One of the great gifts that comes with my work—and I know I’ve mentioned this before—is the opportunity to read what I edit. Whether it’s a teaching novel on church conflict or a mountaintop memoir of a life-changing religious experience, I am blessed to ponder and learn and grow through what I read. Recently I read an article for the latest edition of Oneing by a young woman, Alison Kirkpatrick, who was reflecting on raising feminist sons and daughters—and on the very different agendas that she and her age cohort are bringing to the conversation on gender equality.
This is what I read, and it blew me away:
Feminism of the sixties and seventies started down the path of trying to beat men at their own game by being even stronger and more aggressive. (We just have to look at the fashions of the eighties to know it’s true.) But many women of my generation disavowed feminism for that very reason. We got sick of trying to “out-alpha” the men, so we quit playing, which has really angered some long-time feminists.
But this isn’t a case of young women taking our ball and going home. We didn’t quit because we were losing; it’s because we woke up to the fact that the game’s not worth playing! We never got a say about the game in the first place. We didn’t help make the rules. We didn’t get to pick the venue or the referee. We didn’t get any input on how the points were scored or what determined the winner. The game was handed to us, with men favored at every turn. The second-wave feminists were so determined to get on the field that they were willing to get their teeth kicked in, over and over again, just for the privilege of playing the game. It was undoubtedly a necessary step, but a new generation of feminists is calling bullshit on the whole system. They are sick and tired of having to compete, succeed, and perform on every level: personally, professionally, physically, civically, spiritually, organically, etc., and then face criticism if they don’t meet some predetermined cultural standard.
Young women are “leaning in,” but not to the patriarchal, winner-take-all game. Even if it means never getting their turn in the big arenas (coincidentally, the ones men built), young feminists—of both genders—are trying to invent a new game, one where everyone can play to their own strengths.
This entire segment of the article felt important when I read it, but what really got my attention was young women choosing not to try to prove themselves in the big, traditional types of arena that males have built. I had not consciously realized that this is what I have been trying to do, over and over, time after time, in one way or another—until I was confronted with her words. They stopped me, stunned me, convicted me—and opened a window that I hadn’t known I was keeping closed.
For much of the past dozen years, as I have worked at “growing” my spiritual ministry in a variety of ways, I’ve had this mostly unconscious goal of trying to stand out on an increasingly global stage. My work for the Center for Action and Contemplation—whose founder, Richard Rohr, is indeed known around the world as a spiritual teacher—convinced me that this idea was possible, and watching the TED talks of well-known women like Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown made it seem like I could join those ranks.
But somehow, it just wasn’t happening…and now, I think I know why. In my heart and soul, I’m really not cut out to be such a public figure. I don’t belong in that broader arena. I knew that—but my ego didn’t want to let go of this idea of rising to the “top” of my field. So now, thanks to Alison Kirkpatrick, I have a way to bend my mind around taking a different approach. I can consciously choose to walk away from the “race to the top” and instead recognize the many ways in which my ministerial strengths are already impacting the world, one relationship at a time. One-with-one relationships are really where I belong. I knew that, deep in my heart, but it’s going to take some time to reorient the rest of myself on this new pathway.
Some of this, I believe, is about trusting God, that all will work out when I am willing to let the Holy Spirit be in control of the agenda. And that’s another piece that I’m picking up from women like Alison Kirkpatrick: that believing and acting as if we are the one in control actually prevents us from living out our spiritual vocations in the world. It is when we let ourselves be moved and transformed by what we encounter—even a few words on a page—that God is able to transform the world through us, one simple, profound action at a time. Then we do not need a big arena; each moment is the only arena that matters.
 Alison Kirkpatrick, “Raising a Feminist Son,” Oneing, Vol. 4 No. 2, 2016.