In the previous tab, I presented a number of tips for easing your transition out of fundamentalism. Now let’s talk about what to expect with lingering attitudes from fundamentalism. If we are conscious of these attitudes, we can do something about them. This section is about understanding the ingrained attitudes that we may carry with us as baggage when we leave fundamentalism. Fundamentalism can cast a long shadow on a life.
ATTITUDES TO MONITOR WHEN LEAVING FUNDAMENTALISM
Realize that we are trained to surrender, resulting in feelings of unworthiness and guilt.
“…All to Thee, my blessed Savior. I surrender all,” say the words of a hymn. All goes to Christ. The deep-seated implication was that we were unworthy and undeserving, and that if we tried to keep something for ourselves, guilt resulted. We just got to surrender and were supposed to feel bliss from doing that.
When I was a teenager, I recognized a deep feeling that God would demand of me what was dear to my heart. Once I asked my mother for the gift of a coral-colored knit suit from the Sears catalog, which was where our clothes were bought. After the suit arrived, I was too guilt-stricken to wear it. The suit was vanity, ego. I loved that suit, and I threw it out without once wearing it. Months later, my mother asked about the suit. I said that I had thrown it out. She made no comment and never referred to it again.
I also liked the music of the ’50s and recorded my favorite songs when I got home from school. After some religious revival or other, that tape went the way of the suit. I’ve heard similar stories from other former fundamentalists where possessions close to their hearts were thrown out, especially having to do with music. My stamp collection was given to a missionary organization. A special necklace ended up with the same organization.
I’ve heard several preachers saying how they saw this beautiful woman coming down the steps of a church and immediately recognized that the woman was going to be their wife, or some variation on that story. Never, of course, would the deity lead them to an unattractive woman. Not so for us females.
We could be the recipient of dirty tricks that the handsome young preachers would never dream of. I remember one unfortunate young man who wanted to date me. That would be “Mr. Yellow Socks.” Young women of course could not say no, at least not at first, because the individual might be God’s choice for us. I shudder with thoughts of those days. Ultimately, our right was to give up our rights, even surrender our sanity, and be a fool for Christ, if that was in God’s cards for us.
I think that I put up a shield around me to protect me from most of the guys at my evangelical college, because I wasn’t attracted to them by definition of their being evangelical (even though I was evangelical myself). What if God led me to one of them? I couldn’t take that chance, because even I couldn’t face the thought of “surrender” on that score.
The few who caught my eye were the ones who seemed different, who may have been thinking for themselves, but then, I wasn’t someone at the time that they would have been interested in. If timing is everything, my timing definitely was off.
Realize that coming to love the world doesn’t happen automatically for a former fundamentalist.
It can be awhile before we move from shadow to sun, from having the world be almost invisible to us to embracing it and experiencing its wonders.
The word that comes to mind for me here is “depression.” If we do not feel ourselves deeply as part of the world, as part of life, with a right to exist – and if we don’t any longer feel part of our fundamentalist group – then where exactly are we? What are we? Wherever and whatever we are in our own minds at that point seems depressing, for sure.
That transition time is something to be focused on and gotten through. As the shadows of fundamentalism clear, that love for life will grow automatically. We are alive, and we are as much a part of life as any other being. We have our place in the sun. We have a right to exist in this amazing world.
Realize that we were taught to give too much.
How do you know how much to give to another? That’s been a tough question for me, because compassion has sometimes led into giving more than I could afford to give. I’m just pointing this concept out to you so that you are aware of it. We were taught to give everything we have for others’ needs, to be ready for the call to the mission field. As adults, that is a recipe for a boundary-less bottomless pit.
We have to build our healthy boundaries and learn to say no when that’s appropriate. We can’t save the world. Protect yourself, protect your emotions. Seek counseling if you must, but avoid getting drawn in to other people’s problems inappropriately. The roots of pity can go deep, and those roots are not always healthy. Pay attention to your own business and do not take on other people’s problems as your own. You have a life to live and responsibilities to that life.
