Saturday, March 29, 2014

Remembrance...

In the Spring of 1999, long before I made the choice to officially and permanently leave the JWs, I was excommunicated. I was 24, at the end of a wearisome, disastrous 5 year marriage, made more wearisome and disastrous because it should not have taken place to begin with. But when you’re a horny, confused teenaged JW with no sexual outlet but to get married, that’s what you do. 

Then one day, you wake up to realize you’re married to someone you don’t love, and probably never did. And then an inevitable chain of events begins to unfold: 

You fall in love with someone else. 
You end up seeing that person secretly. 
You end up doing things with that other person that breech the dogma of your religion. 
You confess. 
You face a JW tribunal who decide your fate. 

18 months later, I was diagnosed with PTSD because of the things the elders asked me in that 6 hour closed-door meeting. Every Spring since this happened 15 years ago, my body remembers. It remembers the coldness of those elders, their leering glances, how obvious it was to me that they were getting off on the details of this brief sexual interlude with a man I truly loved. How they were quick to decide that I was an evil, plotting, master of deception trying to escape an unfulfilling marriage. When I was just a 24 year old in love with someone not my husband, exploring a sexuality I didn’t even know I possessed. 

And so, I was excommunicated. Kicked out of my religion and shunned. During which time I had to do penance, which meant attending JW meetings three times a week while being shunned and looked upon like I wore a scarlet letter. In hindsight, if I’d only known then what I figured out later at the age of 31, I’d have left the JWs permanently at that point. But I still believed it was the true religion. So I did my time, and a year and a half later, the elders let me back into the JWs. 

As difficult as that year and a half was, there was also something incredibly freeing about it. Since none of my JW friends would speak to me, I spent a lot of time alone. Reading, writing, listening to music, seeing movies. For the first time, I went to the theatre to see movies by myself. One of which was ‘Magnolia’. It was a matinee and if I recall correctly, I was alone in the theatre. It was just me and the characters on the screen. 

And this was the first time that I consciously recall seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman. Which brings me back to 2014…February 2, 2014…the day Philip Seymour Hoffman died. Something in me broke when I heard that PSH died. I instantly remembered sitting in that theatre seeing him for the first time. And I remembered how he, and all of those characters, spoke to me. Spoke for me. 

When you grow up without a mirror for the deepest emotions you feel, when you grow up with the message that your emotions are to be controlled as harmful, and further, can actually be manipulated by the devil, well you find it hard to know that those emotions are in fact normal and okay. Magnolia gave me that. PSH gave me that. 


Up until that point in my life, I’d rarely seen a man cry. And here PSH was, on this big screen in front of me, crying. And then everyone starts crying. And singing. And crying. And their emotions are real to me. They’re real to me. More real than most of the people I’d yet known in my life. 

So, when PSH died, I remembered all the portrayals he gave that spoke for me. That shone a mirror up to some part of who I was and said Hey, it may be ugly and hard, but it’s real and it’s yours and that’s okay. It’s all okay.

I cried for PSH. I cried as though he was a friend who’d stood by my side during some really difficult times in my life, holding the space for everything that I was feeling. Because he was. 

I still have flashbacks of that period of my life as a JW. 15 years later and I still can’t get through Spring without some recollection of it. I can’t say it gets easier with age. ‘Time heals all wounds’ is a lie the old tell the young to disguise the fact that nothing actually heals, the mind just slowly forgets. But the body...the body remembers everything. 

tall penguin

Monday, March 25, 2013

So...

“So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be.” 
―The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

(Listen to this song while reading)

I have a new job. I don't want to go into details at this point, but I do want to tell you that it's going incredibly well. So well I can't believe I'm this lucky. I'm doing something I love, for a cause I believe in and working with people who are so amazing it took me some time to accept that they were really as great as they appeared to be.

In fact, I was quite suspicious of the whole thing for the first six months. I was being treated so well that I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. It's like being in a really loving relationship after being in an abusive relationship. You keep waiting for the abuse to start. You keep waiting for the harsh words or the raised hand. And when they don't come, you wait some more just to be safe. But then, you realize that it's going to be okay, that this time it's going to be different. Because it is.

This past year has been the best one of my life. And yet, I'm going through a bout of depression right now. I'm wanting to peg it on the fact that it's been a dark winter and I haven't had enough sun. But there's also a strange sadness in having such a great life now and realizing that all those years previously were so damn shitty and isn't life just absurd beyond words.

I also feel shame about being depressed right now. My life is so good. So so good. And I feel ashamed because my brain is telling me all kinds of crazy stuff and making a good attempt at trying to kill me. I'm managing but damn if I don't feel bad about feeling bad.

No matter how many times I go through a depression and how rationally I know that depression will be my lifelong companion in some form or another, there's this faint hope, this tiny voice in the back of my head that says, "Nope, this is the last time you'll be depressed."

And I really want it to be true. Even if it can't be true, I really want it to be. And so I feel ashamed. Ashamed for being depressed. Ashamed for wanting to not be depressed. Ashamed for hoping to never be depressed again. Ashamed for being depressed even though I'm so happy with my life.

Depression is maddening. Maddening. Maddening. Maddening.

tall penguin

Sunday, September 16, 2012

To Fail Well...

Why now and not then? I've been pondering this question a lot lately. My life seems to be experiencing an upswing, and I'm wondering 'why now?' There are many factors that come into play as to why we are where we are. Luck, timing, hard work, amongst other things, can all contribute to life change and it is difficult to parse out what has effected what. Way leads on to way and it is not possible to trace a distinct line from there to here. And yet, I keep wondering how I got here. Actually the question is born more from a related wondering of 'how could I have gotten here sooner?'

It's not that I'm feeling sorry for myself, it's that I really wish I understood better the process by which I have come to be where I am. I can see that my mental landscape has changed profoundly over the past couple of years and I wonder if there was a way to fast-track those mental shifts. I used to believe in the New Age-influenced idea of "The Universe" unfolding my life according to some plan, but I don't believe that anymore. Actually, it's quite possible that that belief kept me from taking responsibility for moving my life ahead faster than I did. 


Believing in a master plan of any sort has tripped me up many times across my life. I am loathe to admit how many times I gave up jobs and relationships that were actually serving me well because I felt that God or "The Universe" wanted me to move my life in some other direction. If I am honest with myself, I just didn't have the skills to be in those jobs or relationships, nor the awareness or humility to know that I needed those skills and should find a way to acquire them. So, in order to keep my ego intact, I needed some external framework to place responsibility on. An externally-controlled master plan fit the bill. 


It is sobering how many times in recent years I've experienced the deep realization that I've been an idiot. And I don't mean, "Poor me, I grew up in a cult, people taught me bad beliefs." I mean the very acute sensation that it wasn't just the cult, or my mother, or my upbringing, or the New Age crazy, but that there were also fundamental flaws in my personality that impeded me from seeing things that others in all of those situations may have saw. Perhaps this is the wisdom that comes with age or the fact that I've now tried on enough different belief systems, relationships and jobs to see that one of the most glaring common denominators across the shitty bits of my life is me. Yes, there were many external factors beyond my control. But they weren't all beyond my control. And I wasn't taking nearly enough control over the ones I could have.

