It’s a seductive storyline. I can’t deny that. It’s powerfully alluring.
Just imagine: You’re the klutzy, totally undeserving, inexperienced, vastly underpowered childlike person who catches the eye of some huge, unthinkably powerful, completely in-control and self-possessed being whose monstrous will and complete focus lands, laser-like and pinpoint-accurate, on you.
You have no idea why this focus has settled on you. I mean, really, what could you offer this being? What could this person possibly want from you that couldn’t be gotten from a thousand million other people worthier than you? What could you possibly provide to this person’s life and existence that couldn’t be gotten from somewhere or someone else more effectively? But no, for whatever reason this person has decided that you are the most important thing in the world and that nothing, nothing at all, will stop your inevitable union.
Wait, are we talking about that stupid sex movie that just came out, or are we talking about Christianity? Because I think I lost track.
I think it’d be a little difficult not to get a little bit of an attitude about the whole situation; I even got visions of my life-after-life as the divine child of a god in Heaven and once heard a powerful male voice during a fasting and prayer-warrior session informing me I was intended to be “the bride of Christ“–this was before I knew what that phrase meant, so it actually totally freaked me out. (I was thinking “Holy crap, I’m going to be the direct cause of Armageddon or something?!?” This was not actually a fun thought for me and I’m glad some more knowledgable friends were around to immediately set me straight, or who even knows what could have come of this hallucination. Apparently I missed my chance to start an apocalyptic cult.)
A lot of folks judge themselves by who likes them–so if someone they imagine to be that powerful and puissant adores them and wants to be around them, that obviously means they are very special bunnies indeed. I’m afraid I fell into that trap in spades. But only partially, which was, I think now, the intention of the designers of the religion’s culture.
When I was Christian I had this weird double-talk going on in my head and a lot of it revolved around this ever-varying and shifting sense of my own importance.
On the one hand, obviously I was wonderful because, um, a god was madly crazily in love with me and passionately interested in every single thing I did.
On the other, I was lower than dogshit compared to that god and pride was a sin anyway so I shouldn’t get all vaunted and puffed up.
On the one hand, I thought the whole universe was created just for me to play around in it.
On the other, my holy books specifically made clear that if I didn’t toe the line I was as dispensable as any bit of used tissue. If I didn’t somehow make myself believe and do the right things, I’d be thrown out like so much trash and forgotten by those I’d loved in life (this was the prevailing explanation I was offered for what I would think, in Heaven, of those who hadn’t “made it” along with me–I’d forget about them or not mind knowing that they were being tortured; this view varies wildly, it goes without saying, and there’s as much evidence for that view as there is for any other in any religion).
On the one hand, there was some big divine plan that required my presence and participation or everything would just go higgledy-piggledy. On the other, though, there seemed to be no reason whatsoever why one person got “chosen” for this or that task; certainly this god didn’t seem to care what someone’s qualifications were or what their inclinations might be (our mythology and urban legends were, after all, chock-full of stories about people–both Biblical and real-life–who were downright mystified about how they’d come to get the marching orders they had gotten).
I was both fluffed-up and lavished on one hand, and constantly devalued and made to feel pathetically unworthy on the other. Oh, but the awesomely awful part is this: if I felt unworthy, then I was taught that I was terribly wrong to feel that way. I was not allowed to actually feel anything but wonderful and adored–even though I was convinced that there was really nothing about me that merited that kind of adoration from what I truly thought was a living god.
Is there any wonder I ended up a little screwed-up? On the one hand I was thinking of myself as the eternal bride of a real live god, but on the other I thought I should be grateful for any tiny crumb I got that fell from that god’s table because I didn’t deserve a single thing from him.
How could I come out of that with anything but a really screwy idea of my importance and value as a person?
Christianity brought me to a truly fucked-up and distorted version of narcissism.
It took a long time to realize it, though. One of the things I struggled with when leaving Christianity was learning to put myself into perspective as just one of many billions of impossibly tiny people on an impossibly tiny rock flung near a disreputable corner of an impossibly tiny galaxy floating and swimming in the middle of an impossibly vast universe. That kind of perspective was a little scary and intimidating the first time I really thought about it. Now I’m used to it. Still getting used to the idea of dying and not existing at all anymore, though. That is taking more time. The term I hear is existential dread–this horror of nothingness, of not-being. I know the feeling. I didn’t use to feel it; I thought some part of me lived on forever. Now I’m not sure and I don’t want to hinge any hopes or make any plans around something that might not be true. At the time, though, of course I was going to live forever. As the joke goes, how could the party possibly end just because I was leaving it? Now that I was here, things were finally getting rolling.
I wonder sometimes if I got into fundagelical Christianity because I really wanted to feel special. Certainly sometimes I think I see threads of that desire in many of the Christians I encounter–like they couldn’t get that feeling of superiority any other way except to buy into a religion that stressed their importance and cosmic significance. I wonder if they ever get that dreadful feeling that no, actually, they’re just like everybody else–doing the best they all can with what they have, with no super-powerful
Christian Grey deity doting on their every move. I’m sure there were a lot of reasons I got drawn into that kind of religious zealotry. That couldn’t be all of it for anybody else any more than it was for me. But I see how freaked out these folks get at the idea that they’re not actually the whole entire reason for the universe’s existence, and their insistence that Jesus is coming back while they’re alive to enjoy the carnage, and it’s hard not to think that is maybe part of what’s going on for them the same as it maybe was for me.
