Monthly Archives: April 2014

The knife.

When I slow down enough to feel it, this is what I feel.

A knife, stuck in my chest.

Not one of those horror movie knives. A serrated-edge kitchen knife. And it’s just sticking out of me.

Whenever I move, I feel it.

It’s not a sharp pain. It’s been there for a long time. It feels more like a dull ache.

This is part of the process of self-discovery, so I’m told. Getting in touch with my feelings.

The only thing is, I don’t like feeling this. So I try not to think about it. But it’s still there. It affects me.

I’ve been told that these feelings are meant to be warning signs for us. Like blinking red lights. Something inside me is telling me that something isn’t right.

What usually happens in these moments of realization is that my brain takes over. It provides reasons and explanations for what I’m feeling, and why. But my brain is usually wrong. And I think it’s motivated by fear. It doesn’t want me to connect with the truth, so it throws excuses and rationalizations in my path.

But the truth is more intuitive for me. It feels like something I’ve always known, and just have to admit to myself.

The truth is that I have lived my life for other people.

Why is that so scary for me to admit? I think because at some point, I decided that I was going to be a selfless person. It was going to be a saving grace for me. Kind of an identity thing. And it’s difficult for me to admit that it hasn’t done me any good.

In fact, it’s led me to this place. Anger, frustration, and above all fatigue are part of my everyday life.

Is it so bad to be selfless, though? Jesus says…

Ha. There it is again. The reflexes come back so easily. Jesus says.

It’s not that I still struggle with religion. It’s that I still struggle with what led me to religion in the first place. I wasn’t a complete person. And I was looking for something to complete me. Religion gave me a framework. “Be this kind of person, and all will be well.”

And it just so happened that the goal of “selflessness” meshed well with my (lack of) sense of self. I didn’t feel that I deserved anything—that I had no right to pursue anything—and religion affirmed those feelings for me. I deflected the issue and avoided confronting those dark places.

But I can’t live that way anymore. I’ve already hit 40. Call it a midlife crisis, call it finally reaching adulthood. But I’ve reached the point where I just can’t be motivated by “selflessness” anymore. I need to start prioritizing myself, as scary as that is.

Once again, the blank canvas of this blog serves as metaphor. I have no idea how to navigate this. But I know that I have to. It’s time. The knife has to be pulled out.

Advertisements

I don’t want to tell anyone what to believe.

I’m not interested in being a salesman. Salesmen create a problem and sell the solution. There’s enough of that in the world already. Particularly in the realm of “self-improvement”.

And I suppose that self-improvement is what this blog is about. For me, anyway.

My purpose here is to reflect upon my own experience, in an attempt to chart a way forward for myself. I share this process publicly because it helps me to be more intentional about actually doing it.

In my last post, I wrote about how “detoxifying” it was for me to step outside of my religious belief system and take a hard look at what I had previously accepted to be true.

I had done this because I felt toxic. I could almost tangibly feel the negative effects of the beliefs that I had absorbed into myself over time. And I felt just as strongly the need to rid myself of them.

Ironically, I had first accepted these beliefs because they had been sold to me as the solution to the problem of the toxicity of sin. I had been told that I was spiritually contaminated, and that only Jesus could cleanse me.

This had resonated with me at the time. I didn’t feel particularly clean, or healthy, on a spiritual level. I was a generally confused 18-year-old who was struggling under the weight of shame. I was vulnerable and open to suggestion, and Christianity made sense to me. It identified a toxin that resided within me, which if purged could lead to the spiritual health that I was looking for.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized what I had been sold.

Could you imagine drinking that stuff? God knows what those bottles actually contained.

But I did drink it. Repeatedly. And I told myself that it was curing all my ills. Because that’s what I had been sold. Everyone around me was drinking the same stuff.

Eventually, however, I reached a point of crisis. I forced myself to pick up the bottle, examine the label closely, and consider whether or not I wanted to keep drinking.

