This is a letter I wrote a few months ago that feels like a fitting follow-up to my last post about friends and family withholding love as a way of “showing love” to those of us who have left our faith.
Dear (family member),
I’d like to talk to you for a minute about this…thing…that’s come between us. Because we are family, our conversations remain warm and our mutual love is authentic. For that I am grateful. But amidst the warmth there remains an uncomfortable tension—an emotional distance—that wasn’t there before. Things between us were pretty good before you found out I no longer share your religion; but now that you know, there’s a tension in our conversation that makes my heart ache. Surely you feel it, too. I hate it, and I wish I could make it go away. I don’t know any honest way to get rid of it, but I can at least talk about what I see happening and I can take this opportunity to clear the air about a few things.
I know it upsets you that I no longer hold to the religion we once shared. I know that’s painful and maybe a little bit scary for you because we were both taught that bad things happen to people who reject your faith. We were also both taught that people like me are a large part of what’s wrong with the world, and that it’s people like me who are holding the world back, keeping it from being what it could be. That has to be upsetting, seeing someone you love join up with the wrong team, so to speak. It’s an awkward and painful position to be in, I know.
I want you to know first of all that I can’t help it. I just can’t. People will tell you that’s not true, and that I could and should just choose to be different. Please consider believing me when I honestly tell you that those people are wrong and they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve never been in my shoes and they have no right to tell me or you what’s going on inside of me, as if they know me better than I know myself. That takes a lot of nerve, and it upsets me whenever I am so misunderstood and misrepresented. I can often ignore it when it comes from a complete stranger, but when someone I love seems to think the same way, that should be upsetting because it’s never a loving move to fail to take the time to listen and understand what a person says about himself. When people choose to ignore what we say about ourselves, especially after we’ve borne our metaphorical souls to them, it’s a failure to love. That upsets us because it should.
I also realize that, even if you believe the sincerity of my unbelief, it still hurts to see someone you love reject something that has been so precious to you for so many years. Please believe me when I say that I know what your faith means to you. I accept that as a part of your story and I will not ask you to change for me. I will not try to take from you something which has brought you comfort, consolation, hope, joy, or peace. I just won’t. I do not see you as less of a person or inferior to me simply because you believe things that I do not believe.
I will disagree with you, and there will be times when I think it is appropriate to voice my disagreement out loud. In those moments I hope that my tone and my words make it obvious that I don’t respect you any less just because we don’t see eye-to-eye on things. When you feel that I am failing to show you respect, I hope you will tell me so that we can discuss it and try to come to some kind of understanding and/or truce about the issue. It matters a great deal to me that you and I maintain our connection and that we remain able to agree to disagree on things without making the other feel like a fool because of our differences. It grieves me to think that my words may do that to you. I know all too well how easily that can happen because I’ve felt it myself.In church they often say you can “hate the sin but love the sinner.” I believe I can also hate a belief while still loving the believer. Because I share my opinions with others in public (as does everyone now, thanks to social media!), even if I avoid these topics in your presence, you will still occasionally encounter my criticisms of beliefs that you hold dear. I wish I knew a good way to keep that from being painful for you. But the tension this creates between us doesn’t make the things I disbelieve any more persuasive for me, and I have my own reasons for feeling that it is important to speak up about the issues I address. This brings you pain and sometimes it makes you angry because it means I’ve defaced or devalued something that is precious to you.
It bothers me as well to know that, but I also feel that this is an excellent moment to test this notion that you can hate the thing believed or practiced while still loving the one believing or practicing it. Do you really feel that is possible? Do you feel that you do that toward me? If so, then please consider that I aspire to do the same thing myself. Just because I disagree with a belief to which you hold doesn’t mean that I think less of you for disagreeing with me. We can agree to disagree. You will give voice to what you believe and I will do the same, and I think that we can do this without belittling each other or rejecting one another in the process.
In closing, I want to confess that it’s a difficult thing to discover that you’re “on the outside” of a group to which you once belonged. The need to belong is one of the most fundamental needs of a social species like ourselves. But discussions like these make it disturbingly clear that those of us who no longer share the faith of our families now don’t belong in the same way as we did before. Yes, we’re still family, and we still get together. We still hug and we exchange gifts and share meals (thankfully, you don’t listen to people like this preacher who advised families to shun their children for being different, shame on him). But there is a tension there, a distance, an uneasiness that strains the conversation. Sometimes we choose to avoid certain subjects because we know that my presence makes you have to put up your guard in some way. Perhaps because of the way things are there will be no way to keep that from happening. That makes me sad. But at the same time, consider this:
Despite our differences, you and I are still family, and we still love each other. We still value each other’s presence to the point that we would rather stomach the tension and be around each other than avoid each other to spare ourselves the discomfort. That really says something, doesn’t it? Maybe blood really is thicker than water, so to speak, and maybe it’s even thicker than ideology. At least I hope it is. I will not reject you just because I no longer hold to all the same beliefs, and I hope you feel the same way. Truth be told, our stories are inseparable, so we probably share more of the same values than we realize, even if our beliefs are no longer identical. I think that’s enough to build a strong relationship around, and I hope you feel the same way.
I love you, and that overcomes a lot, doesn’t it? Tell me you feel the same way, and that’s all I need to hear. Just don’t keep me at arm’s length, okay?
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