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:
- I want to make a contribution to the world that helps people live more connected, authentic lives.
- I want to leave something behind that will nourish the next generation.
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.