I wasted a lot of time. It's a realization I will have to live with and will work the rest of my life to rectify. I took a lot for granted. That too is a realization I will have to live with and will work the rest of my life to rectify. The other realization though is that while I'm aware of all of this now, it's no guarantee that I won't succumb to making poor decisions again and again, or that I won't fall into the trap of feeling helpless again. I guess the best I can hope for is to learn to fail often, to fail well, and to continue to find the skills to pick myself up and move forward again.


tall penguin



Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Brain Gym, The New Age and Alternative Medicine...

When I was a Jehovah's Witness, I also got myself into the New Age/Alternative Medicine (which I will herein call the NA/AM) movement. And after leaving the JW's, finally having the freedom to do whatever I liked, I got more involved in it. Until I realized that much of the beliefs and philosophy of that movement were not that different from the faulty beliefs of the cult I was raised in.

When J, the then-boyfriend who I left the Jehovah's Witnesses with, prompted me to question my beliefs about the JW movement back in 2005, it wasn't long before he also began questioning my NA/AM beliefs (which I was definitely not ready for). You see, at the time, I was working in the Alternative Medicine field. I had a private practice in a Naturopathic clinic practicing a technique called Brain Gym. I was also deeply involved in homeopathy (practising it both for myself and recommending it to my clients). I believed in "energy" and chakras. I was even on my way to getting my Touch for Health certification, a form of Applied Kinesiology. And I was firmly convinced that thoughts could magically change reality (as in "The Law of Attraction"). 

There are many reasons why I left the NA/AM world. I stumbled on this article by Karla McLaren for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry that echoes some of them. McLaren was a leader in the New Age culture. She wrote books on auras, chakras and "energy", toured for those books and gave lectures. In her article, she details how she'd like to be able to communicate scientific and critical thinking to New Age believers, but it's her personal journey from NA/AM believer to skeptic that I want to direct your attention to here. Since McLaren was a prominent figure in the movement it was not so easy for her to disappear from the scene without alienating the community she'd once belonged to:

"The cultural rift is so extreme that anything I say will prove that I have gone to the other side, the wrong side—the side of the enemy."

When you leave a faith system, any faith system, which has a very rigid and defined way of seeing the world, it is difficult for those you are leaving to understand how you could ever question what you once held dear. But as McLaren goes on to say, once the evidence for your beliefs is questioned, you can't turn back:

"I have just seen enough to know that the skeptics and the critical thinkers have some extremely pertinent and meaningful things to say. I've now studied enough skeptical and scientific information about paranormal abilities and events to question many of the precepts upon which my work was based. More important, I've seen enough to understand firsthand the real costs of the New Age."

Like McLaren, I struggled when first realizing my NA/AM beliefs were faulty. For many reasons. One was that I was in the field myself. I wasn't just using these ideas for my own health decisions but I was openly advocating them to my clients, which were mostly school children and educators, although I did have some adult clients as well. It was hard to accept that I'd been profiting from people practicing something that was based on faulty premises. Sure, I was sincere in my beliefs at the time, just as I was sincere as a Jehovah's Witness knocking on people's doors trying to save them from an impending Armageddon. But sincerity does not preclude someone from being wrong.

When I first started questioning my NA/AM beliefs, I came across what I felt at the time were derogatory terms, like SCAM (Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine). This bothered me because I felt the implication was that everyone involved in the movement was a charlatan. And that hadn't been my experience. Sure, there were definitely some unscrupulous characters in the movement, just as there were in the Jehovah's Witnesses. But I saw mostly sincere folks who really wanted to help people. Again, wrong, but sincere. And I was one of them. As McLaren says, "I worked in the field because I have a deep and abiding concern for people, and an honest wish to be helpful in my own culture."

I was never in it for the money. As it was, as a new practitioner, I was barely making enough money to live on although many of my colleagues in the NA/AM field were doing quite well after practicing for a number of years. I often did my work without charge or on a sliding scale, because I sincerely wanted and believed I could help people. As McLaren states:

"If I were in this business for the money, I would have never seriously questioned what I was doing. I would have turned back as soon as my research challenged or threatened me. But I wasn't in it for the money. I was there to help people, often very disturbed people who were trammeling after this cure, that device, these gurus, or those miracle supplements. I tried to help people in my culture make sense of all the ideas and gadgets that were coming at them with such rapidity, but I was unable to make even a dent. When I understood fully that, no matter how good my intentions, the mere mention of things like auras, chakras, and “energy” brought with them a host of truly unsafe and untested assumptions—and that I was leading people into an arena where skepticism and critical thinking were forbidden—I knew that it was time to stop, and stop completely. It was a wrenching, isolating, and despair-filled decision, but since my focus is to help others, it was the only ethical or moral shift for me to make."

This was inevitably the decision I ended up making a few years into my practice. But before I get to that, you may wonder how it was that I got into the NA/AM movement at all. It might seem contradictory, but the Jehovah's Witnesses religion seems to be a breeding ground for alternative medicine. Although the official dogma advises members to steer clear of its many forms, because they deem it as having roots in spiritism, unofficially JW's flock to alt med in large numbers. It's not much of a leap when you've adopted one set of bad premises to accept another set of bad premises. 

So, I got involved in the NA/AM movement back when I was in my late teens, as a JW. I had a variety of health problems (the diagnoses at the time were Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia) and "mainstream medicine" (as it is derisively called in the movement) wasn't of much help to me at that time. So my mother sought out alternative treatments, many of which were being practiced by Jehovah's Witnesses in my local congregation. It wasn't long before I was being treated with homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, reflexology, and various forms of "energy work". And then, when I was about 17, my mother stumbled on a Brain Gym practitioner. 

Brain Gym doesn't sound all that terrible at first. It's a series of physical exercises. In and of itself, exercise is a good thing. Science shows this. But Brain Gym doesn't just claim to be an exercise program; it claims that its 26 movements "integrate body and mind to bring about rapid and often dramatic improvements in: concentration, memory, reading, writing, organizing, listening, physical coordination, and more." (See the official Brain Gym website for more info on their claims.) Those are some pretty strong claims for a program that isn't based on scientific studies. On their site, they openly acknowledge: "Our primary evidence comes from the countless anecdotal stories reported to us since 1986." (Italics mine.) If you don't know why using anecdotes as data is an unreliable, and possibly dangerous, means of assessing the efficacy of a program or intervention of any sort, see this excellent article over at the Science-Based Medicine blog.

If you're interested, you can read an excellent critique of Brain Gym on the Neurologica blog. Ben Goldacre, in his book Bad Science, also devotes a whole chapter on why Brain Gym is considered pseudoscience.