My decision, at first, was to drink less. I wasn’t consciously aware of this decision. I just knew that I needed less of …whatever this stuff was. I wasn’t feeling “cleansed” anymore; in fact, I was starting to feel sick.

This was a disorienting time for me. I had a remedy that I now knew didn’t work (and which in all likelihood had just been making things worse), but I also didn’t have a better solution to what had driven me to drink it in the first place.

It was easier for me to accept the first part. “Something didn’t work”. I could run with a statement like that. I drew upon a lot of anger and frustration, and blasted negative product reviews all over the place.

The second part—coming up with a better solution—was harder. It took a long time, but I eventually realized, partly by accident, that the starting point was to consciously do what I had already done unconsciously in the past: to just listen to myself.

Back when I hit my crisis point, I found myself reflexively backing away from the source of toxicity in my life. I hadn’t purposefully intended to do so, but I did. Without realizing it, I had started to pay attention to my own internal warning system. Something was telling me, “danger”. And I could no longer afford to ignore it.

I’ve since become more intentional about doing this. And the more practice I’ve gotten at it, the more I want… less.

Because what I’ve found is that I’ve been ingesting toxic beliefs for my entire life. Religion was just another toxin, which I took to offset the effects of previous toxins. Rather than identify those toxins so I could stop taking them, I merely masked their side effects with a new one.

The goal for me is to stop taking them altogether.

I was in a treatment program for depression last year. In this program, they strongly encouraged partipants to refrain from alcohol, illicit drugs, or even caffeine. So I stopped drinking.

Over time, I did start to feel different. The negative mood I was so accustomed to didn’t linger as it once had. It was easier to pay attention to how I was really feeling in a given moment, rather than to how I had, out of habit, always told myself I was feeling.

I was then able to reject the toxic belief that everything must be shitty all the time. Because what I found—by paying attention—was that everything was not, in fact, shitty all the time.

The answer was not to replace one belief with another, but to replace it with no belief at all. It became important for me to stop prejudging my life experiences, and to simply start experiencing. I didn’t need some preset cognitive framework to tell me how I was feeling. I needed how I was feeling to tell me how I was feeling.

None of this bodes well for my inner snake oil salesman, however. He makes his living on selling pre-packaged beliefs, and I’ve been a faithful customer.

But it’s time for me to learn to live without his products.

The need to be right.

I have no particular agenda for this blog. Which is itself a change for me.

My old blog had a clearly defined agenda, at least in my mind: to show Christians just how wrong they could be. I read through the Bible week after week, highlighting inconsistencies, outdated ways of thinking, questionable doctrine, and so on.

This process was clarifying for me. Detoxifying, if that’s a word. I needed to extricate myself from the world of Christianity, and seeing just how little I had in common with its holy book helped me to re-establish myself, apart from the church.

But there was something else going on as well. Underneath all of this was a deeply felt need to be right. I had struggled with doubt for years after leaving the church. Was it my fault? Had I done something wrong? Was I to blame? This haunted me, nagged at me.

So I responded in a way that was familiar to me: I doubled down on my belief, rather than give air to my doubts. But this time, my “belief” was not religious faith. It was my need to be right.

Or maybe that’s what my religious faith always was. I came to be a Christian at a time when I was facing uncertainty over my future. I needed, though I didn’t consciously know that I needed, reassurance that everything was going to be okay. And Christianity provided that.

Later on, I brought the same mentality to my Bible blog. I wasn’t sure at all that everything was going to be okay, but I still needed reassurance. I needed some things to be true in my life. Most of all, I needed validation.

Perhaps “vindication” is a better word for it.

Regardless, I was insecure and emotionally brittle. I had little self-confidence. So I did what I was used to doing: I looked to something outside myself, to help me feel better about myself.

Perversely enough, I found myself once again relying upon the Bible, and my friends’ agreement with my analysis of the Bible, to validate my feelings. And myself. The only difference was that this time I was looking for flaws in the Bible, rather than truths. Reasons to reject it, rather than reasons to believe.

