Monday, January 20, 2014

Making friends in a post-Witness life


By Joel Gunz

After ten years of hanging out with other ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’ve concluded that not a single one of us has discovered a short cut to healing from the wounds of indoctrination and abuse. One issue that comes up for me again and again is: trust.

I spent 35 years pretending to be someone I wasn’t. As a kid, it wasn’t safe to reveal my inner secrets, questions, doubts and longings to my own parents. Later, when I would take a risk and share a dark and precious part of my soul with another person, I was usually judged to some degree. As a result, few people got to know the real me, and when I was disfellowshipped and “went apostate,” lots of people were shocked. I can understand why some of my friends felt betrayed. My then-teenage son took it very hard.

Of course, the biggest irony is that this religion is filled with people just like me. Whether they're concealing a secret “sin” (porn, pot smoking, being gay, drinking) or privately-held doubts about the Bible or Watchtower doctrine, or unspoken misgivings about sacrificing their dreams for a life of theocratic devotion, many, if not most, Jehovah’s Witnesses present an as-if image of themselves to the congregation that’s quite removed from their authentic selves.

What do you do with a culture like that? Picture it: a Kingdom Hall auditorium filled with people smiling and making nice and calling each other “brother”—faking their way through it all. A roomful of devotees who have practically nothing in common with each other except a shared set of religious doctrines that they secretly might not even believe. I can’t imagine a lonelier community. (Can we even call it that?) Too often, Witness relationships—from mere acquaintances to marriage partners—are rooted in the geometry of physical contiguousness and not much more. Yet, if you’ve been raised a Witness, this is your only frame of reference for companionship. If you were like me, you couldn’t tell the difference between post-meeting fellowship and a game of Blind Man’s Buff.

While I did have some very good friends, the climate of judgmentalism and the specter of judicial discipline kept us emotionally distant. More tellingly, some of those I knew I could trust with my most personal secrets ended up leaving the religion and we've been able to reconnect.

When I left, I had learn to how to trust. I’m still learning it, slowly and with difficulty. At first, not knowing how to build these bridges, I used to overshare with newer acquaintances. Like, I'd dish about my Witness past and the indignities of disfellowshipping—over beer with coworkers, or while on a first date. More often, I don’t share enough of my feelings with people who deserve such vulnerability, such as with my intimate friends. Sometimes I assume the worst about another’s intentions when there’s no real reason to do so. At other times, after offering my trust, it’s been betrayed and that’s been very painful. Theocratic culture didn’t exactly give me the tools I need figure out who I can trust.

And when it comes to love—romantic and otherwise—that’s a whole other ball game.

In the Orwellian world of Jehovah’s Witnessdom, love is conditional and can be revoked at any time for any number of transgressions. Thus, early on, I was taught not to depend on it. On the other hand, hateful acts from Armageddon to disfellowshipping are given a newspeak makeover and described as expressions of “God’s love.” For over three decades, I offered up my love to a non-existent god and an organization that used it without fully reciprocating—I gave more than I got. That's why, for me, love can be a suspect, confusing emotion associated with mistrust and even terror. I don't know about you, but this gets to the core of my relationship challenges. For me, the hardest words to say are: “I Love You.”[1]

So it can be difficult for me to make real friends. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

The other night I met up with an old friend I’ll call Coco, who’s faded from her congregation. In a dive bar where she felt sure she wouldn’t be seen by another Witness having drinks with me, we got to talking about the challenges of making friends in a post-Witness life. She said:
“The Witness environment creates artificial, ready-made relationships based on the fact that everyone is in the same religion. Shared interests are irrelevant—it’s just assumed you’ll be friends. But on the outside, relationships are based on multiple compatibilities. It takes time to develop, which can be puzzling and shocking to someone who is used to instant friendships.”
 Granted, I—and Coco, for that matter—am fairly gregarious. As a Witness, I found others who shared my interests, but it took a lot of work to seek them out; day-to-day, my friendships were far more happenstance (and unfulfilling). And since leaving the religion, I’ve become well acquainted with lots of great people. I have a very active social life. But, for the above reasons, bridging that gap to real intimacy and deeper friendship is difficult.

Of course, ex-Witnesses aren't alone in this. Cities have always been filled with lonely people. It seems, however, that we have a few extra challenges. Like Coco told me, “Add on top of that all the ingrained paranoia, and it’s damn lonely. I feel socially retarded.” 

It can get better. But, at first, it might get worse. My next post will talk about the adolescence of post-Witness life. Good times await!


[1] To be fair, not all the blame for my trust issues can be laid at the feet of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My mother and stepfather also did their part, too. But then, that said, I’ve observed that dysfunctional families are often attracted to high-control and fundamentalist religions, as if a narcissistic god is, for them, a kindred spirit.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Gift of Disfellowshipping: Your Story


By Joel Gunz

I live in one of the numerous lower-priced deco-era brick apartment buildings that dot Northwest Portland—an area that property listings describe as “hip,” “trendy,” “sophisticated” and (mainly on Craigslist) “Nob Hill.” My neighbors tend to be educated and street smart, with little patience for woolly-headed fundamentalism. Thus, while Jehovah’s Witnesses face apathy in their suburban ministry, here they might be openly scoffed at—or, worse, patronizingly pitied. In short, this isn’t their most fruitful territory. As a matter of fact, even though it’s Portland’s most densely-populated neighborhood, a congregation was never established here.

