Searching for the Opiate: How My Parents Became Jehovah’s Witnesses

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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 Continue reading “Searching for the Opiate: How My Parents Became Jehovah’s Witnesses”

Sorry Is The Hardest Word

SORRY

Like so many people, I am a victim of child abuse. I’ve been abused both physically and mentally by various caregivers. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been in the news for a number of years now with sordid reports of sexual abuse of minors by members of their own organization. While I have been spared this type of abuse, several of my sisters have not. How did this happen?

I believe part of the answer lies in the fact that some Jehovah Witness parents cannot fathom on any level that another Jehovah Witness would ever commit such a horrible act. They reason that perhaps their children misunderstood the actions of the adults in question. They may have known the accused for a number of years, and quite often the individual has been a long-time, close family friend. In the cases I am aware of, their apparent devotion to “Jehovah” was without question. The outward appearance in no way, shape or form bears any resemblance to the monstrous acts they are accused of.

When a child tells an adult, especially a parent, of the abuse, and they are not immediately believed, it can have a long-lasting and harrowing impact on the individual for the rest of their lives. I have a sister struggling with additions to drugs, alcohol and love, as I myself once did. The little girl inside of her is still screaming for validation. Now that she is disfellowshipped, no one in her family that is an active JW will speak with her at all, despite the serious crisis she is dealing with. No one protected her as a child, and no one is coming to her aid now. I’m certain this is not what a loving God would condone.

My sister and I recently enjoyed a long discussion where we realized that we shared many of the same experiences of parental neglect and abuse. We did not feel protected as children, left to face the coldest aspects of this world without a shield. We are not sure that our parents have any realization about what they did, or what they failed to do. In any event, one thing is for sure, they have never apologized for their failure to be good parents. My sister recalls trying to bring up the topic to her mother (who is actually my stepmother) as an adult. The response she was met with was disturbing. My sister was asked why she “can’t get over what happened,” why she “can’t let it go.” Why indeed? Because she has never been able to receive closure.

Inadequate or abusive parents cannot of course take back what they have done, but they can start by acknowledging their failures, and more importantly, apologizing to their children for what they did or did not do. My own mother, upon learning that I had completed a memoir about my own life and realizing that it would have of course described her own shortcomings as a parent, seemed very concerned that I would forgive her for her actions. I know she is remorseful. Of course I have forgiven her. I have forgiven all who mistreated or abused me on the path to my current self, for I know that forgiving others is a gift I give to myself. From my perspective, carrying hate and anger and blame within ourselves is actually more poisonous and dangerous than the original neglect and abuse.

So if you have been abused or neglected, I would advise you to forgive those who are responsible. If you are the responsible party, resign yourself today to looking in the mirror and confessing to yourself. Then, go to the child or the adult that was victimized and tell them you realize what you did, and most importantly, let them know you are sorry. It won’t heal all old wounds, but it is a start.

 

 

I Am My Now

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More often than not, the easiest thing to do is dwell upon the past, focusing on all of the individual experiences that have helped to shape us into the person we are today. While it is true that each step along the path of our lives has led us to the present, we must separate our journey from our individual selves. We are not our pasts. We are who we have become as a result of our experiences, yet we need to recognize that we no longer live in the past; instead, we live because of the past. While we are where we are today because of the path we took to get here, we are not doomed to any particular conclusion. Each day is a new choice to walk the path in our own unique way, to a destination of our own making.

As I reflect on my own journey, I am now aware of my power to clearly see things from this perspective. I am able to change the small voices inside my head, the ones that once told me that the tolerance of undesirable conditions meant that I was strong. No, what makes me strong is my ability to stand up and say “I won’t tolerate these conditions any longer!” Yes, I have learned that this is my life, which means I must act like it and take my destiny into my own hands. I cannot wait for things to work out independent of my own efforts. Waiting for things to “work out” on their own is like rolling two die over and over again, hoping for two sixes that may never come. The act of continually throwing the die can become powerfully addicting, believing there is always a chance, however small that might be, that our numbers will finally come up. Unlike the roll of the die, life is not a game of chance. The outcomes of our lives are the product of the decisions we make today, in the here and now. Sure, it can be fun to dream, to have hope and even faith, but those alone will not lead us to the life we have imagined.

It is a matter of control. Once, I surrendered control over my own mind, and my own outcomes, to a very small group of individuals who thought they knew, or at least they told me they knew, what was best for me. I didn’t have to worry about the future. Do the work, they said, and it will all work out. I believed them, for a time. When I no longer believed them, I suddenly had no mind of my own. Outside of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I initially experienced a significant “power vacuum.” Without someone, or something, telling me how to live my life, I went on a quest in search of my own mind, in search of control over my outcomes. It took me many years to acquire and then utilize this power.

As I stand here today, I know now that there is no law of numbers when it comes to my own life. I am in full control over the outcomes. I will roll a twelve if I see fit to do so. The decisions I make today, in this moment, and in every moment that follows, will decide my fate and my future. My mind is under no one’s control other than my own. Whatever happened in my past, whatever power and control I once gave up, no longer matters.

