Thursday, April 16, 2009
I like your medicine I like your birds and your bees Now don’t you start thinking you’ve gotta buy the cure from them, sugar I know you know they’re only gonna sell you the disease --Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers, “I Know You Know” There was a guy I knew once. He was friends with my older sister during junior high, but some time around high school she stopped talking to him. I always assumed it was because they were friends from youth group and my sister stopped wanting to have anything to do with church somewhere around her sophomore year. I knew this guy’s older and younger brothers and they were both cool. I liked his brothers. Still do. At some point he ended up back in the area and I ended up hanging out with him because we were often in the same place and had something of a history. I didn’t mind him much, but it was always obvious that he lacked whatever it was about his brothers that I liked. He was cocky. Arrogant, even. He just wasn’t good people when it got right down to it. He also had a specific form of navel-gazing arrogance. See, within the fundagelical world there are some people who think they’re more spiritual than others. And since they’re more spiritual than others, apparently that means they get to act any way they damn please because if they say something against another they’re speaking god’s own truth while anyone who speaks against them is blaspheming god. I know the type well. I was one for a while, at least from the “speaking god’s truth” perspective. One day I asked my sister why she didn’t talk to or say nice things about him. She told me it was because he used to make fun of me behind my back in junior high. My big sis can carry a grudge like no one I’ve met, but sometimes that’s not such a bad thing… Either way, when I stopped going to church I stopped seeing a lot of people from church. He, unfortunately, was not one of them. I still ran in to him on a fairly regular basis. There are some people I used to go to church with who I still run in to and liked seeing. I’m generally fairly careful to avoid bringing up certain things, but I can otherwise have perfectly pleasant conversations with them. With the guy in question I realized I didn’t have to cover up the fact that I didn’t like him. I decided that I just wouldn’t talk to him any more than necessary. He said something I really didn’t like during one of those times I ran in to him. I responded extremely sarcastically and he stopped and said, “You’ve been so angry lately. What’s going on?” I almost told him. But I knew what would be coming. I’d never hear the end of it. This was just a couple months after I’d simultaneously lost my job and Her. I was in a bad place. But I also just didn’t like that guy. I wasn’t yet ready to defend myself against my former co-religionists, either. So I mumbled something and walked away. Anyway, I knew how the conversation would go. If I admitted that I was no longer a Christian anything I said after that would be thrown out the window. If I was mad, it was because I didn’t give it to Jesus. If I didn’t have a job, it was a lesson from god. And assuming I survived that conversation, news about me would soon circulate. I’m not the sort of person who believes that everyone starts talking about me the moment I leave the room. In fact, I’m pretty sure that most of the people I used to go to church with don’t think of me at all. But I also know who the gossips are. I know the exact people who would bring it up to make sure that everyone prayed for me. I’d rather fade in to nonexistence, thanks. Anyway, a big part of the personal Christian story revolves around a twisted concept of “being a better person.” Accepting Jesus is supposed to somehow make the new believer better. Jesus apparently takes away all the horrible things in a person’s soul and replaces them with love and peace and joy. The counter-argument, then, against those who are in my position is, “So you’re worse person now, right?” Because with no Jesus, there can be no goodness. This is the root of those dumb “No Jesus, No Peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace” bumper stickers. The thing is, I like to think I’m a better person since I left Christianity. I also like to believe it has very little to do with me leaving Christianity. It’s important in that I don’t have to spend my days trying to distract myself with double-think. It’s important in that I no longer reflexively look over my shoulder to make sure I’m not being judged. It’s important in that I don’t have to match the lessons I learn in life up to a book that tells me my morality needs to be firmly entrenched in bronze and iron age cultural mores. However, the larger part of the reason why I like to think I’m a better person now than I was then is because I’ve done a lot of what I like to call “growing the fuck up.” See, my general belief is that there are only two way to better ourselves. The main way involves learning from our experiences. The secondary, and admittedly more difficult, is to learn vicariously through the experiences of others. The first requires clarity and the ability to be honest with yourself. The second requires empathy and a willingness to hear what others have to say instead of waiting for them to be quiet so you can fill the empty space with self-indulgent chatter. These are things that generally come with age and experience. For some people they never come at all. It’s why I’ve tended to catalog my own stories on this blog. Simply having experiences isn’t enough. Cataloging and sharing them is what often drives the lessons home. We tend to learn the most, I’ve learned, from teaching others. This is why it’s important to be open both to teaching and being taught. Self improvement is also often predicated on hope. If I don’t believe there’s a reason to get out of bed in the morning, I’m going to be fairly lax on being a better person when I get around to it. It’s why, as silly as it may seem, getting the job I have now probably had a hell of a lot of influence on my own attempts at self improvement. I’ve spent ten months going in to work with an, “I’m just happy to be here,” attitude. It certainly makes the day go faster and the hard lessons easier to take. However, this pervasive question is also why I tend to qualify a lot of phrases with, “I felt that way when I was still a Christian.” I didn’t like the guy I talked about at the beginning of this post much when we went to church together. I don’t like him now. If you hear me say, “Yeah, that guy’s a jerk,” you could easily dismiss me as not liking Christians. If you hear me say, “He’s a jerk now, he was a jerk in junior high, and he was a jerk at every point I recall in between,” you can’t dismiss my opinion as prejudiced. Would he, meanwhile, be a jerk if he wasn’t a Christian? Probably. The thing that I wonder, though, is how much of my own growing the fuck up process was impeded by my Christianity. As I’ve mentioned before, fundagelical Christianity isn’t exactly built on the premise that it’s a good idea to listen to other people, especially people who have different beliefs. So even though I was learning from people who weren’t Christians back in the day, I wonder if I could have learned more and faster if I’d allowed myself to be open to them instead of having to filter everything through the double think. But I suppose that’s all academic. I was worse then than I am now. I’m probably worse now than I’ll be in the future. Does that have anything to do with my beliefs? Yes. Just not the ones others might like to claim. It’s my belief in learning from my mistakes and successes that makes me better. It’s my belief in learning from others that makes me better. And that’s a belief I intend to stand by for the rest of my life.