And so when, the other day, I saw a fresh-scrubbed, white, preppie couple working my street who were obviously counting the days—no, the pioneer hours—until they got their call from Bethel or Gilead, I had to stop and look. As soon as I saw them, my face lit up and I gave them a big fat Witnessy smile, because goddammit, I’m going to love them even if they don’t love me. Strangely, they hardly made eye contact. (I doubt they recognized me.) Where I should have seen a smile, there was instead fear, shame and lack of conviction, the slump of their shoulders betraying the knowledge buried away somewhere in their young brains that they were trapped in a cult that was coercing them to waste their lives on a false hope. I could see in them what I had spent so many years refusing to see in myself.

In that moment, I was so glad to be out of the Witnesses that I felt the need to thank someone. As an atheist, I can’t thank God, so I did the next best thing: I silently thanked my judicial committee. Because however cruel and capricious disfellowshipping is, it’s also a gift.

As all Jehovah’s Witnesses know, members who’ve committed a serious sin are obligated to confess to a judicial committee made up of three elders. From everything I’ve seen and heard, that secretive tribunal is usually comprised of one “good cop,” one “bad cop” and one guy who doesn’t know what I’m talking about. In my case, the supposed good cop was mild-mannered Jerome Peterson and the bad cop was Mt. Tabor Park Congregation’s presiding overseer, Jeff Peterson (no relation), who got his kicks by being the biggest bully on the elder body. The third, clueless, elder was a maintenance worker named Steve Palmer, whose Men’s Wearhouse credit card apparently expired in 1977.

I had gone into this judicial committee meeting to make a confession and get help for some problems. But from the moment I walked into that Kingdom Hall library, Jeff was on one mission: to disfellowship (but first, to humiliate) me. Over the course of about 90 verbally abusive minutes, he put words in my mouth I never said; offered false, hearsay testimony about me; and imputed heart motives that he, as a non-omniscient human, had no way of knowing. It was a kangaroo court.

Later, as I was trying to get reinstated, he told me to stop coming back to meetings at Mt. Tabor Park, because my then-wife and kids were there, and my presence “disrupted the peace at the meetings.” He said that if I ever hoped to be reinstated, I’d have to go to another congregation—i.e., one without my kids in it. (He also said that with a new congregation I’d get a new judicial committee, which at that point was fine with me. However, later, after I moved, he retained judicial authority and made it clear that I would not be getting reinstated any time soon. In terms of rejoining the congregation, I was fucked.)*

I was unfairly—and unscripturally—drummed out of the congregation. It was painful and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bug me sometimes even now. But I’m also thankful. I didn’t have the courage or self-awareness to leave the Witnesses on my own and the disfellowhipping did for me what I couldn’t do for myself. Whatever faults these men have and however unchristian their attitude toward me was, they were also crucial in giving me my freedom. Their despicable treatment helped me see that Jehovah’s Witnessism is both wrong and wrong-headed. So let me say it:

Thank you, Jeff, Jerome and Steve, for giving me my freedom from the cult of Jehovah’s Witnesses! 

For most of us who no longer believe Witness doctrine, there’s no going back and there’s no middle ground. We can only leave it all behind and go forward. In this sense, we are like other displaced people such as political exiles and refugees who’ve been forced leave their home and history to create a new identity for themselves in a strange, new land. Scary? Yes. But it has its advantages, too.

Disfellowshipping: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
Regardless of how meritocratic we think America is, the fact is that our family history, skin color, accent, school district, home town, fashion sense, knowledge of what it takes to get a date for the prom and more all have a bearing on our prospects for success. Throw in the narrow constraints of Jehovah’s Witnessism and the options are cripplingly limited. As a consequence, when I left the Witnesses, I was lacking some essential tools for survival. My dating life can still resemble wholesome courtship—much to the chagrin of my sex life. But disfellowshipping also lays the groundwork for a beautiful paradigm shift: when that religious control is removed, the world can open up for us in ways that we might never have considered before.

Disfellowshipping hands us a blank slate that many other people, trapped in their lives of quiet desperation, only dream of having. It’s a Don Draper-like chance to create a whole new identity for ourselves. (Of course, there are traps. If we choose a path of constant reinvention for its own sake, or constantly seek out what Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences,” we’ll probably fall short of our human potential.) The gift of disfellowshipping is the opportunity to write our own story; it follows that such a story ought to have a strong narrative voice.