I might not have been much. I was young, and not very well-educated. I was insecure and thought I was fat and ungainly and awkward and unfeminine. I wasn’t rich or powerful. Seems like some days I made nothing but mistakes one after the other. But oh, appearances were deceptive! You see, I thought I had this special line to “God” and that I had the power to influence this being and make him do what I asked and wanted. My church called it being “more than a conqueror,” this ability to make the conqueror–“God”–do our bidding to please us and make us happy. I bought into the idea. I could cloak myself with that power and cover myself with that love, and I would be important; I would be special: not by virtue of my own self and my own abilities, but by virtue of who loved me.
Then I found out that there is no reason whatsoever to believe that this being even exists, and the “love” turned out to be entirely a figment of my own imagination.
Talk about getting the carpet pulled out from under you.
It’s tough to center oneself after many years of that sort of wildly contradictory self-talk. On one hand, I behold a world full of Space Princesses; on the other, I perceive thousands and thousands of cries:
Am I good enough?
And I hear echoing around and across the world:
Someone tell me I am.
Someone. Please, please, please: someone tell me I am.
And I say:
Yes, you are.
I ain’t one of those blowing-bullshit-up-skirts people. I don’t go for that “special snowflake” stuff. But I do believe that just about everybody has some kind of potential to learn and grow and improve the world in some way. And if you’re reading my words, you’re lucky enough to have been born in a situation where you can do a lot more than a lot of other folks. The sheer staggering odds of you being here, reading my words, should blow your mind. So yes: if not you, then nobody. If you’re not good enough, then who the fuck would be?
There probably won’t be any life after the one we’ve got right now. If you’re trying to do something meaningful with it–even if it’s only meaningful to yourself or your immediate surroundings–then that’s about all anybody could ask. Do the best you can, is all, with this fantastic opportunity you lucked into. It’s never too late to start. Imagine what would happen if we all just stopped galumphing through our days, racing from weekend to weekend, and instead started to live and learn and grow and touch others and–heresy of heresies!–began passing on that passion to everything we did.
If not you, then nobody.
The weird narcissism that Christianity brought me was not love–not of myself and certainly not of a god. Narcissism in general is not healthy self-regard or real confidence but rather a reflection of huge, deep chasms of insecurity and doubt. Any narcissism is bad, but religious narcissism is doubly awful because it makes us focus on ourselves and our self-doubt rather than anything around us, or on what we can learn, or how we can grow. It keeps us guessing and jumping and dancing for approval and love–neither of which will ever come because neither is based on anything real, and I suspect most of us know that deep down it’s not real.
Nothing about what I experienced even halfway qualifies as love. It slapped me down on the one side and lifted me up with the other, and it left me struggling for many years with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. I learned to substitute grand words for actual feelings of competence and to present a mask instead of honestly showing myself. And dismantling all that self-delusion took a lot longer than I like to think about. I remember being all but immobilized by feelings of inferiority and doubt and unable to move forward unless I thought “God” was telling me to do something, and I remember bashing my brains out trying to figure out how to be worthy of this deity and how to make sure I had his approval so I wouldn’t be set on fire and tossed aside like garbage after I died. Even after deconversion, I had great difficulty in learning to treat myself with love and gentleness.
And gang, I’m here to tell anybody who’s never tried it: that is a really shitty way to live.
To move out of that self-doubt, I began learning and growing for myself–to do things I thought were important, to improve myself and the world around me. Sometimes I moved forward in small ways, but every single step I took was one tiny piece of self-esteem that fell into place. And yes, they were very tiny–impossibly so sometimes. The first “no” I said to someone trying to make me do something I didn’t want to do. The first time I recognized when I was being a self-centered twit and not focusing on the person talking to me. The first time I donated to a charity not because of how well it’d “save” non-Christians (by making them more like me, of course) but because of how many people my donation could feed and educate. The first time I stretched my mind instead of playing it safe by taking a class I hadn’t ever considered myself capable of taking, a difficult upper-level honors political science class–and did really well at it. The first time I wore something that made me feel beautiful in public. The first time I submitted a piece of my writing to a publisher, and also the umpteenth time, when something got accepted at last.
These were small and sometimes silly self-esteem-builders and frequently they were more about me than about any grand aspiration of improving the whole world, but they were real, unlike the false accolades I’d been using to prop myself up and fluff my ego at the expense of actually doing anything real to give myself the feelings of value, meaningfulness, validation, and life-satisfaction I’d been aching to experience. If you’re suddenly drawing parallels between what I’m describing here and the way that prayer also lets people feel like they did something without actually having to do anything, then I can’t blame you.
Real is better than false. I’d rather have a modest reality than a beyond-cosmic fantasy that only leaves me feeling hollow and confused. I finally got what I sought–far, far away from Christianity–and lessons that hard-won don’t subside very quickly. Besides, it’s not really that modest–this world is astonishing and beautiful, amazing and awe-inspiring, and I’m glad I’m finally seeing it with clearer eyes.
If you’re wondering, it was well worth the effort.
I wish I’d gotten rolling on it earlier than I did, sure, but the important thing is that we’re here now. It’s sorta like starting a retirement account: earlier is better, but it doesn’t matter how late you get started–as long as you do.