Advent, the Inauguration, and the False Doctrine of Learned Helplessness

Advent, the Inauguration, and the False Doctrine of Learned Helplessness

As I write this I am angry. For good reason. You see, it’s taken me several weeks to write this public post, and that’s because of the way I was raised with what I’m calling the false doctrine of learned helplessness. Stay tuned for what that means, and why I’m angry about it, and how I’m working to direct that anger into healthy channels. Specifically I’ll be talking about how much it’s bothered me to admit publicly that I’ve extended my personal Advent season to January 20, 2021 (the US Presidential Inauguration) and the unhealthy forces that held me back from doing so until now—and why it’s important that I overcame them to emerge into the empathetic anger I’m currently feeling, and working to channel that anger in this public forum, hopefully to encourage you to speak up however you can as well.

This is a long one: Thanks for sticking with it to the end!

A Reminder of My Background

Just to remind you, I’ll be talking about this as a pastor’s kid raised in a conservative-leaning branch of a seemingly moderate church who went on to study and teach about stress, trauma, and conflict communication at a university level, using my PhD in Communication as my lens to do so.

This mix of experience and expertise has really given me a chance to diagnose when my own and others’ visceral responses aren’t matching what the evidence says are healthy responses. And I work to do what I can to overcome my unhealthy socializations as much as to point them out for others as well. But it’s hard work for all of us, because these toxic systems and beliefs are often insidious in how they cause damage.

The great thing, as I’ve said many times before, is that my standpoint growing up in a slightly right-leaning moderate church has allowed me to see some of the subtle insidious moral disgusts I was raised with have led to the extreme forms of right-wing gaslighting we’ve been seeing these days.

In this article I hope to show you how stubbornly persistent those types of socializations can be at speaking up toward a better world for us all, and how important it is to keep working to overcome them so we can keep on keeping on in this relay race, lest we bow to letting good be called evil and evil good.

My Personal Slushie Mode

So yeah, it was only yesterday or today that I realized my internalized socialized moral disgusts were what was keeping me in, well, not exactly full freeze mode, but slushie mode, away from speaking up assertively about a way I had adapted a spiritual practice to work toward a healthier world for us all. And that makes me angry, which is great, because the anger has helped to melt the icy bits, and as you’ll see, that’s helpful.

The Practice that Was Bothering Me to Talk about Publicly

In short, my internal censors were coming down on me hard for writing a blog piece about how instead of counting down to Christmas with my Advent calendar this year, I’m counting down to the US Presidential Inauguration instead.

And let’s be clear: from a rational, empathetic standpoint, using the Advent calendar this way makes total and complete sense. My friends have been passing around memes pointing out that you can count down to the inauguration using an Advent calendar starting the day after Christmas for good reason.

Why It Makes Sense to Count Down to the Inauguration

Here’s what this practice does for me, as I can well see from my understanding of the research: it reminds me that there is good reason to keep fighting for a healthier world for us all in which we fight policies and rhetoric that hurt people.

A Tiny Swath of the Huge Pile of Evidence for That: Stress Indicators

As research from the American Psychological Association has shown, the stress in this country has been off the charts in the last four years, and this year it’s the worst it’s been since they started measuring. Because of what I study, I know that literally is causing trauma and illness and pain for many people in addition to the mental health struggles outlined in that report.

And let me quick note that the level of stress regarding the future of this country outlined in that report isn’t only about the pandemic (though that is a big part of it)—as you’ll see if you look into the site linked above, valid concerns about the future of our nation have been markedly higher than other concerns in those APA reports ONLY since the 2016 election.

This evidence combined with other research from my communication field and research from other fields as well tells me that what is going on in the political realm is affecting many many lives deeply.

In short, I know with my head and also a good chunk of my heart that it’s not “just rhetoric” or “just policies” that we vote for. To me, when my unhealthy internal socializations aren’t subtly dragging me under, I’m very aware that hoping for better and healthier leaders is a deeply spiritual practice.

I Wasn’t ONLY Socialized into Unhealthy Beliefs

And after all, my socialization was by no means all bad, as cross-disciplinary research in the stress field and elsewhere shows. Verses like “Love does no harm to its neighbor” are deeply consistent with what stress and trauma research shows us about what healthy leadership and communication climates and policies that work as well as possible for people can literally do for the health and well being of a group of people.

And while it’s complex how stress responses work with unhealthy behaviors, it’s really clear based on stress and trauma research how arrogant, corrupt, and exploitive leadership do extreme damage to people’s health and well being.

