267. eponym

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forgiveness-and-reconciliationSuffice to say that, at least in American society, we have a pretty muddled notion of forgiveness. It’s often used in the sense of a pardon: to let someone off the hook; to pretend as if a wrong never took place.

The OED provides several useful definitions:

  • To remit (a debt); to give up resentment or claim to requital for, pardon (an offence).
  • To give up resentment against, pardon (an offender).
  • To make excuse or apology for, regard indulgently.

The concept of forgiveness is a strange one for me. For one, it was a bedrock of my community’s theology growing up, through Bible verses such as:

  • This is my blood, which ratifies the New Covenant, my blood shed on behalf of many, so that they may have their sins forgiven. (Matthew 26:28, CJB)
  • If you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (Matthew 6:14, ESV)

We were supposed to be “kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32, NIV). If we’d been properly taught the theory of forgiveness as children, we might have had the tools to process hurt and loss, to work towards reconciliation and/or healing.

How different my life might’ve been.


For many evangelicals, what forgiveness meant in practice was that we were supposed to be doormats for each other, meekly turning the other cheek (no matter how egregious the offense) and forgetting about it, as if nothing had happened. Growing up, if one brought up a past wrong that had supposedly been forgiven, that would be met with an exclamation of, “See, you didn’t really forgive me!”

Is it any surprise that, in some churches, crimes like rape go unreported and unpunished?

We also learned some profoundly confusing lessons about forgiveness. On the one hand, you have New Testament Jesus who teaches us to roll over and let people do whatever they want to him.

Then there’s the Jesus of the Book of Revelation who makes the Bride from Kill Bill look like My Little Pony.

There’s also the god of the Tanakh (which Christians call their “Old Testament”) who Richard Dawkins describes in The God Delusion as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction,” who wipes out virtually the entire human race in the flood, kills people for all manner of reasons, etc.

Some disturbingly mixed signals.

There were also certain sins that were seemingly unforgivable, such as sex outside of marriage—well, women who had sex outside of marriage, that is, who were forever branded as sluts, unclean, polluted, unmarriageable. “Unrepentant” homosexuality, too. These were sins God could never forgive, and conveniently, neither could his followers.

So we were supposed to forgive, but only under certain circumstances; and if we truly forgave someone, we were never supposed to bring up the offense again, even if they continued to hurt us (Matthew 18:21-22)?

Needless to say, I came into adulthood with convoluted ideas about forgiveness.


Among the lessons I’ve since learned since then is that, to quote Lewis Smedes, “to forgive is to set a prisoner free and realize that prisoner was you.”

It’s not about forgetting. It’s not about the other person. It doesn’t even require reconciliation.

Forgiveness is ultimately about freeing yourself from bitterness, grieving a loss from hurt or suffering, accepting that the past won’t ever be different from what we want, and intentionally moving forward into a healthier future.

A couple of months ago, my current therapist asked if I’d forgiven my parents. I told her that I didn’t know, that I don’t know what forgiveness feels like. I explained what I’d been taught about forgiveness, and she responded with some of the above views and current teachings on the subject… that it’s not about the other person, it’s about you, etc.

Frankly, I don’t think I’m still angry at my parents. Rather, those feelings have morphed into sadness—sadness for a relationship that will probably never be there. My friend Tom has reiterated his hope that somehow we’ll find a way to reconcile, to reconnect. To which I usually respond that maybe we will, but it’s unlikely.


I’ve probably written about this before, but quite a lot has changed in the years since I came out (2008) and since I became an atheist (2011). In the nearly six years that have followed, my parents and I have gone on increasingly divergent paths. They have clung more staunchly to their evangelical Christian faith and their conservative values, whereas I am heading further to the left with every passing day. It’s not that there isn’t room for common ground.

There isn’t much commonality left, period.

Sure, there are shared memories, inside jokes—but these feel more like when you awkwardly run into an old work colleague and realize the spark of friendship is gone. Jokes that were once hilarious now seem a desperate attempt to make something relevant that long ago lost its currency.

