I Am Not A Victim

pexels-photo-347135.jpegI have struggled for a long time with the idea that my experience as a Jehovah’s Witness was one of inevitability. Naturally, my outcomes were a byproduct of the thoughts and desires that drove me. I’ve had a thirst for truth all of my life. I’ve wanted a close, personal relationship with God for as long as I could remember. I’ve craved answers for all the unknowns in this world, whether they be the injustices that seem to occur on a daily basis, or the vast expanse of space and all the unknown worlds that it cradles. When I was very young (just three years old), my parents’ choice to mutually dedicate themselves to Jehovah’s “earthly organization” was something that happened to me. At some point, I crossed the line of demarcation, and my own baptism as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses was something that happened because of me.

Like two dance partners finding themselves moving in sync with each other on the floor, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were always there, always right in front of me.  Even though my mother left the organization when I was just eight years old, my father’s fervent desire to follow “Jehovah’s commands” never waned. His unwavering stance made me believe that there must have been more to it and so I decided to investigate further. I liked what I saw. I wanted more. I became powerfully addicted to the idea that I was someone in Jehovah’s organization.  I was no longer this lost teenager trying to find his way in a world I didn’t completely understand. I was finally satisfied that I had found a place that provided all the answers, a stark contrast to the life I’d known, where almost nothing was predictable. I became fastened to the congregation with a strong, powerful glue. The bond was so powerfully secure and so firm, that separating with it later nearly tore me apart for good.

For too long I regretted my decision. I lost the connection I once had to my father and my many friends. Everything that I identified with, all that had made me me, was gone in an instant. My safety net vanished into thin air and I fell. I fell hard. I didn’t immediately bounce back. Like a fighter who suffered the knockout punch at the hands of his opponent, I laid face down on the mat, blood trickling out of my ear and the corner of my mouth. Somewhere, off in the distance, I heard the count. Long after the count was complete, I remained on the mat. After the bloodthirsty fans were gone, I finally, slowly, made my way up. First to me knees, with my head still hanging low, my neck unable to support it. I used both of my fits, still encased in my boxer’s gloves, to hold me up. I stared for nearly an hour at the patterns and stains that my blood left on the mat. I was unaware of the world outside of that spot, and certainly not fully conscious of the fact that I remained alone in a vest arena, which itself was at the center of a sprawling metropolis. I was a speck among it all, a lonely, solitary figure, left to die on my own.

I did not die. Hours later, I lifted my head slowly and with much difficulty, the muscles tight and tense, unable to permit quick movement. My eyes, so used to looking down, finally found the means to lift themselves up, allowing me to take in all the empty seats, spread out in every direction as far as I could see. Yes, I was alone. I screamed. My scream echoed off the walls over and over again. It was maddening. My own voices began to curse me. What had I done? How did I allow this all to happen?

For much of the thirty years after, I’ve pondered this cataclysmic event. I’ve tried to understand how I got from there to here. I believe I understand now. I chose to be one of Jehovah’s Witness. I chose to believe what I was told. I made the choice to leave. I have the power to choose. I have free will. I am not a victim.

 

 

 

Conditional Love

I’ll never forget the ride home from the Kingdom Hall about a month after I found out that my parent’s were separating, and my father got his own place. This all closely followed the announcement of my mother’s disfellowshipping. Riding alone in the car with my father, the only thing I could think of to say was that all of this must be a “bad dream.”paradise lost

“It’s no dream,” my father said tersely, his comment doing nothing to comfort me. I wanted so badly for him to tell me it was a dream, and to wake up in the home I knew with him and my mother at the dinner table with my sister and me. As we drove on, my sister fell fast asleep, and the silence prevailed all the way home, until my father broke it.

“Son, I want you to know I love you very much, and you should know Jehovah loves you very much too, but I want you to know I will never love you as much as if you love Jehovah as much as I do, and you do what’s right. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, dad.” I felt a little fearful at his words. The newfound physical separation between us was creating a gnawing need inside of me for his approval. I was afraid that somehow, if I didn’t meet his approval, I might see him even less than I was already.

“Your mother is doing things right now that Jehovah hates, and she may never change, but you have to make sure your heart is always where it belongs, with Jehovah. Will you do that for me?”