If your resources are used up inappropriately, you won’t have what you need to develop your own life. Aside from being poor, you may also experience burn-out. You lost your life once already to fundamentalism. That grid is in you and needs to be recognized and dealt with. Where is the line between adult self-love and other-love? Many times it’s not easy to answer that question, but it’s one that many caring individuals will face, repeatedly. It’s a question of personal boundaries.
My grandfather used to bring home people and animals that crossed his path and touched his heart. My grandmother had to cook, clean, and launder for 11 people in the 3-story house, plus the extras he brought in. She eventually had to put her foot down and tell him that it was the “extras” or her. Do we respond to human suffering and animal needs? Of course we do. Where is the boundary that is right for us?
I once had a minister colleague who was reflecting on his life. He told me that where he felt he had made the greatest contribution was in a young boy that he and his wife had adopted – a one-on-one situation. When I mentioned this to my mother, she, ever practical, remarked that it was his wife who did the work of running the household and overseeing their passel of kids, while he got to study and preach and visit with people. Well, there you have the woman’s perspective.
I should think that a lot of caring people outside of fundamentalism have to struggle with this question, too – particularly those working in social services and health care. They have to be self-protective against burn-out. Some leave the field, because being around human suffering day after day is too much for them.
Realize that we were taught to be happy with unconditional love from a deity and other congregants.
After I left fundamentalism (but fundamentalism hadn’t left me), a male friend offered me unconditional love, and it was a warm bath that I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t understand at the time that adult love is not unconditional. Now I do. Adults hold each other to higher standards, to growth. This seems like such a simple concept, yet it was news to me, that adult love is not unconditional. Someone who loves you needs to be capable of calling you on what you need to be called on, not of offering you a safe harbor like the church did.
Maybe my male friend became my new religion, layered onto to the fundamentalist grid I was still laboring under. I only half understood that I deserved a normal, healthy relationship but I wouldn’t leave the cocoon because no one else offered unconditional love, no one else loved and needed me that way he did, or appeared to.
After he died, his daughter told me that she believed that he needed to be needed by women. That puts a different perspective on the relationship, does it not? If I was feeding off his “unconditional love,” then he was feeding off my neediness. Who knew? The good news is that we can grow up and become adults. Progress is possible.
Even in such a relationship that wasn’t all that healthy, good came out of it. He gave me a safe harbor to try my wings in other areas – and that I did. My explorations helped me to grow and to outgrow the need for unconditional love. I became very bored and wanted him to act, to do something, anything, beyond taking “a day at a time.”
Be alert to the notion of “layering,” that is, imposing what appears to be a new belief system over the older fundamentalism programming.
A simple way of describing layering is that a person leaves religious fundamentalism, is proud that he has left it, feels superior to it, finds what looks like an attractive, new belief system…and brings along his old rigidity into that new system.
Many individuals leave fundamentalism but do not leave the mindset. They transfer the sense of being privileged and entitled to another rigid system of thought, perhaps political or a therapeutic counseling method. They build another fortress that no one can get inside. They layer another belief system on the existing framework from fundamentalism.
How do you recognize “layering”? How do you recognize it in yourself? Look for openness of thinking and emotions. Look for equal interaction and interest in other viewpoints. Look for signs of narcissism or arrogance or defensiveness. Do you need another human being, or do you think that you are sufficient unto yourself?
The fundamentalist mindset may manifest as rigidity, or it may manifest in other ways. If your fundamentalist experience had a hefty element of superstition, then carrying over that superstitious way of viewing life could be another example of layering.
“Layering” can be tough to recognize at first. It took me many years to recognize a fuzzy layering of magical thinking in myself, a remnant of “god will wave a magic wand” type of wishful thinking. No, dear, the universe doesn’t have goodwill toward you. The universe is neutral. You have to have goodwill toward you and build your own life.
We need to become conscious of “the future.”
I remember the day when I realized that “future” was practically a foreign concept to me. In fundamentalism, the future was virtually a non-topic. If I lived, God would show me what to do. If I died, my destination was heaven.