Speaking of which, I remember my first encounter with the term pseudoscience. I was teaching a Brain Gym workshop to a group of High School teachers. It was a 3-hour workshop which I really enjoyed teaching and taught to educators at all levels. I took people through a Brain Gym stress assessment process and then taught them Brain Gym exercises to help them de-stress. But, for the first time, in the post-workshop feedback form I had every workshop attendee fill out, I was hit with dissenters. The Science teachers tore into Brain Gym. I'd never seen the word pseudoscience used before, nor so often. I was mortified. I didn't know what the word meant but I knew from the context that it couldn't be good. When I got home I was afraid to look it up. I calmed myself with the thought that these Science teachers were just naysaying "unbelievers". But I was unsettled enough by their response to begin doubting what I was teaching. I respected educators and I respected science; ironically, it was my love for science that lead me into wanting to teach Brain Gym in the first place.

But I wasn't ready to go the distance with my doubts at that point. Instead, after the workshop, I called my Brain Gym teacher, and mentor in the movement, and asked her about what these teachers were saying. She just told me to go back and read my books on Brain Gym, "integrate" the material, and do more Brain Gym to figure out how to teach the work better. Sound familiar? In hindsight, it wasn't that different from what I was told as a Jehovah's Witness when I had doubts: read your Bible, pray more and ask God to show you the way. There was no real conversation about the criticisms these teachers were levelling against Brain Gym. There were no scientific studies that I was directed to to validate the work as being legitimate. Just a lot of "feel good" language that didn't make me feel so good.

From those initial doubts, to the doubts that lead me to leave the Jehovah's Witnesses, to the reading and educating I did to become a more rational thinker, I was able to leave Brain Gym and the NA/AM world behind. I may blog on my journey out of the NA/AM movement, but for now, suffice it to say that it was a difficult one; in some ways more difficult than leaving the JW's. Having realized I'd been duped by the religion of my upbringing, it was quite a blow for me to acknowledge that I'd also been duped in this other area of my life, and had built a career on those beliefs, thus bringing others into my ignorance. The NA/AM philosophy, much like the JW dogma, is all-pervasive. The foundation premise of the philosophy is vitalism, which is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as
  1. a doctrine that the functions of a living organism are due to a vital principle distinct from biochemical reactions
  2. a doctrine that the processes of life are not explicable by the laws of physics and chemistry alone and that life is in some part self-determining. 
And when you adopt faith in that concept, much like accepting the concept of God, it shades your most basic decision-making abilities and thought processes. I am still finding remnants of its effects on my everyday judgements.

In 2005, the same year I left the Jehovah's Witnesses, I closed my Brain Gym practice, which had, after 4 years, actually just begun to take off and make me a basic living. My main reason at the time for closing up shop wasn't yet because I fully saw the error of my beliefs, but because I was an emotional mess from my JW exit and didn't have the capacity to help my patients. I felt it was unfair to me and to them to continue to offer my services. I still saw clients on a limited basis and taught the occasional workshop and had fully intended to go back into the Brain Gym work once I regained my health and stability. 

I only gave my last Brain Gym workshop a few years ago. I have now let my official membership lapse and my instructor/practitioners licence has expired.  

Confronting reality has cost me a lot over the years. I lost my community. I lost my career. I've had to start my life over more times than I care to think about. But now that I've been living with a skeptical mindset for a few years now, I can say that it has greatly improved my quality of life overall. While the adjustments to my psyche took a considerable amount of time and energy, not to mention bruises to my strongly entrenched sense of self, I feel more grounded in reality than I ever have before. Having developed basic critical thinking skills, I am now better prepared to make informed and healthy decisions for my life. I also find that a basic understanding of scientific principles, probability and logic has helped me in my relationships with others and with myself.

In a nutshell, I've never felt saner. And sane is a really great place to be.

tall penguin 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

To Live a Life...

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."
~George Bernard Shaw

In the past two years, I haven't written very much here. I needed a break. I needed to step away from the story that has unfolded here since I left the Jehovah's Witnesses back in 2005. I needed to get perspective on what story I'd like to continue telling, or if I want to continue telling one at all. 

I battled for some time with myself about not writing regularly on this blog. It was a good six months before the voices quelled enough to just let it all be. I have continued writing in my private journals. I am a writer after all, and writers write. 

I spent much of the past couple of years reading and taking notes and reflecting and taking more notes. I buried myself deep in neuroscience, medicine and psychology. I have always had a passion for understanding how the human organism works. Growing up, we had a set of medical encyclopedias that I would read for fun. I'm sure it lead to me being a tad bit of a hypochondriac, but it also gave me an intense appreciation for medicine and human physiology. In my teens, my interest shifted to the mind and I became fascinated with personality tests and pop psychology. But now, with the Internet and the advances in our understanding of the brain, I have access to an abundance of information. I can look up studies. I can read blogs written by neuroscientists and medical specialists. There is a wide world of knowledge at my fingertips. So much has changed since my encyclopedia-reading days. 

I have focused a lot of my research on the brain's cognitive biases and human irrationality. When I realized that the religion I'd been raised with was filled with falsehoods, I felt betrayed by my parents and my elders, those I felt were responsible for imparting correct information to me, a trusting child. But it wasn't long before that sense of betrayal extended to myself. I felt betrayed by my own mind. Why did it take so long for me to realize that I'd been duped? What was it about the human mind that allowed such ridiculous beliefs to take root to begin with? Much of my writing in previous years explored these questions on a very personal level. But over the past few years, I've taken a step back and realized it wasn't just me that had been duped. We're all duped by something. We all carry irrational beliefs that we take for truth. And so, I wanted to understand what it was about the human brain that lent itself to such self-deception. 

I found out more than I bargained for and it made me really depressed for quite a while. I fell into quite an existential stupor in 2010. I could not come to terms with the absurdities of life and human existence.  After everything I'd been through, I didn't think it could get more difficult, but it did. I had reached a whole new level of knowledge. For the first time in my life, I felt completely naked, exposed entirely to my own ignorance and the collective ignorance of the human species. I could finally see all the cognitive errors I'd made through my life. Bad beliefs lead to bad decisions. Bad decisions lead to difficult experiences. It was all quite overwhelming to be faced with the raw truth of reality. Reality really does bite.

And, of course, there eventually came the meaning question and the realization that there is no inherent, overarching meaning to life, the Universe and everything in it. It just is. And the related realization, that if I wanted my life to mean something, I'd have to decide on that meaning for myself. And damn, what did I want my life to mean? Who did I want to be? And I found myself revisiting old versions of myself, and picking and choosing the bits of those mes that I wanted to keep and those that I wanted to discard. This was all percolating in my psyche as I read more and more about the brain. I took every bit of information I'd read and turned it back on my life. What does this teach me about life and my relation to it? What does this teach me about how to make my life better? How can I take this knowledge and make myself into the person I would really like to be?

