompromising faith.  Number he gathers to him?  Two.
            On Christiana's pilgrimage, there are two people who can be said to be turned away.  There are many to try to turn her and her group away, but none succeed.  (None succeed with Christian, either, of course.)  And the number she gathers to her?  Well, I'm going to count her kids, because they do actually seem to have a choice at the beginning.  And the final number is technically unknown because along the way all four sons marry and start procreating, so there is an unknown number of children involved.  But let's just keep them out of it, and we have fifteen people who join Christiana on her pilgrimage.
            I can't seem to form a consistent response to this.  On the one hand, my modern side reads this as blatant gender stereotyping.  Bunyan's male is strong, an individual who needs no one to support him or his beliefs.  He fights hand-to-hand combat with the Devil himself, and conquers all his own weaknesses.  Whereas Bunyan's female needs help.  A man called Great-heart must escort her the entire way because she is too weak to stand up to the problems along the way; but she graciously makes up for her physical weakness by carrying on with the time-honored role of social organizer, and social propagator.
            But then the church-going, realistic side of me reads some truth in this difference between how men and women often express their spirituality.  I find it amusing to strike up conversations about science or religion or whatever prickly topic I can think of, with my atheist couple friends.  Within minutes the men are as explosively religious in their atheism as a Huguenot, while their wives (who are probably the more convinced atheists anyway), roll their eyes and finally sigh, "Just drink your wine and be nice, okay honey?"  And at church, yeah; the women make 99% of what happens socially in a church, happen.
            And then on my third hand (yes, my third hand), I think about the daughter of a friend who's struggling hard with wanting to be a boy because she hates all of the stereotypes that practical (and sexually typical) people like me are happy to keep in place.
            And this gets back to who is ultimately responsible:  me.  I am happy to keep these norms in place, on some level at least.  I find it helpful, not to mention poetic, to think of the world in masculine and feminine.  Most of us think we can say certain things about "the way men typically are," and "the way women typically are."
            I never wanted to get rid of that until my little seven-year-old friend wanted to shave her head and wear boys' clothes and go by a boy's name and be called  "him."  And it absolutely breaks my heart, because when her mom and I talk about it, we just keep turning over more and more reasons it's really tough and lame to be a girl, and that the best I could offer is that it gets better someday.  Assuming you make it through the bitchy bullying and rejection by your peers (a thousand times worse than getting your ass kicked), and the anorexia, and the cutting, and the expectations that you will always and forever be pretty and sweet and not too, too smart.
            The only conclusion I am left with, especially in light of that last list of pains of being a female human creature, is that gendering seems to be inescapable, and inescapably painful.  Many, many women don't hit up against these particular pains of being a woman as hard as some.  Others hit up against even more brutal consequences of sex and gender.  But even my friends who seem to have gotten off easy are...confined.  We are all confined.  Men, women, and even those brave souls who really try to subvert the norms and move away from gender altogether.  They are confined by how the majority of their peers will respond to them, even if it's with a benign bewilderment.
            Which is all to say, I can't decide who I want my hero to be:  Christian or Christiana?  Maybe I can find another option.  Or maybe not.  Sometimes, I'm afraid, there doesn't seem to be a third option.

1 comment:

  1. Is the message that Christiana is frail because she's a woman? (Not too surprising in the 17th century, or in most centuries.) Or is it that, in the work of evangelism, she gets most the results and none of the credit? (Wish I had a nickel for every time THAT happened.)

    Gender roles are so confused by the history behind them. Was it easier in earlier centuries, because women and men had (it seemed) no choice but to go along with the prescribed roles? Or is it easier now, with (at least, comparatively speaking) more freedom? Does more choice make things easier or harder? I guess that's what I'm saying.

    I know of so many women who have struggled with this, but men struggle, too, if they're thoughtful enough. There is much joy in embracing womanhood or manhood, but in order to do that (with another person in a relationship, anyway, and I have only experienced heterosexual relationships), there has to be a real foundation of respect, so that a woman being unabashedly a woman does not feel oppressed, and a man being unabashedly a man does not feel like an oppressor.

    I grew up with two sisters and no brothers, though I petitioned my mother often to remedy this for me. (I wanted her to bear me an OLDER brother. I don't know why she wouldn't oblige.) But I heard my sisters come home upset so many times by some creepy guy who had gotten into their faces, that I really had no desire to be assertive with girls. Besides, I was shy anyway.

    But the important point is that I was well into adulthood before I was able to give myself permission to embrace masculinity without confusing that with macho creep-ness.

    It's almost as if people of all genders need a private space to be their true selves. Sometimes that can happen in the best of relationships. It would be wonderful if we could also find this space more easily just with ourselves.