There is a scene in The Truman Show that makes me cry every time I see it because I swear that I have lived it. It’s the moment he finally reaches the end of the little world that was constructed for him—or rather not for him but for other people in order to use him for their own benefit.
And I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, either. Truman is a metaphor for each and every one of us who has wrestled with the narratives we were given, and his struggle to break free from them is our struggle, too.
Somewhere around the time he pulls himself back up out of the sea to raise his sail again after a man-made tempest capsized and nearly drowned him, we start cheering along with everyone else in the movie watching his valiant attempt to escape the idyllic prison into which he was born. He had to overcome an awful lot to make it to that point.
But for me the most overwhelming moment is when he finally reaches the wall at the end of his little reality bubble and places his hand on it, letting out an audible sigh of…of what? What was that emotion?
It was relief.
What an odd feeling to express at that exact moment! And yet, it’s perfect. I get it. I totally get it.
The Perfect Emotion
At first blush you might imagine this emotion is out of place in the face of such a discovery. Everything he’s been told about the world up until this moment has been a lie, and virtually everyone has been in on it. He should be furious. But this wave of relief isn’t out of place at all. I can tell you from personal experience that at bottom this is the most fundamental sentiment overpowering all of the others.
The moment you realize so much of what plays out around you is a social construct, stories told by other people to serve their own ends, you’re filled with pangs of regret, of anger, of anxiety, and of fear of the unknown. But strangely enough they aren’t the most basic of emotions you feel.
Underneath it all you feel relief. But why?
It’s because it means you’re not crazy. It means that all those little glitches in the matrix you’ve been picking up on all these years have indeed been telling you what you think they were telling you all along. For years you’ve had a growing angst inside you telling you that you’ve been lied to your whole life, but you were reflexively shamed for even thinking that the moment you uttered your first doubt.
The producers of The Truman Show had to work hard at convincing their titular hero not to explore the boundaries of the world they built for him. They even fabricated a fear he didn’t originally have (the sea) in order to keep him contented with the insularity of his tiny social reality.
Which reminds me that one of these days I’d like to review M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Village for its own clever twist on scaring people into staying inside the prescribed tribal boundaries. But in the world in which I grew up, that fabricated fear took the form of posthumous torture.
I was told leaving my faith would send me to Hell.
And if you grew up in a world like mine, you were told the same thing. In fact, right this very minute there are scores of people who care for me and are praying for me because they genuinely believe that 1) Hell isn’t made up to scare us but is totally real, and 2) I’m headed there just because my mind changed about a tiny handful of metaphysical questions over which we now disagree.
But like the stage light that fell from the sky and landed at Truman’s feet at the beginning of the film, or the random intrusions of indignant fans into the show in order to help Truman learn the truth about his manufactured reality, over time the thoughtful, curious people begin to accumulate too many red flags to let go of the unnerving sense that their entire world is mostly made up by other people.
It’s like a pebble in your shoe that keeps getting sharper and sharper until the moment it finally occurs to you that you’re feeling something jabbing into you that you can’t ignore any longer. Or maybe it’s like a bra that doesn’t really fit you and you swear it’s been cutting off circulation to your brain, so you finally reach back and force that stupid thing to let go of its burden(s).
Ah, sweet relief.
The accumulated unease of a lifetime gathering hints that your world is a construct can really take a toll on your mental health. It’s like the whole world has been gaslighting you for so long that it’s become the white noise in the background of your life. But over time it builds up, irritating your sensibilities, rubbing them so raw it just hurts.
I think devout people severely underestimate how much angst they carry around because of this cognitive dissonance. Just this past weekend at a funeral I heard a minister get up and tell a room full of people that God gave cancer to the wonderful, sweet woman we had gathered to remember. The people sitting in front of me winced when he said it because it was a horrifying thing to say, and yet it’s entirely consistent with the Bible’s picture of a God who ultimately controls everything.
You learn to bury these kinds of feelings, shoving them into a place you try never to look at directly because of what it might do to your grip on your neatly contained little reality. In time, the burden of sitting on top of all those inner demons can turn you into a perpetually cranky person.
