I was spending time with a friend this past weekend, and I realized that they tend to speak in passive voice during conversation. Passive voice is a means of communicating that centers the object of the sentence, rather than the subject (for example, “I walked the dog” is active, whereas “The dog was walked by me” is passive). It’s an unusual style because it tends to feel ambiguous and somewhat awkward.
This got me thinking about communication in general, particularly because the majority of our communication is non-verbal. We have language to differentiate active and passive language when it comes to the words we use; however, I am beginning to think that extending that to our non-verbal communication could have a powerful effect on how present we are able to be in our bodies.
I feel like, for example, that I tend to speak actively but move in my body very passively. I allow things to happen to me, rather than acting upon the world around me. I have written elsewhere about my complicated relationship with acknowledging and expressing desire, but my partner used to say that I needed permission before I felt comfortable wanting something. That is, I needed to know that the desire was reciprocated before I was willing to acknowledge my own desires independently. I have a tendency to wait for things around me to settle before deciding where I want to position myself in my relationships and environments.
I don’t feel like this is the healthiest way to live, because it is reactionary
and responsive, rather than proactive. It also feels a bit dishonest, because
it creates an image of wanting the same things as someone else, when it’s really more of an acceptance of what is being offered. If I existed less passively in my body- that is, if I were more willing to claim my own desires upfront- then I might find that myself and someone else want completely divergent things, and it could spare both of us a lot of heartache to realize that earlier on in a relationship.
Don’t get me wrong; I think there are times when existing passively is important and necessary. Moments, for example, where we recognize that the privileges afforded to us by our gender (or gender presentation), race (or presentation of race), ability, sexual orientation, authority, etc. put us in greater positions of power than those around us, we may actively choose to exist passively in our bodies in order to center or elevate those voices that are less commonly heard. But I think the key here is “actively choosing.” Passive movement isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I think doing so with intention is vital. Not only does it allow us to consider the complexities and intersections of oppression (and how we fit into them), but it also helps keep us grounded and centered in our bodies, even in those moments that we are existing more passively.
As someone who was assigned and socialized female through my childhood and teenage years, I think that women in particular are conditioned toward passive movement. Women are taught to endure microaggressions (such as unwarranted catcalling or comments that someone should smile) as compliments thrust upon them by strangers. Women are taught to be somewhat sexually submissive, allowing men to “make the first move.” When discussing sexual assault, women’s behavior (how much she had to drink, what she was wearing, what part of town she was in, etc.) is often centered, rather than the assaulter’s behavior. I don’t know if there can be a clearer case of the expectations of passive movement- where the object (the behavior of the woman who was assaulted) is the focus, rather than the subject (the behavior of the assaulter) or the action itself (the assault).
In this way, I feel like passive movement and existence in our bodies contributes to rape culture. I say this, not at all meaning that “people passively allow themselves to get raped,” but that, when you have one group of people who are expected to allow things to happen and one group who is expected to do things, we end up in a toxic cycle. Rape culture (which, by definition, centers the actions of the receiving party, rather than the actions of the perpetrating party) very much enforces the passive existence of women and feminine-of-center individuals.
And while I am making generalizations here, I absolutely appreciate that there are men and masculine-of-center individuals who also tend toward passive movement for any number of reasons. I don’t mean to erase or discount those experiences, but I can only speak from my own personal experience and, having transgressed across gender lines a few times, I feel very strongly that the emphasis on men is active body language, whereas the emphasis on women is passive.
So how do we negotiate our relationship with our body language? How do we begin to center ourselves- when it’s appropriate- with our movements, our bodies, our actions? Like so many things, it is a sense of self-awareness, an active engagement in how our bodies move and interact with the world.
Do we allow the world to wash over us, to act upon us? Do we find ourselves reacting rather than acting more often than not? And if so, why is that? Where does that come from within each of us? It’s a form of being disconnected from ourselves, from our bodies, from our actions, from our desires. When and how might we shift from passive to active language with our bodies?
I don’ t know that there are universal answers to these questions. Every
person moves through the world differently, and has to decide for themselves how they want to act and interact. For myself, though, I want to make a more intentional effort to be active in my body language- and more than just active, but proactive. To hear and honor the messages my body is telling me instead of the messages I have received from society that the needs of other should always surpass my own. I see the value and importance of taking up space and centering myself as the subject of my own life, rather than a passive object upon which life happens to.
Better yet, though, I am learning to see the value and importance in the wants, needs, and desires of my body. I am not willing to allow so much of my communication in the world to be so passive, and in order to get what we want, we must be willing to acknowledge what we want- and don’t want. As we grow into ourselves and new ways of understanding how we move through the world, may we do so with intention and deliberate action, rather than putting ourselves last in the focus of our own lives.
Recently, during a conversation about sex and sexuality, I was asked if I identify as a “top” or a “bottom.”
I found myself stammering a bit, not because I objected to the question
(although it feels old-fashioned) but because I felt unsure how to answer. In my early days as an out gay man, the term for some of us who enjoy being fucked and fucking another was “versatile.” I don’t know if that terminology appears on today’s online sex sites or not. But after a little hemming and hawing that is the way I answered my friend. After all, my husband and I have some routines we often (although not always) follow, and they involve us in various positions.