As a recovering fundamentalist, I now had a whole other concept of time, that is, the future, to think about and consider.
As a fundamentalist, I felt I was “led” to be a medical missionary… too bad my memory wasn’t good enough to get into medical school, and my ego wouldn’t consider nursing school.
As a fundamentalist, concepts of “Who am I,” “What are my interests/gifts?” “What do I want to do?” “How can I grow?” “What contribution can I make?” were non-existent to me. Rather, I looked for some voodoo “signs” of what “God’s will” might be… all tied in with adolescent romanticism. A friend at my evangelical college felt “called” to be a minister, only he couldn’t pass Greek. A young woman felt “called” to marry a particular guy and found out after the marriage that their sexual relationship was dysfunctional. She felt cheated and ultimately divorced the man.
Once out of the religion and on the road to recovery, we can start thinking about the future. There’s a whole wide world out there.
Realize that fundamentalism is silent about the notion of an “inner compass.”
If you knew you had a year to live, what would you want to accomplish? For me, getting this web site up would be up there on the list, at the very top. Why? Because the web site is like the culmination of so much in my life, not only my religious experiences but also the drive to understand that I’ve had since childhood. Couple those with the drive to help others who are struggling to understand what they have come through in fundamentalism.
Would you call this web site a “calling” for me? Maybe so, but not a religious calling – rather something that I have felt in my bones, my core, for decades. I honor and cherish and protect this understanding, for it is a big part of the meaning and significance of my life.
To me, this is the notion of an “inner compass.” By being conscious of this inner compass and nourishing and protecting it, I am focused. If a man approaches me who wants a nice lady to pass the time with…no, it’s not me. I am focused. My tempo of life is different. If a man approaches me who wants an energetic partner to join with him on an organic farm…not it’s not me. I am focused.
Once this web site is off my plate, I can’t be sure of the time involvement after that. Some things will change, but my core will not change. I will relate with those who have a similar inner compass, one that is geared towards the struggle for human freedom. I wonder, is that the post-fundamentalism story of my life, to support human freedom? I think maybe so. I do not know how I would relate on a live-in situation with someone who was, as we used to say, on a “different wavelength.” I think I’d rather live alone.
Again I have used my life as a laboratory, or as a guinea pig, for an experiment. Do you get the gist of what I am saying about having an inner compass? What drive have you had for years? Have you cultivated that drive so that you have turned it into a gift? Has it commanded your attention and called forth your love? What is your core? Are you loving it, nurturing it, protecting it? Is your life purposeful because of it?
Maybe not. Maybe you have to get involved in life and study your responses with this and that before you find the ultimate meaning of your life. It is in writing this that I become conscious of my inner core. It is something to be discovered and to be assessed, whether it is great and good or not. If it is good, I have to protect it and nurture it.
Tune your antennae or others that you meet who have a similar inner core, a similar inner compass. Your time and energies are precious. Guard them and share them with like-minded others.
I believe that certain elements of my inner compass were present when I left fundamentalism, though I lacked maturity and the tools I needed to build on them and be conscious of them. For example, I knew I wanted deep love and communication. I wasn’t tempted by the dead ends of partying or shallow living. Nevertheless, lacking maturity and insight, I still had multiple dead-end relationships. In contrast, now I put my inner core out there when meeting someone new. Oh, it’s not obvious what I’m doing. I’m just being me…but the inner core is still there.
For example, when my profile was up on a dating web site, I got a “smile” from a man who sounded as if we might have a lot in common. He asked me to tell him about myself. I was stumped for a while, not having a sense of which way to go. Then I knew. I told him about my lovely weekend, where I “park-hopped” while I was doing editing for a web site I planned to put up and how lovely it was to be out in nature and making this progress.
How could that be part of my inner compass? Well, I was putting him on notice that I was in motion, planning a web site, thinking it lovely to be working toward that goal in a series of beautiful settings. He had the silent invitation to pick up on those things. Was his life in motion, was he working toward a goal? If not, we wouldn’t be a good match.