That’s how Richard Sennett sees it. Writing in The Hedgehog Review, he suggested that the revival of “an old humanist ideal might help [displaced individuals] [like, you know, ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses] give shape to their lives.” He argues that the humanist project—the study and development of the unique agency we enjoy as human animals—can find special expression in the lives of the displaced. Paraphrasing Renaissance humanist philosophers like Pico “Man is his own Maker” della Mirandola, Sennet writes:

“Born indeterminate, [Pico] says, human beings have to find unity in their lives; a person must make him or herself coherent…. Can the events and accidents of life add up to a coherent story? That is every migrant’s question. And since these events and accidents are beyond an uprooted person’s control, the unity of a life-story has to reside in the person telling it; unity, we would say, lies in the quality of the narrator’s voice. The narrator, following Pico’s precept, must learn how to tell about disorder and displacement in his or her own life in such a way that he or she does not become confused or deranged by the telling.”

If we were raised in the religion, becoming a Witness was really not a choice for us; it was a foregone conclusion. Further, for many of us, the circumstances under which we left weren’t much of a choice, either. If at times we've felt “tossed about like sheep without a shepherd,” that’s why. Fortunately, we’re not alone. Let’s face it: in the 21st century, every meaningful relationship, from employment to Web-mediated social networks to marriage is ad hoc and provisional. For instance, gone are the days when you could expect to go work for one company for 35 and then retire.** How does this affect people? Sennet writes:

“My studies of workers—both manual and white-collar—have led me to the conclusion that they are profoundly unhappy simply to narrate these erratic shifts as their own life stories…. [P]eople become confused, if not depressed, about what they should do.”

In this area, I actually see ex-JWs as making a unique contribution to postmodern society.

When we lost our faith and left the religion, we left behind friends, family, a social network and more. We forfeited our past, along with our (presumed) future. Where once our lives had “meaning” and “purpose” (defined by Watchtower values and doctrine) there’s now a void. While it’s painful, such trauma can also be a powerful inoculation against the volatility and vicissitudes of modern living. Losing a job sucks, but compared to disfellowshipping? Tolerable. Many of us are now agnostics or straight-up atheists, and this suggests that we’re comfortable with, or at least able to tolerate, the anxiety of not-knowing. That’s a good skill to have these days.

Our chances of healing from our religious abuse are greatly improved by two conditions: one, that we find meaning in our disfellowshipping that goes beyond its hypocritical message that we’re “unrepentant sinners” and, two, that we see a purpose for it that transcends the Governing Body’s inconsistently applied mission to “keep the congregation clean.”

If we’re going to take advantage of the do-over that disfellowshipping gives us, we need to integrate our Witness experience into the narrative of our lives as just one chapter in an unfolding life story. This entails the paradoxical act of both distancing ourselves from our Witness experience and leaning closer to it. In practice, this could mean putting the past to rest, even as the wounds—and valuable life-lessons, there were those too!—remain with us as part of our life story.

What’s your Why?
Whether we realize it or not, every single person’s life has a coherent narrative. Everybody follows a very specific train of thought. The problem is, most people don’t take the time to figure out what it is. All we have to do is ask one simple question: Why?

Why do I do the things I do? Why do I love the people I love? Why do my passions and interests go in this direction and not that one? Why was I a Jehovah’s Witness for as long as I was? When we ask these questions—and keep asking, until we grok the Big Why—we'll start to perceive the outline and then the details of our life’s narrative. We find our story. 

I believe that such story-questing is not only helpful but maybe even necessary, because if we don’t take control of our story, others will. Circumstances have a way of doing that. And if you’ve left the religion, you know that that Witnesses are already writing a rather unflattering, at best half-true story about you, and as impervious as we might claim to be to it, their storytelling can affect us, because we might either conform to it or live in opposition to it. Either way, it’s exerting some control over us. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it in her 2009 TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”:

“Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

My own purpose recently come into clearer focus as I reflected on the path my life has taken during my Witness years up til now. It has become evident that two principles drive me to do the things I love, which includes developing businesses, writing this blog, pursuing my career and making art with words, paint and music. They also drive my Hitchcock geekery. They are:
  1. I want to make a contribution to the world that helps people live more connected, authentic lives.
  2. I want to leave something behind that will nourish the next generation. 
As long as I’m serving these values, I’m productive, fulfilled and happy. When I lose track of them, I get weird.

These value-drives have been with me from the beginning. They impelled me to go to Bethel, to pioneer and to serve in the congregation. In fact, one of the reasons I remained in the Witnesses for as long as I did was because it was my only real outlet for expressing that will. And when I left, I took those intentions with me.

It took years of counseling, therapy, soul searching and numerous confrontations with reality to gain a certain level of self-awareness, and obviously there is, as the Nike ads say, no finish line. But, I’d like to share one chapter from my story that shows how these values form a single narrative line that connects my former Witness life with the one I enjoy now.

As mentioned, I was what Witnesses would call a “theocratic man,” thoroughly dedicated to the Watchtower cause. After I lost my faith, I floated around for a year or two. Then I went to a Trailblazers game and for the first time joined the crowd to stand for the national anthem. Suddenly, I realized what had been inside me, repressed, all along: I love my country. This was an unexpected epiphany. The thought overwhelmed me. A tear might have been shed. The United States may or may not be the best nation in the world, but in that moment, I realized that this is my country, my homeland, and I love it. Out of that I came further awareness that I want to serve my country in the same way I once helped the Watchtower theocracy. I withdrew my allegiances that had been held in escrow after leaving the Witnesses and invested them in America.

