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”

There Is No Ground

Rocky Ground HD Desktop BackgroundI recently read several books written by renowned Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron. In her works, she writes often of being “groundless,” or of living with uncertainty and the realization that there is no real ground underneath our feet. I devoured her works with great interest, knowing that for much of my life I more than anything craved ground under my own feet, and sought in earnest for anything that I could hold on to. My early life was full of chaos and constant change. My parents divorced when I was eight, and then my mother went from being a Jehovah’s Witness to an Episcopalian to a Born Again Christian before I was even 16. My father remarried and brought three more children into the world. We sometimes did not even live in one place for an entire year. I went to four different elementary schools, three different middle schools and two different high schools. In the midst of all these shifts, I desired more and more to have solid ground to stand on, something to count on, something that I knew would always be there, and yet I could not find it. When I was 15, I often found myself up on top of the hill behind our home at the time, praying to whomever might be listening for guidance, direction, and above all else, certainty with regard to where I was headed. I sincerely believed that someone greater than me would finally provide the answers I was seeking.

At 16, I traveled by myself to a town two states away to be with my father for two months. He had recently moved and I’d been missing him dearly. My father had remained a Jehovah’s Witness and I knew there would be an expectation that I would attend the meetings with him while I was there, knowing that there was no way they would leave me in their home alone. So while that was expected, what was unexpected was how in that first meeting I would hear what was indeed music to my confused ears. For most of their followers, the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have all of the answers, and that day, at that meeting, I felt the same way. No more would I have to worry or dwell on the uncertainty of my own future. I quickly made a formal dedication to this way of life and never looked back. For the first time in my short time on earth, I felt I had a purpose in life! This purpose included going to three different meetings each week, preaching 90 hours a month to others, and ultimately serving in the world headquarters of the group in Brooklyn. I believed I knew exactly what each day would bring, and at the end of the repetition of all of this work was the grand prize of someday living in an earthly paradise! My hope was strong, the earth felt firm under my feet, and nothing could knock me off course. Nothing, that is, until I came to realize that what I believed and what I asked others to believe was not the truth that I once thought it was.

I was crushed, I was rocked, I bounced all over like an errant spring. Walking away from my beliefs meant no longer having a purpose, as well as losing my friends and family. There was no certainty about anything and I lived recklessly, as if I had no tomorrow to live for at all. There was no longer any ground beneath my feet, and I was terrified. Within a year of leaving the Witnesses I found another small piece of ground to hold onto when I found my first wife. Her life was ripe with turmoil and emotional disorder, but once again I had a purpose, to help heal her and see her become the person she was meant to be. Ultimately my actions never proved to be enough to help her and I grew despondent. We parted ways, and once again I found myself adrift in loneliness and despair. It would only take another year for me to find someone to latch onto once again.

In the years that followed I brought children into this world. I was never certain if I was doing the right things as a parent and I did not manage my finances well. I lived in constant fear of the groundlessness of the situation I was in, just dying for someone or something to show me the way out. I prayed to God endlessly for direction once again, much as I had done as a teenager. Sometimes things improved for a short while, only to plunge into chaos once again. I rode a fast running train of anxiety all through my adult life, seemingly moving from one disaster to the next, or at least that’s how I viewed it.

It is best to realize that our lives are generally in a state of flux. The stress comes when our lives do not meet our expectations or desires, when we are not flexible or adaptable enough to adjust to the constantly shifting sands that swirl all around us. We don’t have full control over what is happening, as w cannot control the actions of those we are connected with. By resisting the changes we experience, we actually can make the situation worse. How many times have we been told that when driving a car that is skidding off the road due to hazardous conditions that the best course of action is to steer into the skid? In addition, living with a higher level of chaos, disorder and uncertainty may cause us to crave that certainty on a much higher level.  We may stay in jobs that we are not well suited for, with romantic partners we really have no business being with, and follow religions that dictate and direct our every move. In other words, we may remain stuck in a situation out of an irrational fear of not knowing what may lie on the other side. While stuck where we are, we may fervently cling to a hope that things will get better. But if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, no amount of hope is going to change our situation.

Only by accepting our current reality and by acknowledging that there is no real ground under our feet will we be prepared to deal with uncertainty while maintaining inner strength and peace. We must not cling to hope as a crutch or an escape from what is really happening. By doing so we may not make the proper adjustments that will enable us to keep moving forward despite what is happening around us. However, we must realize that life does not owe us a thing. We are not entitled to be rich, or happy, or good looking or healthy. If at any time we don’t have one or any of these things, then our acceptance of the situation will make a huge difference between peace and despair. Life is more like a turbulent river than a calm lake. Make peace with the raging rapids as they move you along from place to place, while doing your best to keep your boat, and your head, above water.

The Problem is Choice

I believe that The Matrix is one of the greatest cinematic stories ever told. For me, the scene that stands out above all others occurs when Neo meets The Architect of the Matrix, the man who is the machine that created the Matrix, the virtual world that all captive and ignorant human batteries exist in. It is at this point that Neo learns that there were five like him before he existed, five who also arose from and against the Matrix in the ultimate exercise of free will.

Why? Why in this supposedly all too perfect virtual world would someone wish to consciously awake from an ignorant sleep to take the hard road and live as a criminal in a cold, dark world absent the creature comforts so widely and readily available in the Matrix? The problem, as Neo so succinctly expresses it, is choice. The choice to be real, to feel everything there is to feel. To experience the full range of human emotions, happiness and despair, the joy of love and the pain of loss.