I didn’t say anything about what the web site would be about. Would he be curious? If he found out that it was about recovery from fundamentalism, would he connect what I was doing with any questions he was dealing with? Would he have the same drive to understand and to engage in the struggle for human freedom? Or would he think I was a weirdo? You see how it works? He and I each get to see if we come a step closer toward friendship or if we aren’t a good match and should just go our separate ways. Either way, it would be a win, for each of us.
As it happened, nothing happened. I never heard from him again. I revisited the note he sent me and saw the casual laziness in it, how he just repeated a few words from his profile and then asked me about myself. What was he doing? A fishing expedition to find a hook-up? That wasn’t what my profile was about, not at all. I said to myself, “These guys are on trial, not me,” and I backed off even more from on-line dating.
It has taken age and maturity for me to come to a sense of wholeness about an inner compass, and who knows still where the path will wind?
When I was in college, I was so oblivious that, looking back, I wouldn’t have put money on my ever getting it together. I was just thinking about the concept of justice and remembered the day at the evangelical college when I, like a dingbat, asked one of the handful of black students how she got the same last name as I have. She gave me a withering glance, and I can imagine what she was thinking.
At the time, students from other colleges were down south, Freedom Riders, working on voter registration. I was limping along on two cylinders, maybe one. Exposure to other people’s sufferings later strengthened the concept of justice for me. That exposure came through relationships and through movies, books, and poetry and other forms of art.
Be prepared to recognize areas of inner rigidity, thanks to our past indoctrination.
It can be hard to see our own rigidity. To react negatively to fundamentalism is not a freeing attitude. We need to get past that, so that we can be our own agents of change. Action, not reaction.
In the next section, Building a Self, I’ll offer some exercises to help to break through rigidity. The movie, The Descendants, is a good example of working through from judgment and hurt to a healthy place, of doing what was necessary during a period of reacting and then coming to a resolution. One reviewer commented on the memorable scene with George Clooney running down the street in his flip flops. We can be like that at times… running down the street in our flip flops, but coming, when all is accomplished, to grieving and to understanding and forgiveness, to peace and to love.
Clooney’s character could so easily have let himself be poisoned – by anger at his wife, hatred of her lover, need to control his kids, greed for a great deal of money. Had he made those choices, he would have ended up very rich – but ever so much poorer as a human being.
If he took on this sort of rigidity, of knowing that he was right, he would have lost the meaning of his own life and the relationship with his daughters. His daughters would have recognized in an instant that he cared more for his own opinions than he cared for them. They would have easily sensed that he had an agenda for them and was not listening to them. They would have had nothing meaningful to say to him.
But he didn’t walk down that road. He was open to his humanity and to the humanity of the young people in his life, as well as to that of his wife’s lover. He also had an inner sense of what makes a good person, as compared to those driven by greed and willing to use others for their own purposes. It’s a beautiful – human – movie. We former fundies could use examples of real humanity.
If you watch the movie, notice how Clooney’s character operates. He is in touch with his emotions. He has an inner drive and honesty that engage him with life moment-by-moment. He is willing to engage with others beyond appearances and to listen, even with an initially unattractive teenage guy. He is willing to treat those who have gained his respect as equals.
And this is central: He doesn’t have an agenda for either himself or his kids. He doesn’t set out (as his wife’s lover’s wife does) to forgive because he knows he has to forgive (which would be the fundamentalist self-imposed agenda). No, he experiences life evolving naturally and simply. He acts in freedom. He is free to be himself. He doesn’t have to be perfect. He doesn’t have to set an example.
The lover’s wife tries to impose an agenda on herself. She “knows” she has to forgive. She understandably has been upset, but she is also willing to believe a continuing lie from her husband who blames Clooney’s wife for the affair, not himself. She cannot sense and does not want to face who her husband really is.
Compare her approach with the Clooney character’s approach. His worldview is flexible, with good stuff at his core. Hers is rigid and built on a fantasy of having a happy marriage. Neither she nor her husband is honest in their innermost beings.
