Miercoles con los Amigos Invisibles vol. 18: how it is I came to deconvert

God is dead. Pity killed him.
~Nietzsche

You see, my view is that even when we think it's about abstract things like God and hell and creationism, it's really about other people and out relationships with them. Which I suppose is just one further proof that we all are shaped by our personal narratives. Since for me, deconverting was about relationships with people, or rather, the delightful discovery that I was able to have them.

Once upon a time I was a Christian.

This of course isn't the beginning of the story. Long before I had any doubts about God, I had not doubt, but rather certainty that my own emotional and cognitive reflexes were completely unreliable. I had zero confidence in my own ability to perceive and judge accurately, and only marginal and situational trust in the ability of others to perceive and judge accurately. (When was the last time you walked down a street knowing, deep in your bones, that everything you see is certainly not what it appears to you to be, may be friendly or inimical, and in any case by the time you find out it will already be too late?) This has mostly to do with my parents' divorce and the emotional environment it fostered. Two highly intelligent people, who are passionately devoted to one's welfare in slightly different ways, each of whom believe (at the time) that the other is the apotheosis of evil and wishes only to brainwash and torment oneself, and each of whom has (relatively speaking) absolute power over oneself in one context or another, are bound to produce this effect. I got used to sort of watching my own life with a sick feeling of apprehension, waiting for the next inevitable, inexplicable event which I was certain I could have prevented, if only I had opened myself up to believe X or Y. Guilt and self-disgust were like air, plentiful and endlessly renewed. I am sure my sisters had nearly identical experiences, with the exception that they seemed to have been able to believe X or Y from time to time. I have no idea whether or not that made it easier. I think we each of us came away from the 90s with the feeling that we, ourselves, had been least damaged and had sacrificed most to protect the other two. I'm now certain I was wrong, and I had even less power over the situation than I assumed at the time. That, though, is another story.

By the time I was in sixth grade I had determined it was necessary to completely abandon all my judgments about people. Everything I thought I knew was wrong, or at least, dangerously incomplete. Whenever I acted by reflex, mimicking the things Mom or Dad or various authority figures had taught me, the results were disaster. People's feelings were hurt; they got mad at me, rejected me, reacted as though I were being a self-righteous ass. So I tore everything down and started from scratch at about that time. I spent most of my mental effort on this. (It was easier than spending my effort on family problems I knew I had no power to solve.) When I encountered a person and the reflex assumptions and categories sprang up in my mind, I would smack them down again. Viciously at first. As my new habits started to kick in, the new reflexes started to come more naturally. I would say silently to myself--in French, to minimize potential emotional baggage tied to terms--"C'est un/une que je ne connais pas." He/she is one whom I do not know. Obervation and inference as careful as I could manage filled in the gaps.

There were demons, of course. Mom believed in them, that they crept into the lives of believers and unbelievers alike, to cause misfortune and the desire for wickedness. This may not be entirely accurate, but it was my perception. I knew they were real because I could feel them, always, like a buzzing, predatory cloud just outside my skin. Mostly outside. Which parenthetically is the major reason I never did seriously consider suicide during that time: I knew they were there, waiting for me. Without the feeble protection of my body I would have been mincemeat. Evildoers and wicked actions and thoughts, I learned, brought demons into the lives of those they influenced. And every undesirable attitude and behavior had its own demon. Demons of disobedience, rebelliousness, sullenness. Demons which congregated around one's bed at night, or around one's awareness in the daytime, like invisible mosquitoes who whispered mind-shattering confidences and responded to every exercise of will with mocking laughter. Prayer would take the demons away, I learned. Only prayer to Jesus, only the complete submission of self to Jesus, the annihilation of self. The proof would not only be that the presence of the demons would recede--the real proof would be the changes in attitude and behavior. If I prayed and prayed and got no result, it was because my prayer was insincere, was not sufficiently abject, my soul not yet a fitting sacrifice. God was testing me. Again, my perception; at the time, though, it was my universe.