How did that play out? I’ve always loved the crossroads where creativity and commerce meet. I may not be the next Richard Branson, but I’m a reasonably creative person with a good head for strategy. Because of that, I’ve helped quite a few companies improve their competitiveness; if they just serve the local market, this ripples out to our nation’s global competitive edge; if they’re a national brand, well, there you go. In this way, I’m serving my country. Paychecks aside, I really don’t lose sight of this value of my work.

Two years ago, I co-founded an alternative pain management clinic and from a $10,000 investment was able to build it into a $300,000+ business in its first calendar year. That’s a nice start, and though I haven’t seen any substantial payoff from it yet, the real satisfaction has come from seeing patients get their lives back and return to being engaged mothers, fathers and grandparents. I’d like to think this has had a positive impact on families in our community, which is to say our region, which is to say our country, which is to say the world.

Obviously, our life-narrative is a work in progress. My own story arc is hardly linear: it’s more like the path of a pinball and if you’re a friend of mine, you know what a mess some parts of my life are. Well, that’s okay. My life story makes sense to me and that’s what matters. We can plan our lives all we want, but actual results may vary. As Steve Jobs famously put it in his 2005 Stanford commencement speech:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.”

Rather than bemoaning the wasted years we spent in the religion, it might be helpful to re-orient our thinking to the idea that we left the Witnesses at exactly the right moment, right on time. Starting there, we might be able to construct a narrative that imparts meaning and purpose to our experience and that can give us a compass for our future.

I personally believe that if you’ve ever stood for the closing song at a District Convention and wiped a tear away because your heart was bending toward the desire for a better world; or, perhaps, while talking with one of your “brothers with special needs” after the meeting, you were re-imagining him with a healthy mind and body, then you have a unique gift to offer this world. It was with the best possible intentions that we got dressed for the meetings and got up on Saturdays to go out in service. That wasn’t a waste of time. It was a rehearsal for something better. At least, that’s how I see it.

So be sure to stay in touch. I’d love to hear how your story is coming along.

*Thanks to dwindling numbers, Mt. Tabor Park Congregation was disbanded a couple years ago. I'm sure this was due, in part, to Jeff Peterson’s assholery. 

**What strikes me right now is not that the Supreme Court recently paved the way for gays to get married when they struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, but that it tacitly acknowledged that our culture has refashioned the definition of marriage away from its centuries-old connotation as a lifelong spiritual commitment toward a vision of it as a purely secular contract.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

So you want to help someone get out of the Jehovah's Witnesses?

By Joel Gunz

"I am married to a JW and started having a Bible study with an elder. After realizing that being a JW is not for me, I am trying to find ways to show my wife that her way is not the right way. Please help in any way you can."—Anonymous 

Ex-Jehovah's Witness chat rooms and discussion boards are loaded with comments like this. So is my email inbox, which is where I found this call for help. If you'd like a few tips to help you get someone out of the Witnesses (or any other high-control religious group, for that matter), read on. 

Tip #1: Fuggeddabout arguing
You've probably already figured this out, but all the reasoning and scientific facts in the world won't get a Witness to budge from any belief. In fact, it usually convinces them further that they have "the Truth." So I suggest not doing that. When someone's ready to listen to the other side of the story, Google will be there.


Tip #2: Check your assumptions at the door
Is it really your place to decide that the Witness path isn't right for your companion? As messed-up as the Witnesses are, people join for very personal reasons. That choice must be respected. For all you or I know (or have any business knowing), the best possible life for that person can only be found in a Kingdom Hall. I firmly believe that some people need the control and structure that the Witness religion provides (*cough* my ex-wife *cough*). 


To believe otherwise could lead to the same trap of religious arrogance that Witnesses are caught in. Last summer, I had the opportunity to speak to a church group about how to preach to Jehovah's Witnesses; the hostility to others' faiths and rigid thinking that I observed in this group convinced me that they weren't doing anybody any favors by proselytizing to Jehovah's Witnesses.

Tip #3, a.k.a. the main point here: Try a little love 

When I was a Witness, I'd hear about people who married "out of the truth"—a horrible, possibly fatal, decision, in the Watchtower Society's view. Their reasons for doing so were a usually a variation on the theme of "he shows me more love than most Witnesses." Ha! Therein lies the key. To illustrate:

After I was disfellowshipped, I tried for over a year to get reinstated. During that time, I found other people to hang out with, even as I continued to identify as a Witness. On numerous occasions they showed me love in ways I'd never before experienced. Yes, I was helped in material ways at times—on at least two occasions I would have gone homeless were it not for people reaching out a helping hand—but it was the small things that touched me most often: the phone calls just to see how I was doing; the comments they made that showed they were listening, really listening, to what I had to say; the loving assurance that I could make my own choices and not be judged; the patience with me as I continued to spout off self-righteous Witness propaganda at inappropriate times.


