An airport outburst and failing to become a 1 Peter 3 woman
D and I have been watching Keep Sweet: Pray & Obey on Netflix. The instruction given to Short Creek’s FLDS women—“keep sweet”—immediately reminded me of a teaching I also received as a girl:
Have a gentle and quiet spirit.
I don’t remember the first time I heard this message from the pulpit, nor the first time I memorized 1 Peter 3. What I do remember is how, in my college youth group, the boys—not yet in their 20s—were taught to pray for a wife who had achieved this disposition. A soft and agreeable spirit was, above all else, the most desirable trait a woman could have. Never mind the assumption from our leaders that most of us would be married, ideally to one another, in only a few years.
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. (NIV)
By the time I was 19, my girlfriends and I had learned to mimic the cadences of our college pastors’ wives. We were surrounded by women in their late 20s/early 30s who looked and sounded like carbon copies of Kari Jobe. They had the “gentle and quiet” spirit thing down, like it was an accessory picked out at Target alongside suede booties and skinny jeans. We looked up to these women—for guidance in modest fashion, for help navigating physical boundaries with our boyfriends, and for how to achieve the desired gentle and quiet spirit disposition.
Part of this was measuring all feelings against the gentle woman barometer before allowing oneself to express them. If the feelings didn’t measure up, it was best to surrender them to God rather than give yourself space to feel them. Emotions like anger and rage didn’t fit into this gentle woman mold— vengeance is mine, says the Lord was the memorized canned scripture response from our leaders. And so I learned to push anger down early on for fear it would harden my heart or separate me from Jesus. Eventually, I got so good at ignoring anger and praying it away that I stopped recognizing the feeling. Anger simply became a low hum, hardly there. Or so I thought.
A memory from childhood: I am 13 when my mom picks up an artichoke and throws it at the wall. It is half-eaten already and the soft heart is mushy and exposed. She picks it up off her plate and screams as she chucks it over the dinner table and towards the wall opposite her. My brother and sisters and I watch in silence as it splatters, streaks of butter raining down with artichoke leaves where our dog will later try to lick them off the floor.
For weeks after, she scrapes the dried artichoke from the wallpaper. It becomes something of a family joke—“remember that one time Mom got so mad at us she threw an artichoke”—and even she laughs when recalling that night.
But there is also something more serious and sobering in her voice, if you really listen. Maybe I hear it because I’m growing older and watching my own friends navigate motherhood with all of its complexities, or perhaps she still remembers the built-up anger that forced its way out. She was at the end of her rope, raising four young kids alone while my dad was away on another work trip. She didn’t have a place to express or process her feelings freely. And so one night, she snapped.
The first time I remember the anger slipping out of me was at the Orlando International Airport. It was a few years ago, during the holidays, and the terminal was humming with Christmas music and frantic travelers. D and I were living in London for grad school and we were on our way back to the UK. I was sick and running a 102 fever when our international flight was canceled. Thankfully, there was one other flight headed to London that day, and so we were rebooked.
Everything seemed to be working out; we just needed to hurry back through security to collect our bags from the now-canceled flight and re-check them with our new airline. D and I decided to split up—he’d grab the bags while I’d stand in line at the baggage counter. But by the time I was next in line, D wasn’t back yet. I could see him at the end of the terminal waiting, the carousel spinning with other travelers’ luggage. With only 40 minutes until our flight departure, I began the check-in process, handing over our passports and new flight information. The attendant then asked me to pay for the bags.
“Oh, but we already paid when we first checked them?” I added a question mark and raised my voice an octave like I know how to do when talking to men, trying to sound as small and submissive as possible. I try to explain this to D—the tactic I have because these kinds of situations happen so regularly. It’s why I ask him to call the insurance company about the unknown charge or talk with the manager or take the car to the dealership. When you’ve been taught to doubt your voice and presence, when you’ve learned how to make yourself small in the shadows of your male counterparts, it costs immense energy to assert yourself. The eye-rolls and exasperated sighs become routine. You learn to script out what you need to say for fear of “talking too long” or “not making sense.” When your name is called, you muster up that gentle and quiet spirit in hopes that you will come across as the kindest woman in the world. Perhaps if you are extra accommodating in your tone and body language—read: non-threatening—you will increase your chances of being treated fairly, of being heard and seen.
I could already tell the attendant was disgruntled with me—a reasonable response to working with a holiday crowd. He shook his head in annoyance at my question, claiming it wasn’t his problem that I had already paid and I needed to pay again.
I could feel my fever breaking, and I began to sweat through my jean jacket. Trying again, I briefly explained how our previous airline had rebooked us with a partner airline—this airline—and we’d already paid for our bags; we just needed to check them for our flight that was now leaving in 35 minutes.