Sometimes it even worked. What the evangelicals call "mountaintop experiences" were the times when I had temporary relief. Surrounded by fellow believers, in a holy place, supported by the prayers of others who presumably were not so completely infected, the demons would recede. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, it was quieter inside me. When I prayed it would seem to be going somewhere, rather than being swallowed up and muffled on the way there. Yes, intellectually, I knew God could always hear me, whether I felt like I was being heard or not. But it was hard. I felt like a selfish brat, a whiny little bitch, for wanting to know God was there at the other end when I prayed--all the time, no matter how thick around me the demons congregated. How dare I ask for such unusual favor? Me, who didn't have to worry about where I would sleep or what I would eat or fear being beaten? I was a worthless, selfish, totally corrupt piece of trash, and if God didn't think I was worthy to have my demonic entourage curbed, it was less, far less than I deserved, and I ought to be grateful it was no worse. I thanked God every day that it was no worse, and prayed desperately for some relief from the loathing in my heart or the pain in my gut. (Which latter, I later learned was an undiagnosed non-perforated duodenal ulcer, but that's another story.) The lack of response was further proof of my own unworthiness.

Once upon a time, I was a Christian. I was one of about three total charismatic evangelicals at an extremely liberal Chicago high school. Given my previous experiences within the evangelical community, I was kind of expecting people's responses to the "witnessing" strategies I'd learned to vary from the script. After all, one's teachers and youth pastors and Christian age-mates, far more righteous and in tune with God than oneself, could vary from their scripts. So it was to be expected that poor unsaved souls with no notion that their suffering could be relieved might do the same. It wasn't a surprise to me, then, that the biology teacher rolled her eyes and scoffed at the subject when I brought up creationism, that the principal took me and my Christian Club co-founder aside and carefully explained that it would make her life easier if we did not have revivals and Holy Spirit manifestations on school property, that my atheist classmate Nick Lambrecht (whose Eschew Obfuscation t-shirt I still fondly recall) threw up his hands in exasperation at me when our two-person creation/evolution debate ended with me stubbornly insisting "God did it!!!" All these things were to be expected, and I would have gladly endured them in the service of my faith, if not for one thing.

They pitied me.

I had by this time spent several years studying the reactions of people, you recall, learning to sift what they really meant out of the morass of what they did and said. So I could tell what kind of pity it was. Some of it was the condescension, of which I'd so often been explicitly or implicitly accused. The condescension, namely, of the person who believes they already have all the answers and rejects as unworthy any person whose opinions do not agree with their own. This I set aside (on an intellectual level, after wallowing in self-pity, and recrimination for said self-pity, of course!) as the child of ignorance and laziness. What remained was a kind of pity I'd never experienced before. Sometimes my peers expressed it in words or actions; other times I had to strain it out from clues of posture, facial expression and tone. It roughly translated to something like,

Why is she making herself so sad?
You're a good vibe, but you need to get in trouble.
Why do you hate yourself so much? You're nice and I like you.
Sure, you're annoying, but that's no reason why you have to be miserable.


I was not, at this time, a very well socialized person. I had what I then called verbal diarrhea, what one of my later therapists suggested might have been undiagnosed ADD. Maybe an unlooked-for side effect of homeschooling, where I'd gotten used to one-on-one interaction and had trouble developing other habits. At any rate, I couldn't hear speech without some part of my brain assuming it was directed completely at me, and formulating a response. A response I absolutely had to verbalize, or else experience an almost physical pain, like that of an overfull bladder when no bathroom is in sight. (Hence the verbal diarrhea moniker.) My interpersonal reflexes and assumptions were not only untrustworthy, I was aware that they were untrustworthy. So when I took a bit of harmless friendly sarcasm as being in deadly earnest and fled to weep about it, spouted off a piece of smutty innuendo in total ignorance of its implications, or misread a social situation to the point where I mortally insulted somebody by repeating a phrase or action outside its appropriate context, I was always aware that I had erred, but not how or why or how to fix it. Among fellow Christians this was a fairly simple procedure. They and I all pretended that none of it had ever occurred, and I was ostracized from further meaningful interaction with whichever social set my misbehavior had offended. One of several reasons I was glad we changed churches every few years when I was a kid--it gave me a way to gauge my progess at being a more effective simulacrum of a functional human being.

But in high school, this was not the case. Yes, my social faux pas were counted against me, but the fact that I was pitied granted me a certain amount of leniency. People would give me second and even third chances, and when I (as I felt at the time, inevitably) used them up, even then there were not really hard feelings. Just a change in the tenor of the pity they felt for me. This was novel. This was even encouraging. At this point, you may imagine, my relationship with God was such that I was pretty much exhausted, or at least had gone beyond my wits' end to some numb place where I just waited for something, anything to change without really expecting it to change.