“Yes, dad, I will.” I thought about my mother, being cut off from Jehovah, and being destroyed at Armageddon. I saw the pictures from the Witness book “From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained” that showed people screaming as the fiery earth opened up to swallow them whole, still alive. I knew then this would almost certainly be my mother’s fate. It wasn’t for me to judge, that was Jehovah’s job, but it’d been instilled in me for the past six years, since I learned how to read, that the wicked person’s fate would be eternal destruction while those found to be pleasing to Jehovah would find eternal life in a paradise earth. I dreamed of sitting down with the lamb and the lion together, with a harmless rattlesnake curled up in my lap. Still in my dream state, I looked around and realized my mother wasn’t to be found anywhere. A tear ran down my cheek as I contemplated all of this.

“Do you promise?” He was more than serious.

“Yes, Dad, I promise.” The sick feeling remained. I didn’t want to end up like my mother. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to live forever with us, choosing wickedness over service to Jehovah. My mother chose to split us up. I should’ve been angry with her, but for some reason I wasn’t. I just wanted so badly for her to come back, to join us in the meetings again, to love Jehovah as much as my father and I did. I held hope for that and just as often the brothers and sisters in the Kingdom Hall worked hard to instill that hope in me. I prayed every night to Jehovah that my mother would find her back. Even though my mother had a new boyfriend who had become a fixture in our lives, I wished hard for my mother to break it off with him and do the right thing.

We spoke no more on the drive home. My father stared out the windshield as he drove, the illumination of the instrument panel reflecting in his stern, stone-like face. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind as to how seriously my father held to his convictions, nor did I doubt he expected the very same seriousness from me. I was afraid to deviate from his instructions and afraid I wouldn’t be loved by Jehovah, leading to my destruction when the world was restored to the beauty of the original Garden of Eden. Most importantly, I was afraid of not having my father’s love should I not follow in his footsteps. I had been duly warned of that potential already. My being loved by him, as well as Jehovah, was completely and irrevocably conditional.

Sheep and Wolves

sheeps wolvesI’d chosen the title for this blog site prior to finding out that it was actually embedded in an old Turkish proverb, which states, “The sheep separated from the flock is eaten by the wolf.” I was dumbstruck upon seeing this. I found myself connecting with this proverb on so many levels. Of course! As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we are taught that if we stray from the flock of “righteous ones,” then there is “nowhere to go.” We believe everyone outside of “the truth” is an alcoholic, thief or drug dealer and will certainly lead us into a life of misery and debauchery. We stay where we are because we are afraid of the “wolves,” who just can’t wait to devour us. We live in fear of being separated from the flock and so remain humbly, and blindly obedient to the shepherds, the elders in the congregation, who act on the orders received from the Faithful and Discreet Slave, also known as the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The more afraid, and the more sheep-like we become, the lower the likelihood of ever straying away from the flock and going out on our own. Paralyzed and unable to think freely, we take the direction provided to us, believing there is nothing better out there. We speak of anything outside of the organization as being “wordly,” and part of the “old system of things.” We look upon non-Jehovah’s Witnesses with contempt and derision, bordering on abject hatred. We claim to be protected from the wickedness of the world by the “society” and its “spiritual food.”

Let’s shift our thinking now. Let’s imagine that instead of the wolves existing outside the fences containing the happy, contented, and well-protected flock, that they are actually running the show? Yes, keeping the sheep locked up under their own will, devouring their minds instead of their flesh, feasting on their freedom and independence, which the wolves have maliciously and knowingly stole from them. Somehow, other members of the flock have left. They occasionally come and stand near the fence, calling out to their old friends and relatives. They try to tell them that they can live outside the fence, and think independently, without the wolves protection. The wolves come out of their lofty “watchtowers” high above the flock. They terrorize their own sheep, telling them if they talk to the sheep on the other side of the fence they will be cast out, no longer to benefit from the wolves’ kindness and hospitality. “Where else will you go?” the wolves say. “Who will feed you food at the proper time?” The vast majority of the sheep turn away from the fence and don’t even look upon the ones on the other side. They conclude they are better off inside, and don’t see any possible reason to leave. They know they have everything they need right where they are. They don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from, and besides, they are constantly protected from the wolves that roam freely outside the fences. It doesn’t strike them as odd that somehow the sheep that have left are still surviving out there, away from the flock.

If you are one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, please think carefully about the situation you are in. Do you really believe that everyone that is not a Jehovah’s Witness is really such a wicked person–a “bad association?” Are you being told not to talk to any members that have left for fear of punishment? Are you allowed to verify anything you are being told? In 1 John 4:1 we are admonished to “test the inspired expressions to see whether they originate with God, because many false prophets have gone forth into the world.” What are you doing to test the food that is being provided to you?