Prior to my becoming an atheist in 2011, what my parents and I shared—despite our differences—was our faith. Even though I drank and swore, and (when I became sexually active) had sex with men, we could still agree on the basic tenets of our Christian faith.

So it wasn’t out of resentment that I disowned my parents. Rather, it’s merely that we don’t have anything in common beyond genetics. I don’t expect them to renounce their faith and join PFLAG any more than they (as much as I’m sure they pray daily for my soul) expect me to revert to the person they used to know.

It sucks to not have parents who accept me for who I am (as other LGBT friends do, whose parents eventually did a 180-degree turn), but it’s healthier than closing my eyes, pretending nothing is wrong.

Yet things are not all bad. While I don’t have a native home to go for the holidays, I do have chosen homes and families now. That’s not Pollyannaish gratitude.

That’s moving on.

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256. amaranthine

Status

Apologies for the gap in posting. I’ve started so many drafts the last couple of weeks, and then a project or an emergency comes along, or I simply don’t have the energy to write, or I start something and then lose the train of thought.

A few months ago I started with a EMDR therapist, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

The goal of EMDR is to reduce the long-lasting effects of distressing memories by developing more adaptive coping mechanisms. The therapy uses an eight-phase approach that includes having the patient recall distressing images while receiving one of several types of bilateral sensory input, such as side to side eye movements. EMDR was originally developed to treat adults with PTSD; however, it is also used to treat other conditions and children.

It’s supposed to be helpful for individuals who have experienced a trauma of some kind, and growing up gay in a fundamentalist household probably counts as some kind of traumatic event. My regular therapist suggested a course of sessions (typically 8-12 in number) after events in December made it clear that triggers from early childhood are really preventing me from moving forward.

The challenge is doing all of this while in school and working full-time. Good thing I’m not dating anyone right now, eh?

Speaking of dating, I’ve been keeping an eye on the calendar, and this Thursday will be three years since I broke up with Jay, my last boyfriend. Singleness is one thing I seem to be obsessed with at present. Although I’m bracing myself for the worst case scenario of never meeting anyone, whenever I encounter a nice guy there’s a part of me that still thinks, “Maybe this guy, somehow, is the one.”

Then, in the span of several minutes, I go through the entire process of imagining our life together until the inevitable realization or discovery that he’s hetero, not available, not suitable, or (the more likely scenario) not into me.

At heart, I’m still a relentless optimist and romantic.


It’s the quiet, intimate moments with another person that I’m envious of. I’ve observed many such moments with other couples, moments that come after years of knowing a person, of learning about their foibles and faults and loving them in spite of and for it.

Thinking back over my nine-month relationship with Jay, and with every other guy I’ve dated, I tried to feel or find those moments, but it always felt forced and unnatural, like I was in rehearsal and just not getting the truth of a scene.

The underlying fear I’m beginning to unpack in EMDR is this feeling of being dead inside. I know, that’s cliche. But at last session a few days ago, I talked about the sense of there being a firm dividing line on my birthday in 2011 between my life prior to that moment and life afterwards. It’s like the moment when a star collapses and a black hole forms.

The fear is that I’m a emotional singularity.


Growing up in a household that was judgmentally religious forced me to create a fortress of walls, retreating to and hiding at the center in order to survive. If I’d been any other kind of person, or lacked resiliency, I probably would’ve caved long ago and become just another fundamentalist Christian drone, obediently following the marching orders of my pastors and the Bible, and being a good citizen of the church and of Heaven.

As it is, I fought to keep those secret, private parts of myself, doing whatever necessary to stay alive and safe. I kept my desire for men, along with rational doubts about the faith I’d been handed, hidden.

It did not leave me without deep wounds and scars.


Now that I’ve been out for five years, I’m worried that my lifestyle of privacy and seclusion became something of a habit, one that may take a long time to unlearn, if ever. There’s safety in being reticent and reclusive. I can observe everyone safely from the parapets and ramparts without the risk of having to leave.

