Thursday, August 19, 2010

Growing Up...

"Growing up, growing up,
Looking for a place to live...

The breathing stops, I don't know when
In transition once again
Such a struggle getting through these changes "

~~Peter Gabriel, Growing Up

As a Jehovah's Witness, I spent most of my life in the saving business.  It was my daily concern to take any and every opportunity to declare my faith to others in the hope that I could save them before God's final war of Armageddon came to destroy the unbelievers.  In order to sustain this mindset, a JW must cling to the idea that their beliefs are right and the beliefs of others are wrong.   And this, I'm finding, is not an easy thing to set aside.

Having shifted into a more skeptical, atheist, science-based view of the world, I find myself seeing the world quite differently than I ever have before.  And yet, it seems you can take the girl out of the cult, but you can't take the cult out of the girl.  I am still consistently battling with that savior model in my mind; rather than saving the godless, now I want to save the godful.  There is still this drive in me to prove the rightness of what I believe and the wrongness of what others believe.  And it might be okay if it just stayed as a battle in my head, but I find it spilling into my daily life to the point where I'm becoming confrontational in a way that I don't enjoy. 

I don't like feeling defensive.  I felt defensive my whole life.  Everywhere I turned, I had to defend my beliefs to someone somewhere.  Even if I weren't formally knocking on people's doors to bring them the "good news", I was answering questions from someone about my beliefs: Why don't you celebrate birthdays?  Why don't you take blood transfusions?  Why don't you vote?  Even when I just wanted to relax, I still felt like I had to be on high alert for opportunities to defend my faith.  It was exhausting. 

And that anxiety persists.  Although I've changed my worldview 180 degrees, I still feel this strong pull that I must now defend this worldview and work on converting others to my point of view.  I am rationally aware that this is arrogant and foolish.  And yet, sometimes it feels as though I can't quite help myself.  Those defensive feelings, that drive to save others from their "wrong" beliefs is still so strong that it takes me great effort not to act it out.

The other belief system I'm currently working hard to overcome is again tied to others having different beliefs than mine.  As JW's there is this sameness of belief, so much so that you can go anywhere in the world, step into a Kingdom Hall (JW equivalent of a church) and hear the same beliefs being expounded.  There is no cultural or regional variance.  This sameness created a very secure feeling, close-knit environment.  And anyone who questions or challenges that sameness, through action against official JW dogma, is removed, excommunicated, kicked out and shunned from the rest of the group.  You can get back in but only once you conform your thinking and behavior once more to the group's.  There's very little room for individuality.

This desire for sameness of thought still pervades my psyche.  I watch as my brain has changed itself. I see how my thinking is so very different from where I was five years ago.  And I can see how my worldview and operating philosophy is different even from the friends I've acquired in these past few years.  And my knee-jerk response, my patterned reaction, is to want to cut off those friendships and seek out those who see the world as I do.  

It was a definite moment of grace recently when I was out with my friend G and we quite obviously disagreed on something and she must have noticed the complete look of terror on my face ("Oh my goodness, one of my best friends doesn't share my views on something that's really important to me, what do I do now?!") and she said something very simple and very profound, "Ya know, friends don't have to agree on everything." 

Of course, she's right.  And I knew this intellectually, but my behavior was still being driven by the JW mindset of sameness and uniformity of thought.

I watch these battles play out in my mind and in my life.  I still feel very much like a child in so many ways, just trying to bash my way through a world I still don't quite understand.  But honestly, I'm terribly exhausted.  I don't want to defend myself anymore.  I don't want to fight anymore.  I don't want to convert anyone ever again.  I'm out of the saving business.  If I can save myself from myself I will have accomplished much in this life.  And really, who else needs saving but me? 

I am fortunate to have friends, like G, who put up with my growing pains and keep me around even when I behave foolishly.  This is the kind of friendship I've longed for my whole life, friends who love me for who I am, not for what I believe or don't believe.  Friends who won't kick me out of the group because I'm no longer "one of them".  I hope I can continue to become that kind of friend to others.  I'm learning.  Pain by excruciating pain, I'm learning. 

tall penguin


Umlud said...

Can't you find uniformity in the belief that it's okay to be different? :D

tall penguin said...