Counting Down to the Inauguration

Based on the evidence of the APA stress report as well as many other indicators, then, the healthy socializations of my childhood together with my expertise have led me to extend my Advent season to count down toward the at least partial relief the new US administration will bring.

So yeah, from a rational and empathetic standpoint, celebrating a season of hope, of waiting for change, and counting down to THIS inauguration is a no-brainer, really. The voice of reason, from all of my expertise in trauma, knows to my core that the “loving my neighbor as myself” position means rooting hard for this inauguration to happen, and to happen as smoothly and reasonably as possible.

Yes, there will be a HARD slog from there, but isn’t that the point of Advent? After all, isn’t the traditional liturgical season of Epiphany about the start of what is hoped for, which at least in part is tangible relief beginnings of healing, of relief from unnecessary pain and trauma?

Sigh—If Only It Were That Simple

But wait…says the voice in my head, the voice of my right-leaning religious socialization. If you’re counting down to the inauguration with an Advent calendar, doesn’t that mean you’re making Joe Biden into a Messiah of sorts? SURELY IT DOES! HOW DARE YOU????

It is this—this voice—that’s been keeping me in freeze for a few weeks. (Well, that and the grading and other feels that have attended this crazy pandemic online university teaching semester, but those other things are slightly beside the point.)

And that voice is what’s making the rest of me very angry now that I’ve pulled out of freeze.

See, I’ve talked about this voice and its unhealthy moral disgusts before. I’ve talked about this voice and its gaslighting tendencies before. And I’ve talked about this voice and its unhealthily competitive attitude between itself and other holidays, rituals, and enactments before (here).

The Toxic Side of Christian “Nice” Rears Its Ugly Head

This voice is uber unhealthy, in a frustratingly subtle way. It’s insidious, is what it is.

THIS is the voice of the toxic side of Christian nice I’ve talked about in a series starting here. It’s the voice of the “white moderate” the Rev. Dr. King talked about, as I’ve discussed here and here.

Nice’s Disdain for Politics

It’s the voice that tells me that surely it’s not okay for me to use the liturgical calendar to celebrate the type of pain relief, the type of relative return to sanity, that comes with politics.

(Please read the word—politics—with a heavy tone of moral disgust, of disdain, if you really want to read that in the way the voice in my head says it. Thanks much!)

After all, so says the voice in my head, Jesus said specifically that the kingdom of heaven was DIFFERENT from the systems of this world. So therefore, the argument goes, Jesus’ coming must have nothing to do with politics.

(Tell that to the mothers of the babies Herod killed because he saw the baby Jesus as a political threat.)

Nice’s Persuasive Ability to Stop Me From Speaking Out Against Corruption

 And therefore, Christians also must not confuse politics with Christian concepts, the argument continues. In fact, it is WRONG to participate in politics beyond the very basics.

(Tell that to the women who Jesus lifted up from the margins. Tell that to the religious and political leaders Jesus regularly confronted for their injustice. Tell that to Barabbas, the insurrectionist against the Roman government in whose place Jesus literally chose to die.)

Unless, of course, the socialized voice in my head says, you’re trying to keep the country from being too political about the wrong things, or the wrong solutions. THEN, of course, it’s okay to be political. But taking the Advent calendar and waiting for the election of anyone, but especially a Democrat? (Clucks tongue and shakes head. The horrors!)

How This Socialization Keeps Us in Freeze

Practically speaking, this voice and the moral disgusts that come with it, exploit people’s natural stress responses to create a freeze response, keeping them from action in the public realm on behalf of the vulnerable. In short, it creates a kind of learned helplessness when it comes to speaking up against corrupt and exploitative voices.

But What IS Freeze Mode and How Does It Affect Us?

Just to make it clear, the freeze response is a reasonable physiological response to a neurobiological overload of the system. It makes sense that our bodies and brains would try to keep us alive by telling us the best thing we can do is play dead in the face of predators.

Here’s the problem: Sometimes our bodies are misguided about which stress response is actually the best choice for ourselves and others. And the unfortunate thing is that “Christian Nice” tries to keep us in freeze when bullies actually need to be resisted.

Spiritualized Learned Helplessness

Often the political inaction line of thinking ends up to be a spiritualized form of learned helplessness—which ultimately says that because we can’t help everyone, or because the church isn’t meant to help people through certain means, that we might as well stay stuck in our freeze mode.

