There are many stories shared online about busybody ward members who pry into people’s private lives, either with good intentions or not. Sometimes these are simply tactless questions about personal matters like the state of one’s marriage or lack thereof, one’s children or lack thereof, or one’s church attendance or lack thereof. In a church of home and visiting teachers, we sure do make it easy for a determined busybody to interrogate others.
I recently read a great article about the types of questions women in particular are often subject to. The author shares an example:
A decade ago, during a conversation that was supposed to be about a book I had written on politics, the British man interviewing me insisted that instead of talking about the products of my mind, we should talk about the fruit of my loins, or the lack thereof. Onstage, he hounded me about why I didn’t have children. No answer I gave could satisfy him. His position seemed to be that I must have children, that it was incomprehensible that I did not, and so we had to talk about why I didn’t, rather than about the books I did have.
The author goes on to talk about the impossibility of answering such inappropriate questions that presume only one correct answer. She goes on to point out that even that one correct answer is often insufficient because if a woman admits to having children, then it’s fair game to question her parenting ability and commitment in a way a man is seldom asked to answer. As she puts it:
There is no good answer to being a woman; the art may instead lie in how we refuse the question.
More broadly, how do we all (not just women) address probing questions that are really nobody’s business?
Why do people ask inappropriate questions? Usually they do this because they have strong opinions about how others should live their lives, at times applying their opinions even to complete strangers. On a recent episode of Madame Secretary (Season 2, Episode 4, Waiting for Taleju), the Secretary of State’s daughter is under scrutiny when photos of her in bed with her boyfriend are leaked to the media by the feckless boyfriend’s disgruntled Secret Service detail. Her father, an ethics professor, is on a news program when a caller named Jeff asks him the following question:
JEFF: Uh, I’ve been listening to you talk about the moral codes of Christianity and Islam. And I think it’s so interesting that you hold yourself up as an expert on morality when all I’m finding online about you is a photo of your daughter rolling around in bed – with the president’s son. . . . Is that your definition of moral parenting, Dr. McCord? – Is that your definition?
PROF. McCORD: – No, no, I’d like to answer that. You ask an interesting question, Jeff. I’d like to start by making a distinction that I usually make on the very first day of my Morals and Ethics class. A lot of people say that morals are how we treat the people we know and ethics are how we treat the people we don’t know. So morals are what make us a good parent, a good friend, a nice neighbor. But ethics are how we build a society. That’s the true test of our higher self. But what happens, Jeff, when society is ruled by the subjective morals of, say, you and your family and you choose to project that onto complete strangers is that we all end up with a society that’s governed by self-aggrandizement. – So, really, by calling – Oh to make sure you’re the first little pedant to jump off your chair and teach me a lesson with smug superiority about your own particular moral point of view when you know precisely nothing of the situation, you’ve done your part to contribute to the erosion of our entire social fabric. Pat yourself on the back. Bravo.
Prof. McCord 1, Jeff 0. As he points out, impertinent questions like this are about self-aggrandizement and smugness, not about treating others with kindness nor about building a stronger society. This exchange reminded me of what Craig H. wrote in his article on Luther’s 95 Theses on BCC this past weekend:
Luther responded that he was thoroughly in favor of good works, in fact should be called the doctor of good works, he just wanted people to understand that grace doesn’t come from those works; instead good works flow out of grace.
So if everybody’s in favor of doing good works anyway, then why stir things up? Because, said Luther, how you think about works affects which works you do and how you approach them: doing good works to earn grace tends to make you obsessed with yourself and your purity.
So while doing good works is good, doing them to get credit for doing them (even if it’s just theoretical scorekeeping or having a “checklist” mentality, ways we try to determine we are worthy of God’s grace) creates an obsession with remaining pure and unspotted rather than on loving and serving others. When we are focused on staying pure, we try to avoid those who are impure, to punish them for their inferiority, to keep them at arm’s length, to purge them from our midst. Or as Albi the racist dragon says to the little Albanian boy: “Don’t touch my tail. You’ll get it dirty.”
Often we answer impertinent questions rather than questioning the asker because we are caught off guard in the moment. That’s an uncomfortable place to be.
We are constantly given one-size-fits-all recipes, but those recipes fail, often and hard. Nevertheless, we are given them again. And again and again. They become prisons and punishments; the prison of the imagination traps many in the prison of a life that is correctly aligned with the recipes and yet is entirely miserable.
Sometimes someone pushes a one-size-fits-all at you because it works well for them, but more often, it seems that the ones who push these solutions at others do so because misery loves company. They have stuck to the narrative, and it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, so why should you get off light? The author’s inner monologue when confronted with these types of individuals resonates:
I have done what I set out to do in my life, and what I set out to do was not what the interviewer presumed.
As she succinctly summarizes:
Society’s recipes for fulfillment cause a great deal of unhappiness, both in those who are stigmatized for being unable or unwilling to carry them out and in those who obey but don’t find happiness.
What types of impertinent questions have you been asked by your fellow church members? What were your (h/t Mad Magazine) snappy comebacks to stupid questions?