Yup. That's what I'm moving towards. :)

Dylan said...

You know...

I adore you. Really. Your honesty and unflinching introspection (Ok. maybe you flinch sometimes, but you are still moving forwards with your examination of your life).

There have been some FB updates that I haven't commented on because I felt they alienated me - while not fundamentalist by a long shot - I am active in my Unitarian church here in the valley. A place where everyone's beliefs are welcomed as they are on a "responsible search for meaning" in their own lives and no one person believes the same as anyone else.

But I've wondered in the recent past, a few times, would I be rejected by you because I have a strong belief in a Spiritual truth that works for me?

Thank you for posting this. It is big learning, and you are also helping me see the places that I mirror these same challenges, in my own version.


tall penguin said...

Thank you, Dylan.

Yes, I realized that some of my FB posts were alienating people but I needed to do that in order to come to terms with some of my own thought processes. I post what I do to generate discussion. As you may have noticed I get flamed pretty often as well, often richly deserved. :) It's all a learning.

I am working to get to a place of not dismissing people out of hand because of differences in belief, unless of course they behave in a way that is consistently hurtful and unhealthy towards me. But there's the difference: it's not about what one believes, it's about how one behaves. Yes, the two often go together but I prefer to judge people more on the latter than the former.

It's also a tough part of maturing to know when to speak and when to stay silent. I have an opinion just like everyone else does. I am still trying to sort out how to be true to who I am without causing or taking offense. No easy task.

This whole sentience thing isn't easy. It's hard to overwrite the patterns we've become comfortable with, and not burn our bridges in the process. Fortunately, I have friends, like yourself, and Umlud, and G, and the people who read this blog, who are patient and kind. And for that I am truly grateful.

Dylan said...

I understand...and am not a terribly controversial person so instead of jumping in to challenge you, I stepped back. Its all good...I was watching. I know you are healing and processing and growing as we all are.

Your eloquence in describing what you experience, your goals and the bumps in the road to get there is lovely. I am happy to be a witness of your journey.

You ignite in me the willingness to look at myself more closely as well.


Andrew, York said...

(Tall Penguin having admonished me to speak rather than lurk...)

How great the world would be were we all the same. How easy, how comfortable, how utterly boring.

The desire for sameness does not arise from some remnant of your former beliefs but is, I suspect, a function of our humanity. Why else has humanity always organised itself according to kin, clan, language, or belief if not to associate with people similar to ourselves? It is easier, and less mentally or emotionally taxing, to agree than to disagree because disagreement with a friend requires a great mental effort - we must simultaneously hate their idea but continue to love them. Hate the sin, love the sinner. Your friend's idea is not your friend.

So your exhaustion is natural and your desire to save the godful (a great phrase) is not some mental imprint from your past but something we all desire regardless of background. So fight when you need to. And don't when you don't. And when you just can't agree, know that you're right and others are idiots...but they're your idiots. And love them for it.

tall penguin said...

Hello Andrew. :)

"The desire for sameness does not arise from some remnant of your former beliefs but is, I suspect, a function of our humanity."

Wow, does this mean that I'm finally beginning to leave just-JW issues for just-human issues? That's oddly comforting.

"So fight when you need to. And don't when you don't."

This is the skill set I'm still attempting to acquire. I'm a pretty strong-minded person. With an equally big mouth. I realize in reflecting on this post, that this is not due to any cult leftovers but is a fundamental part of who I am.

When I feel strongly about something, I speak and I act, often without fully thinking things through. But, for the most part, this trait has served me well. It is what lead me to leave the JW's in the first place, something I may not have done if I'd thought too much about whether it was a battle worth fighting or not.

And so, once again, it's not so easy to parse out the "right" or "wrong" way of handling a situation. As I am learning, sometimes the best thing you can do is to act decisively and be willing to accept the consequences of that decision, whatever they may be. While I'm not particularly fond of losing friends, it is often an inevitable consequence of living the life you need to live. And I can accept that; fortunately, I have learned to enjoy my aloneness and can thrive in solitude.

"And when you just can't agree, know that you're right and others are idiots...but they're your idiots. And love them for it."

Love thy idiots...I must've missed that one in the Old Testament. ;)

Thanks for your thoughts, Andrew. I hope to hear more of them in the future.