My main goal in all of my self-exploration has always been to be healthy, sane and high-functioning enough to contribute to the society I live in and to not be a burden on others. I pulled away quite a bit in 2010, partly to heal and partly because I didn't want to infect too many people with my crazy while I was healing. For all of my reading, writing, reflecting, and therapy, I was still hitting the wall with my mental health. My moods were still inconsistent and I still thought of suicide regularly. Anxiety and depression were still my constant companions and no matter how hard I worked on bringing my mind into a rational space, there was still a wall that I couldn't get through. 

At that point, I realized that I needed pharmacological assistance for my brain to set up some kind of baseline. Without that, I knew I would just continue to flounder, no matter how hard I tried. So, I did the trial and error thing once again with my doc and about a year ago, we stumbled on a combination of meds that has changed my life. For the first time in 25 years, my brain is not actively trying to kill me. While I was quite aware of having recurrent suicidal thoughts since I was a teen, I didn't realize how much they had enveloped my daily life until sometime last Fall, when I noticed that they were gone. 

My mental landscape has changed profoundly since then. It was like the meds unlocked a door for me. And behind that door was all of the learning I'd done in the past 7 years; all the therapy I'd done, all the self-reflection and realizations. Suddenly, it was all there. Quiet. Accessible. In its place. 

I also woke up one day about a year ago and started walking regularly. For someone with Fibromyalgia, this is a big deal. It took a few months for my body to stop hating me, but it eventually got the message that this was going to be a regular thing. It still hurts but it's manageable. And starting my day with walking gives me time to listen to science podcasts or music or audiobooks. More knowledge. Yay!

After isolating myself so much in 2010, I knew that I would have to make a concerted effort to get back into life, to get engaged with people again. So, I started a weekly board games night at my apartment. A little wine, a little food and a whole lot of Cards Against Humanity. Nothing helps you come to terms with the absurdities of life like a little off-color humor. Laughter really is good medicine.

I now see my parents fairly often. We do lunch and shopping every couple of weeks. I think we've found a place of mutual respect. We might not share religious beliefs, but we share a love and basic humanistic respect for each other. And that is worth something.

I still grapple with questions of meaning and the absurdity of existence. And more recently, I've become acutely aware of the fact that I won't be here one day. And even more acutely aware that 'everyone I know, someday, will die.'


I try not to think about it all so much anymore. I keep engaged with life, with the people that matter to me and with the present moment. I'm not really sure how I got to where I am. Life is much more random than we realize and we have far less control over it than we think. This used to be depressing; now it's freeing.

Part of being able to move forward this past year was a conscious grieving of all the people I could have been. I easily could have been a doctor or a researcher. I could have been a lot of things. 



I feel like I took a 25 year long detour and am finally getting back on course with the life I want to be living. I know some people will say that I can still be a doctor or a researcher. Perhaps. But it doesn't matter anymore. I'm content with the knowledge that I was capable of being those people, that that potential was in me. If life had unfolded differently for me, a lot of things would be different. But it didn't. You can only play the cards you've been dealt. I only hope to play them well.

The reality is that while the past is the past, it has had its effects. My health will always need to be a consideration in my life decisions and now that I'm entering mid-life, there are age-related considerations to be made. Reality may bite, but I prefer it now to living in fantasyland. Part of growing up is accepting that life is what it is, whether you like it or not. And if you stop arguing with reality, life gets easier. 

There is something very sweet about the mortal life; once you realize the finitude of existence, you stop taking it for granted. And then, you start living. 

tall penguin

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Return of Miss S...

It's been so long since I've written here regularly that I feel as though I've forgotten how to blog. I've been fighting with myself about coming back to regular blogging. After such a long hiatus, I wasn't sure what to talk about first. And then something really great happened. And I thought, hey, this would be a great comeback story. So, here goes.

I wrote back in December of 2009 about a young JW girl, S, who was very dear to me. At that point, we had reconnected briefly, and randomly,  for the first time after my leaving the religion in 2005. She was 11 at that time and although I covertly slipped her my phone number, I didn't expect to hear from her for many years. I figured that once she turned 18, she'd have the right to stop attending the Jehovah's Witness meetings and then she'd come find me. Well, sometimes life takes unexpected turns and three months ago I received a phone message from Miss S, who I will now call by her real name, Sophie:

"Hi, it's me Sophie, K's daughter. I don't know if you remember me but I was thinking about you the other day and I miss you. And I'd like to talk to you. Can you call me?"

I don't think I can adequately describe how I felt when I heard that message, but I'll try. First, I did a little dance around my living room. And then I started crying, overcome with joy. A lot of really shitty stuff has happened across my life, not the least of which was losing contact with this child when I left the JWs and experienced shunning from my whole community. And here was her voice, on my phone, asking me to call her. So, I did.

I was nervous when I dialed her number. I had no idea what her JW status was. Was she and her family still in? Did her parents know she was contacting me? I wouldn't let any of that keep me from contacting her but I was also aware of the penalties and grief that she could suffer from having contact with me, the "apostate". 

When she picked up the phone, I could hardly contain my excitement. I had flashes of all of the beautiful moments we'd shared when she was a young girl. I was happy to hear in her voice that bubbly, talkative and loving girl I once knew.

As soon as we started talking, all the details spilled out. She was almost 14. She was a month away from her Grade 8 graduation. Her family hadn't been to JW meetings in years. She had always hated the religion and was happy to never have to sit through another long, boring JW sermon again. 

There was much to discuss so we made arrangements to meet for dinner. I picked her up at her home and we ended up spending the whole evening together, catching up on seven years of missed moments.  She filled me in on every bit of juicy gossip from my old JW congregation, including what happened in the aftermath of my leaving. She recounted one incident that took place shortly after I'd left. She was out with a bunch of JW adults in the proselytizing work and had seen me from afar on the street. She had wanted to go and say hello, but was told it was forbidden for her to talk to me. She said that had really bothered her. She had thought, 'She's my friend. Why can't I talk to her?'

She told me how much she hated being raised JW, how hypocritical she found everyone to be. She hated the cliques and the backbiting, the dogmatism and the lack of real love for others. When she was in Grade 3, she was so depressed about being stuck in the religion that she tried to kill herself. This made me very sad and also very angry. A lot of people in this religion have much to answer for. I wish there was a way to hold them accountable. The only solace I take from all of this is that Sophie is out now and got out young enough to build the life she wants. And, of course, that I'm now a part of her life again and get to be part of that building and unfolding.

Sophie and I now spend time together regularly. She comes and spends whole weekends with me where we go shopping, discuss life over dinner and stay up late watching movies. Normal stuff. Human stuff. 

Sometimes when I see her, I can't believe it's really her. Her with me. And we're both out of the religion and never going back. It's kind of surreal actually. As much grief as I experienced in losing contact with her, my brain had come to a certain level of acceptance that maybe I'd never be able to have her in my life again. I didn't like it, but I'd stopped crying about it. One thing that has shifted profoundly for me over the past year is that I no longer fight with reality. Reality always wins.