Incidentally, I suspect at some level people know how much they are banking their entire lives on a set of propositions they won’t know for sure are true until the moment after they die, at which point it will be too late to change their minds. They feel how incredibly risky this gamble is because the stakes are so high, but then they turn around and project all that risk onto us when they suppose the burden of proof is on those who don’t think people come back to life again after they die. They’ve really got it backwards.
This is why I’ve said many times that the Christian’s wager is far more risky than the one made famous by Pascal. If I’m wrong about the existence of gods, there are thousands of other possibilities which won’t impact my death one single bit, but if the Christian is wrong in rejecting all of those alternatives in favor of the one he or she was fortuitously born into, his or her entire life may have been predicated on something that was never real to begin with—and it’s the only life they’ll ever get!Read: “The Christian’s Wager: Why Faith Is a Bigger Gamble Than Disbelief“
What a risky faith this is, and they feel it whether they realize it or not. That’s why they get so upset when you question their reality. Which leads me to my final point, the reason for which I still keep writing about deconversion…
Why I Keep Writing
I’ve been discouraged a lot lately, and for a number of reasons I won’t get into today. Going to see that tear-jerking documentary about Mister Rogers probably didn’t help, ending as it did on a sour note of lament that his way of looking at the world doesn’t seem to be winning here lately. In fact, a lot of my malaise probably comes from the general sense of disharmony I’m hearing and seeing in the world around me right now.
But I’m also rounding a corner of my own in which I’m wondering what the end game for this blog will be. I’ve been asked many times how much longer I plan on writing about leaving my faith, and I think that’s an excellent question. I don’t intend to keep unpacking this stuff forever. It’s a challenge trying to write for this particular community (yes, there is one, even if it’s mostly virtual) because the audience is so diverse, as are the religious traditions from which my readers come. They fight with each other as much as they fight anyone else, probably more. Spend enough time in that subculture and you’re bound to get caught in the crossfire at some point. I’ve lost quite a lot of my social support because of it.
But for some reason, despite it all I keep writing, and some days I wonder why? I’ve written plenty, and while I still haven’t managed to get the most important parts put into a single volume (I promise that day is coming), I’ve already compiled the most important stuff into a single page online.
Then I remember this moment in The Truman Show, and how big a deal it was for him to have his doubts about his world finally validated. More than anything else, that’s what he needed. He desperately craved something to assure him he wasn’t losing his mind. His instincts were driving him to reject the stories he had been told from birth about the nature of his reality and it wasn’t until he reached this wall that he finally had what he needed most: confirmation that his instincts weren’t lying to him.
That’s why I write. It’s not because I’m trying to persuade people to agree with me about the big metaphysical questions of life. Trying to get everyone to believe the same things I believe is the evangelical Christian’s burden, not mine. The fact that I write a blog and speak to groups does not mean I’m evangelizing for atheism or whatever (how pedestrian, frankly).
I write so people will know they’re not alone. I talk about deconversion and unpacking our religious indoctrination because some people need to hear it from someone or else they feel they’re losing their minds. Sometimes that’s all you need—someone to assure you that you’ve got good reasons for asking the questions you keep asking. You just need someone to remind you that you’re not the only one who’s wondered about these things, and it’s okay to follow them through to their conclusions.
We are legion, and you should come find us out here. There’s a much bigger world outside your tiny epistemic enclosure, and while it may not be as tightly controlled as the one you’re accustomed to, at least it’s not a complete fabrication. At least, I don’t think it is…
[Image Source: Universal Studios]
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Note: Given how many people I care about have wrestled with mental illness, I know some will push back at my appropriation of that language in this context. I remain open to discussion about the matter, and will continue to do my best to take every objection to heart. But I still feel the language both fits and gets the point across so much better than the alternatives. Wrestling with false narratives and struggling to maintain a grip on reality is precisely what unpacking your religious indoctrination entails. So until I can find a better way to put it, I’m sticking with this one for now.