The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Never Good Enough
I once took a class on the subject of domestic violence and abuse. The instructor catalogued many forms of physical and emotional brutality, and the ways in which that violence is hidden by both the abuser and the abused.
One aspect of those abusive relationships stands out in my memory, a vicious strategy that the abuser uses to maintain control over his (usually, but not always, "his") spouse or partner. It all boils down to a persistent message, "You're never good enough."
The song "Never Good Enough" by "Die Trying" says it bluntly:
Why am I never good enough?
The workshop leader gave the example of a man who screams at his wife because she doesn't have dinner ready and waiting when he comes home from work. So, to appease her violent husband, she rearranges her priorities to be sure the meal is prepared on time.
But that evening at the dinner table, he berates her because the laundry is not put away, and his shirts ironed. Once again, she tries to meet his expectations. But every time she jumps through a hoop -- clean the house, take care of the kids, improve her appearance -- there is always some other place where she's falling short of his escalating expectations. No matter how hard she tries, no matter how much she does, it is never enough.
"You're never good enough" is the demeaning message that is at the heart of emotional abuse, and that lies somewhere behind most physical abuse.
Whenever that message is delivered, the abused person is subjected to the power of the abuser. The ability to set the standards, to demand behavior, to exercise control -- those are core elements of the abuse. Over time, the message of inadequacy soaks in, and the abused partner starts to believe the she really is worthless, that the abusing one really is right, and that she is fortunate to be in the relationship at all.
Therein lies one of the strategies for breaking the cycle of abuse. Ideally, change begins with the abuser -- but that happens far too rarely. Instead, it falls upon the victimized one to take a stand, to refuse to submit, to reject the absurd and unrealistic standards. She needs to assert, "I am too good enough!" and reject the dominance that he holds over her.
It is very hard for people in abusive relationships to find that sort of strength and self-confidence on their own. It usually takes a strong community of support to provide the affirmation and love that will eventually let the abused partner take a stand.
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An understanding of domestic abuse can help us deal with the eco-justice crisis of our plundered and exploited earth. The creative insight comes when we look beyond the abuse of the earth, its resources and other species, and understand that most of us in consumer societies are caught in an abusive relationship.
Those of us who live in "modern economies" are subjected to enormous amounts of advertising. On TV and radio, it is relentless. In newspapers and magazines, there are often more ads than editorial content. Billboards, store displays, junk mail, ads on websites and in email -- thousands of times a day, we are assaulted with advertising.
On one level, those ads are informing us about products, or building "brand recognition." But on a deeper level, they have a more dangerous message: "You're not good enough."
The implicit message in the ads is that you're not good enough if you're not wearing the latest fashions, or using an up-to-date computer, or going to this week's blockbuster movie, or decorating your home in this year's trendy colors.
Over and over again, somebody else tells us what the standards and the expectations are. We're told what we have to do, what we have to buy, in order to be loved or acceptable.
And no matter how much we do, it is never enough. Buy a new car, and you'll hear about clothes. Get the clothes, and you'll be told that you need new layers of cable TV. Get the TV, and you'll find out about landscaping.
The consumer culture, speaking through a ceaseless barrage of ads, hammers home an abusive message. You're not good enough. You'll never be good enough. You can never meet all of the demands, but you'd better not stop trying, either. At the same time, though, consider yourself lucky that you're in this affluent consumer society. Be grateful that you're privileged enough to be in this abusive relationship.
It is the same message of domination and control that brings pain and violence into too many families. It is a message of imposed standards, of impossible expectations, of implicit power. When that happens in a family, it takes a terrible toll on the victims. The emotional pounding of the relentless message breaks down self-esteem. It takes away the ability to fight back.
The same thing happens when advertising drives its never-ending demands at us. We begin to believe that they're right, that we really do need that stuff, that we really should change our values and our behaviors and our priorities, and do what they tell us.
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The over-consumption of stuff that is a hallmark of affluent societies is a prime cause of today's ecological disasters. Our questing after more things denudes and despoils the earth, crowds out and poisons other life, and wastes precious resources.
For ecological reasons, it would be good if we changed our ways. But there are other reasons to change, pastoral reasons that bring healing to persons and to the earth.
We -- individually and culturally -- are abused by the insatiable demands of the marketplace. Just like the victim of domestic violence, we are the ones who must break the cycle. We need to claim our own worth, and say no to the demands. We need to reject the abusive messages that we are good and acceptable only when we buy.
If we can do that, we'll be able to rediscover the joy in an ecologically responsible sufficiency -- of having enough. And we'll discover the peace that is at the heart of the Christian faith -- that we're loved and worthwhile just as we are.
To break the abusive cycle, we all need support and encouragement, a persistent affirmation that we are good enough, and that our inherent worth does not depend on what we buy. Theologically and pastorally, that's a liberating message that our churches should be delivering every day.
What is your church doing to break the emotional abuse of our consumer society?
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
Home Page: www.eco-justice.org * E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org