Sophie invited me to her Grade 8 Graduation last month. I was so touched to be there. The last time I'd attended one of her school events was when she was in Kindergarten and I volunteered to help the day her class went to the zoo. She was 4 then. She's 14 now. A decade has changed so much, yet changed so little. Sophie is still the bright-eyed, inquisitive, feeling child I knew then. And also the strong, independent, intelligent young woman I am lucky to know now. 

Here is a photo of us the night we reconnected: 


And one taken the night of her Grade 8 Graduation:



Sophie is the reason I've started blogging again. She's my inspiration. She has many questions about life and love and everything in between and I hope I can explore some of the ideas we discuss, here on my blog. When we reconnected, I showed her the entry I'd written about her over 2 years ago. She said, "You have to write another entry! You have to tell them I'm back!" 

As I write this, Sophie is sleeping on my couch. She will be delighted when she wakes to see that I've written the update to our story. I'm grateful there's an update to write. And even more grateful that our story has really only just begun.

tall penguin

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

7 and Counting!

Well, it's been a while. I haven't posted here since my last birthday a year ago. I hope that today's entry will be my return to blogging. I have much to tell you.

This birthday feels different somehow. Like some sort of pivotal turning point in my life. I joked with some friends that this is the year I decide to permanently fix my age at 19 but, all jokes aside, 19 was a crappy time in my life. So was 25. So was 30. But now, at age 38, life is good. I am happy to be 38.

Having now been out of the Jehovah's Witnesses for seven years, I feel quietly content with how far I've come. The constant grind to assimilate into the post-cult world, the obsessive desire for knowledge, the ever-present anxiety associated with what once was has dissipated greatly. Perhaps it is a function of age that things automatically begin falling into perspective or maybe it is the great gift of a declining memory that I am no longer able to recall as much of what happened, or at least why it was all so terrible. Age has a way of blunting the edges of the past and muting the intensity of all that came before. And for that I am grateful.

As you know, I have counted my birthdays according to when I left the JW's, so I am 7 this year. Let's see how I measure up against the developmental stages for a 7 year old. My comments are in red.

Motor Development

Hand-eye coordination is well developed. Playing all those first-person shooter games has finally paid off!

Has good balance. I'm fine as long as I'm not wearing heels. Tall Penguins are not made for heels.

Can execute simple gymnastic movements, such as somersaults.



Yes, that's right, I just posted a Culture Club video. I'm cool like that. 

Language and Thinking Development

Uses a vocabulary of several thousand words. Several thousand?! Wahoo! 

Demonstrates a longer attention span. Thanks be to Adderall. 

Uses serious, logical thinking; is thoughtful and reflective. I can now tell my Ad Hominems from my Straw Mans. 

Able to understand reasoning and make the right decisions. Getting there. 

Can tell time; knows the days, months, and seasons. To everything, turn. 

Can describe points of similarity between two objects. (Or people.) I have always liked the word 'kindred'. I remember first encountering the word while reading Anne of Green Gables. It may even have been at age 7 that I read that book for the first time. It became one of my faves.

Kindred is most often associated with having a similar biological origin, of being of the same family. But the orphan Miss Anne Shirley taught me that kindred can apply to those of similar mind that you choose to attach yourselves to; the family you make for yourself out of friends and community. In anticipation of meeting Diana Barry, who shall become her best friend, Anne asks:

"A bosom friend--an intimate friend, you know--a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul. I've dreamed of meeting her all my life. I never really supposed I would, but so many of my loveliest dreams have come true all at once that perhaps this one will, too. Do you think it's possible?"


I have been quite fortunate since leaving the JWs to have found some 'kindred spirits' to share my life with. I have seen that family can extend beyond blood and that choosing my family has brought me into contact with some amazing people.

Begins to grasp that letters represent the sounds that form words. Hooked on Phonics worked for me!

Able to solve more complex problems. Fortunately, xkcd helps me with all the important ones.



Individual learning style becomes more clear-cut. I really do see this happening. I'm very much someone who learns by reading and writing. I have a rather difficult time listening. I have been training myself to listen better by adding podcasts and audiobooks to my morning walk playlist. It's slow but I'm hoping I can modify this because I intend to take a University level class this Fall. That's right, the Penguin is returning to the classroom. Gonna dip my toe in the water and see how it feels to listen to someone give a lecture that isn't about God, eternal destruction and other fairy tales of epic proportion. I surmise it shall feel pretty damn good. 

Social and Emotional Development

Before I get into these skills, I want to make a comment about my general social and emotional development. I have suffered from a significant amount of social and general anxiety most of my life. Looking at the list below, it almost feels like much of my development may have gotten stuck at this stage. It was at this age that our family officially entered into the JW life full swing. I suspect that the year ahead will bring me a continuing sense of emotional liberty and calm and I will finally be able to move beyond these 7 year old tendencies. 

Desires to be perfect and is quite self-critical. I have been exploring the concepts of perfectionism vs. excellence and have found myself definitely moving towards the latter over the former. It's about damn time! (Yes, that was a little self-criticism. Gotta keep it real.)

Worries more; may have low self-confidence. Actually, I'm worrying less and feel more confident than I have in the past two decades. I may be 7 but I am also 38 and there is a distinct beauty to entering mid-life. Most of what I once worried about no longer matters. Or matters less. And who I am in any given moment is usually good enough. The circle of those whose opinion matters to me is smaller than ever. Most of the time, what others think of me is really none of my business. And sometimes, even what I think of me is none of my business. One thing about learning critical thinking skills is you realize that even your perceptions of self need to be questioned and evaluated according to evidence. 

Tends to complain; has strong emotional reactions. Workin' on it. 

Understands the difference between right and wrong. Shedding the dogmatic narrative about right and wrong I was raised with has allowed me to design my own set of principles to live by. This has required much careful research, thought and consideration. It is a work in progress and requires intense diligence, but I am happy with the framework for life I'm creating. 

Takes direction well; needs punishment only rarely. *Evil Penguin smiles her evil smile* 

Avoids and withdraws from adults. I have been exploring the concepts of introversion and extroversion and where I fall on that spectrum. I suspect that I will always have a tendency to withdraw from people.  I enjoy solitude. While social anxiety is not the reason I withdraw anymore, it is still my desire to have time away from people to contemplate, read and write. I cherish my introversion as a fundamental part of my temperament.

Is a better loser and less likely to place blame. I'm not a fan of the word blame. I prefer the word responsibility. I'm working towards placing responsibility where it lies, whether with myself or someone else or chalking it up to the randomness of life. But blame is useless. It is disempowering for everyone involved and precludes resolution. 

Waits for her turn in activities. Hmm...well, my weekly Games Nite crew would be the best judge of that. I do my best to be patient, but I'm also highly competitive, so there's likely to be moments where I will Penguin Poke ya for taking too long. 

