“I’m still the same person you married.”
(Guest Post by Galen Broaddus)
Leaving religion can be a very difficult thing for some people (depending on the pull of religion for that person), but for me, the hardest part was dealing with the fact that I had left religion but my believing wife (who I’ll call “C”) hadn’t. When the realization that I didn’t believe anymore hit me, I told her, with complete openness, at the first opportunity as we were driving away from church. To her credit, she didn’t freak out at first, but she told me later – and often reminds me still – that I “blindsided” her. She had no idea that I would lose my faith, and frankly, I didn’t expect it, either. These things happen.
We had dealt with some situations we couldn’t have anticipated before, but this felt different. Our bedroom wall was – still is – adorned with our marriage license, which prominently says “HOLY MATRIMONY” on it. “Holy matrimony.” These words felt – still feel – silly given the circumstances.
This period was the closest our marriage of nearly twelve years has ever come to dissolution, and it was psychologically distressing to both of us. (We sought out marital counseling later, but the psychologist we ended up seeing had two degrees from Regent University and…well, let’s say that we didn’t continue to see them after the first session. It was another good reminder why the Secular Therapist Project is so important.)
It’s difficult for me to convey what C went through because I was living a much different experience, but I remember her expressing doubts about whether I was even the same person she’d married. We’d married in the church, and no less than my own father – a Baptist minister – had married us. We’d served in ministry together. We had reconnected, having known each other in childhood, when she started coming to my church. She knew me as a musician and songwriter, and the songs I wrote were explicitly Christian. I had always been fairly serious about religion, more so than she had been, in fact.
So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when her view of me was seriously challenged by my deconversion. But I couldn’t let it go at that. I was still the same person she married, I protested. To suggest anything else was to entertain the notion that our arrangement had irrevocably changed. That the partners in this union had materially changed. That the contract had to be renegotiated…or dissolved.
It occurs to me now that it was naive to say those things. I wasn’t the same person when I deconverted as I was when C and I got married. She wasn’t the same person, either. What I really meant is, “Please don’t reject me for this.” But the “me” that we were both coming to terms with really was different in many relevant ways.
Identity is a complex subject, and I don’t pretend to fully understand the philosophical and psychological underpinnings of the concept. But I do know this: While there is a sense in which our sense of self seems to persist, at least psychologically, those aspects that constitute the core of who we are simply cannot be thought of as completely static. Life changes us in some ways, particularly if we make ourselves responsive to understanding the reality we live in, and this is not a failing. It might be natural to prefer constancy, predictability, in others, but it doesn’t benefit us in the long run. So we must change and expect it in ourselves and others.
I know who “I” was back then, at least as well as my brain – that beautiful organ so capable of embellishment and fabrication – allows me to know. I remember what it was like to live the life of a Christian deeply involved in the spiritual life of a believer. But that “me” feels different, alien in a way that I almost wouldn’t have expected, and now departed. Like an old friend whose path has now diverged from mine.
But these past selves never do seem to entirely fade, or at least many of us spend a fair amount of time trying to disentangle ourselves from them in order to establish a new, concrete sense of identity. We continue to struggle with the divorce of old from new.
In her short autobiographical narrative “By Any Other Name,” the Indian writer Santha Rama Rau writes about her experience as a young girl attending an Anglo-Indian school in India where the English headmistress, disdainful of Indian names, rechristens her “Cynthia” and her elder sister Premila as “Pamela.” Over the course of their time at this school, it becomes quite clear that the English staff of the school are prejudiced against the Indian students who attend the school and single them out from among the school’s English students. In the end, Premila pulls Santha out of class and out of the school after she and other Indian students had been seated differently for a test because the teacher had said that “Indians cheat.”
Premila and the girl’s mother wonder if young Santha understands what has happened:
Mother said, “Do you suppose she understood all that?”
Premila said, “I shouldn’t think so. She’s a baby.”
Mother said, “Well, I hope it won’t bother her.”
Of course, they were both wrong. I understood it perfectly, and I remember it all very clearly. But I put it happily away, because it had all happened to a girl called Cynthia, and I never was really particularly interested in her.
For most of us, of course, it’s not simply that easy to cast our past struggles and memories onto that past self. But maybe that goal – of remembering our past selves dispassionately and without anguish – is, if difficult, at least worth pursuing.
Galen Broaddus is a web developer currently living in the flatlands of central Illinois. He is also the president of Springfield Area Freethinkers (IL) and a certified Secular Celebrant with the Center for Inquiry. You can finding him writing occasionally on his celebrant blog and tweeting slightly more occasionally here.