The tricky part is that people don’t look like they’re in freeze mode. Indeed, these people are standing up and walking around—in fact, privately they may be shaking their heads about how awful it is what this administration is doing—but if people aren’t publicly speaking up through their spheres of influence as much as they can against this kind of thing, the bullies gain a little extra platform. And that extra platform can lead to more harm, unfortunately. 

In short, bullies gain when they convince people that there’s no point—or, in fact, that it’s immoral to speak up publicly against them.

Waking Up from Slushie Mode

So yes, let’s be clear—since I’ve been fighting against my socialized freeze mode for a long time, and especially in this project, I haven’t been in full freeze lately by any means. The work of AS has continued, and I’ve been doing what I can in my classroom, and in my private spheres as well.

Let’s say I’ve been in more of a slushie mode, as it were.

But it’s been awhile since I had the emotional energy to write a new blog post in this space, and I wanted to let all of you know that one of the reasons why was because I was fighting this kind of voice in my head.

I am stronger against such voices than I used to be, but I am not immune to them. I don’t think any of us are, no matter how progressively we were raised. And it’s important to keep fighting them. And it’s really important to know that waking out of these kinds of freeze and slushie mode into empathetic anger is no bad thing. It gives us the energy we need to healthily resist the bullies on behalf of the vulnerable.

Recovering My Freshly Assertive Voice in This Space

So I’m standing here today to say that voice of “Christian Nice” is flat-out wrong. It is harmful.

In the face of corrupt government that is damaging soooo many people, I am here to say it is flat-out unethical and wrong not to hope for the healthy change this inauguration will bring, at least in some measure. And it is important for ALL of us to do whatever we can to make sure that kind of hope is embodied as well as possible.

My Declaration

I’m declaring here that I’ve extended my personal Advent practice to January 20, 2021, and I refuse to feel shame or guilt about about that, because it doesn’t mean I’m treating the new president and his appointees as the f*cking Messiah, as the unhealthy voices from my past would suggest.

In fact, because I know this administration alone can’t save us from the unhealthy actions the millions of radicalized Republicans are likely to cause, I plan to keep speaking up and working against the continuing bullies, now and in the future.  

It means I’m looking for a lessening of unhealthy corruption and government and unhealthy complicit leaders of the same f*cking sort that Jesus and the prophets railed against.

Staring Down the Toxic Practices Associated with Nice

And, last but not least, it means I’m working to wake myself and others from such unhealthy freeze responses that tell us that action on behalf of the least of these is somehow wrong. Those voices that seek to gaslight us into thinking that evil is somehow good and good evil. And tell us that there’s no point in standing up against those who are corrupt.

Refusing to Stay in Freeze Beyond What Is Healthy

I refuse to stay in this spiritualized condition of learned public helplessness with which I was raised.

Of course I can’t do everything—the world IS overwhelming right now, and my sphere of influence only stretches so far.

What I Can Do—What We All Can Do

But it’s there, and I can channel my empathetic anger into helping in the ways that I can help.

It’s a lie of the voice in my head that if I can’t do everything, I must do nothing.

That’s an unhealthy spiritualization of the voice of shame, of fear of vulnerably courageous actions. That is not the spirit of Love. Giving into that voice—the voice of shame—keeps me out of the arena for a time. And while of course that’s going to happen occasionally because I’m human, it’s important for me and all of us to keep fighting those voices of shame because giving into them hurts ourselves and others.

So What Does All of This Mean?

In short, I’m planning to do what I always call all of us to do: do what I can, where I am, with what I’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. Today, these last couple of weeks, that’s involved identifying and speaking up against these socialized spiritualizations of unhealthy stress responses inside myself as well as externally, once again.

Now that that’s done, my voice is cleared so I can continue to work more externally to speak up.

Why Private Spiritual Practice Like My Inauguration Advent Countdown Matter

And you know what?

Continuing to count down privately with my Advent calendar toward the inauguration helped spur me toward breaking out of my semi-freeze mode, and this blog post is part of the outcome of that work.

I am thankful for that. And I’m thankful for this public space to keep myself accountable for speaking the truth as well. Thanks to you who have read this far for being my witnesses to this. I hope all of you have similar ways and witnesses to keep you on track as well, as far as your individual spheres of influence extend.

I encourage you to do whatever work you need to do, inside and out, to keep doing what you can to speak up against the toxic crap, friends. If you need a rest, rest, don’t quit. It’s a relay marathon, and I trust we can all keep on this path if we keep working at it.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing!

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Advent, the Inaugura…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 13 min
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