Love offered freely, without being predicated on my "good standing" or worth in the community, was a novel concept. And it accomplished what all the debates and logic couldn't—it helped me see Jehovah's Witnessism as just another religion.


Their publications state repeatedly that "the most outstanding mark of true Christians is that they have real love among themselves,"* the pointed implication being that they bear that "most outstanding mark." That's an extraordinary claim. Do they have extraordinary evidence to back it up? No. Sure, there's love among the Witnesses. But not to a degree higher than in any other church.


I had to see, feel and experience unconditional love for myself, over a period of time, before I finally "got it." And when I did, it was one of the most profound moments in my life. This realization was as transformational as a born-again experience. (Except that I was "born" into doubt and atheism. Which is fine. As far as I can tell, spiritual experiences are about as discriminating as crack whores.)


There's a gaping disconnect between the Witnesses' claim of having "real love among themselves" and the reality of life in their community. Get any Witness elder drinking and he'll tell you candidly: many Witnesses suffer from loneliness and depression because their social needs aren't being met (sorry, those formalistic charades at their weekly meetings just don't cut it); if they're lucky, they might get invited to "gatherings" once in a while, but day in and day out, Witness life is as blah and purgatorial as the interior of their Kingdom Halls (unless you're a pioneer or an elder, but then the drabness comes in other forms). 


Their lack of true love is the Witnesses' biggest weakness—and our biggest opportunity to step in and do some good. Ironic as it is, maybe that's the way it should be. After all, helping someone out of a harmful situation is, by definition, a loving thing to do.

If you want to help someone escape the Witnesses, I suggest showing that same love. Show her or him every day that the Witnesses are not the only ones who have "real love among themselves." Make love on their religion, not war.


The more love you can show Witnesses, the more likely they'll be to start questioning what they've been forced to believe. With luck, and assuming they really have honest motives, they'll find their own way out.

------------
*"What Does God Require of Us?," published by the Watchtower Society

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Frying pan, meet fire: recovery in a post-Jehovah's Witness life

Photo credit: Allison Achauer 

By Joel Gunz

Let's be honest. None of us were disfellowshipped from the Jehovah's Witnesses because we were perfect in every way. Whether the judicial action was right or wrong, just or unjust, it's a safe bet that we'd committed some kind of "sin" that we swore on the dotted line we'd never commit. For some of us, that "sin" might have been part of a deeper addiction. If so, then it's also possible that we sought help through a recovery program. I know I did. I found that, as a former Witness, my relationship to 12-Step programs and therapy to be a complicated and evolving process.


First off, I believe that all of us are addicted to something, no exceptions. Whether it's cocaine, exercise, coffee, meth, or comic books, we all have what we euphemistically call our "vices." How many Witnesses struggle with alcohol, overeating, TV watching or Internet use? Though she would never admit it, my mother (a pioneer and elder's wife) is an alcoholic. And how many might actually addicted to the religion itself?

I think the addictions we fall into say a lot about us. Alcoholism is often associated with external frustrations, e.g.: "my partner/job/neighbor drives me to drink." Conversely, sex addictions often revolve around internalized issues, e.g.: “I'm not good/beautiful/worthy/desirable/spiritual enough.” Less destructive addictions—TV watching, shopping, Internet surfing—also speak volumes about the architecture of our psyche. For that reason, I agree with psychologist David Bedrick, who wrote in a Psychology Today blog post that “people use substances for hundreds of different individual, almost idiosyncratic, reasons.”

The 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is arguably the best alcohol treatment program yet devised for mass consumption. But it seems to work only for a specific type of alcoholic: the person who has reached a desperate "rock bottom" condition, possibly accompanied by homelessness, job loss, divorce, etc., because only then, it is assumed, will one finally be willing to engage in the total surrender to a higher power it takes to overcome his or her addiction. In fact, AA literature sees alcoholism, not as a problem of willpower, but as a disease of the Will itself. And until you've hit that existential wall, the program won't work for you: AA members who relapse are dismissed as having not reached that anti-grail. Those who are mandated into the program, such as by law enforcement, fare even worse. Still, that smaller, narrowly defined group of bottom-liners reports a high success rate.

When you add the extreme moralism drilled into us as Witnesses, it's easy to see how we might beat ourselves up a bit too much for our failings. When I was in the religion, I "struggled" with masturbation/pornography all my life. Although I was hardly alone, it seems I was one of the few people who regularly confessed to this "secret fault." Over the years, well-meaning elders offered to support me in "overcoming" the habit. It would be years before I figured out that the more I resisted temptation, the more it would fight back. And then it would be a while longer before I realized that my real battles lay elsewhere.  (I can be a little slow on the uptake.)