I am not my past. I am my now.

This Should be a Disfellowshipping Offense

pexels-photo-925349.jpegIf we take a close look at the various reasons why one can be disfellowshipped from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we find a long list of offenses, some which can find no direct connection to scriptural direction (such as smoking and the use of foul language). However, what has puzzled me for a long time is the issue of a parent, or parents, who fail to properly provide for their family. My parents divorced when I was very young, and my mother left the Witnesses at about the same time, (see my prior story “Conditional Love” for more on that). In the years after, my father encountered great difficulty in being able to care for his family. He was out of work on multiple occasions, at times receiving food stamps and Welfare payments to make ends meet. He soon married another woman within months of the finalization of his divorce from my mother, and they proceeded to have three more children together in fairly rapid succession. This posed a problem for my mother, who still had to care for my sister and me.

My mother had several issues of her own which made it difficult for her to work, but it certainly never helped that my father paid little or no child support after he married his second wife and they began having children. His new wife never worked, and with each new child of theirs that came into the world, that made the likelihood of that even more remote. My father was extremely critical of my mother while I was growing up, but never once did he apologize for failing to properly care for me and my sister. Not only did he not provide child support for most of my young life, but I never recall him purchasing clothes or shoes for us either, and he certainly never helped with school supplies. I am extremely grateful for the financial support that my mother’s parents provided along the way to help make ends meet.

I believe 1 Timothy 5:8 (English Standard Version) states that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” If you take the bible as your guidebook, that seems crystal clear to me. Was my father ever counseled with regard to the biblical direction on caring for his family? I really don’t know. He occasionally held positions in the congregations, such as Ministerial Servant and Elder, so I am guessing he wasn’t.

I’m certainly angry with my father on several levels, but this issue burns me the most. He remains in good standing with his congregation while I exist on the outside. I’m happy with my place, believe me, but I do not think for one moment that what he’s NOT done is not worse than anything I have done. It’s just one of the many reasons I believe I’m in the right place.

The Jehovah Witness Graduate

pexels-photo-267885.jpegThere was a lot happening in my life just prior to my seventeenth birthday. First and foremost was my upcoming baptism at the circuit assembly. I had originally planned to get baptized in February of that year but my stepmother thought it best that I delve deeper into my bible studies, to make sure this was what I really wanted to commit to. Looking back now with years of hindsight, I believe she saw what I could not at the time.

The other big event, which of course was secondary to my baptism, was the occasion of my high school graduation. I had moved in with my father just prior to the start of 11th grade, and by late fall, was already jamming as many classes together as possible so that I could graduate the following spring, a full year earlier than expected. My intention was to begin the regular pioneer work immediately after graduation, which at the time meant 90 hours per month of field service. My guidance counselor was confused and concerned by not just my decision to graduate early, but also by my plan to forego a college education right after high school. When I told him about my aspiration to be a full-time preacher and ultimately make my way toward the goal of service at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witness, at Bethel, he did everything he could to convince me otherwise. My first quarter grades were among the highest in my class. From his perspective, I was “throwing away” a tremendous opportunity and a brilliant mind.

Despite the objections of my guidance counselor, I worked extra hard and earned the right to graduate early. I didn’t think anything of it when I came home and presented the graduation package to my father and stepmother, so as to gain the payment necessary for the rental of the cap and gown. I was completely taken back by my stepmother’s strong position on the matter.

“Oh no, you’re not going to graduation!” she bellowed. She took the forms out of my hand and tossed them onto the table. I felt hot, I felt boiling water welling up inside me, the whistle blowing. Who was she to say I couldn’t graduate! Didn’t she? I didn’t ask, didn’t know, and didn’t think of any this in the moment. All I could bear was the heaviness of realizing I would not walk across that stage, would not be handed a diploma, and out of more than a hundred teenagers, would be the only one not receiving my diploma in front of peers, parents, friends and families.

She informed me that attending a graduation ceremony is a worldly celebration. She said we don’t celebrate our own personal achievements, that we don’t celebrate anything except our service to Jehovah. I had become a straight-A student for the first time in years. I was more dedicated to my studies than most in my class. Let me call upon Jehovah, I thought to myself. Surely he would agree there was nothing wrong with me walking across that stage. But no, it wasn’t to be. I did not cross that stage. I picked up my diploma from the high school about a week after graduation.

In the end, I was able to cross a total of three stages. I earned my associate’s degree at 26, my bachelor’s degree at 32 (with special distinction), and finally my master’s in business degree at 40. Free from the burden of the past, I was able to erase the negative memory I held for so long. If you’ve delayed your education for any reason, it is not too late. You can cross that stage too.

Life Uncensored

sunset-summer-golden-hour-paul-filitchkin.jpgI realize that not all I’ve written is about celebrating my life in the moment, and may at times drift toward a tendency to rehash old stories and experiences. Today, I want to share what I am most grateful for, which is the ability to live a life uncensored! I am beholden to no one! No one can tell me what to believe, why to believe or how to believe anything. Whether I believe in God or not is my own business.