So, having heard many stories of people who backslid and later came back to the Lord even better and holier than before, I decided to experiment. With my own eternal soul. Because what else, in the final analysis, was mine enough that I could presume to mess with it? And it's not like God would be losing anything much if I screwed it up.

A song I wrote within the past year sums up my thought process pretty well.

[afraid of god]

all through my first sixteen years
you know I did believe it
waded through demons up to my ears
until I had to leave it
prayed to god at the time
said, "dear lord, with respect
I've just got to find something
that has an effect"

you know I was so afraid of god
but not afraid of ain't no god
I was so afraid of god
not afraid of ain't no god

you say you can't imagine a world
with no one to create it
you say I am just one little girl
who's too opinionated
I don't mean to be mean
but I think that's a crock
can you call yourself free
hiding under that rock

honey then you're afraid of god
but so afraid of ain't no god
I say that you're afraid of god
more afraid of ain't no god

well there ain't no polite way to say
you're gonna rot in a cemetery
and there ain't no polite way to say
I think your god is imaginary
but you politely tell me
I must burn in hell
unless I will believe
in your savior as well

well if I'm afraid of god
you're afraid of ain't no god
honey if I'm afraid of god
you're afraid of ain't no god,
ain't no god
uh-huh, uh-huh uh-uh uh.
*****

Yeah, the last verse is more of a recent attitudinal development. The first verse, however, is definitely how I approached it at the time. "Look, God, I don't know why you've chosen not to relieve me of these demons or their constant presence in my life, but I'm a human being who's weak and I can't take it anymore. I am going to do whatever I can think of to help myself. And if nothing I do works, you can bet I'll come crawling back to you begging fvorgiveness, like everyone always tells me I will, and because you're God I know that in that event you will forgive me. So please understand, this is something I have to do."

So I started wrangling the demons my damnself, instead of praying "Jesus please come rescue me!" and hiding in a corner, hoping maybe Jesus would finally come this time and chase them away. I started yelling at them, demanding things of them, trapping the sense-of-presence of one at a time under my intellect and dissecting them emotion by emotion, assumption by assumption. It has been, what, ten years or so since I started this process. Today I am essentially demon-free, in the sense that one might say one is disease-free despite the fact that the everyday living environment is full of germs which are simply not strong enough to overwhelm the body's immmune system. Do I now consider a demon to be an invisible creature with its own life or a complex of memes generated and fueled by a human psyche? The closest I can get, short of an entire separate post, is to quote The Simpsons' Rev. Lovejoy: "Short answer: no, with an 'if'. Long answer: yes, with a 'but'."

As for me and alleged Jesus, the situation is a little different.

Studying human beings, myself first and most strenuously, gives me a constantly evolving awareness of the dynamic tension between the ideas we hold in our conscious minds, the real evaluative emotional categories we use to ineract with external reality, and the things we do and say. Relationships are an extremely subjective experience--quintuply so for relationships with invisible people. As I wrote in another song (the full text of which I will NOT reprint at the moment, I've hurt too many feelings already today):

I needed help from the whole congregation
to tell God apart from my imagination

And when you get down to the brass tacks of those things commonly termed "religious experiences", I have had equal numbers of them on both sides of the conversion/deconversion fence. There are a lot which fall into the category of "possible contacts with lesser positive beings," none of which of course left denominational calling cards. There are a whole host of minor subjective experiences and wrinkles in causality which could equally be attributed to good guys giving me a heads-up or bad guys trying to fool me. There are a few unambiguously evil experiences. There are a few experiences--I can count them on the fingers of one hand!--which absolutely fall under the aegis of goodness, which as the campfire song says:

That's how it is with God's love
Once you've experienced it
You want to sing
It's fresh like spring
You want to pass it on

But as with the other possibly good ones, no calling cards. Equally powerful and meaningful experiences as a non-Christian and as a Christian, with no notable differences in content or tone. No statement to the effect that "Christianity is the one proper expression of my presence on Earth, and you should align yourself with it, come what may." Which is something of a relief to me, in a way. The example of Christ, the Christ of myth or history, however you slice it, is a hell of a thing to live up to, and I wonder that more well-meaning Christians don't break under the strain.

So I'm fairly well convinced that there is some sort of invisible side to life, if only because my training and habit predisposes me to believe in such. As my little sister is fond of saying, the cavemen who saw lions when no lion was there are the ones who lived. However, I reject the term "supernatural." If any of this crap exists, then it is part of nature, whether it arose as part of a freakish pocket of anentropy to provide balance to a largely entropic universe, or was engineered by a benevolent intelligence as an expression of said intelligence's love and undying devotion to the flawed tiny self-directed beings it caused to exist for some inscrutable purpose.