If you are no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and are struggling to find your way, know that life is meant to be a search for answers and for truth. We were created with the wonderful gift of choice and will. It is not possible for any organization, or even any small group of men, to have all of the answers. There are sheep and wolves on both sides of the fence. Time and experience will guide you toward knowing who is who.

Celebrating Life

pexels-photo-137485.jpegYesterday was a major milestone in my life: I turned 50! My co-workers threw a surprise birthday party for me earlier in the week, complete with a set of helium balloons. I was flattered when several people poked their head into my office, asking me who gave me the balloons as a joke, having no idea of my age. I am fortunate and blessed that after all I’ve done and been through I have reasonably good health and don’t look my age.

My Facebook page was full of birthday wishes and love. Of course absent from the list of posts were any messages from several of my family members who are still Jehovah’s Witnesses. It doesn’t faze me at all. While their posts were not missed, I must say that after all these years ( I left the Watchtower organization nearly 30 years ago), I still feel uncomfortable when someone wishes me a Happy Birthday. My parents started studying when I was just two years old, so I don’t remember any of my earliest birthday celebrations. Then, when my mother was disfellowshipped six years later and my parents subsequently divorced, the birthday celebrations at her house seemed awkward and unnatural. I felt Jehovah’s shadow over my shoulder, ready to strike me with lightning for eating a piece of birthday cake, or worse, singing along to the “Happy Birthday” song. I made my full commitment to being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses just weeks shy of my 17th birthday and of course the celebrations stopped once again.

I left the Watchtower for good when I was 20 years old. My first birthday after leaving was a big one, my 21st. I had no friends whatsoever then, and went to an upscale bar in Woodstock, NY, by myself, to celebrate. Proud of my accomplishment, I told the bartender I’d just turned 21; I didn’t get any kind of reaction or congratulations. She had bigger things to attend to, like serving the other patrons as quickly as possible. I had a couple of drinks, watched the crowd and went home feeling lonely. My first birthday after leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses was no grand celebration. Leaving “the truth” behind was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. I was hurting inside and had no one to talk to about it other than my mother, who was so far removed from her days as a Witness that it was difficult for her to connect with what I was feeling at the time.

Are you a former Witness celebrating a birthday for the first time? Are you struggling with the idea of celebrating life in this way? Please leave a comment here about your experience. Sometimes just talking things through with someone who’s been where we are can be enormously helpful. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with celebrating the anniversary of the beginning of one’s life. Jehovah’s Witnesses do celebrate wedding anniversaries, which is the start of two people’s lives together. Why would celebrating the start of one’s own life be looked upon any differently?

Hope

pexels-photo-226616.jpegIt’s been about eight years now since my therapy sessions ended. During my time in therapy, which spanned the better part of seven years, off and on, I learned much about myself and what drives me to make the choices I make. I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), something I previously only associated with people who had served in wars, like Vietnam. Prior to meeting Marlene, my therapist, I never saw myself as a survivor of anything. Actually I had no idea how I got to where I was. Somehow I just landed in a mess of a life, unable to make the connections between the person I’d become and the child I once was. After spending a year unraveling my life story to a relative stranger, my therapist remarked that although she had worked with many individuals before me with tough stories, she found it amazing that I’d met with any kind of success in life at all, at one point telling me that someone with my past could have just as easily found themselves living in a broken down shack somewhere, collecting Social Security Disability payments. Was it will and determination alone with a little help from the hand of God? Did my grandmother, who was always my rock and strength my whole life, serve as that bright beacon in the darkness of the sea, showing me a life unlike mine, where things were calm, organized and constant?

I will be 50 years old on Friday. I have lived at 46 different addresses. In my whole life, my grandmother lived in just four. No matter where she lived, everything was always just the same. I don’t mean just the same staid furniture in the same preordained places, I mean every lamp, every doily, the bowl of wax fruit, I mean everything, set out in exactly the same place and the same way no matter where she lived. This was nothing like the life I knew. Going back and forth between my mother and father so many times, each of them moving with unwavering regularity, never living in one place long enough to form any meaningful relationships, I learned to move from one thing to the next at a breathtaking pace. It is no wonder then, wherever I arrived at my grandmother’s place, I would fall fast asleep on her couch moments after arriving. Her home was the port in a sea of discontent, the relief and respite from a life of constant turmoil and change.