The movie is elegant. Do you have a sense of how your fundamentalist background can foster an enriched sense of appreciation for the film?
Be aware that how we take in and process information matters.
George Clooney’s character was open in his taking in and processing of information. The wife of his wife’s lover was not. The movie made obvious which characters had the most vitality and which were tied up in self-deception and greed or in a self-perceived need to forgive.
Here are a two more examples of people who are open compared with those who are not (but may appear to be).
First example, I had dinner with a friend who mentioned that she had had words with her husband just prior to meeting me, and her blood pressure had to have gone over 200. I know that my friend will learn from this situation. However, I had just come from being with folk who gave the impression that their blood pressure would never go over 200. If I said something of myself or controversial to them, I would get a benign smile and a compassionate-appearing, non-responsive glance, but my bottom-line feeling was that their inner spiritual journeys were far more interesting to them than anything I might say…and if I didn’t fit in with those spiritual journeys, well, I might as well be on my way. When I got home after a day with them, I felt like shouting to exorcise the niceness. I was glad to be back on my human turf, with all its colors… and away from eastern religion and meditation.
Second example, after my mother passed away, I remarked to her evangelical church friend that I felt as if I had come to know her a little in the last few months of her life when her human spirit started to re-emerge (I refrained from adding, “after 60 years of fundamentalist repression”). His response was one of dismissal, as if I had said something absurd since I of course had had the benefit of this “godly woman” all those years. A non-evangelical person might have said, “That’s an amazing statement. Can you tell me about it?”
To compare these two situations, we have folk who have their own agendas contrasted with those who are open to the experience before their eyes. How one takes in and processes information matters.
Do you have respect for people?
Fundamentalism teaches us that there are the white sheep and the black sheep. We need to be aware of our conditioning to dismiss those on the “outside.”
Having respect for the lost is not even a question for fundamentalists. Fundamentalists know that no matter if a person is a murderer or a university professor or a Nobel Prize winner, they are all going to the same place, that is, hell. This sign is posted at the exit from one church parking lot: “You are now entering the mission field.”
This lack of respect for outsiders can carry over with someone who layers on another belief system over the fundamentalist mindset. He may be unconscious of an underlying lack of respect towards others and toward himself.
The father of a friend is a lonely and difficult individual. He has to be right and believes the worst of everyone. What we believe of people colors and controls our outlook, and we project it onto the people around us and with whom we come in contact.
We have the invitation to know that there is goodness in each person and that there is potential for exploring a relationship, whether it be a passing relationship, an acquaintance, or a friendship on one of various levels. There is the potential for being surprised.
Watch out for passivity in yourself. It goes with the religious territory.
It took time for me to recognize and come to terms with passivity in myself and to start to think in terms of growth and of the future. I realized that I hadn’t felt I deserved a future or even would have one, other than trudging through life. As I gained in understanding, I came to realize in a new way that freedom means to take responsibility for one’s self, to have goals for the future, and to have choices.
Watch out for passivity and magical thinking in relationships.
Passivity was also manifest for me in magical thinking about relationships. “He’ll change if only this or that.” Sure he will.
Passivity is present when we drift along with hopes that “things will work out in time as they are meant to work out.” But that, too, is magical thinking. If there is no evidence of action on the part of my friend, I am learning not to waste my time and emotions and to keep my focus and to move on. Internet dating can be good practice for what to look for and when to move on, but be ready to say when enough is enough. The likelihood of finding a good partner there is slender, especially for an older woman.
I have to say, though, that Internet experiences helped me learn to handle new acquaintances better than I did when I first started out. It’s almost something to look forward to, to check one’s progress with a new acquaintance. Then I stop myself and realize that the chances are that I will likely be bored by the new acquaintance and wouldn’t I rather put my energies elsewhere?
I mentioned one friend who was “a day at a time” passive. Another was waiting for the “universe” to speak or for a dream to show him the way. Another was waiting for circumstances to change. Off with their heads. All of them. I needed some action, some decisiveness. I knew my personality was not that of a naval-gazer. I wanted to build, to build a relationship, a life, a career. Alcoholics Anonymous’s “a day at a time” drove me up the wall.