When I was disfellowshipped from the Jehovah's Witnesses, I was convinced that I was a sex addict. (I was, I have to admit, looking at a lot of porn.) So I joined Sexaholics Anonymous. Then, concerned that my glass-or-two-of-wine-a-day habit was too much, I also attended AA meetings. Because my finances were a shambles, I attended Debtors Anonymous. 12-Step groups often recommend that newcomers attend 30 meetings in 30 days. Always an overachiever, I did a 180 in 180. In addition to all that, I enrolled in one-on-one and group psychotherapy. In fact, for nearly two years, hardly a day went by that I didn't attend some kind of recovery meeting and frequently I attended two or three. because I was trying to get reinstated, I was also attending all of the Witness meetings, sitting mute in the back row of the Kingdom Hall like a stuffed giraffe.

I learned a lot and grew from the experience; I wouldn't trade it in for anything. (Except for maybe more sex.) In the long run, however, practicing the 12 Steps didn't change my behaviors much. True, I actually got a one-year chip from SA for abstaining from masturbation for a year, but afterward I quickly made up for lost time. My drinking was never really a problem to begin with. My finances are still in chaos. For me, the problem was one of perception: believing I had these addictions actually fueled a Slinky-storm of downward spirals. Once I learned to cut myself a little slack and stop trying to please a legalistic, finger-wagging Jehovah, the destructive fury of these compulsions was diverted to more productive endeavors.

AA books reject such behaviorist or relapse-prevention approaches outright and emphasize the need for surrender to a spiritual higher power. This approach was actually recommended to one of its founding members by Carl Jung, who insisted that relief from alcoholism can only be found in a deep spiritual conversion. (Ironically, it's just this kind of God-talk that prevents many Witnesses fro  availing themselves of the program.)

While that’s what AA literature teaches, too often, AA—as a fellowship—isn't much more than the same-old same-old behavior accountability group found in recovery and high-priced treatment centers and Kingdom Halls everywhere. As Alfred Hitchcock wisely observed, “everything’s perverted in a different way.”

All of which is to say, my life is about as manageable as a sloppy joe is for an amputee, but I've never loved myself more—not in spite of these imperfections, but because of them. For instance, I still have a bona fide monkey on my back. He has a red demon face that's permanently twisted into a rictus of anger. Off and on throughout any given day, he gets up in my face and says, "You're a failure! A fucking failure!!" I've learned to love even him—after all, for better or worse, he is part of me. I quit fighting him and now he gives me the motivation I need to get up in the morning and put on my bigboy pants when I'd rather bury my head under a mountain of pillows. But that clarity didn't come through any 12-Step program. (Full disclosure: it was the result of a conversation with David Bedrick.)

As a result, I'm ambivalent about the efficacy of 12-Step programs. Many of my friends are convinced that working the AA program keeps them sober. I applaud that. And to these friends who might be reading this post, I say hey man, whatever works. I honor and support you 100 percent. In addition to these benefits, 12-Step programs offer something that most other approaches don't: they're free.

But 12-Step programs have become a huge part of the recovery landscape in this country and I feel the need to raise a critical question or two.

Every AA member knows the Serenity Prayer by heart:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, this prayer was originally untitled. Then someone (probably a reformed drunk) dubbed it the Serenity Prayer, which was unfortunate—that title throws the whole thing off balance, emphasizing "acceptance" over "courage." Such a lopsided reading might help some, but it doesn't help all.

AA certainly preaches only the first half of the prayer: members are urged to humbly accept the flaws of others and imperfections in the systems in which they live. Very little consideration is given to incite courageous acts of change in one's circumstances. That might be right and good for some alcoholics, but I have hard time believing it is true for all. And other types of addictions operate on a very different level. Some addicts might be better off applying the second half of the prayer, seeking ‘courage to change the things they can.’ For instance, in SA, I encountered members who continue to beat themselves up for sexual transgressions committed years ago. Consumed with guilt and shame over their past misdeeds they remained unable to find—much less hold—a healthy sexual relationship in adult autonomy even as they attended meeting after meeting to confess to lustful thoughts about the bare midriff they caught themselves gazing at on Hawthorne Boulevard. For them, the courageous change might be to leave their 12-Step program and try living life in its terrifying glory.

The point is, with a 12-Step group for just about every vice imaginable, including alcohol, hard drugs, soft drugs, gambling, debt, sex, overeating, cluttering (?), underearning and workaholism and beyond, it seems to me that at least some of these programs render a disservice to those they would try to help. AA principles just don’t translate that easily.

AA really is geared for the specific—i.e. narcissistic—issues many (but not all!) alcoholics deal with. It emphasizes the need to take one's own "moral inventory" and avoid taking the inventory of others. For them, such an intervention is often helpful. Sex addicts, by contrast, know their own weaknesses all too well and ritualized self-inventory could actually contribute to the shame cycle that fuels their addiction. Such an individual might actually be better off doing the exact opposite of what AA prescribes, taking critical stock of the character flaws of the people or institutions (church, employment) around them, with a view to 'changing the things they cannot accept.'

TV, video game or Internet addicts, on the other hand, might want to take an honest inventory of the quality of their real-life relationships. (Am I the only person who finds it both interesting and ironic that all successful video games involve the acquisition and exercise of power?)