Starts to feel guilt and shame. This is definitely one spot where it's very apparent I got stuck at this point in development. Guilt and shame have been my constant companions through much of my life. But they're really sucky companions and I refuse to be friends anymore.
 
I find the tips on parenting a 7-year-old quite interesting and shall rely on my circle of friends to help me out with these over the next year.

"This is a time of fragile self-esteem, so offer frequent encouragement and positive feedback. Help ease the tendency for self-criticism by stressing what he's learned rather than how the final product looks. Be patient and understanding of volatile emotions and moods. Take advantage of his eagerness to learn by asking open-ended, thought-provoking questions, doing puzzles, and playing thinking games. Initiate discussions about right vs. wrong. Provide opportunities for independent decision-making."

Well, there you have it. 38 going on 7. I expect the year ahead to be one unlike any other I've had yet in this life. Older, wiser and much contenter, I see many great things on the horizon. And I shall have you join me more along the way. There is much to discuss.

tall penguin

Monday, June 20, 2011

I'm 6!!!

It's technically my 30-something birthday today, but since I've only had birthdays since leaving the JW's, I'm only 6 this year. Yup, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

So, let's see how I measure up in my development this year. These are the developmental milestones for a six-year-old, with my comments in red. 


Motor Development

May still be somewhat uncoordinated and gawky. Somewhat? I don't think coordinated will ever be a word applied to the penguin. 

Able to learn to ride a bicycle. Got that one beat. 

Can move in time with music or a beat. You should see my kick-ass Bollywood dance moves!

Language and Thinking Development

Moving toward abstract thinking. Slow but sure.

Develops reasoning skills. Finally.

Shifts from learning through observation and experience to learning via language and logic. This one made me LOL. It's actually something I've been working very hard at this year. I really am 6 years old. 

Wants it all; has difficulty making choices. So many men, so little time. 

Social and Emotional Development

Grows more independent, yet feels less secure. Wow, that hits a little too close to home. But good to see I'm right on track.

Craves affection from parents and teachers. Not parents and teachers, more like mentors and friends.

Friendships are unstable; can be unkind to peers. I try to play nice in the sandbox, but it's not always easy. Sometimes, people suck.

Needs to win and may change rules to suit herself. Rules? There are rules? 

May be hurt by criticism, blame, or punishment. Isn't everyone?

Can be rigid, demanding, and unable to adapt. Adapt!!!

Increasingly aware that others have may have different feelings. Other people have feelings? Is that that whole 'theory of mind' thang I've been reading about?

Nice to see that I'm on track. The advice for dealing with a 6-year-old? "Be patient with her selfishness; it will pass." We can only hope. :)

tall penguin

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Something to do...

It's been a while. I've received a number of emails and queries checking in to ensure I'm still alive. Yes, I'm still here. Thank you for your concern.

I wish I had an explanation for why I've stopped writing on this blog. But I don't. As was often the case in the past, this time around I had no specific intention to take a break; I just stopped. The urge to share my writing on this blog just disappeared one day and hasn't really returned. I want to blame it on the existential angst I'm so used to, that feeling of absurdity I've been grappling with for the better part of my life, but even that feels like a false and hollow explanation. Truth is, just as I'm not sure what it is that compels me to share my writing, I'm not sure what it is that compels me to stop sharing my writing.

If it makes a difference to you at all (and I'm not sure why it should) I do continue to write. In my journals, in private emails, on scattered bits of paper that can be found strewn about my apartment, the words, ideas and mental meanderings live on. To what end I cannot say. I used to think I wrote for therapy. I used to think I wrote in the hopes of becoming a published author one day. I used to think I wrote because I couldn't not write. But really, I don't know why I write. I just do. To what end do we do anything at all in this life? I surmise that it is because we all need something to pass the time between birth and death. For me, that's as simple as it gets. I write because it's something to do.

So, for the time being, I leave this blog as a testimony to where I've been. Bear in mind that it is a reflection of a journey that is ongoing. Each entry is a snapshot into a moment of time and does not necessarily reflect how I currently see the world. Perhaps one day when the dust settles in my mind just a little bit, I will return here to share with you my travels.

Until we meet again,
tall penguin

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Woman With Flower

I wouldn't coax the plant if I were you.
Such watchful nurturing may do it harm.
Let the soil rest from so much digging.
And wait until it's dry before you water it.
The leaf's inclined to find its own direction;
Give it a chance to seek the sunlight for itself.

Much growth is stunted by too much prodding,
Too eager tenderness.
The things we love we have to learn to leave alone.

--Naomi Long Madgett

I've posted this poem here before. But I was reminded of it today and it feels very timely at the moment. Sometimes, "the things we love we have to learn to leave alone."  This is a difficult thing.  Particularly when it comes to those we love deeply; our lovers, our friends, our children, our families.  It's hard to let go and let time and nature take their course.  One is never guaranteed a particular outcome but that is the point; love and life is "inclined to find its own direction" if you let it.  If it grows towards you, great.  If it grows away from you, then you must learn to accept that.  It is what it is.   

tall penguin

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Richard Dawkins' Letter to his Daughter: Good and Bad Reasons for Believing

The following is a letter from evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins to his daughter Juliet when she was 10 years old.  If you're a parent, I invite you to read and contemplate this letter and consider what it is that you're teaching your child about how to think and navigate the world we live in.

I wish I'd received such a letter at the age of 10, or at the age of 30 for that matter. The letter is printed in Dawkins' book The Devil's Chaplain.

"Dear Juliet,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are very far away? And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun?

The answer to these questions is “evidence.” Sometimes evidence means actually seeing ( or hearing, feeling, smelling…) that something is true. Astronauts have travelled far enough from earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The “evening star” looks like a bright twinkle in the sky, but with a telescope, you can see that it is a beautiful ball – the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing ( or hearing or feeling…) is called an observation.

Often, evidence isn’t just an observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there’s been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the victim!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots or other observations which may all point toward a particular suspect. If a person’s fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn’t prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it’s joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realise that they fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

Scientists – the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe – often work like detectives. They make a guess ( called a hypothesis ) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: If that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveller, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started. When a doctor says that you have the measles, he doesn’t take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: If she has measles I ought to see…… Then he runs through the list of predictions and tests them with his eyes ( have you got spots? ); hands ( is your forehead hot? ); and ears ( does your chest wheeze in a measly way? ). Only then does he make his decision and say, ” I diagnose that the child has measles. ” Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-Rays, which help their eyes, hands, and ears to make observations.

The way scientists use evidence to learn about the world is much cleverer and more complicated than I can say in a short letter. But now I want to move on from evidence, which is a good reason for believing something , and warn you against three bad reasons for believing anything. They are called “tradition,” “authority,” and “revelation.”