I was once part of a Utopian religious sect which provided for “built-in” friendships while the promise of everlasting life in a perfect world enveloped me like a protective bubble. However, choice was not a part of my vocabulary. Oh yes, I could “choose” to exit this group and lose all of my family and close “friends” overnight, as they would no longer be allowed to speak with me once I left. But the “architects” of this group know they are not providing a reasonable choice to their members and so millions remain enslaved to the notion of a perfect world “just around the corner.” I did leave and my departure was painful. I made many mistakes and found myself mixed up with people most would not associate with. But I learned from all these experiences what no textbook or religious literature could have taught me. I would not trade my life experiences for any so called protection from the outside world that someone or some religious group would pretend to offer to me.

Likewise, many take pills to avoid dealing with raw, uncomfortable or even tormenting emotions. Some have real chemical imbalances that are near impossible to cure so I’m not saying all drugs are bad; but I do question the relative ease with which doctors prescribe SSRIs. To me, the number of people on these drugs, as well as the millions on Opiods, represents a growing need to disconnect from the difficult decisions that life calls on us to make. In our blissful, altered state, have we fallen asleep at the wheel as a society? Our choice in elected leaders may be the ultimate manifestation of this.

Whatever reality you are struggling with please always know you DO have a choice. You can choose to face an uncomfortable present, deal with the source of your pain and find a way to eradicate it. You can choose to deal with bullies, whether they be bosses, partners or family members. You can choose to believe what you want to believe and how you will believe it. Your choices may then very well be a problem for others, but as the saying goes, “that’s their problem.”

SCHISM

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This is a story about divisions. There are many which we are already very familiar with. Satan versus God, Democrat versus Republican, Black versus White, Fascist versus Pacifist. I’m not writing about those divisions, but rather about those that can occur in one’s mind. The insidious cracks that wedge themselves into our subconscious, separating one area of our mind from the other, creating a chasm over which no sane thought may cross. If you’ve been torn, confused, felt stuck, or been unable to decide, you may have experienced this on some level. I’ve personally known painful, crushing and demoralizing vacillation, gripped and frozen by the depths of my own indecisiveness. I’ve spent a long time reflecting on the root cause of this affliction and its complex origins.

When I was just eight years old, my parents decided to separate and ultimately divorce. Unlike other children I knew whose parents were splitting up, my situation was made more difficult by the fact that my mother decided to leave her religious beliefs behind, the ones that my father still clung to. Prior to their divorce, they were both still loyal and active Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unlike most religions, one does not simply fade away from this organization. If you publicly proclaim your allegiance to it through a water baptism, and then later walk away, there is no simple shrugging from the other members. No, Jehovah’s Witnesses liken such a person to a “dog” that “returns to its own vomit,”  to quote the Bible at 2 Peter 2:22 (English Standard Version). They “shun” and cut off this sort of individual, meaning no one is to even acknowledge their presence at any time. In effect, my mother, once a friend to many in our congregation, was now dead to everyone she had known. My father even went so far as to forbid me to speak about her in the presence of other Witnesses, and if I did so accidentally, I was met with stern rebuke.

To say I was put into a tough situation would be an understatement. My father made it clear to me that my fervent loyalty to Jehovah (God) was of paramount importance and would even take precedence over my relationship with my mother. He quoted scripture to support my new reality, telling me that Jesus came to “set a man against a father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:35, English Standard Version). From that moment on I would be divided, split in two, ripped apart, conflicted and torn. My mother left the Witnesses and never looked back. Over the years she moved from a wild life style to one of Christian devotion and conviction. My father remained a Jehovah’s Witness, even to this day, now approaching 50 years since his own baptism. When I was at my mother’s house, I was expected to celebrate Holidays and Birthdays and other “worldly” events. At my father’s home, I was expected to study the Watchtower magazine, attend mind-numbing meetings and spend Saturday mornings knocking on doors while other kids were watching cartoons. Moving from one house to the other was like sliding through space and time into another dimension in which nothing was familiar on either side of the worm hole.

I began to feel the conflict brewing in my mind, a battle actually for my mind, which led to my developing two personalities, the one my father expected to see, and the one my mother allowed me to be. I learned to move between the two personalities with ease. I fancied myself a chameleon, able to adjust my outward self based on the environment I was in. I didn’t know then just how dangerous this skill would become. In the process of becoming overly adaptable to the opposing worlds that my parents lived in, I didn’t develop my true self. Worse, I did not develop my own internal compass, or my own ability to make healthy choices. I learned to become whatever people wanted or needed me to be at any given moment. It took many years of therapy to unpeel the onion and find out who I really was beneath it all, and to become the person I am today.

As a teenager, I made my own commitment to the Jehovah’s Witness movement, and from that point on I was expected to have no more contact with my mother. I hadn’t really considered this outcome when I chose to get baptized. I thought the bond with my mother was above all others, yet should have known better. After four short years, I came to doubt my beliefs and the reasons I had for believing them. I left the Witnesses, was instantly cut off from friends and family members, but now the tables were turned, as I could no longer speak with my father. Since that time I have been in a situation where I can never have both parents in my life at the same time. If I return to the Witnesses I get my father back but lose my mother; stay where I am, and I remain disconnected from my father.

I’ve learned to accept this arrangement, knowing that the most important connection is the one I have with myself. I’m no longer divided, I’m no longer torn. I’m at peace with this life and know that it is my acceptance of my circumstances which contributes to this peace. I hold no hate in my heart for my father. Hate for others is a punishment one brings on one’s self and I will not allow that to interfere with my devotion to becoming my best self. In the absence of hate, love fills the void, and brings us the true happiness we seek. If you can relate to my experience, I wish you much success with your own healing process.

Please know that any outcome is possible, despite whatever environment you were raised in, and as someone more famous than me once said,”Your past mistakes are meant to guide you, not define you.” -Buddha