Trouble with security is that it’s  also very lonely.

The sense of feeling old at 33 is not so much about age as it is about being 33 at this point in my life, when I’m effectively starting over and having to learn how to be “human.” It’s a sense that if my development hadn’t been artificially suspended for 28 years by my parents and upbringing, I could be so much further along right now.

Perhaps I could’ve learned how to flirt and properly date; had a number of relationships that taught me what it is, realistically, what I want in a partner; and probably been with a decent spouse for a couple of years by now.

… that is, if I hadn’t been fucked up by my parents and their hateful religion that teaches people to think of themselves as evil and worthless unless they say the proper magic words to an imaginary friend who is always watching and taking notes for your permanent record to determine whether you’ll burn forever in Hell when you die.

It’s all so cosmically unfair because I never asked to be born in the first place, let alone to neo-Puritans who fear sexuality, sensuality, and true intellectual freedom.


I’d like to be able to see couples (male couples, especially) without feeling a surge of hatred, jealousy, and resentment.

I’d like to be able to truly believe that I’m loveable, worthy of love, and that I’m capable of both giving and receiving it.

I’d like to think that the gay male community (with exceptions) isn’t comprised of mostly lost boys (the Neverland variety, not the Kiefer Sutherland) while any decent guys paired off years ago.

As much as the resiliency that kept me going and alive keeps me hopeful (albeit cautiously), I can’t blind myself to the reality that the situation doesn’t look good. I can keep myself busy and productive, but it won’t render me any less lonely.

254. probity

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Jessica_Jones_NetflixA few weeks ago I decided to check out the Netflix show everyone in my social media circles had been talking about.

Jessica Jones.

The Wikipedia article on the show offers a good summary: “Following a tragic end to her brief superhero career, Jessica Jones tries to rebuild her life as a private investigator, dealing with cases involving people with remarkable abilities in New York City.”

It’s an adaptation of a Marvel comic character of the same name. Based on the reviews of social media posts, blogs, and reviews, I thought it worth checking out, especially with its themes of dealing with trauma, recovering personal agency, and rebuilding one’s identity.

Without giving away any spoilers, the show certainly lived up to the hype. The main villain, Kilgrave, played by David Tennant, was alarmingly creepy and sympathetic at the same time. In a Guardian interview, Tennant described Kilgrave as having the power to compel people “to do whatever he says.”

Of his character, he added, “How can you tell if people are doing things because they want to or because you’re asking them to? How can you have any sense of what the world is or how the world should be if your world is so particularly unique?”

The show affected me in ways that were unexpected, particularly in the relationship between Jessica Jones and Kilgrave. At one point early on, Jessica rescues a young college girl who’s been under Kilgrave’s thrall. Once they’re back at Jessica’s office, she makes the girl say, “None of it is my fault.”

As the series progresses, Kilgrave compels people to do darker and increasingly destructive things, things that suddenly seem to them perfectly reasonable and rational once he asks.

The show asks some fundamentally unsettling questions about human behavior: namely, is Kilgrave planting desires in people’s minds, or is he just accessing something that was already there?


Jessica Jones triggered some pretty powerful memories and feelings, having been a willing prisoner of sorts myself for twenty-eight years. That’s something one hears a lot in circles of survivors of Christian fundamentalism. You can’t know that you’ve been programmed virtually from birth to accept:

  • everything in the Bible as inerrant and immutable;
  • anything a pastor or divinely-appointed leader (essentially, every adult male studied in the Bible) says as absolute truth;
  • that any natural human desire not sanctioned by your church as part of God’s design (and let’s face it, your church always gets it right and everyone else is headed down the road to perdition) is sinful and an abomination;
  • that there’s only one way to heaven, and that’s the path your pastor and your church sets.

It’s not that fundamentalist Christians are mindless robots who can’t think for themselves. However, for those raised in sheltered communities where there were no other voices, no alternative perspectives to challenge the Bible-centric conservative Christian views, and especially in communities where insiders are taught to fear and mistrust outsiders, the question of agency becomes much fuzzier and difficult to unravel.