Passivity fits in well with superstitious and magical thinking. Back then, I had the opinion that “if your star is placed next to the star of someone else, you’re there for the duration.” Now I hope that I’m a bit more rational and can better assess potential relationships. That has taken practice… observing responses, observing the action (or lack of action). Now I know more about personal boundaries, too, but I didn’t then when I was transitioning out of fundamentalism.
A friend met a guy through Internet dating. They went for a walk in a park, and during the course of conversation, she asked what he liked to do in his leisure time. He really didn’t have any ideas for what he liked to do. On that basis, she eliminated him from consideration. Her life is full and engaged. What does she need with a man who doesn’t know where he is going, where he wants to go, and appears to lack imagination?
I came to recognize intimidation by another’s passivity.
If the man said nothing, I would feel intimidated by his silence. I still don’t fully understand why this was so. I think there may have been a fear of the authoritarian mindset. Even though my understanding remains murky in this area, I learned that the antidote is to refuse to play according to another person’s rules and just move on with my life.
I had to learn not to speak when no one is listening, not to give when no one cares for what I give. That’s been a hard lesson because of “magical thinking.” That is, “If I give a little more or say something differently or share this poem or that one, maybe I’ll get a different response.” Instead, I need to look realistically at a situation, assess what the other person is or is not giving, and let it go. We need to determine if we are in the presence of a trustworthy and interested adult before we share ourselves.
Ex-fundies may come from a place of great loneliness and stumble into a relationship that seems to offer kindness, interest, and love. If the new relationship turns out not to stand the test of time, better we should find out sooner than later. “The first loss is the least loss.”
Personal boundaries are virtually non-existent in fundamentalism but are extremely important to work on after leaving the religion.
In fundamentalism, we had no privacy. Our “souls” were fair game until we capitulated. Our sins needed to be forgiven. We shared our deepest feelings in prayer with others. If you had a need or a perceived need, you ended up on other people’s prayer lists. If you stepped out of line, your name surely appeared on other people’s prayer lists. In some ways, you didn’t know where you ended and other people began. I remember my brother once asking me to stop witnessing to his friends. I was clueless about privacy and about asking permission, respecting other people’s boundaries.
When you leave the church, you have to start thinking about your boundaries. What do you want, what is acceptable behavior to you, what is not acceptable? All these may be new concepts. This area would be especially helpful to work on before you start dating, really before even developing friendships.
Boundary issues can be tricky. Consider these situations:
- Someone is feeding off my strength. Do I recognize that, step back, and determine how to deal with this?
- An evangelical appears to be treating me with apparent kindness and asking me personal questions. Do I let myself be drawn in and then regret what I’ve shared afterwards? How do I set my boundaries in that case?
- I am a captive audience when an evangelical speaks, perhaps at a funeral or in a family gathering or in a grouping such as a Quaker meeting which includes both theists and non-theists. Do I react or am I in control of myself and choose whether I will be silent or speak? With some situations, I can move on; with others, such as fundamentalist families, perhaps only death or distance will bring resolution.
- Am I able to accept the darker side of myself, to admit to myself when I am irritated by someone and simply choose to set my boundary and maintain my distance from that person?
- Am I too nice and predisposed to “suffer fools lightly,” when I should be speaking truth to power? Do I passively put up with a lot that shouldn’t be put up with?
- Out of loneliness, am I substituting dogs or cats for adult relationships? I learned a great deal from a beloved dog companion, even how to be a better human, but a dog does not have human intelligence and cannot be self-reflective.
- Out of loneliness, do I respond to people who respond to me because they are lonely? Reflect instead this definition of friendship: Friendship is the spiritual dimension of our humanity. Come with fullness to a friendship, not out of need.
LOOKING TOWARD THE NEXT SECTION, GROWING A SELF
Growing a self… How do you do that? We’ll be looking at that in the next section.