True, 12-Step programs didn't help me deal with my behavior issues all that much, but they were by no means a waste. The way I see it, the real problem with humanity isn't addiction, but our weird push me-pull you relationship with Reality. Most of us claim to be realists or claim to be inclined in that direction. But as that purveyor of nightmares, A. Hitchcock, once said, "reality is something none of us can stand, at any time." The real insanity—the real addiction—is that retreat from reality. Some withdraw with a needle; others use that meta-drug, reality TV. 12-Steps' true raison is that it methodically and—if you work the program—relentlessly pushes its members to confront reality. It forces you to see your life as it is. No wonder its favorite locus is the purgatory of the church basement, with a libation of shitty coffee. It was in such basements that I caught fleeting glimpses of my true self and, just as important, saw, really saw, for the first time, the reckless beauty of my fellow hairless bags of humanoid flesh. 12-Steps' report card for addiction recovery might be a mixed bag. But as a spiritual path for the secular, western mind, it's almost without parallel, and it's these benefits that hit you like a sneaker wave.

As a Jehovah's Witness, I was indoctrinated from an early age with the belief that I and my fellow door-to-door ministers were the only possessors of spiritual truth and divine love. My paleomammalian brain was marinated in the religious arrogance of such canards as "We worship the Only True God!" and "Only Jehovah's Witnesses have love among themselves!"

And then I fell among 12-Steppers.

In that world, I witnessed (and was the recipient of) extraordinary acts of selflessness and love made all the more remarkable because they were offered routinely, without any expectation. I encountered members from a variety of faiths who'd had soul-shaking spiritual experiences. This wasn't supposed to happen. I'd joined these 12 Steps so I could become a new and improved Jehovah's Witness. Instead, I found that the tools I'd been given as a Witness fell short of my need, and where those needs ended and my behavior began was an enormous void that I'd been trying to fill with the styrofoam of religious fundamentalism and xenophobia.

I broke. And then I began to heal. I got what I needed from 12 Steps. And then I left. I still look at porn. I still drink, sometimes to excess. I really need to get caught up on my bills. I discovered that what Hemingway said wasn't necessarily true: you're not always stronger in the broken places, and the acupunctural meridians of my psyche can cough up surprising and poignant pains when I least expect it. That said, I'm not really a fucking failure. I just play one in the TV of my mind. I manage to find time to write and create and build businesses and otherwise make myself useful to my kids and those I love.

And make no mistake. AA members are just as prone to fundamentalism and cultishness as are Jehovah's Witnesses. There is a strong belief that sobriety depends on "working the program," which includes meetings, readings and, well, a lot of stuff that smacks of the Witness life.

But what, exactly, is an addiction? I have a friend who is a very gifted artist. She feels compelled take time to draw every day and insists that this is compulsive, essentially unhealthy, behavior. For her, it doesn't much matter that her artwork is astonishingly beautiful, because it’s a compulsion; presumably, she would like to have the freedom to be able to draw less. Other people are addicted to reading and, sure, if the books are good, this behavior will boost their IQ, but it may take them further from other, more valued, connections. In these cases where do we draw the line between good and bad, healthy and unhealthy?

For that reason, I'm wary of the term "addiction" itself, just as I view conditions such as ADD and Asperger's Syndrome with suspicion. The human mind works in mysterious ways, and who are we to pathologize behaviors that might actually serve a very useful purpose? As Bedrick points out, “people want to use [drugs] for very important and powerful reasons.” I would add that those reasons are deeply personal and that a one-size-fits-all solution is antithetical to what the situation calls for. Rather than squelching the individual’s voice through interventions, perhaps a better strategy would be to listen to the addiction. It seems to want to be heard anyway.

In fact, it's quite possible that our "addictions" (or whatever you want to call them) are actually a by-product of Witness life. Viewed in that light, I see hope, not only for recovery from our "addictions," but also in healing from the wounds inflicted on us by religious abuse. Stay in touch.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bible Warning Stickers from the Skeptic General

All right, so I appointed myself Skeptic General. But only because I got tired of waiting for the Bethel Service Department to make me a Circuit Overseer.

But don't you agree that a message like this should go on every Bible, whether it's the New World "Translation" or otherwise? Go ahead, print 'em and stick 'em!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lesson 3: Obey Sparlock




In the second segment of the new Jehovah's Witness cult indoctrination video for children, titled Lesson 2: Obey Jehovah, Caleb learns how awful it would feel to make God sad by playing with a toy that only Satan could love. You see, his new action figure, Sparlock the Wizard, is a magician. And you know how Jehovah feels about magic. (It is bad.) Following that guilt trip, Caleb throws Sparlock in the trash. But that Happy Meal prize is coming back for seconds.


Sparlock aims to teach Caleb’s parents a lesson about recycling by taking them into a dimension of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. Caleb’s mom and dad don’t realize it yet, but they’ve just crossed over into...


That evening, Caleb’s dad came home from making a shepherding call on Sister Fiftyandnevergotlaid and poured himself an ice cold Budweiser. Then he poured another. After his third bottle he went upstairs to leer at his daughter while she slept. But he saw that Sparlock had snuggled up to her first!