First, tradition. A few months ago, I went on television to have a discussion with about fifty children. These children were invited because they had been brought up in lots of different religions. Some had been brought up as Christians, others as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs. The man with the microphone went from child to child, asking them what they believed. What they said shows up exactly what I mean by “tradition.” Their beliefs turned out to have no connection with evidence. They just trotted out the beliefs of their parents and grandparents which, in turn, were not based upon evidence either. They said things like: “We Hindus believe so and so”; “We Muslims believe such and such”; “We Christians believe something else.”

Of course, since they all believed different things, they couldn’t all be right. The man with the microphone seemed to think this quite right and proper, and he didn’t even try to get them to argue out their differences with each other. But that isn’t the point I want to make for the moment. I simply want to ask where their beliefs come from. They came from tradition. Tradition means beliefs handed down from grandparent to parent to child, and so on. Or from books handed down through the centuries. Traditional beliefs often start from almost nothing; perhaps somebody just makes them up originally, like the stories about Thor and Zeus. But after they’ve been handed down over some centuries, the mere fact that they are so old makes them seem special. People believe things simply because people have believed the same thing over the centuries. That’s tradition.

The trouble with tradition is that, no matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was. If you make up a story that isn’t true, handing it down over a number of centuries doesn’t make it any truer!

Most people in England have been baptised into the Church of England, but this is only one of the branches of the Christian religion. There are other branches such as Russian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the Methodist churches. They all believe different things. The Jewish religion and the Muslim religion are a bit more different still; and there are different kinds of Jews and of Muslims. People who believe even slightly different things from each other go to war over their disagreements. So you might think that they must have some pretty good reasons – evidence – for believing what they believe. But actually, their different beliefs are entirely due to different traditions.

Let’s talk about one particular tradition. Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was so special that she didn’t die but was lifted bodily in to Heaven. Other Christian traditions disagree, saying that Mary did die like anybody else. These other religions don’t talk about much and, unlike Roman Catholics, they don’t call her the “Queen of Heaven.” The tradition that Mary’s body was lifted into Heaven is not an old one. The bible says nothing on how she died; in fact, the poor woman is scarcely mentioned in the Bible at all. The belief that her body was lifted into Heaven wasn’t invented until about six centuries after Jesus’ time. At first, it was just made up, in the same way as any story like Snow White was made up. But, over the centuries, it grew into a tradition and people started to take it seriously simply because the story had been handed down over so many generations. The older the tradition became, the more people took it seriously. It finally was written down as an official Roman Catholic belief only very recently, in 1950, when I was the age you are now. But the story was no more true in 1950 than it was when it was first invented 600 years after Mary’s death.

I’ll come back to tradition at the end of my letter, and look at it in another way. But first, I must deal with the two other bad reasons for believing in anything: authority and revelation.

Authority, as a reason for believing something, means believing in it because you are told to believe it by somebody important. In the Roman Catholic Church, the pope is the most important person, and people believe he must be right just because he is the pope. In one branch of the Muslim religion, the important people are the old men with beards called ayatollahs. Lots of Muslims in this country are prepared to commit murder, purely because the ayatollahs in a faraway country tell them to.*

When I say that it was only in 1950 that Roman Catholics were finally told that they had to believe that Mary’s body shot off to Heaven, what I mean is that in 1950, the pope told people that they had to believe it. That was it. The pope said it was true, so it had to be true! Now, probably some of the things that that pope said in his life were true and some were not true. There is no good reason why, just because he was the pope, you should believe everything he said any more than you believe everything that other people say. The present pope ( 1995 ) has ordered his followers not to limit the number of babies they have. If people follow this authority as slavishly as he would wish, the results could be terrible famines, diseases, and wars, caused by overcrowding.

Of course, even in science, sometimes we haven’t seen the evidence ourselves and we have to take somebody else’s word for it. I haven’t, with my own eyes, seen the evidence that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Instead, I believe books that tell me the speed of light. This looks like “authority.” But actually, it is much better than authority, because the people who wrote the books have seen the evidence and anyone is free to look carefully at the evidence whenever they want. That is very comforting. But not even the priests claim that there is any evidence for their story about Mary’s body zooming off to Heaven.

The third kind of bad reason for believing anything is called “revelation.” If you had asked the pope in 1950 how he knew that Mary’s body disappeared into Heaven, he would probably have said that it had been “revealed” to him. He shut himself in his room and prayed for guidance. He thought and thought, all by himself, and he became more and more sure inside himself. When religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling “revelation.” It isn’t only popes who claim to have revelations. Lots of religious people do. It is one of their main reasons for believing the things that they do believe. But is it a good reason?

Suppose I told you that your dog was dead. You’d be very upset, and you’d probably say, “Are you sure? How do you know? How did it happen?” Now suppose I answered: “I don’t actually know that Pepe is dead. I have no evidence. I just have a funny feeling deep inside me that he is dead.” You’d be pretty cross with me for scaring you, because you’d know that an inside “feeling” on its own is not a good reason for believing that a whippet is dead. You need evidence. We all have inside feelings from time to time, sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don’t. Anyway, different people have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? The only way to be sure that a dog is dead is to see him dead, or hear that his heart has stopped; or be told by somebody who has seen or heard some real evidence that he is dead.

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise, you’ d never be confident of things like “My wife loves me.” But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t a purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based upon any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong. There are people with a strong inside feeling that a famous film star loves them, when really the film star hasn’t even met them. People like that are ill in their minds. Inside feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you just can’t trust them.

Inside feelings are valuable in science, too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a 'hunch' about an idea that just 'feels' right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

I promised that I’d come back to tradition, and look at it in another way. I want to try to explain why tradition is so important to us. All animals are built (by the process called evolution) to survive in the normal place in which their kind live. Lions are built to be good at surviving on the plains of Africa. Crayfish to be good at surviving in fresh, water, while lobsters are built to be good at surviving in the salt sea. People are animals, too, and we are built to be good at surviving in a world full of ….. other people. Most of us don’t hunt for our own food like lions or lobsters; we buy it from other people who have bought it from yet other people. We ”swim” through a “sea of people.” Just as a fish needs gills to survive in water, people need brains that make them able to deal with other people. Just as the sea is full of salt water, the sea of people is full of difficult things to learn. Like language.

You speak English, but your friend Ann-Kathrin speaks German. You each speak the language that fits you to ‘`swim about” in your own separate “people sea.” Language is passed down by tradition. There is no other way. In England, Pepe is a dog. In Germany he is ein Hund. Neither of these words is more correct, or more true than the other. Both are simply handed down. In order to be good at “swimming about in their people sea,” children have to learn the language of their own country, and lots of other things about their own people; and this means that they have to absorb, like blotting paper, an enormous amount of traditional information. (Remember that traditional information just means things that are handed down from grandparents to parents to children.) The child’s brain has to be a sucker for traditional information. And the child can’t be expected to sort out good and useful traditional information, like the words of a language, from bad or silly traditional information, like believing in witches and devils and ever-living virgins.

