Those of a certain age will likely remember the movie The Wedding Singer. A lot of its charm came from the purposefully-dated character studies in it–especially that of the hip and happenin’ Fonzi clone Sammy, who spends the bulk of his screen-time in the movie macking on women, strutting around, and bragging about how awesome his life is. But when the movie hits its low point, Sammy breaks down and makes a shocking confession: His bravado is a total act. He’s actually deeply vulnerable and lonely, and he has been acting the way he has because even though he’s “miserable,” he doesn’t have the emotional skills needed to move past his own facade. Sammy finally bursts out with this:
What I’m saying is all I really want is someone to hold me and tell me that everything is gonna be all right.
This movie came out considerably after my deconversion, but I instantly recognized that sentiment the second I heard it–as I’m sure the movie’s creators intended. It wasn’t an uncommon thing to hear back in the 1980s. I’d even said it myself, and I heard friends saying it.
We said this because we had been taught that we were not able to work things out for ourselves. We had been indoctrinated to deeply distrust ourselves–our intuition, our judgment, our discernment–and to require external validation. And this wasn’t the only place in life where this distrust showed up for me.
I spent my childhood getting taught that I had a thirst that only something external could quench. Sometimes you’ll hear this thirst called “a god-shaped hole”, though that wasn’t the term I first heard. I was taught that people desperately needed what was sold to us as “God,” that we were incomplete without this “God” filling that hole in our hearts. Some of these teachers thought that human beings were created to serve this “God.” Others thought that humans were created to worship or praise this “God.” Others still thought that we shouldn’t worry about it at all, just shut up and do what we were told, trusting that we’d find out after we died and presumably went to “Heaven.”
Obviously, this belief is complete bullshit. Nobody’s ever found a “god-shaped hole” in anybody, much less one that is definitively shaped like the Christian conceptualization of the Bible’s particular deity, and all Christians need to do to disabuse themselves of this notion is to talk to non-Christians–particularly atheists–to discover that, like finding meaning and purpose in life, we’re all doing perfectly fine without their god or religion.
But at the time, I had no reason not to trust the people teaching me these things. It never even occurred to me that the trusted adults in my life were teaching me things that had never been objectively verified or that were easily debunked by simply talking to non-Christians. Worse, they were presenting those things to me as beyond-obvious and true facts. In this manner, a need was manufactured in my psyche–a need that Christianity created, just like any marketer dreams of creating an essential need in a gullible public. And once that need was created and installed in place, and I needed a cure for that need, why then here was Christianity toddling along with the cure for the need it had created! Wasn’t that just miraculous! The need and the cure right there in one convenient package! Why, it was almost as if the system was designed that way, like some convenience store of the spirit.
When I internalized that programming, though, what I also absorbed was a sort of learned dependence. After getting told over and over again that I simply could not get meaning for myself, that I simply was not sufficient in and of myself to figure out my own life, that I simply was not capable on my own to live and work out morality and ethics, I began to believe it. And like Seligman’s dogs eventually stopped even trying to escape their torture, I stopped even trying to figure this stuff out for myself. Why bother? I wouldn’t succeed anyway. I think that’s one huge reason why Christian zealots try so hard to sneak their religious indoctrination into schools–kids have to be tricked into nonsensical beliefs before they figure out that why yes, actually, they totally can do all this stuff without a god.
If a kid learns that meaning, ethics, purpose, values, all these things are completely attainable on one’s own (and in many cases are demonstrably superior when attained that way), then a god starts looking like a crutch or a scam, like those snake-oil cures touted as “purges” whose creators hope desperately won’t be outed as useless because the human body purges toxins just fine on its own. That cannot be allowed; if there’s no created need to fill, then Christian leaders won’t be able to fill it. If I know that my body already purges toxins, then I won’t even bother looking at the hype around these “purge” diets and tinctures. Christian helplessness and dependency has to be instilled very early on, so that when these children become adults and talk about “a god-shaped hole,” nobody will think they sound absolutely ridiculous–or ask for credible evidence for such a hole.
So I grew up into early adulthood and, having foolishly taken my authority figures’ word for the matter, sincerely believed that Jesus would fill the “god-shaped hole” I thought I had in my heart.
The problem was, the Catholic church sure wasn’t doing that.
I knew a lot of people found fulfillment in the Church. I have relatives who are clergy in it, after all, and my family is very deeply religious. But for some reason whatever was on offer there did not resonate with me. I didn’t even know exactly what I sought–just that I wasn’t finding it there. I felt spiritually starved, lonely, frustrated. They kept saying that a god was there and that this god loved and craved my attention and devotion, but I wasn’t feeling it.
The obvious reason why I wasn’t feeling it did not occur to me at all. Instead of thinking that maybe there wasn’t a deity out there really communing with anybody, I thought that maybe I was just doing something wrong as a Christian. I tried getting more fervent about my devotion to Catholicism (briefly even considering becoming a nun), but that didn’t help. In the end I abandoned Catholicism and sought answers and fulfillment in Protestantism.
But there, too, I found only more emptiness and more questions than answers. I ended up plunging deeper and deeper into the murky end of the Zealotry Pool, swimming deeper and deeper into the muck there because I was so sure that if I wasn’t finding answers and fulfillment where I was, that maybe I was in the wrong place. Again, the obvious answer to why I wasn’t finding answers never occurred to me in Protestantism’s various denominations any more than it had in Catholicism. Thankfully, I realized it wasn’t true before I was drawn into anything really dangerous or life-altering–though when I did, I now had a whole new set of problems.