And I will conclude with some words from my most beloved piece of ancient poetry, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as translated by Edmund Fitzgerald:

What! from his helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what he lent him dross-allay'd--
Sue for a Debt he never did contract,
And cannot answer--Oh, the sorry trade!

10 comments:

atimetorend said...

"Two highly intelligent people, who are passionately devoted to one's welfare in slightly different ways, each of whom believe (at the time) that the other is the apotheosis of evil and wishes only to brainwash and torment oneself, and each of whom has (relatively speaking) absolute power over oneself in one context or another, are bound to produce this effect."

Have only had time to read first few paragraphs, looking forward to reading the rest. Quick questions for clarification, not prying, trying to understand correctly: you are refering to your parents with that quote, right? And would the effect you are describing be after their divorce?

And you made me look up "apotheosis". ;^)

jhedeen said...

You must be tired of your role as neutral moderator looking down from the fence--just take the leap! It will never make total intellectual sense anyway. I promise you, you will be in for the adventure of your life. Enough of the chitchat--you have songs to write! It was awesome singing with you.

Fiat Lex said...

time to rend (can I just cal you time? or rend?)--yes, that quote is referring to my parents. And not after, during. It took a decade, and even after it was more like a detente than an after. As time wore on and I managed to slog through the sewage of my own emotional baggage, I became less and less angry. It really was scary and confusing for Mom and Dad as much as for me and my sisters. People just don't get into a situation like that unless a whole big mess of things have gone wrong and they've exhausted every other option they can think of. Or stay in it if they can think of any other way to proceed that might actually accomplish the thing they believe needs to happen. One of several reasons the idea of marriage and/or childrearing is kind of scary to me. Cause when something's that important, there's a whole lot more corners it's possible to get backed into.


Ah, Aunt Julie, I appreciate your positive, encouraging attitude, informed as it is by your appreciation of the history! I haven't written a song since the Ravel one, sadly, but I keep telling myself that a) it really was a hard act to follow, and b) if I practiced more, I'd write more!

The neutral-moderator thing got me to thinking. I think again I want to respond with a big, long post. (I've had all day to think about it, y'see. One of the positive side effects of being unemployed is plenty of time to ruminate.)

The family situation, parts of it anyway, I am still not going to make wild descriptive statements about. In no small part because I'm still feeling my way towards an understanding that satisfies me as being as close to the truth as I can possibly get. In part because even when I eventually grow into such an understanding, whether or how to communicate it in a way that is useful and uplifting will, I suspect, be something of a challenge. And even then it'll just be one kid's opinion.

But about my personal journey of life and such, I get to make all the descriptive statements I can muster, because I know whereof I speak. So that is what I will attempt to do!

kisekileia said...

All the stuff you wrote about having to consciously learn social behaviours leaves me unsure of whether this was entirely the result of your being taught an inaccurate set of social rules, or whether there's any possibility you have Asperger's syndrome. It reminds me of my own experiences as someone with Asperger's.

kisekileia said...

Also, the pity of your high school classmates is something I very much feel towards my younger, evangelical self and towards other evangelicals, because I've come to believe that most of the lifestyle restrictions such people torture themselves to follow are unnecessary.

Amber E said...

Viz,
I love you and know that you have a personality all your own. I hope you continue to be more comfortable in social situations and with yourself. I am confident that God believes in you and that you matter enough to him that Jesus still would have come to Earth even if you were the only person to be saved. I struggled with the idea of self annihilation for a while too.

God loves you and doesn't want to destroy you. What would be the point? You wouldn't be you then. Submitting to God, in the vein of "I know the plans that I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you to give you a future and a hope" are more along the lines of a parent saying stay in school and don't play in traffic.

The submitting to God's will isn't about self-abnegation, it's the idea that an omnipotent being who is responsible for your existence knows you and knows what choices will get you desired out comes.

It says somewhere else in the Bible something about showing us a more excellent way. Like yeah, you may come up with something decent on your own but God, when invited to guide your life can show you a more excellet way.

Oh, there are few things more annoying than to be pitied and I am sorry for not doing more to prepare you for high school.

Okay, have a good day.

Fiat Lex said...