When I write about living life uncensored, I don’t mean I’m walking around naked or going about shouting obscenities at random strangers. I don’t live my life in a way that ever causes harm to anyone. In fact, I’m most comfortable giving to others, whether that be giving blood or working in a soup kitchen for the homeless, something one of Jehovah’s Witnesses would not and could not ever do. My life is uncensored in that I don’t need anyone’s “literature” to help me gain a better understanding of God, and I don’t need to be guided or directed by other men and women. I certainly don’t need to be chastised for falling out of line with anyone’s directives. That’s not freedom.

I don’t believe in a God who manipulates of outcomes or that our lives are “predestined” (a most depressing and hopeless thought indeed). My life is what I make it, my “luck” comes from being prepared for every opportunity that comes my way. While I may at times have prayed silently or out loud for God to guide me, or to help me find peace during a very difficult period, I’ve never asked to be “fixed” or have asked God to “jump in” and take care of anything directly. If there was a God who was always pulling the strings we’d all be nothing more than a captive puppet, a victim of circumstances, weak and fearful of the unknown. I pride myself on the free will and free mind that I have too much to ask someone to do for me what I should be doing myself.

With living a life uncensored comes responsibility and accountability. I am answerable to myself for my actions. If my life isn’t working out the way I’d like it, well, that’s on me to find a way to right the situation. I will not wait on God or any other supreme being to come in and make me a better person. That’s my job.

 

The Decision

pexels-photo-277615.jpegWhen I explain to others that I no longer speak with my father or several siblings due to my decision to no longer follow the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I am met with puzzled looks and mouths that don’t know how to respond. Most everyone I know believes that their religious convictions, or lack thereof, is a personal choice.They just do not get what the “big deal” is with regard to what happened when I decided to no longer be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “What?” they ask; “Your father doesn’t speak with you because you don’t go to his church anymore?” That doesn’t make any sense, they say. Who would stop speaking with their own children over a religion? If you’ve not been associated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Orthodox Jews, the Amish, etc., then you may not understand this practice at all, but for those of us who have, it is known as “shunning.”

I was already somewhat familiar with the term by the time I was eight. My mother, a practicing JW for just about six years, was the first person I can ever recall being disfellowshipped. I came to understand her place in odd circumstances, such as the night she needed our only car, which also happened to be meeting night.  To make it all work, she took my father, sister and I to the Hall, but first we had to stop and pick up good old sister Smith, as we always did, along the way. Sister Smith was real quiet. I’d never known her to remain so silent. The typical conversations between the adults in the car were a thing of the past. When I asked my father later why no one said anything in the car, he told me. He explained to me in the best way he could that my mother was no longer in Jehovah’s favor (as if he knew who was and was not in Jehovah’s favor!) and therefore the brothers and sisters in the congregation were no longer allowed to speak with her.

Years later, after I’d decided to make “the truth” my own, I typically knew who was getting disfellowshipped before the congregation at large found out. I was either helping to “catch” the wrongdoer in the act of sinning, or was close enough to the elders and ministerial servants to know what was going on behind the scenes. Once the announcement was made, a few of us would gather together to talk about the newly disfellowshipped person. “Tsk, tsk,” we’d remark, “I always knew there was something not right about him,” or “I knew it was only a matter of time before Jehovah brought his sins to light….” Then we would glance toward the back of the hall (the last row of shame), where we’d find the disfellowshipped person. They would usually get into the hall just as the song was starting, and sometimes leave before the final prayer, just to avoid walking by someone in awkward silence.

When the time came for me to go, I swore there was no way I was going to be made a spectacle before the congregation. I debated for the better part of a year about leaving. I knew once I had made my decision, there would be no turning back, no sitting in the back, no aim for “reinstatement.” Conveniently, I was relocated just before I left. Once my move was complete, I wrote a letter to one of the elders and explained what “sins” I had been committing, further indicating that I was not repentant and would not be appealing the decision. I wanted it over as quickly as possible. I didn’t even let my own father know what was happening. He found out once the elder told him, but that’s another story.

I can still recall all these years later the last time I stepped foot in a Kingdom Hall; like an object frozen in time, I still have my New World Translation that I received at the District Convention in 1985, complete with a miniature sized version of the Theocratic Ministry School schedule from 1987, including the date on which I was officially disfellowshipped. My heart was broken when I left, along with the hearts of many others. A connection had been severed with not just my immediate family, but the hundreds of “friends” I had made over a span of five years. In an instant, I was cut off from everyone, completely separated, not even twenty one years old, feeling completely alone in the world. I was scared, petrified and momentarily lost. It took me a long time to regain my footing. I’m grateful that those who are leaving or are thinking of leaving have the multitude of online resources available today. If you are or have ever been a Jehovah’s Witness, then you know the decision to leave is probably the most difficult decision you will ever make in your life. If you haven’t yet made a decision to formally join, think carefully before you do, as there is no such thing as a graceful exit.