Last month marked three years since I resigned as Ministerial Servant, tossed out my neck-tie and walked away from the religion I had known virtually all my life. I exited a controlling cult but in many ways, I entered a strange new world.
An unveiled look at the world “outside the bubble” quickly brought up feelings and sentiments that I describe as “postponed”. If you’ve lost a loved one, experienced a break-up, suffered with anxiety and depression as a Jehovah’s Witness, you’ve likely been told to pray for Jehovah’s help, read the bible or seek counsel from “mature” members of the congregation.
All of the very natural emotions that stir up inside one’s mind are never truly processed. Instead, they are pushed back or “postponed”. Why even bother to address these traumas when the answer to all our problems is some future utopian paradise?
Here in the US, over the last forty-eight hours, we have seen two gruesome incidents of police brutality that have sparked politically charged conversations about race relations in this country. The peaceful protests that followed erupted in violence when eleven Police Officers were gunned down (five killed) in Dallas, Texas.
Even if one is physically removed from these tragedies, the senseless violence and loss of life naturally stir up feelings of sadness, mourning or even anger that we must process in an emotionally healthy way. However, to a Jehovah’s Witness still harnessed by their indoctrination, these senseless tragedies serve only to affirm their belief that humanity really does need that promised utopian paradise.
The feelings of sadness or anger are shuffled to the back of their minds. Any natural sense of justice is muffled as even expressing outrage over an injustice is considered a violation of a “true Christian’s” neutrality. Jehovah is the only one who could affect any real change in this world and even the thought that we puny humans can do anything to improve our condition is a most egregious lack of faith.
When we consider that those who leave the faith have likely endured this type of indoctrination for many years; it’s no wonder that many of us start out emotionally stunted when we arrive into the “strange new world”.
Learning to feel again
One of the first things I learned was that all those “worldly people” I had dismissed as “destined for destruction” are actually mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and friends. Just like me, they’re also pre-occupied with raising their children and providing a good life for their families. When a tragedy occurs, they feel sad, angry and depressed but they don’t have the luxury of hinging their concerns to some make believe future. They have to live in “the now”.
Sometimes those emotions spur a form of activism or protest but even if it doesn’t, at the very least, it triggers some type of introspection and self-analysis. As a Jehovah’s Witness, that kind of self-awareness is almost non-existent as any energy one could muster to take care of ourselves emotionally is quickly drained by the incessant need to put the “kingdom’s interests” before one’s own. It’s almost as if we have to learn to feel again and recognize that it’s okay to feel sad over some distant tragedy and not just the ones that affect other Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Upon leaving the cult, I lost many life-long relationships. I have been fortunate enough to make new friendships with great people who genuinely care about us. But, I have to admit that some aspects of these new social interactions were awkward at first. For example, Birthdays and all the customs associated with them are social conventions to almost everyone that isn’t a Jehovah’s Witness. Our indoctrination taught us that birthdays are merely an indulgence by selfish people with a compulsive need to be exalted by their peers.
Because I’ve never celebrated my own birthday, I feel no emotional connection or nostalgia about the custom. To many of my new friends birthdays are, in fact, a pretty big deal. Not for selfish reasons, but because it’s an opportunity to celebrate the blessings of this life. They want to celebrate mine, and expect that I’d want to share in their own celebrations. It such a normal part of their lives that it seems abnormal when I’m not as enthusiastic as they are about the custom. I used to feel like the “Sheldon” character from the American Sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” trying to adjust to all these social conventions that felt foreign to me.
Three years later, I’ve come to appreciate the opportunities to celebrate life with the people I care about. Although some aspects of celebrations like Christmas and Thanksgiving still seem strange to me, I really do look forward participating. I also appreciate what many of those customs mean to my friends, and I feel honored that they wish to share those experiences with me.
You have an opinion? That’s okay too
Over this past year, I participated in my first political rally, and voted in my first primary election, and it felt great. For years, I was taught that political activism was pointless and I must allow my mind to be “molded by Jehovah.” What really happens when one submits to that type of control is that we forfeit our ability to think critically to the whims of the likes of Anthony Morris III, whose idea of activism involves enforcing a ridiculous dress code and encouraging children to sacrifice their lives to uphold Watchtower’s Anti-blood doctrine.
The 2016 Watchtower Convention videos have made it very clear that having an opinion that doesn’t align with the organization’s policies can prove to be harmful to any dissenters. We risk losing our family and friends, along with the stigma that comes with being labeled an “apostate.” Since being politically aware as a Jehovah’s Witness made little sense, I was reluctant about getting involved in any kind of activism as an ex-JW.
Once I left Watchtower it became clear that I was now a part of a larger community. One that was very informed about the issues. Often there’s a myriad of ideas and opinions and very little consensus, but unlike Watchtower’s high control approach, this community invites opinion and revels in debate.
It’s okay to have an opinion on government policies, religion, faith and social issues. It’s okay to think that we can affect the world we live in and strive for more opportunities and a better life. Just because we may not live long enough to see these goals realized, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to pursue change.
The topics of politics or religion can be divisive, and it often doesn’t make for good dinner talk, but it’s okay that you have an opinion. For all Watchtower adherents to be of “one mind” requires complete repression of our thoughts and feelings. As any mental health professional would tell you, repressing our thoughts and feelings is extremely harmful to the human psyche.
What is normal?
Sure, there are things that still feel strange. Life inside a cult in many ways moves slower than the “outside world.” I’ve often wondered: will I ever feel normal? But what is normal really, and is there such a thing?
That might be a lot to answer with this article, but one of things I’ve learned after my fade is that no matter how similar the external factors might seem, our personal experience along with our feelings and emotions are what makes us unique individuals. Among those experiences, there exists a large space for variance. That’s why some leave the cult only to rejoin for fear of losing family, while others never look back.
Some exit the cult and choose to live a quiet life, refusing to be bothered with anything having to do with their former cult, while others pursue a life of dedicated activism in hopes of helping others awaken.
Whatever the case may be, once we’ve exited “the bubble” we need to seek out those feelings and emotions we’ve postponed. Tucked away somewhere in the back of our minds, those feelings must be processed before we can start to feel like a unique, non-group-thinking individual. Some of those feelings might be off-putting and uncomfortable. It won’t all be happy thoughts, that’s for sure. You might want to smack the smug grin off Anthony Morris’ face every time you see his image. You may be resilient enough to do it without the help of a professional counselor or therapist.
Just don’t worry so much about whether or not you’ll ever feel normal. Be happy that life outside the bubble will allow you to stretch out those emotional legs. Process those emotions and you’ll discover what it’s really like to “feel,” unencumbered by the weight of indoctrination.
“Free at last, free at last”.
A guest post by James Sequoia
Check out James’s previous article for JW Survey here: The Friday Column: Let the dead bury their dead.