Learning to Fly.

Learning to Fly. June 25, 2013

Ever known anybody who had a really tough time with trying anything new? I sure did. This one ex-boyfriend I had once was just terrified of trying new foods. Anything he ate had to be vetted well ahead of time, and he was one of those guys who could (and did) eat the same exact thing every single day for lunch at work. If it wasn’t bland, white, processed, and completely non-threatening to a Midwesterner, it did not get past his teeth. His excuse for this depressingly childish trait was that he was a “supertaster,” but I never seriously believed his palate was that sensitive. Nobody who voluntarily consumes those disgusting meatball subs from Subway can possibly truthfully claim such a thing. No, the real problem was that he was just scared of trying new things in general. He’d discovered at some point in his past that meatball subs were tolerable fuel, and it was much quicker, easier, and less stressful at lunch to get one of those than to go investigate other food options which he might dislike.

I couldn’t fault him at all. I had the same problem a long time ago, just not about food, and I know how very hard it is to get out of that way of living and thinking.

There is some evidence that rigidly fundamentalist religious people can have difficulty in trying new things. I can definitely attest to that. And there are other studies that support the idea that fundamentalists can be very rigid, have very black-and-white thinking, and have a tough time thinking for themselves and challenging the ideas and rules of their authority figures. And yes, I can definitely agree with that concept as well. To me it’s almost a chicken-or-egg argument. Was I already pretty rigid in my thinking before I became a fundamentalist at 16? Or did fundamentalism make me rigid (or accentuate what was there)?

Christianity prides itself on doing things the old-fashioned way. Not for nothing is one of its most popular songs “Old Time Religion”! Preachers rail against the modern age, and churches reject just about all new technology… at least till they get used to it. When I was a Christian I was so proud of being old-fashioned. I dressed like a cast member from “Little House on the Prairie,” practiced a form of morality that my church thought the Victorians would have felt was quite appropriate, and read my Bible and prayed in King James Version language (which is sort of like a parent using a kid’s middle name–you know it just got real when you hear it). Even today, the thing that springs out at me most when listening to Christians pining for “the good old days” is that what they really seem to want is a return to this mythical 1950s suburban dream they have in their heads. It’s not the real 1950s any more than the Middle Ages that the Society for Creative Anachronism recreates reflects the real Middle Ages–in the Christian “good old days,” they ignore the human rights abuses against gay people, the persecution of minorities, and the systematic and institutionalized oppression of every right and form of dignity that women–even fundamentalist women–completely take for granted today. Instead there’s just this hazy impression of a stay-at-home mom who always baked from scratch and was a smiling, gentle, sexy partner (“bonny and buxom in bed and at board,” to use the promise brides made in the Tudor era) to her hardworking, square-jawed husband, of families who were scrubbed-clean, cooperative, loving, and earnest, of tight-knit neighborhoods where everybody looked out for each other, and of a nation that stood together strong and proud against interlopers.

Of course almost none of that is how the 1950s really looked, except for a tiny tiny narrow section of America. That goes without saying. In the 1950s people seemed to pine for an equally mythical view of the Victorian age, when women baked all the family’s bread and nobody fussed about convenience food or working women, or worried about marijuana or dirty dancing. In another 50 years, you watch: if Christianity even exists at all still its members will be yearning for the 2010s when they could still abuse gay people and speak against women’s rights and not get the stank-eye from every listener, and they’ll spin our era into one in which women baked from scratch and loved staying home to care for children and in which children were good, the nation was prosperous, and our security assured–unlike in (insert current year here)! What I’m saying is that this trend of being old-fashioned and 50 years behind the times isn’t anything new or different about modern Christianity. I think they’re always going to be 50 years behind, and they’re always going to distrust modernity and new ways of thinking and acting. It’s just part of the religion at this point that its practitioners have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to new ideas.

Like a lot of people who leave Christianity, I struggled for a long time with that generally rigid way of thinking. I saw things as black or white, and I had a tough time even considering doing things differently from how I’d always done them. Another ex-Pentecostal friend of mine at the time of my deconversion used to joke about it by chanting “LAW! LAW! LAW! LAW!” when we caught ourselves acting that way and it’d make us laugh, but she had it even worse than I did. We both tended to get very irritated with new ideas and argue about them a lot–when we could be persuaded to talk about them at all. I tended to reject new ideas out of hand so I didn’t normally get to the arguing stage.

There’s hope, though. With effort, even those who have very rigid thinking patterns can break out of such a restrictive mindset. For me, it was as easy as reminding myself that yes, I can be a little rigid sometimes, and giving myself permission to not give a verdict right away. I still remember the first time I did that–it was on a MUD (an online multiplayer text-based adventure roleplaying game, sort of like WoW but typed out) that I helped administer. The guy who owned it was trying to push a new idea for some code he wanted to write. Most of the rest of the admins were (metaphorically) running around waving their hands in the air like they were on fire. I personally reacted very strongly against the idea. The impulse was almost overwhelming to say “no, I want to do things the way we’ve always done them.”