When I deconverted, I went through a huge existential crisis because I couldn’t maintain belief anymore in something I knew wasn’t true–but goddammit, I thought that had been my only shot at finding meaning and purpose in my miserable little life. Not even the threat of losing my life’s meaning could keep me believing or make me believe again, but I really had no idea how to function as an independent adult. I floundered for a few years through some New Age stuff, tried other religions, got involved in philosophies that promised to help me find answers, and still I was disappointed.
In this little leatherbound journal, I had recorded how–a few months after I’d quit going to church altogether–I’d been talking to a non-Christian friend at work in Portland and had burst out suddenly, “I wish that there was just some guru on a mountain somewhere, so I could climb the mountain, reach the top, and ask my questions and get real answers.”
I was reading those words years later in a laundromat-and-bar over a Shiner Bock one freezing winter afternoon, in an unfamiliar city I’d just moved to for that second fresh start, while every unworn stitch of clothing I owned in the world was tumbling dry, and I had one of those glorious epiphanies that nobody ever forgets.
This was like when people say “all I want is for someone to hold me and tell me it’ll be okay,” not realizing that they are the ones who have to do that for themselves. It’s certainly nice when someone else does it–but it just doesn’t mean as much as when we, ourselves, love ourselves and tell ourselves it will be okay and mean it. We’re not really convinced otherwise. Nobody else can take the place of ourselves even if we’d like them to. Nobody else can love us as well as we ourselves can, and nobody can reassure us like we ourselves can. I mean, look again at that clip at the beginning of this post up there. When Sammy makes his confession of vulnerability, immediately a fellow barfly does exactly what Sammy says he wants: this sweet old man puts his arms around a total stranger and tells him what he says he’s wanted to hear all along. And Sammy’s really nice to the old guy in turn, but you can kinda tell that the experience wasn’t quite the Big Huge Answer to Life that he wanted.
That’s because the only person who can give that reassurance to Sammy is, well, Sammy, and he doesn’t know that yet.
And the next epiphany tripped right along behind the first one, crashed into it, tumbled through the door, and landed in a gleeful, kittenish, laughing ball of fluff at my feet and looked up at me all wide-eyed:
Maybe meaning in life is the same way.
There was no guru at the top of the mountain. Or more to the point, yes, there was a guru at the top of the mountain.
The guru was just me, is all.
I’d been going at this all wrong, all my life.
I wanted some external way to find meaning in life. I wanted there to be some physical effort I could make to get answers. I wanted there to be some action I could take or belief I could hold that would fill that hole I’d taught was inside me. I wanted what I was taught to work out the way I’d been taught that it should.
But if the hole didn’t really exist, or if I could fill that hole myself, then I’d been set up to fail. That day I had this vivid image suddenly that I had been, all my life, flitting like a hungry ghost from table to table seeking those answers and trying to fulfill a falsely-created hunger. No wonder I’d failed! I’d been going through more and more drastic measures trying to make the world look like my religion said it should look, and at the end all I had to show for it was a string of idiotic ideas and self-destructive deeds, a broken marriage to a violent narcissist, and the loss or near-loss of every decent relationship I’d ever had.
Maybe the problem wasn’t me, but the way I’d been going at finding meaning.
I’ve said many times before that apologetics is the attempt to make the world look like how Christianity says it should look. Well, a lot of beliefs in Christianity are attempts to do so as well, and “the god-shaped hole” and this idea that the only meanings that matter are handed to someone are definitely among that number.
That afternoon in the laundromat-and-bar, I wondered: what if I’d been wrong all this time?
What if I’d gotten it totally wrong and the only meanings that mattered were the ones I worked out for myself, based on my own needs, desires, abilities, and aptitudes? What if all along I’d always been working out those things for myself and calling them divinely-given?
Now I look back at it and think that the people I knew who found fulfillment in the various denominations and schools of Christianity were maybe just people who found those answers for themselves. Maybe they cloaked what they found in religious terms, maybe even framed it that way, and mistakenly thought these answers came from some external being. Maybe they were just lucky enough that the “meaning” that Christianity offers just happened to work for them, in the same way that a 1950s model of marriage just happens to work for some couples.
So I found my guru on the mountain. And it was me. And after coming face to face with myself, I flew away from that mountain like a bird and never looked back. I didn’t have what I sought yet, but I knew now where I wouldn’t find it–and where I would. It was a start and one I knew I could trust.
I now knew that if I just kept plugging away, I would find what I sought. If the answers were inside me, then inevitably I’d uncover them. The pressure was off. I no longer had to figure out what some inscrutable external force wanted, or ferret out portents and signs, or seek hungrily for crumbs at others’ tables.
I felt in that moment like I had just walked into the house of my own soul for the first time in many years. I felt like I was drawing slipcovers and sheets off furniture, pulling aside curtains, and letting light and air into a place that maybe hadn’t ever had either. I experienced a rebirth right then that rivaled anything I had ever felt in Christianity. Everything I’m describing here happened in the space of about thirty seconds. When I looked up from the journal, I felt like I was seeing everything with brand-new eyes. Everything was different. I was living in my own skin for the first time in my entire life. The world thrummed and sparkled with potential.
As for finding my meaning and purpose in life?
I did, eventually. I didn’t find them right then, no. What I found was far more profound: my own strength and sufficiency, which were tools I would use and develop to get wherever I needed to be. I’ll never be fooled again into abandoning the house of my own soul or seeking my nourishment only at others’ tables.
To those who are deconverting or who are thinking about it, please don’t be afraid. What we were taught to fear is a false fear, based on the threat of losing a false hope in a false promise. You are all you need; you already have everything you need to figure out what your meaning is.