Karl Marx once said that religion is “the opium of the people,” and I fully understand. It is a most difficult process to get to the root of the problem, to the core of who we are and even why we are, and to contend with potentially poisonous and distorted emotions. Some individuals choose the easy way out when dealing with bodily aches and pains, taking pain pills instead of utilizing diet, exercise and other healthy regimens to treat, or prevent, the underlying cause of their pain. There are more than a few paths we can follow to mask our pain. A religion, for example, may give us a sense of well being, a belief that someone more powerful is in control, has a plan for us, and will ultimately fix whatever inside of us we perceive to be broken. These beliefs may help us deal with the symptoms of our suffering, but don’t typically enable us to look critically at what’s going on inside each of us, at what’s ultimately driving our thoughts, actions and behaviors.
Many religions or spiritual philosophies preach life after death in heaven as the ultimate goal and reward for living through the common or uncommon trials and tribulations of life. Other spiritual paths may teach a belief in reincarnation, where one is blessed or cursed, depending on how one sees it, to live again and again on the way to one’s highest self. In my early life, I held to a belief that there is a God, who in his due time, will select a few to be saved when he violently destroys the vast majority of people in a fiery “Armageddon.” Those who’ve been judged worthy by this “most loving” God will survive this traumatic period to live on a paradise earth, restored to the splendor of the original Garden of Eden, where after one thousand years Satan the Devil himself will be released as a final test to mankind. Then, and only then, those who pass this test will be allowed to live forever on this paradise earth, where sickness and death have perished, and meat-eating carnivores will crave flesh no more.
According to the information published on the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there are over eight million active followers throughout the globe. Current estimates put the population of the entire world at about 7.6 billion people. Jehovah’s Witnesses preach that only the people alive today who accept their interpretation of the Bible and dedicate themselves to their version of God may be spared from annihilation when Armageddon comes. By the numbers, this represents the potential for all but one tenth of one percent of the world’s population to be wiped off the face of the earth. The path they walk is narrow indeed. Do the beliefs of this extremely thin slice of the world’s population matter in the grand scheme of things?
My parents received a fateful knock on their door when I was two years old. A very sweet, adorable woman named Lydia waited earnestly on the other side, a smile on her face reflective of the joy and deep conviction in her beliefs. I was too young to remember exactly what she said, but she most likely asked my parents if they had ever thought about God’s purpose for their life. It’s a thought provoking question, and one that many find hard to answer. True, while most slam their doors shut in the faces of those who spend their weekends knocking on them, there’s a small percentage who are intrigued enough to continue the conversation. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ message can be inviting, especially for those who have deep seated desires for attachment and security.
My mother and father were both only twenty-four years old when they encountered the Jehovah’s Witnesses. There was a tremendous amount of political unrest in the United States; the war in Vietnam was raging, much to the dismay of many young people who vehemently protested the United States’ involvement in the conflict. My parents were experiencing their own unrest as well, earnestly searching for a shared belief system. My father was raised a Jew, and although neither of his parents strictly observed the customs held by more devout Jews, he revered his faith enough to have attended Yeshiva University in New York for a brief time. He had once hoped to become a Rabbi, but then he met my mother, and the train went in a different direction. My mother was raised as a Protestant, with regular church attendance part of her formative years.
Neither of my parents had strong relationships with their distant and aloof, self-absorbed fathers. My father was one of four children, and his mother did her best to ensure her children were well behaved, clean and respectful. She smoked like a fiend and drank Coke every day, buzzing around like a fly on crack as she navigated her daily routines. My mother’s mother was a very different sort of bird. She never smoked nor did she drink, and she kept a fanatically clean and orderly home. My mother was an only child, and her father was almost always away at work, either all day or for entire weeks at a time. That left her and her mother with only each other’s company the majority of the time. My grandmother was positively over-obsessive about things, and found my mother to be a good object to focus on. As my mother tells it, she wasn’t ever good enough for her mother, and worse, was sheltered and kept under house arrest, rarely or almost never allowed to visit with other girls her age, or have anyone visit her mother’s home. Perhaps my grandmother was jealous of my mother’s beauty and intellect, or was simply repeating what she learned from her own mother.
My mother was anxious to finish high school and get away from the regimented and controlling home life she endured. Once on her own at college, she wasn’t well equipped to handle the world responsibly and confidently, which led to her leaving school after barely a year to move to New York City. It was there, on a blind date set up by a friend, that she met my father. My father wasn’t at all like the boys my mother knew in high school back in snooty Cranford, New Jersey, and that was everything to her. She needed different so badly at a stage in her life when she was still trying to figure out how to spread wings that weren’t allowed to grow properly within her mother’s controlling grasp. My father, a skinny, Jewish boy from a poor Brooklyn family, was the ultimate antithesis of the person her parents hoped she’d someday marry. When she finally brought him back home so her parents could meet him for the first time, they were aghast and ashamed. This I’ve learned from the many conversations I’ve had with my grandmother, who never once told me how they grew to like him. No, until she died, my grandmother always regretted my mother not marrying a doctor or a lawyer. Despite my grandmother’s prejudiced misgivings, I’ll find comfort and gratitude for my mother’s choices here, for those choices brought me into this world.