Kisekileia:

Asperger's is one I hadn't considered--I learned about it relatively recently!. But there have been many times when I wondered if some of my social problems were due to crossed wires in my brain, rather than my personality. However, I have tried not to think about this too hard, especially in the early stages of the trying-to-get-socialized process. Because a personality problem, I can get at it to try and repair it myself. For a brain problem, I have to have a stable, affordable and trustworthy source of psychiatric treatment. And finding such a source that is all three things at once, alas, has proved a little tougher to arrange!

I think I know what you mean about pitying your former self. For me, at first, it was hard to do it at all, because I was so angry with my former self for the difficulties with which my then-current self was wrestling. Then I developed a tendency to do it too much, which led to self-pity and wallowing in past failures, also unhelpful.

And even having reached a precarious balance with the current-self versus past-self perception thingy, it's really, really tough to apply that understanding to other people. It definitely makes you more sympathetic and willing to empathize with people who might otherwise be awesomely irritating, which is good! But kind of like with perceiving myself, it's sometimes really hard for me to step back and look at the experiences that led to the attitudes and behaviors. Especially since with other people, we don't really know them, and it's oh-so tempting to fill one's own experiences into the blanks. Which is a mistake I've had rebound on me disastrously a couple of times. XP Maybe more than a couple.

(Next reply, after the jump, because of silly 4096 character limit!)

Fiat Lex said...

Amber:

First much hugging! *hugses!* I love you too.

And I'm glad we are finally connecting enough on this that I have some actual idea what you mean when you say God, and it doesn't give me the oogies. (And I'm sorry it took so friggin long!) This whole thing has made me ponder all over again just how many of my oogies in the first place came from not properly identifying what people--for a very pertinent example, Mom!--were really wishing they could figure out a way to get across, when what I was actually picking up were different thoughts and feelings all mixed up in the situation and current worries. Fear in a person, like scum in a pond, tends to float up to the surface and obscure any shiny thing attempting to wink up out of the depths. And I'm finding, for whatever it's worth, I rather like your idea of God.

That's one of the things I find (especially looking at this post versus the one I finished earlier this waketime) that tend to repeat myself about. Because it was a distinction I came to rather late in the game, and am still sorting out in various ways.

As Marcus Aurelius said, "Look inward to men's leading principles, and you will learn what judges you are afraid of, and what judges they are of themselves." It's like...until I got to the point where I believed my own judgment could be trusted, at least in a limited and carefully monitored capacity, I never felt that I ultimately had the right to second-guess someone else's judgment. Especially on things that couldn't readily be fact-checked. And of course any mix of humans will contain some who have wisdom, some who have ignorant malice or informed spite, some who try very hard and sincerely in ways that aren't always effective, and a lot who are basically nice but transmit some pretty garbled stuff because they aren't paying much attention to the things that I want to know about. Trying to distribute that middle was, you might say, something of a strain. Heheh. Small wonder I took the ineffective tactic of retreating to the inside of my brain, where the mess was at least familiar.

I mean, sure, being pitied was insulting and infuriating and made me very angry. But angry is better than numb, and it least it got me moving. And there were nice people, too, who went that step beyond pity. Who took the initiative to pull me out of my isolation and make me drink tea with them and learn They Might Be Giants songs and read Lois and talk about stuff. At a big crazy weird school where all the problems were very different than the ones we had at home.

Don't you go beating yourself up for "not preparing me for high school", wonderful earnest sister lady! I know dang well you had more than a lot on your own plate at the time, too, and unlike me you were up and kicking for it. And you tried to pull me out of my funk, too. I took a lot of pulling. (Just like, coming out of the womb, I took a lot of pushing! Which sure wasn't easy on Mom!) So no being mad at yourself for not being able to help your little sister with all of her wonky problems at once! Tsk, and such. In the last analysis, I think, the problem wasn't how you were trying to help me, but rather when and where. You were going, "Dude! Get up out of there and start moving!" And I was all, "No way! Everything's still exploding out there!" And then you were like, "Agh! Now everything's exploding AND she won't come out of there, gaah!"

So, again. Sorry it took so long!

kisekileia said...

Asperger's, in fact, is something that responds better to trying to learn about it and figure out ways around it than it does to medication. So, while it is a brain problem, the way to deal with it is generally to use one's cognitive ability to figure out things like social skills that do not come naturally.

Fiat Lex said...

Holy crap, kisekileia.

I need to learn more about Asperger's. LOTS more.

*dashes off to read stuff*