Monday, September 7, 2015

What the Hell Do I Do with My Brain Now?

Like most good Jehovah’s Witnesses, I had pretty good study habits. Even though they were in service of a whack-o set of doctrines, I still learned a lot about world history and Western civilization in general. For that, at least, I’m thankful. Once I left, though, those *cough* useful habits could have atrophied, and I think that would have been unfortunate.

How to keep my brain fed? College wasn’t an option and, anyway, I’d had my fill of institutional learning. So I found ways to hack my education for free before it was a “thing." I thought I’d share some of my discoveries with you. 

Leaving the cult, I had to trade a set of jacked-up, but easy, certainties for a life of anxious, but authentic, not-knowing. I also realized that I need to rethink the way I think. As a J-Dubber, I’d been trained to filter all information through an apocalyptic-millennialist lens; upon leaving, I had to create a whole new worldview from the ground up. Enter Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings. She describes this labor of love as: “a record of my own becoming as a person—intellectually, creatively, spiritually—and an inquiry into how to live and what it means to lead a good life.” Her blog is a humanities course in itself.

Popova brings such thinkers as William James, Thoreau, Emerson and Goethe back from the dead to talk about the ongoing process of waking up and staying awake so as to live life to its full potential. This is not your usual New Age fruit cup. It’s more like getting practical advice from a wise old grandpa we wished we'd had, but didn’t. Taking a break from heady 19th century philosophy, she also reports on lovely children’s books you’ll want for yourself, by poet Ted Hughes, designer Saul Bass, playwright Joseph Pintauro, novelist Daniel Handler, of course, Maurice Sendak and much, much more. 

Watchtower publications have an answer for every Big Question in the world. (They just happen to be mostly wrong.) But what happens when people who are actually smart take a stab at them? That’s the premise of the Edge, whose mission is to “arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.” For example, ornithologist Richard Prum talks about Duck Sex, Aesthetic Evolution and the Origin of Beauty. Each year, they bring these brainiacs together in a forum to take on one big-burrito topic, such as what we *should* be worried about and what their most dangerous ideas are.

If you’re sick of religion but still want to explore paths where meaning, values and spirituality intersect, subscribe to this podcast. Host Krista Tippett sits down for one-hour-ish-long conversations with people like banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, astrophysicist Mario Livio, vulnerability guru Brené Brown and Zen star Thich Nhat Hanh to talk about the meaning of it all in simple, thought-provoking ways. She also had a great sit-down with Maria Popova (which, in turn, hipped me to her blog).

Want to learn philosophy but you’re afraid of all the big words? This ongoing project from Stephen West takes on the history of philosophy from the ancient Greeks to today using opinionated humor and real-life application—and it's all very accessible, even for non-college-educated people like me. He recommends (and I agree) that you start at the beginning and work forward chronologically, because each episode, as with the story of philosophy itself, builds on what came before. Unfortunately, his site’s archive structure doesn’t make that easy, so I’ll give you a hand.

Alec Baldwin has a surprising gift for gabbing with people who’ve worked hard to made their mark on the world, getting them to dish about the things that make them real, make them human. Taken as a whole, for me, these interviews are like a mentorship program as I scrape together the crumbs of my own life to leave behind something that says I was here, a gift that the next generation can use and maybe grow from.  His talks with magician Penn Jillette, musician Paul Simon, New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick and This American Life’s Ira Glass are insightful, entertaining and inspiring. Check out his interview with Billy Joel for a surprisingly dirty version of "Just the Way You Are."

Want to know how the world works in easy, snackable chunks? The animators and writers over in Munich-based Kurzgesagt (German for “in a nutshell”) produce 5-minute-or-so infographicky videos that demontsrate topics like Is War Over? What is Life? Everything You Need to Know about Planet Earth and Are You Alone in the Universe?

Enough said.

Well, that's a start. You’ve probably got a few sources of worldly wisdom of your own. Drop them in the comments so everyone can see!


Thursday, July 23, 2015

Letter Perfect: How One Sister Broke the News to Her Parents

28-year-old "Crystal" was raised in a zealous Jehovah's Witness family. She lives with her parents and, even by this religion's standards, has lived a very sheltered, controlled life. Nevertheless, she found a way out, and two weeks before she was supposed to go to Pioneer School, made a clean break.

After telling her parents about her decision in person, she followed up with a letter. It's loving, forgiving, honest and forthright, like a perfectly-executed figure-eight. If you're thinking of writing such a letter yourself, you can hardly do better than to use it as inspiration. She agreed to let me share it with you. (Some details have been changed to protect her parents from any embarrassment.)