So when I see videos of children at Creationist seminars proclaiming that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, that humans rode dinosaurs, and that evolution is a lie from Satan; or homophobic Christians at rallys with signs declaring that gay people are an abomination, I don’t see much difference between them and the people Kilgrave turns into murderous maniacs with just the merest hint of suggestion.

As the Jesuit saying goes, “Give me a child until the age of seven, and I will give you the man.”


I found myself identifying most with Kilgrave’s victims, individuals who wound up on the other side of what essentially comes down to rape, and are now unsure of where the line between before and after is. They didn’t want to do whatever it was Kilgrave compelled them to do, and yet the desire to follow his command was stronger. To violate someone’s agency and compel them to act against themselves and their own values is a deeply perverse act.

Right now, the word counter at the bottom of the page reads 666. The rational part of my brain says that it’s just a number. No special significance. Yet there’s another part of my brain that still sees that as a sign of the Antichrist, a being that is very real and will appear soon. I know that the latter thought is irrational, yet it sometimes still springs to mind first.

For me, and many others, the words “None of it is my fault” are nearly impossible to say, because they don’t seem true. All of those times that my mind and body were telling me I was attracted to men, but the part that was under the thrall of evangelical Christian teachings told me that was sinful and disordered… that was still me that believed it.

True: it was the fault of having been raised in that environment my entire life, of being exposed daily to that ideology, and of the people who were supposed to be my guardians, but it was still me that performed the action.

… it’s a deeply unsettling constellation of emotions.

For victims of Kilgrave, they can’t return to the person they were before. But for survivors of fundamentalist Christianity, there is no “before” to go back to. Only a past of lies.


The question I raised most recently with my therapist is whether I can ever truly escape the influences of the brain I grew up with—if I’m building a new identity with old tools.

Of course, my perspective is different now. My beliefs are radically different. Yet I still view relationships through a lens of fear. I still see myself as unworthy, worthless, and broken.

It’s how to move forward that is the challenge. When you have nothing really to look back to as a frame of reference, it’s disorienting to try to find a workable path on your own. Others can help, but it’s usually just you, the ghosts, and the demons.

Happy New Year.

248. quiddity

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GoldRingIt’s the last rose of summer.

The autumnal equinox is three weeks away, the days are getting shorter, and grad school starts up again for me on Friday. I’ve read over the syllabi for my two cataloging courses this coming term and it’s perverse how excited I truly am to finally dig in to this subject.

And in keeping with all of the changes in my life over the past couple of months, I’ve now decided to stop wearing the gold ring my parents gave me as a birthday present around age fifteen or sixteen. I can’t quite remember which birthday it was, but fifteen sounds about right.

So eighteen years, I’ve been wearing it.

A simple gold band that has confused and intrigued countless numbers of people—many of whom assumed it meant I was married.

I’m not even going to think about how many guys assumed it meant that I was unavailable when in reality I’ve been quite available all this time.


The official story I’ve told people about its origin is that it commemorated the first time I made it through The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which isn’t entirely untrue.

I’d actually finished the series around age thirteen, so it was more a belated token, a symbol of my undying love for Tolkien’s world. By age fifteen, I’d read the entire trilogy about four times and had made the first of several aborted attempts at getting through The Silmarillion.

The nerdy birthday present story always makes for an easy out for having to explain a much more complicated picture. It engenders amused if not outright delighted reactions, from “That’s so cool!” to “That’s unbelievably nerdy!”

And, of course, I get asked about whether fiery Tengwar letters appear when the ring is heated, which it doesn’t, and if I’ve looked, which I haven’t. Frankly, I read the books long before the movies were made.

I’m not a connoisseur of cheap tricks!


Like the One Ring of Tolkien’s world, the truth about my gold ring is more layered than meets the eye, and requires some specialized knowledge of arcane cultures.

Specifically, purity culture.