Filled with righteous indignation, Caleb’s father snatched the toy up and decided to destroy the demonized creature—just as he’d done with his own Ouija board and Led Zeppelin albums years before! 

He tried squeezing Sparlock’s head in a vice, but to no avail.


He tried to cut Sparlock’s head off with a table saw.


But that didn’t work out so well either. He only dulled the blade.


Frustrated, Caleb’s dad threw Sparlock the Wizard in the trash once again—but this time he weighted the lid with concrete blocks for good measure. Chuckling to himself, he turned and flipped the light switch off, leaving Sparlock alone in the garage.



That evening, after finishing his six-pack and deleting his Internet history, Caleb’s father was ready to turn in for the night. Teetering at the top of the stairs, he didn’t notice that Sparlock had made his way out of the trash can.


Down Caleb’s dad went!


His final lesson, as the light faded in his eyes faded to black? Obedience to Sparlock is the beginning of wisdom!



Tuesday, May 1, 2012

God is a louse. People are mostly chill.

By Joel Gunz
(For more great memes like this, visit www. smarmy-platitudes-R-us.com www.idlehearts.com.) 

If you’ve ever exited a repressive religion like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you know how painful it can be to feel first-hand the sting of betrayal and abandonment. It can be one of those gifts that keep on giving.

A decade after I was disfellowshipped, the Witness side of my family — i.e. almost all of them — still continues to do everything it can to drive a wedge between my own children and me because they’ve decided I’m an apostate, which means, when translated, that I'm "spiritual kryptonite." It hurts to see my son, Max, miserable and depressed, mainly because people have decided that it’s preferable that he be a fatherless (albeit Kingdom Hall-attending) boy. As a remarkably gifted and intelligent young man, the janitors and stockroom clerks at the Kingdom Hall can't make heads nor tails of most of what he has to say. Sadly, he is all but a pariah in the "spiritual paradise."

That said, I can’t buy into the Dollar Store spirituality coughed up by the “People Hurt You” meme  above. In fact, when I saw it posted on a Facebook friend’s wall — herself also an ex-Witness — my stomach turned about 18 degrees. Just enough to prompt a response that went something like this: (Click on the image to see it properly.)

Her response? (Not posted here, for reasons that will soon be clear.) She went on to insist that any goodness in people exists only because God put it there. Also, she accused me of having a pole up my rear. Um, okay, maybe I had that coming. Apparently, my misanthropic line went a bit too far.

Still, my point stands.

I preached that “People are bad/God is good” line myself for over 30 years. Creating my own reality around that belief, I was convinced it was true. And then, by means of a Judicial Committee, I was handed the gift of objective distance. That’s when the scales fell from my eyes, as it were and I came to see, for the first time, just how much goodness there is in my fellow man. I saw that people can be trusted.

In fact, in my new paradigm, bad people are such a minority that when an individual behaves untrustworthily, it comes as a shock and offense. (If mankind were truly as generically evil as Christianity insists, the subprime mortgage crisis would have been a boring non-starter in the news.) I feel sorry for people who have such a misanthropic view of human nature that they can't see all the wonderful acts performed on a daily basis by people who couldn’t care less about Jesus or any other genie-in-a-bottle. Like the grocer who corrects you when you hand him too much money, when he could easily have ripped you off. Or the hundreds of thousands of medical marijuana program members across the country who share what they have with other patients,simply for the good of the community.

Considering the vile treatment I’ve experienced in my and my kids’ lives, how could I possibly have such a rosy outlook? Do I even have that right? Or have I softened into a blissfully ignorant Pangloss? Maybe. All I know is, day in and day out, I encounter people who are good folk and who treat others decently—if not offering themselves up in profoundly self-sacrificing ways.

I’ve told the story before about how I was helped out of the Witness cult by countless individuals who played roles large and small, conscious and unwitting, in helping me to see that the religious community I’d grown up with did not have a monopoly on love. It was like finding myself the guest of honor at a new surprise party every day. Before long, the kindness and generosity of these pagans, miscreants and misfits outshined the hurtful behavior of the Christians I’d known. In less guarded moments, I even caught myself forgiving the Witnesses.

Within the Witness community, those who have been hostile to me are a minority. Most Witnesses are good, honest people who are unfortunate to be caught up in a high-control system. If they could grasp how hurtful and pointless their behavior is, it would trigger an existential crisis they might not be able to survive. (After all, isn’t that the real moral of the story of Judas, who grasped too late the consequences of his blinkered thinking?)

The world may feel like a shithole sometimes, but as Robert Jordan said in For Whom the Bell Tolls, it is still “a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.”

But let’s get back to that little spat on Facebook. Christianity teaches that people will hate you, but that only God will love you. Again, my experience is quite the opposite. It isn’t difficult to read the Biblical God as a hateful sonofabitch. On the other hand, I’ve found humans to be, in general, noble and decent. The Christian Facebook friend on whose wall I wrote that comment didn’t seem to agree. In fact, it bothered her so much that she unfriended me.

Ah well.  Comme ci, comme ça.

Nevertheless, why do I feel shunned?