I have immense gratitude for what my grandmother was able to give me. She passed away 16 years ago today, so naturally I can’t tell her to her face how much she meant to me. Sometimes, as I’m driving to or from work, I contemplate our relationship and how she may have been the one person in my life who knowingly or not gave me the hope and the strength to continue, to push forward, to create meaning in a life where every headwind blew full force onto to my efforts to succeed. I dare think about how my life might’ve turned out had I not known her presence. I do believe in a universe that will conspire in our favor. I do believe in a higher power, a being who is not a manipulator of outcomes, but a force much greater than ourselves that will use people and events to show us the way through whatever we may be going through. Certainly my grandmother was that light in my own life, a beautiful soul who had her own demons to deal with but still somehow found her way to love me, to comfort me and guide me when I had no other significant role models in my life. Thank you grandma, thank you. Know you are missed so much and know I’m forever grateful for who you were and what you’ve done for me.

Father’s Day

fried-eggs-breakfast-toast-food-50600.jpegI had a wonderful morning today. My wife and children prepared a healthy, scrumptious breakfast of french toast, fruit and coffee. I’m grateful. My own father and I have not spoken with each other for over three years. He isn’t allowed to talk to me if he wanted to. He shouldn’t answer the phone if I call. He shouldn’t acknowledge my presence. This man, who had a hand in bringing me to life, must now act as if I’m unborn, not alive, nonexistent. Most people I share this with say this is his choice. In his world, it’s not a choice, it’s a command. An order from the literature published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, where content is devised and directed by a small group of mostly older men known as the Governing Body. They say there is biblical guidance to be followed. I’ve seen the infamous “shunning” video making the rounds on the Internet over the past month, where parents are shown refusing to even answer their cell phone when their disfellowshipped daughter calls. There is no freedom of choice for a loyal member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. One must think and act like the rest of the flock at all times, with blind and unquestioning obedience to the shepherd. Those sheep separated from the flock cannot be associated with for they have made their bed. The harder it is for the separated, or lost sheep, the more they will desire to return, or so the thinking goes.

If you, like me, find yourself among the great crowd of sheep separated from the flock, know we are not alone, and quite possibly our collective flock may be greater than the one that continues to mindlessly follow the shepherd. You may, as I have at times, looked upon that flock, longing for the ease of following the shepherd without critical thinking, without individuality and without free will. The desire to belong, to feel loved and accepted is strong. I understand.

Separated From The Flock

sunset-sheep-dike-nordfriesland-69466.jpegI’ve been quiet for a long time. Not because I wasn’t allowed to speak or because I was afraid to or even because I didn’t know how. I just haven’t been able to fully understand what has happened until now. It’s taken me a long time to learn how to connect the dots and come to terms with my addiction. Was I addicted to drugs, alcohol, or gambling? No. I’ve been addicted to a need for security, to a desire to belong, to a need to feel loved and accepted. At times I’ve felt like a lost sheep, separated and cut off from the rest of the human race, lost and trying to find my way. I’ve lived in fear of being alone in this world. I’ve spent a lifetime looking for guidance and direction. I’m not alone. For the questions that life presents us, there is great comfort to be had in finding some one or some thing with all the answers.

For many years I believed I had all the answers. I was part of a large, global organization that spoon fed its constituents all the answers to any questions they could possibly have. I willingly confessed to others my affirmation of my beliefs, letting them in on the secret that wasn’t so secret, that they too could know what I know. Nothing in life left to chance, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of friends, a dream of life eternal. How could anyone say no to this? The truth is most people did. I had far more doors slammed in my face than were ever opened. What a shame, I would say, they really don’t want to live forever. I just didn’t get why they didn’t get it.

Not all is as it seems. Beneath the smiles, happy faces and “brotherly love” lies a trail of tears, broken families, broken dreams, and broken people. Sometimes the weight of wanting to be perfect can crush the spirit. Like the parent we were never good enough for, we turn away, to other things to help us feel loved and accepted. The story doesn’t have to end there. When we realize we’re writing the script with every moment of our experience, we understand we are in control.

I separated from the Jehovah’s Witness nearly thirty years ago. In all that time I’ve struggled to find the truth. The siren call of my past tells me I had the truth, I just need to return. She sounds sweet. She means to coddle me in her arms and soothe my fears. I can easily return to a world where I no longer have to work toward any purpose of my own making and choosing. I can reunite with my family. But I wouldn’t be at peace.

If you are no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, struggling each day to find your way out in “the world,” know you’re not alone. We have this. Let’s talk about it. This space knows no judgement, no criticism and is blind to one’s religious convictions. I have faith and that’s my choice. What you believe is yours. Welcome to life separated from the flock.