“My husband is over there grabbing the bags,” I pointed, willing him over to help me out. “I’m so so sorry for the inconvenience but I don’t understand why since you are partners with the other airline and they rebooked us shouldn’t they have noted that we already paid? Can you call them? We have a few bags since we’re traveling international and wedon’thavethemoneytopayagain—”
I was eating my words, rambling, my cheeks growing warmer. I felt stupid, like I wasn’t making sense. He wasn’t hearing me because he didn’t want to hear me because, in retrospect, why would he? He’d probably argued with passengers 10 times already in the last hour. Customer service can be awful. I’ve dealt with entitled guests and waited on too many rude tables; you become jaded. I get it. He was annoyed and I was sick. I wanted to get home and he likely did too. But he just shook his head, repeatedly, saying I needed to pay for the bags and if I wasn’t going to pay then I wouldn’t be on the flight. I could submit a form for a refund to the other airline online, and someone might get back to me in a few weeks.
Had I not been sick and worried we would be sleeping in the airport, I may have had more space to remain calm. But built-up rage eventually needs an outlet, and that outlet is not always reasonable. Sometimes you pick up an artichoke and throw it at a wall. You’re not actually mad about the artichoke or your children who are fighting over a salt shaker. It’s the many moments in which you were not allowed to feel what you needed to feel. The anger compounds, like Jenga blocks before the final tipping weight. It will eventually topple, and it will not be quiet when it does.
There is also only so much patience a woman has, patience that we’ve learned is required of us, patience when we’re called a dumb bitch while crossing a crosswalk, patience needed when the two men drinking beers, both twice your age, whistle at you and undress you with their eyes. Most women are patient and polite because we are scared—microaggressions lead to aggressions and so it’s advisable to not engage. Evangelical women learn to be patient and polite because they want to stay safe and also because the Bible tells us so. Faking sweet is not only a defense mechanism; it’s a spiritual practice.
When I lost my patience in the airport, I started yelling. I left my body for a moment as the rage escaped me, then circled back and enveloped me whole. The kind words weren’t working, and so I told the man how I really felt—that I thought he was mean and rude and I would be filing a formal complaint and his airline sucks. It was stupid. I was acting stupid. I’m grateful no one pulled their cell phone out to record me. It was a full-blown tantrum without the curse words because, even then, an inkling of “gentle and quiet” remained in me.
My rage had nothing to do with paying for the bags or the man simply doing his job (though not very kindly). It was a result of suppressing anger and keeping it inside for too long. I erupted because, for years, I’d been patient and kind even when the rage was called for, even when it was righteous.
Like when I realized Bible scriptures had been used against my friends and me to keep us feeling ashamed about our bodies. Or the many nights in the first, then second, then fifth year of marriage that I wanted to cry myself to sleep after sex with D, the physical connection and intimacy not there as our bed and bodies remained enshrouded with shame.
I wish I had known how to feel rage in those moments, to let out the anger and process it in a safe place with friends or in therapy. I could have sweat it out in the gym or wrestled with it on paper. But instead, I clasped my hands and heart. I thanked Jesus for his blessings. And then I made myself gentle and quiet, smiling my way through the tears.
We eventually got on our flight home. After talking with D, the flight attendant decided we didn’t need to pay for the bags after all and that he would waive the fee for him “this one time.” He said it with a smile and even upgraded our seats as a courtesy for our flight troubles because apparently, he was in a better mood now that my husband had arrived. I’ve never felt so small and enraged in a single moment.
After that day, I noticed the rage leaking out of me more often. It was as if I’d unlocked a hidden corridor, and all the prisoners were finally escaping. I found myself angry a lot, yelling at strange moments, never at people, but in the quiet of my mind, in the pages of my journal. Anger was bleeding out of me for reasons I couldn’t understand. It wouldn’t be for a while until I’d discover the anger was linked to the unresolved pain from purity culture.
When we don’t learn how to navigate pain, it often leads to anger or rage. Perhaps this is why anger is one of the stages of grief. We need outlets to process our emotions and let them out, and we need to feel the feelings moving inside us. When we don’t—when we push them all down—we find ourselves screaming at an airline attendant or throwing vegetables at the wall. We don’t know what’s happening, but we know we can’t keep it in any longer.
Rage can have meaning when processed and channeled correctly, but we must first learn how to give it the space and room it needs—our feelings deserve this. They deserve to be sat with and nurtured. It doesn’t mean we put them in the driver’s seat or allow them to inform our actions. Instead, we use our unresolved feelings as signposts to prevent future eruptions. Rage is like a compass in that way. It points out unresolved pain and grief.
I’ll end with this: I don’t think pursuing a gentle and quiet spirit is an inherently toxic message, but I do believe the way it’s taught to Evangelical women is problematic. Words and definitions vary, and when we look to the root of language and ancient texts rather than listen to modern interpretations, we often find the meanings change greatly.
Quiet, for example, comes from the Latin quietus, meaning “calm, at rest, and free from exertion.” I like to think that cultivating a quiet spirit means choosing peace and groundedness over unnecessary noise or chaos. When a quiet person speaks, their words hold deep meaning and power. They know what matters most and allow everything else to fall away.
As for gentle, this word has numerous origins and meanings according to etymology dictionaries. But my favorite? It comes from the Old French meaning.
To be gentle is to be courageous. It is also to be valiant and fair.