Promise (or purity) rings came into fashion in evangelical Christian culture during the 1970s, around the time Christianity was finding its own version of Catholic kitsch. This was also in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when fundamentalist Christians started pushing back against what they saw as insidious decadence and rampant immorality of secular culture.

(And yes, it was entirely demonic in origin.)

The ring was to be worn as a reminder of the vow to remain sexually chaste until marriage, when it would be replaced with an actual wedding band—divine permission to finally get it on.

By the time I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, “purity rings” and the public signing of purity pledges by adolescents were commonplace in churches. Undoubtedly horny teens, conditioned to fear their own sexual natures, took part in public church ceremonies where they signed pledges to “take the high road” to defy a culture that urged them to “just give in.” The pledge was a promise to abstain from all forms of sexual activity—including masturbation.

Once a year at my church, teens were invited at one point in the Sunday service to come to the front to sign a large poster and take that vow. It was partly inculcation and largely peer pressure, but it was mostly shaming.

So there are Christian men’s support groups for battling sexual temptation; software that actually notifies a designated and trusted friend if you look at “dirty” websites; and books like Every Man’s Battle, to shame young people for their otherwise normal sexual urges.

I’ve no idea if I signed one of those pledges or not. It would’ve made an excellent cover, seeing as I was realizing then that abstaining from sexual activity with women wouldn’t be a problem.


Thankfully, my ring had nothing to do with any of that, although it was obliquely related.

On the inside of the ring is engraved a reference to a Bible verse: 1 Timothy 4:12,

Don’t let anyone look down on you because of your youth; on the contrary, set the believers an example in your speech, behavior, love, trust and purity. (Complete Jewish Bible.)

Boys in Evangelical circles don’t get quite the heaping of shame about sex and their bodies that girls do. Rather, young people are taught that men are sexual beasts who’d run amok if not for the controlling influence of women—and the Holy Spirit, of course! God, in his infinite wisdom, gifted men with insatiable lust that’s supposed to be expressed only in the bedroom, between one man and one woman whom the Lord joins together for life, regardless of whether they’re even sexually compatible.

But why worry about whether you’ve made the wrong choice in a life mate, or wonder about what it might be like to have sex with other people? God took time out from creating the universe in six days to match-make for everyone thousands of years into the future, ensuring each of us a mate for life!

… except for the ones he “blessed” with singlehood.

Naturally.

DontMasturbate

For me, however, the ring had a more sober meaning.

The verse was a signal from my parents that I was transitioning into adulthood, into manhood, accountable directly to God for my life and the choices I’d make.

I was supposed to start taking on the mantle of a godly man and leader, the kind of man a godly wife needs to be the Christ-like head of our household.

Thankfully, things didn’t go according to plan.


Their message impacted me in a way they couldn’t have anticipated.

I wasn’t a kid anymore.

I could think for myself, take responsibility for my direction in life, and not merely abdicate that power to someone else.

It would take thirteen more years to figure that out though.

Now, my hand is a blank slate—rather like my future.

IMAG0948[1]

244. entelechy

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SSF_Program

Still haven’t heard from my dad in response to the reply I sent last week. It could be that he’s just processing, but it’s possible that he won’t respond at all. Again, my intent wasn’t necessarily to cut off all contact with him and the family, but that’s how he might read it.

It’s tough because this is a relationship that I feel I should want to hold on to, and yet the facts indicate that it’s a relationship that can’t go anywhere, and that it’s best to let go of.

Speaking of things I’m letting go of, a year ago this past weekend I participated in the MN Song workshop as part of the Source Song Festival in Minneapolis. It’s a festival with the mission to celebrate, promote, and develop American art song:

… by empowering and inspiring a new generation of musicians—composers, performers and audience members alike—through the creation of new works, the initiating of conversation, and the fostering of relationships within Minnesota’s vibrant community.

I’d entered one of my songs, a setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet IX, “If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,”  in the festival and was selected as one of the composers whose works would be workshopped and performed over the weekend.

In retrospect, this was a last-ditch effort to hold on to my identity as a musician and art song composer.

