The Chains We Make For Ourselves: A Humanist Sermon

BrokenChain

I just had to comment on this letter sent to the advice columnist Captain Awkward.

The advice seeker of the week met her husband in college. Since their graduation, she’s thriving socially and professionally, but his life has stagnated and he’s sunk into bitterness. He complains whenever she leaves the house without him, refuses opportunities to make new friends, and expects her to drop her plans at the last minute to accommodate him whenever he wants to do something. And it gets worse:

He has a bad habit of talking about heavy issues through emails at work, while he doesn’t like to discuss things at home. Sometimes he can lay it on thick and really tear into my personality and how awful of a person I am and how much I am hurting him (I get called names pretty consistently)…

…I feel like I am constantly changing my plans to suit his needs and wants only to get yelled at about it all later on, or to be told bluntly everything that is wrong with my personality and my thought process. It’s an extremely negative environment and I am having a lot of trouble handling it.

Despite the correspondent’s mild, matter-of-fact description, she’s painted a portrait of a deeply troubled marriage to a hostile, emotionally abusive man. She lays it all out: her husband’s bottomless well of neediness and negativity; his choice to to wallow in his own misery rather than trying anything new to jumpstart his life; his insulting and berating her at work, which is an inexcusable transgression of boundaries and could be an attempt to sabotage her job performance; and his placing all the responsibility for his happiness on her shoulders, while he cares nothing for hers.

If I knew someone in this predicament, the first thing I’d suggest is that they seek support from family and friends. Being married to an abuser can warp your view of what’s normal in a relationship. A sympathetic third party can offer a dose of perspective, confirming that her husband’s behavior isn’t normal or acceptable. They can also be a relief valve for her to blow off steam, a shoulder to cry on, even a spare room to sleep in when she needs some time away from home.

However, the letter-writer has foreclosed this option for herself:

I cannot talk to my parents or his parents about this, to save face.

The other obvious solution is for her is to divorce this abusive, resentful man-child. Based on her description, he’s nothing but an anchor dragging her down, and she’d feel lighter and freer without his presence in her life. But she’s preemptively rejected that option as well:

Both of us are too lazy to divorce and I’m (relatively) Catholic, so I don’t think that’s something I’d want to do in the end anyway.

Sadly, there are reasons why people often get stuck in bad marriages. But it doesn’t seem like any of the usual ones apply here. The letter-writer didn’t cite any financial strain she’d be under if she left her husband (remember, they both have jobs). They don’t have children, so there’s no reason to stay and tough it out for the kids’ sake. Nor did she say that he’s physically violent or that she fears for her safety if she left him. It really does seem like the only problems she’d face are those that exist in her own head.

There’s a lesson in self-knowledge here that humanists ought to heed. It’s true that millions of people in this world are victims of circumstance. They suffer from woes that they did nothing to deserve and that are beyond their power to solve. But it’s equally true that there are millions more whose difficulties are entirely of their own making. They labor under a burden they could put down at any time, whether they realize it or not.

Suffering under a burden like this is like dragging heavy chains that you’ve forged for yourself from your own emotions. It can be made of fear: fear of family disapproval, fear of condemnation by religious leaders, fear of punishment by God, fear of being ostracized by society. It can be from anger: a betrayal or an insult that you can’t move on from, a grudge that comes to define your life. It can be from a sense of entitlement: the conviction that the world owes you something and you just have to cross your arms and wait until it’s handed to you. Or it can be simple learned helplessness, because you grew up in a community that taught you subservience and passivity. Whatever the cause, these chains prevent people from taking simple steps that would make their lives better, and cause needless suffering that makes the world a worse place.

Granted, just because a burden exists solely in your mind doesn’t mean setting it down is easy. If anything, an idea that you’ve come to accept and internalize is harder to overcome than a rule imposed from without. If it’s an external authority forcing you to obey a rule you disagree with, you can break that rule as soon as they look away. But breaking through an internal psychological barrier is like tearing away part of yourself. (It’s no surprise that many of these dogmas concern sex and love, since that’s the most powerful human drive and the one that religion surrounds with the most rules and restrictions – as in this case, or the letter of advice I wrote to a Christian trapped in a miserable marriage.)

As atheists, this should be something we understand intuitively. Religion and its dogmas exist only in our minds, but that doesn’t mean they’re not powerful. People who deconvert often describe it as one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives. Rebelling against the beliefs you’ve been taught, defying the rules and prohibitions of your upbringing, can be a terrifying step even to people who no longer intellectually believe in hellfire and divine wrath.

But it’s not only religion that constrains people like this. It’s every silly convention, every mindlessly repeated standard, every irrational prohibition that we imagine standing in our path. It can come from guilt, from a sense of familial duty, from misplaced loyalty, from the desire to belong, from the urge to think oneself better than one’s neighbors, or any of the million other subtle threads we tie to ourselves. Each one seems insignificant by itself, until one day we find ourselves trapped in the center of a web, and we’re no longer free to be true to our authentic selves or to chase the goals we’ve always dreamed of.

If it’s not always easy to set down a self-imposed burden, the corollary is this: if it’s in your own head, the only person who can do anything about it is you. Rulers may fall from power, laws can be changed, outside obstacles may go away on their own. But no one else can free you from a chain that’s only in your mind.

The good news is that, however intimidating these burdens and inner chains and obstacles may seem, they’re illusions, lacking substance. Taking the first step to reject them is the hardest, but once you do that, you’ll see there was nothing in your way after all.

That chain across your path is rusty and pitted, no more than a cobweb. It crumbles into dust at your touch. Those heavy curtains on the windows are tattered and moth-eaten; give them a tug and they collapse, and daylight explodes in. Those leering shadows of fear fade into nothingness. Reach out and turn the knob, and the door will open. There’s a whole world waiting outside – a green vista of clear air and bright sunlight, where you’re free to walk wherever you choose. But to get there, you have to decide that you won’t be held back by imaginary obstacles anymore, and then find the courage within yourself to take that decisive step.

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