But when Malachi suggested we focus on active and passive bodies this week, I thought of that conversation—knowing that this is larger than just positions and practices during sex.
Speaking personally, I began to ask myself some questions. How do I stand, how do I walk, how do I, as the saying goes, carry my body (what an odd linguistic construction)? How do I sit in a chair, how do I place my body in a group of people?
When I was a full-time solo pastor, I recognized the importance of body language—both my own and learning to read others. I was the leader and wanted to convey authority and competence yet I also wanted to convey openness and enough vulnerability for people to want to trust me and talk to me. I don’t know how successful I was; I suspect I confused some people!
At the open communion in an MCC worship service, it is customary to offer the communicant prayer with the bread and cup. Clergy and lay servers alike have to learn to pay attention to body signals. Some people want you to practically hug them (as the hug you) during prayer while others slgnal keeping up to an arm’s length distance. There are subtle variations between those two poles. Respecting these signals is critical to the person being able to receive the blessing of the holy meal.
Gender often plays a significant role. Women are usually raised to listen, men to talk. But that is not about just speech patterns. In fact, speech is not the most important and powerful way we communicate. Our posture, the way we take up space, the tilt of our head, the direction of our eyes, all these and many other factors convey far more than the words from our mouths.
The man who conveys his desire to listen—body seeming relaxed, looking directly at the speaker, perhaps head tilted just a little, nodding in comprehension or even agreement (perhaps a slight smile or murmur), conveys a different message from the man whose body seems tense, who is looking at his watch or beyond the speaker, not nodding but indicating an impatience and a desire to speak. There are women who exhibit these behaviors, too. Gender is important, but it is not necessarily determinative of every person or interaction. Many of us have learned, often due to work requirements or other needs, to overcome at least some of our early conditioning.
That conditioning may be the result of gendered socialization, but it also may be the result of other factors, including things that happened to us. I remember as a child, and even as a teenager, being uncomfortable in gatherings of my father’s family. They all were loud, talking over each other, and they also took up space—I mean by that they sat, stood, and walked in ways that made sure others knew they were not only in the room but also intended to take charge, even to be the center of the action. There was a lot of dominance behavior going on, even among the women. I suspect the women learned it in self-defense.
I generally shut down in those gatherings, unless someone specifically invited me to speak. Then I often stammered, despite intelligence and an ability to speak. I still engage in variations of that today. In a class or other group, I tend to be quiet. A professor in seminary told me that she loved to read what I wrote for her, but was disappointed by how little I shared aloud in class.
There is an exception to this general pattern. I am a comfortable public speaker. Give me a role that requires me to not only speak but also stand up and assume center stage, and I will do it. That was true long before pastoring, but it served me well in that role, too.
So, active or passive?
I am tall, but do not stand and walk tall. Like many tall people, though far from all, I slouch. Recent, ongoing back pain is causing me to pay more attention to posture, so I think I am learning a bit about living in my tall body. Plus, as I wrote recently, I am seeking to claim what I think is my natural lankiness (see “Who Is Your Type?” ). That pain is also causing me to pay more attention to how I sit as I write. I also am using an adjustable height desk, so I write for 30-45 minutes while seated, and then shift and do the same while standing.
I really like writing, and even reading, while standing at the desk. I usually spend my days at home naked, and there is something very empowering for me to stand, naked, and write. I feel like I am claiming my body in a new, active, way.
I also attend some meetings regularly, sometimes sitting in a circle of chairs and other times at a table. I have been noticing lately that when sitting in a circle I tend to fold myself up, and when at a table I lean in with my head resting on my hand (my arm cocked at the elbow). As at my desk, I am paying more attention to my posture, and shifting to sit up tall.
Active or passive? It seems I lean toward passive, with a new commitment to become more active. This comports well with how I am coming to understand my life pattern for the past 50+ adult years. I am seeing now that I have lived a reactive life, doing what arrived in front of me whether it was actually mine to do or not.
Today, as I claim my vocation as a writer, learning to work on my own without an institutional structure to govern and guide me, I am becoming more active.
Neither passive or active is wrong or bad, of course. I am just hoping for more balance between the two. Surely, we are engineered for both—that reflects the largeness, the depth and width and breadth of God and God’s desire for us to be ourselves—and I am grateful to be broadening my horizon.
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Help Make this a Conversation!
How do identify your body and the ways you interact with others? Passive or active? Some of both? What difference does the context make? Do you see patterns in your body behavior and attitude that reflect, and do not reflect, social conditioning, gender roles, etc.? Please share your thoughts, your heart, on these questions or anything else this blog raises for you (see “Leave a Comment” link on upper left, underneath categories and tags), or box below, or write Malachi and/or Robin at the emails listed above their pictures on the right.
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Please join us in about three weeks, THURSDAY, May 18th for Sex, Bodies, Spirit Online from 3-4:00 EST/19:00 UTC. To access the call, please click here. Please note that some members of the call (including Robin and Malachi) choose to enable video during the call. Video is not necessary; we encourage participants to participate as they feel comfortable. A sidebar chat option is available to those who choose not to enable their audio/video components. If you have questions or concerns prior to the workshop, please write one of us at the email addresses above our pictures.