But I took a step back with incredible difficulty. This guy was someone whose intelligence I respected enormously. He seemed very excited about this idea of his. He wasn’t an idiot or capricious. Though the words felt like they were fighting to escape my mouth, I said, “Dude, I’m going to admit that I’m feeling uncomfortable with the idea, but that might just be me and not the idea. If you can give me a day or two to mull it over without bothering me and let me digest the idea, I promise I will very sincerely try to work out what I do and don’t like about it so we can talk about it instead of just kneejerk react to it.” To my surprise, he was genuinely grateful that I’d admitted I had a problem there and that I’d asked for some time rather than lashing out with a hurled “NO!” I don’t remember what his idea even was anymore, but I ended up liking it and we gave it a try. Nor do I remember if the idea worked or not. The important thing was to at least try it, and I had. And it got easier and easier to examine new ideas and to stop feeling threatened by them.

Later on, when that game’s problems grew so distressingly dramatic that I left to go make my own game, I spent a year or two really considering what had gone wrong and how to make things better with my own project. That’s a lot harder to do than it sounds. A lot of MUDs spring up as a reaction to a parent game doing something hideously wrong, but most of the time these new game owners just have this vague idea that they’re going to do better. They don’t know exactly what the previous game did so badly, no, and they don’t know exactly how they’ll do better, but by golly they will. And I’m sure you’re shocked to know that actually their games don’t tend to do better–they suffer the same policy flaws, the same staffing issues, the same interpersonal drama that the original game had. I examined every single aspect of my game, asked myself why things were done that way–why we’d always done it that way–and if what we’d always done actually matched up to what we wanted to accomplish. I was surprised to discover that no, that wasn’t always the case. A lot of the time, the games I’d helped with did things a certain way and taught their admins a certain way of doing things, and when those admins suffer the same rigidity in thinking that I did, they go off to staff and make their own games and those games inherit all the old problems of the parent game.

Here’s one example from my inbred little corner of the MUD world: often, a player with great social cachet or a neat idea will get a very high-end character into the game right from the getgo. For example, someone might enter the game as a military captain rather than as a private, or a guild leader rather than a newbie shop assistant. Most players’ characters have to enter MUDs from the lowest levels, but some players get to move right to the top of the line. That might not sound like such a bad idea, and clearly it didn’t to almost every MUD owner I’d ever run across because they all offered these jump-start characters to their more trusted players. It was such an ingrained custom that when I rejected the idea it was quite a revolutionary move.

But when I thought about it, I couldn’t help but wonder why I’d always just accepted this system without a word. Let’s take the captain as an example. This character would get put into game above a bunch of other players’ characters to lead them (or at least get privileges and rank they didn’t get). I had never seen anything but hostility and a certain amount of disappointment from the other players when all their hard work to advance got jumped by some person who hadn’t worked his/her tail off for a solid real-life (RL) year. Often the person who slid into that position didn’t actually understand the dynamics of the organization that ostensibly s/he was supposed to be leading, and didn’t have any authority over the other characters because they didn’t know or respect him/her yet. Such an artificially advanced character lacked that intricate tapestry of contacts, friends, enemies, and family that marked a character who’d worked from the lowest level all the way up to that exalted rank. These characters didn’t tend to add much to the game, and they didn’t tend to last long before their players got a bit bored of them and wanted some challenge. These players also realized very quickly that their advanced characters couldn’t really go any higher, either, because these same MUDs tended to limit advancement past the middling-high levels of society and the military.

So I rejected the idea of a from-the-getgo advanced character and decided that every single character in my games would begin at the lowest levels–but by the same token that I wouldn’t limit how high a character could reasonably go, which is also something every other MUD I’d played did and for even less of a good reason than letting PCs enter game at a high rank!

When I realized how detrimental those two ideas were for a game, yet how automatically game administrators did them both, I felt so liberated as I gave my ideas to the community. And the players LOVED these ideas. LOVED them. They were genuinely excited about them. They couldn’t wait to see them in action. I hadn’t seen players this happy about anything since I’d decided to let them all have kittens if they had a place to keep pets ingame. In the end, I discarded a number of cherished customs that game admins love, but the result was a much happier group of players and characters who felt like a real community. And the hits kept on rolling.

The first step really was admitting that the problem existed. Yes, I have tendencies toward rigidity. So when I’m presented with a new idea, I really try to give myself time to absorb the idea and look at it with an open heart. Sometimes I fail, but over time I’ve managed to at least listen to an idea without rejecting it out of hand. Now I see that same rigidity in others who’ve left behind the religion itself but still hang onto the way of thinking they had then and cling to that religion’s social stances. It just doesn’t do anybody any good to reject the religion but still think and act like a religious person. We’re going to be talking soon about some of the other ways I held onto that “religious” kind of thinking way past the last day I walked out of a church, but rigidity was the main battle I fought.

I’m not the only one who has at least partially overcome that rigidity, either. That ex-boyfriend of mine also learned, years after we parted ways, to challenge his cherished “supertaster” illusion and now loves to try new foods. He’s become quite the gourmet.

What I’m saying is this: there’s hope for all of us.

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