However, it quickly became clear that I was simply out of place among the other composers and musicians there—even the youngest one there. This is the curse of having enough talent to recognize when you don’t have the same gift and seeming facile ability of the others around you. It was an uncomfortable weekend overall, and was basically the final nail in the coffin of my career as a composer.

Towards the end of high school, my dad finally convinced me to major in music composition. It was obvious that I didn’t have the talent for piano performance, and for a while I was planning to major in English (which would’ve been about as useful as a music performance degree), but I assumed that my dad knew what he was talking about as a professional-level musician.

And that’s what I did.

In hindsight, that was one of many pieces of what other people were telling my about myself that I attempted to make fit, never questioning whether those things were true or accurate. For a while it seemed that I was a talented composer. My music was complex and challenging, and that set me apart in the music department at Northwestern College. However, as I came to realize after graduating, that was a very small tidal pool in a very large pond.

And on this side of atheism, that musical identity belongs to someone else, to a person who existed only as a mirror for others’ expectations—people I looked to as authority figures to tell me who I was.

There’s a quote of Julia Sweeney’s from her show Letting Go of God that I’m particularly fond of: “If I look over my life, every single step of maturing for me has had the exact same common denominator: and that’s accepting what was true over what I wished were true.”


As I’ve been delving more into learning about philosophy and the different schools of thought, I’ve come across the views of English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.

This video triggered a number of things from my upbringing that probably won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog. While my childhood wasn’t the living nightmare of physical or sexual abuse that occasionally makes press, as I’ve come to realize over the last few years it was still incredibly toxic on account of my parents’ theology and the theology of our churches.

Like most children raised in fundamentalist religions, I grew up experiencing conditional love and acceptance. My parents preached the importance of showing unconditional love, yet their behavior taught something of the opposite. Compliance and adherence to Biblical rules (as they interpreted them) was heavily stressed. In order for our parents to be happy with us (or at least to avoid punishment), we had to exhibit good Christian behavior.

If we didn’t, it was a sign that we didn’t belong to God and were in danger of the fires of hell.

Of course, my parents had no idea what they were doing. They admitted to making mistakes along the way, but they ultimately believed that this was the right thing, that it was the godly was to bring up spiritually healthy children.

They didn’t know how psychologically fragile and impressionable children are; that teaching a child that they’re inherently sinful could translate to the belief that they’re inherently bad; that these lessons were shaping how their child would relate to other human beings later in life, and to their sense of self-worth or security.

Neither could they have expected that this way of bringing me up would lead to the developing of a sense of false self, to the reflexive repressing of my self, to shutting down, to going out of my way to please everyone out of a fear of disapproval and rejection.

So while I may have had two parents, a roof over my head, and my physical needs met, I lacked real security and the freedom to grow up at a normal pace.

It’s ultimately why I ended up majoring in music composition, why I tried so hard for so long to be a composer, why I applied to grad school for music composition, why I spent countless hours practicing piano as a teenager, why I entered that piece in the Source Song Festival.

 

This is why I’m focusing on being with people who I do feel accepted by/secure with, why I’m pursuing things that make me truly happy and that feel authentic, and why I’m stopping myself doing things for the approval of others.

It’s daunting, but my inner child deserves better than what he got.

243. risibility

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Dungeons_and_Dragons_gameAt 32.5 years old, I’m getting around to correcting a deficiency in my nerd cred.

Up until very recently, I had never played Dungeons & Dragons or any tabletop role playing games.

Part of this was that until my mid-twenties, I believed games like this were a real gateway to the occult and to demonic powers.

A Hellmouth, if you will.

Oh, yes—that went for shows and movies like Buffy the Vampire SlayerCharmedBewitched, Ghostbusters, The Craft… even Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Simply watching a positive portrayal of witchcraft or the occult was an insidious threat to our Christian faith. We were like heavenly soldiers adrift behind enemy lines, like Frodo and Sam in Mordor. Unless we spent time every day reading the Bible and praying, and watched and read only Bible-based media, the constant inundation of worldly temptations would lead us astray into the grip of the Devil!