I think this is why strident atheists and strident Christians look the same to outsiders. Both groups seem to have a need to be right. To keep voicing their opinions over and over again, until they feel that they have been heard, understood, and validated.

Which, of course, will never happen. Self-confidence doesn’t need to constantly assert itself. Insecurity does. This was certainly the case for me. I had started to sound like a broken record when it came to issues surrounding Christianity and contemporary culture.

Ironically, “Christianity and contemporary culture” was to be the focus of my master’s degree, back when I attended seminary. Plus ça change.

I would like to do more than simply exchange one set of beliefs for another. I would like to remove altogether the structure supporting how I believe. And I would really like to stop looking to the Bible to tell me what I’m supposed to think about myself.

This applies to any other sacred text as well. The Bible isn’t the only book out there. If I rejected the Bible, and instead immersed myself in the Dhammapada (which I have done), would I really be doing anything different? Would that represent any real change in my life?

The need for external validation led me to religion. To the words and beliefs of others, which came pre-packaged and pre-validated. (Millions of people couldn’t be wrong, I thought.) But that doesn’t feel like a way forward for me anymore.

I don’t know what “a way forward” is, though. I became a Christian when I was 18 years old. My entire adult life has been dominated by religion. Which reinforces how metaphorically true the “blank canvas” of this new blog is for me. I haven’t added any colors or images, because I don’t know what to put on it yet.

If I’m to be honest, this is both liberating and a bit frightening. I really don’t have an agenda. I don’t have a plan. The challenge for me, as I understand it, will be to retain that sense of openness about the world. To live life, rather than to observe, analyze, and judge it.

That feels right to me.

Definitely a work in progress.

This isn’t my first blog.

I used to have a blog entitled “Exclamation Point, One”. The joke seemed funny to me. I don’t know if anyone else got it.

Further confusing matters, the subject of this blog was the Bible. I had been inspired by a series on Slate.com entitled “Blogging the Bible“, and wanted to do something similar. As a former evangelical Christian—one who was, at the time, struggling with his faith—I had a lot of questions about Christianity and the Church. To me, the obvious answer was to read through the entire Bible, cover to cover. To see if its message still resonated with me.

I guess I like to be thorough.

Over the course of almost six years (with several stops and starts along the way), I made it through the entire Old Testament, as well as a good chunk of the New Testament.

But as time went on, the blog became less of a compulsion—something I needed to do for myself—and more of a chore. I had been steadily moving away from Christianity, and continuing study of the Bible seemed increasingly irrelevant to me. “Exclamation Point, One” was also bringing me back, every week, to a world that I had consciously left behind. And I didn’t enjoy that.

I had coined the name “Exclamation Point, One” as a self-mocking reference to internet angst. Because that’s what the blog was really about. My own angst over the Christian Church. Eventually, the Bible became a springboard to whatever I wanted to write about that week. Most of it was negative.

I have a love-hate relationship with negativity. My temperment, my sense of humor, my philosophical beliefs—all of this has been significantly influenced by a “negative” outlook on life. I gravitate more toward the dark corners than the bright center.

But negativity is also tiresome. I get sick of it. How many times can I complain about the same thing? (In this case, the Christian Church.) I enjoyed writing, and I still do, but that particular subject had passed its expiration date. I needed to move on.

I chose to move on by deleting “Exclamation Point, One”. As in, deleted. It’s gone.

That might strike you as unnecessary or perhaps a bit extreme, but it seemed right to me. I don’t like to be too precious about the things I’ve written. Or rather, the places I’ve been. What’s important to me is the process. Life itself should be a work of art.

So here I am now. I wanted to come up with a new tagline for this blog, to replace the default WordPress text. I came up with “Definitely a work in progress.” I had meant that in reference to the blog, but immediately I realized the connection to myself and decided to stick with it.

I’m not sure what the focus of this blog will end up being. But “work in progress” sounds good to me.