Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Inner hierarchies...

A really smart guy I know recently introduced me to a phrase I'd never heard before, but a phenomenon that I know well: inner hierarchies. We were talking about church at the time - and how churches tend to operate with rather rigid hierarchies - who is in charge, who is next in line to be in charge, and, most importantly, who will never get to be in charge. He said that the reason so many people put up with all the power-mongering and bad behavior at church is because we each have our own inner hierarchies that allow us, that push us to accept those external hierarchies. We have internalized all those rigid hierarchies - mostly without even realizing that we are crushing ourselves from within just as efficiently as they are crushing us from without.

As I listened to him speak, I looked back at my own history within the church hierarchy system. I have spent ALL my life, until about a year ago, going to church religiously, taking it all in, swallowing it all, hook, line, and sinker - including and perhaps especially the parts that insist, that I, as a woman, will never be in charge. They were in charge. They had been ordained or approved by people who had been ordained, so who was I to question what they thought or said or demanded. Whoever "they" were.

About three years ago, I decided that I was no longer interested in being in charge at church. I had been involved in church leadership for a long time, teaching classes, leading retreats, going on missions trips, translating Sunday sermons from Spanish to English, even traveling to other churches to teach and translate. I loved doing all of that stuff, I really did. It felt like I mattered, like my voice mattered, like my presence at church mattered.

Then my family and I were plunged in the deepest challenge of our lives, and no one who was in charge at church seemed to be terribly concerned about our crisis. They all said they were praying for us, which was nice to know, but there were precious few phone calls. No visits here at our home. Nothing. Well, except for the folks who were way down on the hierarchical pyramid - the women, mainly the Latina women. They called. They wrote texts. They sent cards in the mail. They came to visit. They brought food. They cleaned my house. Looking around at those beautiful faces, those loving, kind, generous women, I decided that I was done with bowing down to the hierarchy. Those same dudes who couldn't take the time, who wouldn't make the time to reach out to us in tangible ways when we needed their power, their influence, and their leadership to mean something tangible - screw 'em. I was done with believing that having a seminary degree and a few extra letters either in front of or behind your name meant that you deserved extra homage or attention. Done. 

A year ago, I followed up that decision with a more practical one: I stepped down from participating in and attending church. I needed to step completely out of and away from the entire system. At least for a while. Which was great. Which has been freeing. Which continues to be life-affirming.


Except that many characteristics of those external hierarchies have begun to manifest themselves within me. My inner hierarchies, which served me well when I was serving the church well, began to make demands, rules, and statutes of their own. If I wasn't good enough to lead at church, how could I be good enough to take the reins of my own life and make my own decisions?

I began to ask other people for approval and permission for things that had nothing to do with them. I began to ask other people what I should and shouldn't eat or drink. What I should and shouldn't wear. Where I should and shouldn't go. Whether or not taking abuse from people who said that they loved me was okay because they said that they loved me. Whether or not forgiveness meant that I had to allow hurtful people to hurt me again. How could I trust myself to make good decisions for myself? After all, who was I? Who am I? How can I know? How will I know? Can I trust myself at all? 

Because if "the heart is desperately wicked," how can I trust my heart?
(What if I have a new heart, a healed heart, a trustworthy heart?)
If "the flesh" is something to be overcome, how can I trust my body?
(What if my body is a recording device and remembers everything that has happened to me, good and bad, and is ready, willing, and perfectly able to lead me away from danger and into deeper joy?)
If my mind is constantly under attack, how can I trust my mind?
(What if I have the mind of Christ? I don't always do what Jesus would do, that's for sure, but what if different responses and decisions are possible, are mine for the taking?)
The list went on and on. 
(And, fortunately, so have the alternative questions and responses.)

I have discovered that my inner hierarchies are more insidious, controlling, insulting, belittling, and demeaning than anything I had ever experienced outside of myself. Every day I answer some form of the same questions.

* Wow, that looks and smells great. But you don't deserve to eat that. That's not for you. 
* Sure, that felt like an insult. But who are you to judge what other people think or say?
* Sure, you have been ignored for the fifth time by the same person. But who are you to demand a response? You have to wait your turn, until your request reaches the top of their all-encompassing lists. 
* Nope, that was not an appropriate way for her to speak to you. But who cares what you think or feel or need?
* Surely I am the only one who is sick of being yelled at in church, being relegated to submissive and inferior positions, and having my friends and loved ones reduced to groups and subgroups that can be condemned, rejected, and dismissed offhand. And since I'm the only one who feels this way, I'd better sit down and shut up. 

And when I'm not looking inside myself and questioning everything I think and feel, I look outside myself and ask other people, usually the same people over and over, to take over and make everything okay.
* Can you please tell me how to be a better mother?
* Can you please tell me how to be a better wife?
* Will you please love me? Take care of me? Make me feel better?
* Can you please help me to get back to being that person who never had any questions or wondered why so many things and people and relationships and situations seem so unbalanced?
* Can you please tell me how to stop wanting something/someone/someplace that are not mine to want?
* Will you please just take control of my life, total control, so that I don't have to think for myself? Or speak up for myself? Or act in my own interests? 

My inner hierarchies, like scaffolding holding up a structurally weak edifice, are redundant and are slowly being taken down. Deconstructed. The facade crumbled years ago. Renovation isn't even the goal anymore. It's time for the entire building to fall. It's time to rebuild from the foundation up. 


Lisa said...


Amazing post, my dear Gail.

Such powerful realizations.

Am *so* honored to have been your friend during these parts of your Journey. And even now, as the chrysalis changes yet again.

Rock on!!!

Virginia said...


I think your post of July 4th reconciles "Inner hierarchies". You have been blessed.

Julie Smith said...

I haven't read your follow-up to this post yet, but I felt that as a fellow woman I had to respond. I often question myself too and I think part of it is the way women have been conditioned to act in society, as having less authority than men.

That's part of it. Really, all human hierarchies are a fiction and people who don't see that are deluded. Yet we go on seeking approval and affirmation from others, even if this means we place ourselves under their authority.

I think that becoming more mature in spirit means learning to trust yourself, your instincts, and stand up for yourself without demeaning others. (Long comment here, but you gave me a lot of material to talk about.) I wish you the best in your ongoing journey!