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” – Colossians 3:2-3 (ESV)

I’m not even kidding. That’s what we believed.

I had a good friend in high school, Jennie Purino, who was really into RPGs. (And vampires.) At age 15, having been brought up to believe that all that stuff was literally evil, this was a real brain teaser. From how she described and talked about it, it didn’t seem particularly dangerous or threatening. And as far as I knew, she didn’t worship Satan. (I think her family was nominally Catholic.) It actually sounded like fun… which, to my then Christianity-saturated brain, sounded exactly how Satan would lure people in.

So over the past few years I’ve been getting caught up on things that were previously verboten for me. Everything from music to games, to television shows, graphic novels, movies, card games… and now role playing games. My housemates are long-time D&D players, so they’ve been trying for a while to get me into it. And while I no longer think it’s evil, I was a little resistant. My understanding of games like D&D was that they attracted nerdy math freaks who could keep track of all the rules involved in game play. I pictured tons of calculations, and memorizing arcane amounts of information about races, monsters, spells, weapons, combat, and so on.

To be honest, I have a huge chip on my shoulder about anything math or science-related. I struggled to learn even basic math, like algebra and geometry, and science was equally daunting. Chemistry was fun though. But that meant that I chose to focus on the humanities, especially on literature and music, and wrote science and math off as being for people who were logical, and “smart,” and who probably fell somewhere on the autism spectrum. (Irony.)

Julia Sweeney says in Letting Go of God:

I had this prejudice that doing well at science was somehow an admission that you didn’t have the complexity of mind or subtlety of character to take on the humanities. Science was for people who couldn’t handle ambiguity and needed black and white answers, people who couldn’t get in touch with their feelings and had nothing left to think about.

Then a few weeks ago, I was invited to play Pathfinder, a game system similar to Dungeons and Dragons (and, as I recently learned, is backwards-compatible with D&D 3.5), but set in a different universe and setting. My friend Ben is running this game, which is the first chapter in a much longer campaign called Rise of the Runelords. Earlier this year I played a card-based version of this game, so the setting and the world itself was fairly familiar to me, but this was the first time I’d be building a character and rolling for stats.

Look at me, using phrases like “rolling for stats.”

The past few weeks have been spent researching and building this character—in this case, a half-elf bard named Casevar. I wrote out a fairly lengthy detailed biography for him, and this was the basis for a lot of the skills, abilities, and classes I chose to assign. It was actually a lot like the experiences I’ve had building a character in theater—you can do almost anything, within the confines of the play and the world the playwright has set, but you have to be able to justify those choices.

For example, one of the skills was Linguistics, which allowed me to choose an additional language that Casevar knows. For this instance, I chose Gnomish. When Ben asked me how on earth Casevar would know that language, I could point back to his biography where one of his close childhood friends was a Gnome named Mikkkaer. (Told you. Detailed.) It works in the context of his history.


What I’m learning is that the rules and the nuances of RPGs are almost secondary to what seems to be its more primary aim—collaborative storytelling. Mechanics are necessary, but are more the tools for storytelling than an end. It allows for people to experience a different reality through a collective imaginative effort, and maybe for a few hours to be someone else. It draws on narrative and mythic elements that have shaped human cultures and civilizations for thousands of years, and that still continue to speak to us today.

There are also an increasing number of studies suggesting that RPGs help in the development of critical thinking, creativity, and compassion, and can be useful in the treatment of conditions like bi-polar, depression, and even autism-spectrum disorder.

So I’m looking at this as an opportunity to not only broaden my horizons but to also step outside my comfort zone and try on different personalities and personas as I build and shape my own post-Christian identity. Perhaps in this way I can overcome some of the demons that have been keeping me locked up in my own head, and from moving ahead with my life.

Not to mention that it’s also fun.