Dear Mom & Dad,

I want to tell you how much I love you both and don't want to hurt you. I realize that telling you I no longer want to be one of Jehovah's Witnesses came as a shock. Especially since it may seem like I dropped this bomb on you without warning. This wasn't a sudden or rash decision and I don't think there would ever have been the right time to tell you. Although I did not share these thoughts with you initially, it was not my intention to hide it from you, be dishonest or become a hypocrite or coward. In fact, the reason I held off telling you about my decision was because I needed to find the courage to share this truth that I knew would bring you pain. But now that the truth is out in the open, please let me explain the reasons and circumstances that led me to make this life altering decision.

Even though I believed that what we taught from the Bible and Watchtower publications was the "truth" for many years, I still had questions. At first, my questions were concerning my personal happiness and freedom. I didn't feel truly happy and free, and much of the time I was trying to convince myself that I was. I pressured myself to act happy because I knew it pleased you and others, which brought me some joy. But as you know people-pleasing doesn't bring lasting happiness. In time, my questions accumulated and I wasn't finding satisfying answers from the publications, the organization or the Bible.

Many times study, prayer and reading the Bible were enough to push my thoughts aside. Keeping busy in Witness life also helped sweep them under the rug. But when I started pioneering I had more opportunities to think about the organization and its core beliefs, see them in action and have them challenged. I realized that I don't actually believe what I'm saying at the door or to my Bible students. It was unnerving to admit that I couldn't teach people to love Jehovah if I'm unsure of his existence. Again, I would study, pray and read the Bible, but that didn't work. I just couldn't reconcile what I was being asked to believe and to teach others. This confliction led to much pain and I was deeply ashamed as I attributed this to a personal defect and weakness.

So I decided to do something different. I looked outside the organization for information. This led me further down a path of self discovery and realization. Of course, I didn't accept everything I found as true, but I experienced the freedom to compare viewpoints and explore ideas without fear and prejudice. The conclusion I was able to reach on my own was this: it is unethical for me to stay a Jehovah's Witness, if I do not believe their doctrine; and if for moral reasons, cannot support their organization. Therefore I can not continue being one of Jehovah's Witnesses.

You asked why I didn't talk to you both before about this. The answer is partially because it's so easy to squeeze myself into the mold of being one of Jehovah's Witnesses, taking the familiar path of least resistance, without thinking or questioning or using my power of reason. I didn't want to rock the boat and I was afraid of change. Another reason is because I wanted to draw my own conclusions without your influence. I needed to prove to myself what I believe. If what the Witnesses teach is God's truth, then it should stand up to my research without you or the elders’ influence. Keeping you both out of the loop helped me to make an honest evaluation of myself and know without a doubt that this is what I really think.

Looking back at all the fond memories over the years we served together as Witnesses will always warm my heart. I enjoyed spending time together as a family and helping people. A highlight was during the time we formed the [foreign-language] group, when we made lots of friends and ate too much. Conventions were always a fun time. Visiting Bethel was a delight. Going in service together drew us closer and helped us learn to work together as a family. Remembering how Dad would use me as an excuse to take a break out in service still cracks me up. Driving around in the car group and having a good laugh together will always be fond memories for me.

Now we are moving on to the next phase of our lives. Although I do strongly feel that we need some space and clear boundaries, I want us to still be a family. I will try my very best to show respect for your freedom to live your life as you see fit. But I expect you both to treat me with the same respect as I move on with my life as an adult and may make some decisions that you may not agree with.

I am so grateful to have supportive parents like you. You both are very important to me and will continue to have a special place in my heart. Although our religious beliefs no longer match, I still hold on to the values that you both have taught me: love deeply, show you care about others, don't be selfish, don't be afraid to be different, don't wait to be asked to help someone, work hard, show respect, listen carefully, don't love money, be accountable to yourself and always tell the truth.

I understand that my decision means change for all of us. But I strongly feel that this change will lead to my personal growth. I sincerely hope that our special relationship continues to grow and that we will continue spend time together as a family.

I love you both with all my heart


Monday, July 6, 2015

"What Is True Love?" In Emoji!

This year's Watchtower convention saw the release of a new summer blockbuster romantic comedy brainwashing video for young people, called "What is True Love?" What's so great about this hot new hit that's got JW youths everywhere talking? The back of the DVD box reads:

Best friends Liz and Megan are both searching for true love, but each one pursures a very different path to find it. 

What are the consequences of their decisions? Will they learn the ultimate key to true love and happiness?

[There's even a snazzy tagline:]
We all make choices; 
some last a lifetime. 

[You know there's something seriously messed up with a religion when it uses a semicolon in a tagline.]

Anyway, for those of you who have neither the stomach nor the patience to sit through the whole thing, a friend of mine who is a regular pioneer in the Portland area has lovingly rendered "What is True Love?" in a format kids will enjoy. Word is out on whether the MEPS system can do anything with it.

With warm love and Christian greetings, I present a new translation of this fine spiritual provision... into Emoji!

�� Liz, pioneer
��Megan, inactive
��Zach, unbaptized
��John, reaching out bro
 ���� �� Matt. 24:14


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