Everyday Ignatian is a monthly series by Shannon K. Evans, a writer and mother of five living in Iowa who is chronicling moments of grace in the midst of her chaotic daily life through the lens of Ignatian spirituality.
By Shannon K. Evans
October 13, 2021 — The 30-year old woman cried on her mother’s shoulder. Desperate to chart a new course in life, Toula longed to enroll in a business class at her local college, but her very traditional Greek father wouldn’t hear a word about it. Not to worry, the mother soothed her adult daughter: She would change her husband’s mind. After all, “the man is the head [of the house], but the woman is the neck and she can turn the head any way she wants.”
I was a young college student when “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” came to movie theaters, but I still remember that iconic scene in the film nearly 20 years later. And I’m not alone: Mothers and daughters of all ages and ethnicities can recall that ingenious line and the way they howled with knowing laughter when they heard it. What was meant to be a simple comedic scene perfectly encapsulated the universal grief of the subordinate female position — and the ingenuity of women to find ways to hold power however they can.
My family structure is not as overtly patriarchal as that of this traditional Greek family, but like most women, I have felt the systemic sexism that runs through our society and has throughout history shaped education, family, churches, business and government. In response to this inequality, I too tend to reach for a sense of agency through subtle (or not so subtle) manipulation and control, not unlike the women in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But it’s one thing to chuckle at Toula’s charismatic mother onscreen — it’s quite another to admit how the longing for agency manifests as manipulation in my own behaviors. Acknowledging such undesirable tendencies is not a fun endeavor, and yet it’s necessary for growth.
I wrote about this tension in my book “Rewilding Motherhood,” and shared how Ignatian spirituality has been an important practice for helping me keep manipulation in check and utilize honesty and clarity instead. Taking a daily assessment of my desires, frustrations and emotional responses helps me remember to live in openness to the Spirit and recognize that I don’t necessarily know what’s best for another person. But what I love most about Ignatian prayer is that it doesn’t just remind me to practice surrender; it also helps me to dig deeper and examine why I’m clinging to control or manipulation in the first place.
While the desire for control is a universally human trait, it seems to be a more pronounced interior battle for women. There is a reason stereotypes like the “helicopter mom” exist, a reason words like “suffocating” and “manipulative” are more often applied to women than men, a reason we are the butt of sour marital jokes about “the old ball and chain.” Could it be that our desire for control is rooted in our repressed feelings of powerlessness?
St. Ignatius believed that our relationship with God wasn’t meant to stay exclusively between us and God, but rather was meant to go out into the world and affect real change. So when prayer reveals a problem that goes deeper than us as individuals, we are being called by God to stand up and do something about that problem. As a woman acting on behalf of both myself and other women, that means making sure our voices and perspectives are heard, refusing to accept unequal representation and advocating for decision-making power for women in every level of society. The more our agency is restored, the easier it becomes to relinquish unhealthy control; because when we are fairly given power, there is no need to contrive sneaky ways to grab it.
Even still, if I am to live in true internal freedom, the exercise of letting go must become an interior spiritual practice. As much as systems do need to change, such things can’t ultimately change my own heart. That’s my responsibility. Ignatian spirituality calls me to indifference: the deep, ongoing internal work of releasing my desire for control.
By Ignatius’ definition, indifference doesn’t mean we choose not to care or are somehow not emotionally affected by the struggle; it means we accept that there is a cosmic wisdom greater than our own. While it is right and good to do everything in our power to give our loved ones and ourselves the best that we can, our power only goes so far. Seeking to control all people and situations only breeds toxicity. They need to be free, and they need us to be free.
In the end, there is no shortcut to showing up for life. Being human is a risky endeavor. It is risky to love people and be in relationship with them, it is risky to dare to dream of a more just society. To let go of insistence on control is to embrace being a human fully alive and to let the humans we love be fully alive, too. It is one of the bravest things we can ever do. But with the grace of God and the freedom that comes from a life of prayer, we are up to the challenge.
In “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the matriarch did in fact convince her husband to permit their daughter to pursue a college education. But more importantly, throughout the course of the film, Toula evolves into a woman who is able to clearly speak her mind, draw necessary boundaries and hold firm to her convictions. As she gradually finds herself and her own voice, we witness a redistribution of power in the family, which allows the individuals to find a little more inner freedom and a healthier relationship to control — no turning of other people’s heads required.
Shannon K. Evans is the author of “Rewilding Motherhood” and “Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World.” Her writing has been featured in America and Saint Anthony Messenger magazines, as well as online at Ruminate, Verily, Huffington Post, Grotto Network and others. Shannon, her husband and their five children make their home in central Iowa.