242. accouterments

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IMAG0774To your reply, I/we (your family) don’t expect you to be static. We are not static either. The reason to spend time is to keep up with those changes. It sounds like you think we don’t change, but in small ways we do, all the time. We just want to know who you are regardless of who that is. Sure, we wish things and you were different, but they’re not. But you’re missing out on your nephews and niece and the rest of us in who we’re becoming.

To me and us it’s not a matter of commonalities. It’s just relationship. For me/us there does not have to be a shared future. We just want a future with you. From my vantage point, it looks like you’re the one who does not want to be part of our lives. If that’s the way you want it, we’ll accept that. But I/we want you to know we want you—always have, always will. We don’t understand why you feel so intense a need to erase the past or put it behind you. We are all made up, like trees, of who we were, who we are and who we’re becoming. Seems to me that gutting the tree leaves you less a tree and a weak one at that.

Our door is always open to you. We love you.

Dad


Dad,

You wrote: “From my vantage point, it looks like you’re the one who does not want to be part of our lives.” Again, it’s not that I don’t want to. Rather, I’m struggling to see how it’s feasible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I’m curious how you think we can all be together, meaningfully, when there are so many issues we have to avoid and dance around—religion, ethics, politics. Your faith is a significant part of your lives, and it makes sense you’d want to talk about that together as a family. However, you know my views on religion and Christianity, and that I can’t participate in those discussions in a way that is authentic and affirming for everyone.

The fact is that I do recognize you’re not static, and that you are changing. But that’s the central issue here: where you seem to be becoming more conservative, I’m becoming more liberal in the same areas. For example, from our last conversation, it sounds like you’re disturbed and saddened by growing secularism, by what you see as increasing godlessness in society, and by the sense of alienation and displacement you’re experiencing from that as a person of faith. You expressed a sense of there not being a place for you and other evangelical Christians in this brave new world of equality and secularism—at least not in a way that wouldn’t force you to compromise your beliefs. I suspect that the others share your concerns.

I, on the other hand, see all of this as a positive development. And that’s just one example.

But the need to, as you wrote, distance myself from the past is less a desire for erasure as it is a struggle to find context for it. For me, it truly feels as if the person who I was four-and-a-half years ago died the night I became an atheist. It was a life-changing and traumatizing event, on top of growing up gay in a fundamentalist Christian community. Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but from our conversations you and mom don’t seem to think it’s quite as serious. Your experience with Christianity has been a beneficial one, so why would you? There may be elements of your faith you struggle with, but your lifestyle integrates overall with (and is affirmed by) your beliefs.

Why would I want to erase the past and put it behind me? Because it was horrific. My memories and experiences are colored by the intense pain and sadness of believing I was broken, sinful, perverted, and would be a disappointment to everyone if they’d ever learned I was gay. Yes, it manifested in often unhealthy ways, but the risk of sharing the reason I was so angry back then was too high. Living that way for fifteen years created the sense of alienation and isolation that made fear a fundamental part of how I relate to other people. I need to move beyond that because the ghosts of those beliefs are making it near impossible to function as an emotionally healthy human being.

So it’s difficult for me to be with the family when no one has acknowledged that any substantive harm was done, and when I’m in the process of trying to heal from that damage. Again, correct me if I’m wrong, but you likely see the underlying problem as a spiritual and not a psychological one: specifically, rebellion against God and his plan is what caused the distress of my adolescent and young adult years. You even said on numerous occasions that many of my troubles would be eased if only I’d give myself to God, so it’s plain you don’t see the brand of fundamentalist theology I was raised with as being a cause for my suffering.

But frankly, I do feel that a significant, pervasive wrong was done, one that you and the family cannot acknowledge or address because of your religious beliefs. That is, you can’t do that and leave your Christian faith and worldview intact. This is what makes it difficult for me to want to be around the family, or to believe that there’s a safe and welcome place for me at your table.

To be clear, I don’t think anyone intended harm, but this is the roadblock that I can’t see any way around. It wouldn’t be fair to ask you to revise your beliefs unless you were genuinely motivated to do so. But I can’t keep holding out hope that you will someday, nor is it healthy for me to keep going as if nothing happened.

David