It’s a pity, but it can’t help being the case, that because children have to be suckers for traditional information, they are likely to believe anything the grown-ups tell them, whether true or false, right or wrong. Lots of what the grown-ups tell them is true and based on evidence, or at least sensible. But if some of it is false, silly, or even wicked, there is nothing to stop the children believing that, too. Now, when the children grow up, what do they do? Well, of course, they tell it to the next generation of children. So, once something gets itself strongly believed – even if it is completely untrue and there never was any reason to believe it in the first place – it can go on forever.

Could this be what has happened with religions? Belief that there is a god or gods, belief in Heaven, belief that Mary never died, belief that Jesus never had a human father, belief that prayers are answered, belief that wine turns into blood – not one of these beliefs is backed up by any good evidence. Yet millions of people believe them.  Perhaps this is because they were told to believe them when they were young enough to believe anything.

Millions of other people believe quite different things, because they were told different things when they were children. Muslim children are told different things from Christian children, and both grow up utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. Even within Christians, Roman Catholics believe different things from Church of England people or Episcopalians, Shakers or Quakers , Mormons or Holy Rollers, and are all utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. They believe different things for exactly the same kind of reason as you speak English and Ann-Kathrin speaks German. Both languages are, in their own country, the right language to speak. But it can’t be true that different religions are right in their own countries, because different religions claim that opposite things are true. Mary can’t be alive in Catholic Southern Ireland but dead in Protestant Northern Ireland.

What can we do about all this? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: “Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority, or revelation?” And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “What kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving
Daddy

*The fatwah against Salman Rushdie was prominently in the news at the time."

~~~~~~~~~~~~
I've read this over many times in the past few days since first coming upon it. Whoever sent it my way, thank you.  It is a very profound letter and I can't help but wish I'd been raised with such a grounded and real view of life.

tall penguin

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sins of the Father...

At the age of 14, I had a boyfriend.  As a good little Jehovah's Witness girl, I pretended he wasn't my boyfriend, because good little Jehovah's Witness girls don't date until they're ready to marry.  So, for four years I was "not dating" JR.

JR and I spent a considerable amount of time together.  He was my first love, a love that set the pattern for what I was to expect from love in all my future relationships.  Which, unfortunately for me, was not a good pattern at all.

JR was the youngest son of a Jehovah's Witness elder (the equivalent of a priest or pastor).  His mother can only be described as a "Christian martyr" who spent most of her time, when not working, preaching the "good news" of an impending Armageddon to her neighbors.  The rest of her time was spent keeping house.  

JR's father was an abusive man.  He would often get into fist fights with his teenage son or threaten him with a baseball bat.  He and JR's mother slept in separate rooms; his father even kept a lock on his bedroom door.

From the outside it appeared that this was a "spiritual" JW family; a family to be emulated.  But on the inside it was obvious that nothing could be further from the truth.  The first time I went to JR's house for a family dinner, I was struck by the tension in the air.  It was cold and sharp as if a Winter breeze filled the whole house.  As much as I bitch about my upbringing, the home I grew up in was a warm and inviting one.  It felt safe and secure.  JR's did not.  There was always a feeling that something was about to go horribly awry.  And it did.  It always did.

I remember one typical family dinner where JR's father got into a verbal spar with his wife about how distasteful he found the meal she'd made that night. I'd never seen such a display of malice between spouses.  It frightened me. And if I'd known any better, I would have left that house and never returned. But I was in shock.  And that shock kept me pinned to my seat, looking at JR to save me from this uncomfortable situation.  He didn't.  He was as numb as I was.  So I sat there and finished my dinner while JR's parents continued yelling at each other.

Over the four years JR and I were together I became the target of the rage he felt towards his parents.  I would get almost daily phone calls from JR, often drunk, that he'd been kicked out of the house and was contemplating suicide, or worse, leaving the religion.  I spent most of my teen years playing JR's therapist, talking him through another day, while crying alone at night. But JR was not appreciative of my efforts.  I remember so many conversations that would end with him saying, "Game Over.  You LOSE!"  As if every conversation we had was a mind game where he had to be in complete control.

But I loved him.  Or at least I thought that love meant sticking around to help someone when they were down, even to your own detriment.  You see, I was in love with JR's potential.  I thought that if I just loved him enough, he'd turn into this kind person who could love me back.  I even thought to myself "Just stick it out.  Armageddon is almost here.  And after that, God will make him into a better person.  All his flaws will disappear."  But Armageddon never came.  And God didn't make JR into a better person.  And JR wasn't making himself into a better person. And I was coming undone.

As I approached my 18th birthday, I broke up with JR.  I would like to say that the damage ended there. But I had stayed too long.  The mindfuck I'd endured exposed to JR and his crazy family had wormed its way deep into my psyche.  Some days I still feel that cold shiver that pervaded that house run through me, like ice.

In all of my relationships with men since I have fallen in love with their potential and not the reality of who they are.  I see what might be, not what is.  And it has cost me, time and time again.  While I may not have been waiting for God to wave some cosmic magic wand and make the man I love into a person who can fully love me back, I have hung on to wisps of hope that somehow, some way, things are going to change.  But they don't.  They just don't.  People are who they are and when they show you who they are, you should pay attention.

What ever became of JR?  Well, the last time I saw him was at his wedding some 6 years ago.  He was tall and thin and handsome, just as I remembered him.  But nothing really had changed in him.  I was close to his niece then who informed me that JR was as abusive and crazy as he'd ever been, perhaps even worse now.  I took no delight in this, although I was glad that it wasn't me joining him as wife.  JR had wreaked his havoc on my life but at least he would be able to do it no more.  In that I took solace.

But the most memorable moment of JR's wedding occurred when his father and I shared a dance.  

“Who invited you this evening?” JR's father asked me.

“Your son,” I replied.

“I think he still has a soft spot for you in his heart.  I always thought it would be the two of you getting married.” 

“No thanks,” I said.  He looked surprised.  “Your son wasn’t very nice to me,” I said, strangely calm.  

“You never said anything to me,” he said with a tone of empathy in his voice, something I had heard little of in the time I'd known him.  Age and time seemed to have mellowed him in a way I couldn't predict.  

“What was I supposed to say?”  I replied.

“Hmmm…I guess I had something to do with that," he stated, with a glint of regret in his eye. "I wasn’t there for JR.  I worked a lot.  We didn’t get along.”

“I know,” I said, “I know.”   

“So why did you come tonight?  Why didn’t you just tell JR to go jump in the lake?” he mused, laughing.

“Some chapters need to be closed,” I said, with a surprising confidence.  He looked at me and nodded without saying another word.

Later in the evening as I prepared to leave, it was JR's father that met me to say goodbye.  He shook my hand, hugged me and whispered into my ear, “You told me the truth tonight. I’m glad you did.”  

They say that the truth sets you free.  I don't know about that.  But once in a while, if you're lucky, it lets you experience a moment of grace where the past doesn't seem as suffocating as it once was. And perhaps, that is enough.  

tall penguin